Blogs > Cliopatria > Sweet Dreams are made of these

Dec 5, 2005 3:47 pm

Sweet Dreams are made of these

In La mémoire collective, Maurice Halbwachs doubted that universal(izing) history could be anything more that an intellectual project. So vast, so ancient, it lacked the texture and urgency that national history had in the popular consciousness.
History can present itself as the universal memory of humanity. But there is no universal memory. All collective memory is supported by a group that is limited in space and time. One cannot collect into one tableau the totality of past events except by detaching them from the groups that guard memory ... history is interested above all in the differences [between societies], and makes abstractions of the similarities for which there exists no memory ...
[crappy translation is my own]

To bring immediacy to historical elements, social groups must deploy rituals and symbols that takes history from classroom into the public sphere and gives it emotional import. Consequently, meaningful history, capably of becoming memorialized, is precious, circumscribed by spatial and temporal boundaries (especially of a nation.)

Some events are capable of being imagined even though they do not belong to an unbroken memorial tradition (like the Trojan War to the early modern English readership.) Nevertheless, the notion that what is taught in Western Civ courses will probably never find any meaning outside of the classroom weighs heavily on those who teach it.

Hugo Schwyzer's recent complaint that the first half of Western Civ tends to be a quick-step march from Sumer to the Bastille stresses the point further (to be fair, we modernists should be able to pick up the story at Aquinas). However, I don'’t worry that something important will be lost as the span of pre-modernity is stretched beyond recognition. Rather, I worry that despite the best judiciousness, speedy lecturing produces lacunas that betray the founding suppositions of Western Civ courses: an ongoing tradition that becomes recognizable as the West.

I laughed at this exchange:

Jonathan Reynolds:"I just find it funny that"Western Civ" starts in Mesopotamia..."

Jonathan Dresner
:"And ends there, perhaps?"

Funny, but also telling. One can easily lead from the proto-Agriculture of Jericho to Babylon, but how does one get from Euphrates to Nile? Does the continuity die after Hammurabi? Or do we merely sow seeds that will become plants that will be cooked up by Classical civilization? The endpoints are not the only thing in question.

If Western Civ were closer to the history of ideas, it would describe the intimacy between one system of thought and the one that 'superceded' it, how past discursive fields remained adjacent to the present, not separate, but ready to break out through, exerting ongoing relationship between past and present fields. Bounding from one civilization to the next, the potentially minute fissures become chasms. The continued modernization of Western Civ -- dividing it between one very long ancient, medieval, and sometimes early modern half and a modern half; the inclusion of modern interests with the pre-modern; opting to exclude the early eras -- threatens to undercut the possibility of continuity (or even contiguity.)

[Crossposted to Rhine River]

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Jonathan Dresner - 12/6/2005

One of the most important thing that a World history teacher does is decide what his or her students will remember. Believe it or not, we actually have some say in that. The trick is repetition and narrative threads: you pick a theme, a concept, a relationship, and you track it through time and space until your students know by the slightly guilty look on your face that you're going to talk about (agriculture/gender/religion/literacy/technology/literature/class/etc) again. I think Western Civ works best as a history of ideas (and I always gave intellectual and religious history more than their share of attention); I think World History may work best as a kind of social/economic history, particularly the relationships between technology, economic position, social relationships and trade.

The problem, though, with these great themes is that they are so much fun you can forget that there's all this other fun, but disjunctive, material out there, especially in World History.