Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Creature with Memory: Discovering Pasts, Conceiving Futures


“Knowledge,” Joyce Appleby reminds us, “begins with memory.”[1] With the historiographical turn toward postmodern modes of discourse in the early 1980s and 1990s, the epistemological relationship between knowledge and authorial power has characterized the debate over how best to interpret the past. If memory is the beginning of knowledge, then historians must understand how the past has been remembered individually by participants in historical events and collectively by racial and ethnic groups, regions, and nations after these events have passed. Divisive and contentious events such as the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, and media-driven modern warfare have created situations in which the “truth” of that experience depends largely on the position of the contributor. Postmodernist theorists argue that this subjectivity of the truth colors all historical writing, and whether or not one accedes to the more extreme positions of these thinkers, it is difficult to deny the subjectivity inherent in using memory as a methodological category. By examining the process through which memory transforms from an immediately lived experience into institutional or collective memory narrated as history, historians may better understand the subjectivity intrinsic to postmodern historiography.

According to Appleby, at its most basic level, the creation of history consists of the continuous process of translating memory into text, and in the postmodern sense of the term “text”, these “written histories are exposed to the critical scrutiny of unknown, unseen outsiders.”[2] In other words, once memory is committed to history, it becomes an object open to the historiographical interpretation of later scholars, regardless of their ability to objectively ascertain the validity of those memories. Postmodern deconstructions of these texts, in the Foucaultian sense, operate by revealing the unconscious omissions of their writers—or “rememberers”—and by acknowledging the multiplicity of meaning derived from even the most authoritative texts. Similarly, the fact that one account of an event can be construed in so many diverse ways indicates that “there is no stability in language” and, perhaps implicitly, none in memory either.[3] If historical texts are generated from remembered events and these texts lack a dependable objective stance, does this suggest that memory, too, is impossible to condense into a reasonably objective account of an event?

In the era of media-driven conflicts and twenty-four hour news cycles, late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century warfare constitutes one area in which individual memory and its relationship with collective memory becomes important. The increased audio-visual documentation of war as an event broadcasted to homes across the United States since the Vietnam War necessitates that the significance of memory become greater for the individual “worm’s-eye-view” than for more omniscient-style of narrative historical construction. In other words, ground-level histories must rely more greatly on memory because this is the “lived” event—less ideologically constructed and more personally constructed—or in Yuval Noah Harari’s terminology, the experience that only the “flesh-witness” is capable of describing.[4] While the traditional methods of viewing the totality of war by analyzing its geopolitical, diplomatic, and strategic aspects remain the primary discursive modes employed to understand the wider repercussions of these events, historians risk ignoring the experiences of the individuals advancing these goals. The reticence on the part of many traditional historians likely stems from the fact that it is difficult to tell a monolithic narrative of an event in warfare from an array of subjective viewpoints. The problem is not only in attempting to construct a narrative that is sensitive to both “sides” of a story but also in recognizing that binary categories for a plethora of remembrances is not enough to create a complete narrative. For example, in The Generals’ War Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor claim that “there has been no attempt to create an omniscient narrator” because that would portend an entirely reconcilable interpretation of events, thus negating their thesis that “cultural differences” among branches of the armed forces and between civilian and military commands led to a mismanagement of the war.[5] Gordon and Trainor skillfully acknowledge the many perspectives in the preparation stages—they do, after all, maintain the plural possessive of their titular “Generals’.” However, they succeed in one sense while failing in another. By drawing together numerous accounts of the planning and implementation of Desert Storm into one coherent narrative, an omniscient narrator foists himself onto the historical account, while at the same time allowing the many distinct voices of the narrative to speak for themselves.

Despite their appreciation for the multitude of interpretations, Trainor and Gordon did not intend to use memory as a methodological tool for understanding that conflict. Since memory begins as an individual understanding of the past, historians must approach it at this level first. The reliability of memory becomes most debatable when external forces such as stress, fatigue, or cognitive dissonance distort one’s personal understanding of a lived past event. The experience of combat exhibits exactly these difficulties. In his autobiography of life in the Marine Corps, One Bullet Away, Nathaniel Fick describes combat as “a form of vertigo” that causes one to “doubt…[one’s] own senses.”[6] This personal memory is, by definition, subjective, and when the story-telling process begins—almost immediately afterward, according to Fick—the remembrance of an event entails a simultaneous reconciliation of one’s own viewpoint with that of others and a solidification of one’s personal rendition of it. This is what Appleby refers to as the “psychological dynamics of knowing,” meaning that memory requires both the maintenance of factual accuracy and the “personal recognition” that “encourages myth-making.”[7] When recalling an ambush while driving through the Iraqi town of al-Gharraf, Fick concedes that “something in the retelling unnerved [him]” because “faith in our senses is what anchors us to reality.”[8] The fact that “five marines told five different stories” that would later coalesce into a unified, grand-narrative of the unit suggests that the subjectivity of memory is still reconcilable.[9] However, the notion that our memories are faulty and unreliable imply that reality itself, and especially the immediately remembered past, may be unreliable as well. On a larger scale, this way of remembering often reflects historiographical emphases on individual wars as well: World War I and Vietnam occupy a cultural space in the American psyche that, according to Harari, “focuses overwhelmingly on the experience of war rather than politics or strategy.”[10] The question, then, is to what extent memory as a methodological tool should be used to reconcile competing points of view. For Fick, this process involves “institutionalizing” memory through “telling and retelling” and “changing and learning” from combat events.[11] This mirrors what Appleby describes as the “winnowing of memory” for the “health of [a] nation.”[12] Perhaps this is precisely the progression from individual to collective memory about which Foucault theorizes.

Individual memory, of course, has important bearings on later recollections and interpre-tations of earlier events and ideas. The southern Lost Cause—a particular version of Civil War remem-brance—emerged, according to Gaines M. Foster, out of the collective southern desire to ease the social tensions that accompanied rapid social and economic change during Reconstruction. Public celebrations, memorials, and reenactments designed to mourn the loss of the dead and commemorate the honor of the endeavor reduced the psychological impact of southern failure in the Civil War.[13] Some of the earliest iterations of the Lost Cause mentality were expressed in the immediate aftermath of the war, and the commiseration of the military defeat echoed the grievances of personal loss suffered by its “flesh-witnesses.” For example, according to Rod Andrew, Jr., for Confederate general and later South Carolina politician Wade Hampton III, “the Lost Cause message transcended politics and even race—it was personal.”[14] The immediacy of Hampton’s grief over the Confederacy reflected the battlefield anguish he experienced in losing his son. For Southerners in general, the direct memories of the war consisted of “burning homes, pillaging foragers, and dying loved ones,” and by mourning and sanctifying these personal losses, they presaged later deferential commemorations of the Confederacy as a whole.[15] And, as the events of the war itself receded into the past, the horrific memories of solidiers’ experience were supplanted by more heroic notions of honor and valor by the turn of the twentieth century, as personal memory transformed into collective memory.[16] As Robert Penn Warren opined, if “the Civil War is our felt history—history lived in the American imagination,” then memory becomes an ideally suited method to reveal the personal, collective, and institutional interpretations of such a divisive event.[17] The event “lived” personally became “relived” via the national memory.

If southern soldiers were “flesh-witnesses” to the carnage of the Civil War itself, African-American slaves were another sort of “flesh-witness” to the bondage that, in part, precipitated the outbreak of that war. As personal memory gave way to a collective memory among southern whites, it also gave way to a national forgetting of another type. This begs the question: how does a national memory cope with events, institutions, and ideas it wishes to forget? Obviously, slavery and the Civil War were remembered very differently depending on racial and regional identity, and according to David W. Blight, the reconciliationist approach to Civil War memory overwhelmed the emancipationist version and relegated the tragedy of slavery to the margins its interpretation. “The memory of slavery,” Blight writes, “…never fit well into a developing narrative in which the Old and New South were romanticized and welcomed back into a new nationalism…”[18] Blight argues that by framing the Civil War in terms of states’ rights, property rights, and a resistance to the economic domination of the North, white southerners willfully ignored the fact that slavery played an enormous role in its origins, conduct, and outcome.[19] In this way, memory as methodology retains a racial and regional context that historians must confront in order to more objectively resolve these differences in remembrance. Collective, institutional, and public memories are fluid concepts, and nations often take an active role in “molding their citizens’ understanding of the past.”[20] This selective form of memory, as Mary Douglas has argued, causes “its members to forget those events that do not accord with its righteous image,” which certainly describes the historiography of the Civil War, slavery, and racial injustice in America.[21]

Clearly, creating a public memory is a multifaceted process that can be either organic, directed, or a combination of the two. One final issue historians must address when dealing with the interpretive hermeneutics of memory is the question of how much distance—chronological, ideological, or otherwise—is necessary between a historian and an event before a reasonable degree of objectivity may be reached. With reference to diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis, Charles W. Eagles has averred that “writing in the midst of a struggle can lead to a lack of scholarly detachment and an asymmetrical approach” that falls short of the objective detachment necessary for scholarly analysis.[22] Paradoxically, detachment from events at once lends a credible objectivity to historians, yet at the same time reduces their capacity as “witnesses” to an event. By comparing the Cold War and its definitive conclusion following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union with the Civil Rights Movement—an open-ended, ongoing struggle—Eagles argues that modern historians cannot approach the kind of objectivity necessary to discuss such a charged event dispassionately.[23] While this is a valid and important critique, it strains credibility by concluding, as Gaddis wrote, that “this is an abnormal way of writing history.”[24] In a postmodern sense, this is precisely the normal way of writing history, since dispassionate objectivity is theoretically impossible no matter one’s chronological or ideological detachment from the subject. For the twenty-first-century historian, memory remains a compelling methodological structure with which to elucidate a more personal past.

Is it necessary for historians to reach a sort of “new” consensus history in order to reconcile all of the diverse and conflicting memories borne out of past events? This seems as unlikely as it is unfeasible. When using memory as a practical means of comprehending a historically relevant past, the retention of a multiplicity of viewpoints is both desirable and inevitable, and as a by-product, the fierce individuality of subjective memory accords with recent postmodern trends, whether historians wish to identify themselves with that movement or not. Race, region, chronological proximity to events, and varying degrees of privilege afforded by eye- and flesh-witness accounts all affect personal memory and the collective and institutional memories that follow. The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana quipped that “a creature without memory cannot discover the past; one without expectation cannot conceive a future.”[25] Although this aphorism is often distilled into clich├ęs condemning those who do not “learn from the past” to historical repetition, Santayana understood that the entire bedrock of history consisted of the human ability to remember “what happened” and that the knowledge gained through this endeavor allows us to construct meaning out of these events. Ironically, the fragility of memory—as well as the fragility of human life—has made the historical apparatus of memory a distinctly subjective tool. Historians should not lament this non-positivistic approach, though. Santayana also conceded that “knowledge,” and thus memory “is not truth,” and within the postmodern historiographical context, this subjectivity may be a virtue and not a curse.[26] The past is, after all, lived individually, and therefore, interpreting it through the lens of individual memory may be as valid as many other methods.



[1] Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994), 258.

[2] Ibid., 266.

[3] Ibid., 267.

[4] Yuval Noah Harari, “Armchairs, Coffee, and Authority: Eye-witnesses and Flesh-witnesses Speak about War, 1100-2000,” Journal of Military History 74, no. 1 (January 2010): 75 and passim.

[5] Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, The Generals’ War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1995), xii and 472.

[6] Nathaniel Fick, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 219.

[7] Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, Telling the Truth about History, 261.

[8] Fick, One Bullet Away, 219.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Harari, “Armchairs, Coffee, and Authority: Eye-witnesses and Flesh-witnesses Speak about War, 1100-2000,” 57.

[11] Fick, One Bullet Away, 219.

[12] Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, Telling the Truth about History, 307.

[13] Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 62-87.

[14] Rod Andrew, “‘My Children on the Field’: Wade Hampton Biography, and the Roots of the Lost Cause,” in Cimbala and Miller, eds., The Great Task Remaining Before Us: Reconstruction as America’s Continuing Civil War (forthcoming, Fordham, 2010), 17.

[15] Ibid., 17 and 23-24.

[16] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 179.

[17] In Matthew J. Grow, “The Shadow of the Civil War: A Historiography of Civil War Memory,” American Nineteenth Century History (Summer 2003): 77.

[18] Blight, Race and Reunion, 4.

[19] Ibid., 6-30.

[20] Appleby, Hunt, Jacob, Telling the Truth about History, 297.

[21] Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think (Syracuse, 1986), 112, quoted in Appleby, Hunt, Jacob, Telling the Truth about History, 297.

[22] Charles W. Eagles, “Toward New Histories of the Civil Rights Era,” Journal of Southern History 66, no. 4 (November 2000): 815.

[23] Ibid.

[24] John Lewis Gaddis, “The New Cold War History: First Impressions,” in We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford and New York, 1997), 281-295, quoted in Eagles, “Toward New Histories of the Civil Rights Era,” 4.

[25] John McCormick, George Santayana: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1988), 348.

[26] Ibid., 357