Structures of remembering: notes from Time Maps, 2

Zerubavel, Eviatar. Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Conventional sociomnemonic structures:

Progress: [T]he most common manifestation of this progressionist historical scenario is the highly schematic backward-to-advanced evolutionist narrative… Though we normally regard optimism as a personal trait it is actually also part of an unmistakeably schematic “style” of remembering shared by entire communities… [Rags to riches versions of American Dream] as one can tell from the general aversion of the working class to this idea, different historical outlooks are also associated with different social classes… [A]s a brainchild of the Enlightenment, progressionism is a hallmark of modernity and has certainly been a much more common historical outlook over the past two hundred years than during any earlier period. [p 15]

Decline: Whereas progress implies an idealized future, nostaligia presupposes a highly romanticized past… [W]e are not dealign here with actual historical trends but with purely mental historical outlooks… Often articulated in nostalgic visions of some mythical golden age after which things have essentially been going “downhill” such a pronouncedly regressive mnemonic tradition is also quite apparent in the general tendency to remember our ancestors as larger-than-life, almost superhuman figures. [M]any decline narratives are in fact a reaction to the overly optimistic modern belief in progress. [pp 16-18]

As exemplified by parole hearings and tenure reviews, historical plotlines are often extrapolated to imply anticipated trajectories. [p 17]

Zigzag in time: narratives that specifically combine upward- and downward-pointing plotlines in an effort to highlight significant changes in historical trajectories… [T]hey always involve some dramatic change of course. [pp 18-19]

Ladders and trees:
Inherently teleological, unilinear narratives often attribute some purposeful design to history. As such, they usually also regard the overall direction of the historical trajectories they describe as largely predetermined. [p 21]

[A]nthropocentric blinders … prevent some of us from fully appreciating the nonteleological, unmistakably contingent nature of organic evolution (or any other historical process, for that matter) that is inevitably implied in a multilinear narration of history. The fact that in the overall drama of evolution our “star actor” has actually been “offstage for 99.99 percent of the play” should help us recognize that evolution is an essentially purposeless, haphazard process that does not necessarily lead to humankind. Indeed many of the ancient fossils we find today actually lie entirely off the direct ancestral path to us. [p 22]

[M]odern chimps and gorillas are not “early” forms of human evolution but our own contemporaries. Cultural evolutionism notwithstanding, that is also true of “primitive” cultures. [p 23]

Circles and rhymes:
Although we usually view time as an entity that can be graphically represented by a straight arrow … we sometimes also experience things as moving “in circles.” … Essentially rejectign the linear vision of historical events as unique occurrences, such a distinctly cyclicla view of history basically envisions things as being trapped, like the main protagonist of the movie Groundhog Day, in some eternal present. [p 24]

Though we may have virtually abandoned the mythical belief that history actually repeats itsel, we have nevertheless preserved a somewhat milder version of this traditional nonlinear vision of time… captured by the quip … that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” … Rhyming implies that, while clearly distinct, the past and the present are nonetheless fundamentally similar, to the point of evoking a deja-vu sense of “there we go again.” As exemplified by such recurrence narratives, memory often schematizes history be essentially “fusing analogous personalities or situations into one.” … Such mnemonic typification is particularly evident when we mistake one specific historical figure or event for another. Inherently intracategorical, these mnemonic slips help reveal the outlines of the conventional categories in which we tend to mentally lump “similar” historical figures or events together. [pp 24-25]

Mountains and valleys: Mnemonic density reflects how intensely we actually remember different historical periods. As a strictly mathematical entity, time is homogenous, with every minute essentially identical to every other minute, as demonstrated by the way they are conventionally measured by the clock. Experientially, however, minutes vary considerably depending on whether we are aroused or bored whether our favourite team is leading or losing, and so on… Just as we conventionally distinguish “holy” days from the seemingly characterless intervals between them, such qualitative heterogeneity is epitomized by the way we differentiate extraordinary (“marked“) from the mere ordinary (“unmarked“) time… [Q]ualitative approach to time is also evident in teh way we envision the past, the social shape of which is profoundly affected by the rather pervasive sociomental differentiation of “eventful” historical periods from “uneventful,” seemingly empty historical “lulls.” … As a result we come to remember some historical periods much more intensely than others… The common tendency to regard wars as eventful and thus memorable, yet the considerably longer “quiet” periods between them as practically empty, is a perfect case in point. [pp 25-27]

[C]ollective memory is more than just an aggregate of individuals’ personal memories, and such inevitably personal relief maps cannot possibly capture what an entire nation, for example, collectively considers historically eventful or uneventful. to observe the social “marking” of the past, we therefore need to examine social time lines constructed by entire mnemonic communities. For that we must turn to unmistakably social sites of memory. As one might expect, historical periods that are allotted more pages in official history textbooks or assigned special wings in national museums are indeed those sacred periods on which nations are most intensely focused mnemonically. And since the sacred is often manifested in ritual display, we also need to examine the way major figures and events from the past are ritually commemorated. After all, by carving marked periods out of essentially unmarked stretches of history, ritual commemorations helps mnemonic communities explicitly articulate what they consider historically eventful. As it “lifts from an ordinary historical sequence those extraordinary events which embody our deepest and most fundamental values, it thus basically serves as ” a register of sacred history.” Indeed, commemorative rituals often embody major social time lines. [pp 28-29]

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