Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Point of the Past

Why do we study the past?

George Santayana is famously quoted as saying "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." That, of course, is utter bullshit. The world could suffer collective amnesia of the Industrial Revolution, but we wouldn't have to re-invent the combustion engine.

I'm more partial to Marx's contention in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." (Marx forgot to add that in their third iteration they return as blockbuster Broadway musicals.)

Marx goes on to say: 

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. 
Although we may quibble with the darkness of Marx's vision, he raises two important points about the past and why we study it: 

  1. Our present existence and course is contingent upon the past. Today we may call this "path dependency" rather than "the tradition of all dead generations", but the point remains. We are standing on a road created by all the decisions, traditions, and occurrences of the past. Although we can step off of that road, there are immense barriers to doing so. Understanding the world around us -- and what lies ahead -- requires understanding how the road was built.
  2. The past is, always has been, and always will be, a powerful political tool. It can be used to legitimize both revolution and stasis. It can be manipulated to scatter the proud and put down the mighty from their seats, or to justify the basest of injustice. Its lessons change as our society changes, as we forge a useful past for our current circumstances.

Why then do we study the past? 

Because we are the past. In our individual biology, our personalities, our political and social institutions, we are the cumulative effect of all that came before. Granted, we are shaken, stirred, and re-combined into unique constructions, but there is nothing new under the sun; in studying the past, we study ourselves. Our past is an intrinsic part of our identity, present, and future.


Because the past is political. We cannot disconnect politics from the past, but we owe ourselves and our society some veracity. Not Truth-with-a-capital-T. (Truth, as the world's most famous archaeologist once said, belongs to the Philosophy department.) Instead, we must be open to all of the past, to allow the past to speak in the voices of those who may have passed down little to the modern world except the fruits of anonymous labor, fragments of items lost, scraps of DNA. If the past must be political, then let it be democratized. Let it be representative of all.

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