The great return of the past

How does working with and through the past define our present? oDR launches a new series of articles: "Practically about memory". RU

Andrei Zavadski
11 September 2017

Memorial complex "Katyn" - an international memorial to victims of political repression. Photo: Alyeksyey Melkin / Wiki.

I feel sorry for the past. That realisation was the catalyst and starting point for this series of articles. After all, the past has become the most widespread and the least valued currency of our times. It’s incessantly written and rewritten, actualised and constructed, instrumentalised and politicised, challenged and defended, nationalised and transnationalised, commemorated and cast aside… What isn’t done with - or rather, to - the past these days? And what does this inflation of the past actually mean?

Eternally present

The German thinker Aleida Assmann ties this situation with the new sense of time we have been experiencing over the last few decades. As she writes in her book Ist die Zeit aus den Fugen? Aufstieg und Fall des Zeitregimes der Moderne (Is Time out of Joint? The Rise and Fall of the Temporal Regime of Modernity, 2014), in the modern period (the beginning of which she dates around 1770), the past was exclusively the realm of historians, while all hopes and actions were obsessively directed at the future. Today it is obvious that there is no future, at least not in this modernist conception - and the present is satiated with the past.

Aleida Assmann by Stephan Rohl, flickr_0.jpg

Aleida Assmann. Photo: Stephan Röhl / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

For many researchers such a situation is almost the end of the world. François Hartog, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, John Torpey and other theorists of time even see this ongoing transformation as a threat to humanity. As Torpey argues, "we should be aware that this preoccupation [with the past] is in substantial part a replacement for paradises lost", which has been taking place as a result of many societies working through their violent histories. This in turn threatens the process of building a national consensus towards a shared future. Gumbrecht is worried by the "expanding present", which he connects to digitisation and the development of memory storage technologies, with all their consequences - a process that could result in our inability to forget anything completely. Hartog highlights the fact that the past has become more "usable" and characterises today’s "presentism" as primarily defined by the phenomenon of heritage. "Heritage associations demonstrate the construction of a memory that is not given, and therefore not lost. They work toward the constitution of a symbolic universe." In Hartog’s opinion, this is an illegitimate use of the past which functions exclusively in the present and for the present and creates opportunities for its misuse and even abuse by various forces. Among other things, presentism puts at risk the existence of the nation-state and historical science.

Aleida Assmann does not see anything threatening in the development of memorial culture. For her, this surge of interest in the past demonstrates that the artificial modernist boundaries between the past, the present, and the future are breaking down-opening the way towards a more natural interaction between these three intervals of time.

This interaction manifests itself in the construction of the past and future within the present - which implies the influence of the past on the created present and on a desired future. As T.S. Eliot succinctly put it in his "Four Quartets" (1943):

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

A characteristic example of this approach can be seen in Nikolai Epple’s analysis of the "Return of Names" initiative, part of InLiberty’s "New Past" project (dedicated, in essence, to the past’s influence on the "created present"). And then there is a report prepared by the Free Historical Society in 2017 entitled "What Past Does Russia’s Future Need?" (about the influence of the past on a "desired future").

Outside history

A distinctive feature of this new temporal regime is that the past flowed beyond the boundaries of historical science. In general, historical metanarratives have always been too narrow to accommodate the diversity of voices from the past: "unnecessary" stories were cut off by historians, "irrelevant" voices were silenced, events that did not fit in the narrative were quietly cast aside. Due to the general aspiration towards a shared future - and the lack of a wide interest in the past - this state of affairs was taken as a matter of course.

But things have gradually changed. From the 1960s onwards, "other voices" and "other histories" came to light. The emancipation of marginalised social groups, decolonisation, working through painful episodes of the past (not to mention a new interest in giving a voice to its victims) all led to the past scaling the walls of historical science. Aleida Assman describes the process through her theory of memory - today’s "memory work" is carried out by specific social groups, in an effort to articulate and actualise a repressed or forgotten past. At the heart of today’s memory culture, writes Assmann, is the conviction that each of the horrors of the past can be worked through individually, creating fertile soil for the "cultivation" of healthier present and future.

For a long time, "memory” was seen as a phenomenon opposing history - an outlook formed not without the influence of apologists for historical science. Many believed that history was always fact, while memory was often fiction. 

For a long time, "memory” was seen as a phenomenon opposing history - an outlook formed not without the influence of apologists for historical science. Many believed that history was always fact, while memory was often fiction. Historians rightfully pointed towards the many opportunities for manipulating memory, using it to create myths at the expense of historical fact. Today, the view that memory and history are symbiotic is becoming more and more common - the first saturates culture with past events; the second corrects the actualised memories on the basis of historical fact.

This interaction can be illustrated with an example from the English grammar. History is akin to the Past Simple, and memory to the Present Perfect. Both tenses describe past occurrences, but the grammatical aspect is different - the Past Simple describes events that took place in the past; the Present Perfect emphasizes the impact of those events on the present. However, even when we initially use the Present Perfect, the details of what took place are provided in the Past Simple. In the relationship between memory and history, the dynamics are similar: ideally memory is based on historical details.

Future in the Past

How much does this fascination with memory really address society’s needs? Perhaps this interest in memory is simply an empty trend, a fad or even a cargo cult of some kind? As a researcher of memory, I am inclined to agree with Assmann in seeing this "hypertrophy of memory" (to use Andreas Huyssen’s expression) as an attempt to fix humans’ relationship with time broken by modernity.

To think that one is contributing to "normalising" our perception of time is, of course, much more comforting than Hartog’s and Gumbrecht’s diagnoses of such work as simultaneously a cause and a symptom of a temporary disorder. At the same time, it is always necessary to critically assess the work you do - and many authors are pushing the discussion forward shedding light on the many problems connected with memorial culture, from memory wars and commercialisation of memory, to its ritualisation or even emasculation.

This concern with the past has travelled far beyond the boundaries of theory and historical science - it is being articulated in new genres, and new forms of interaction with it are emerging. It’s hardly possible to predict what this will lead to and how such new approaches will affect our common history. But it’s already obvious that the rethinking of history, and more broadly the rethinking of the past, is changing our present.

The (mis)use of the past is most clearly visible in the sphere of politics. For example, in Russia, the past and the politics of memory have become a cornerstone of the current regime’s legitimacy. The "stable 2000s" are contrasted with the "wild 1990s", for instance. The belief that Russia must strengthen itself on the international arena is habitually confirmed by its status as a victor in the Second World War. After the annexation of Crimea, the founding myth of Russian statehood suddenly became Prince Vladimir’s acceptance of Orthodox Christianity in Kherson, at the end of the tenth century.

But it’s already obvious that the rethinking of history, and more broadly the rethinking of the past, is changing our present.

Meanwhile in the USA, the American Civil War has returned to the forefront of social and political life with a vengeance: clashes in Charlottesville showed that the events of 150 years ago have still not been fully worked through, and contradicting accounts of the war still determine the lives of many people.

Nation-building in contemporary Latvia is centred around the confrontation with the Soviet Union - and the authorities regularly permit marches of Waffen-SS veterans. Poland, which has been painfully trying to deal with its own past for decades, has even created an Institute of National Remembrance which, with the coming to power of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, has become a centre for forming official state policy towards history.


The building of the Institute of National Remembrance in Warsaw. Photo: Adrian Grycuk CC BY-SA 3.0 PL / Wiki. Some rights are reserved.

Fortunately, the past is not only the domain of politicians. Journalists, playwrights, writers, artists, theatre and film directors are increasingly turning to the past and  memories of it in their work. What motivates them? Is it another form of self-expression, an attempt to forge their own relationship to time? Perhaps their goal through studying the past is to contribute to building new collective identities? Maybe they have their own personal memories and traumatic experiences to work through?

In this series of articles, we will speak with people for whom the past still lives on - constructively, not destructively. They are mainly people involved in the arts - you could call them "intellectuals" or "creatives". We will try to talk about the past without prejudice, but with love. We’ll try not to succumb to conjecture and speculation - but instead to reflection and to sincerity. And of course, we won’t forget the future or present.

Translated by Maxim Edwards

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