Thursday, June 3, 2010

"The way we remember the past shapes the way we understand the present and prepare for the future"

The conclusion to Jay Taylor's 1999 book Making Salmon provides some insights into the purpose and practice of history that resonate with me, so I wanted to bring some of these insights to your attention.

To preface the section below, I'll let you in on two thoughts. First, Since I've re-directed my life to become an historian, I've consistently thought: "To what practical purpose can I put this history degree?" This stems from my working-class upbringing, where practicality was stressed and anti-intellectuality encouraged more or less implicitly. Second, for the past two years or so I've fixated on what seems to me the propensity of Americans -- all humans, perhaps? -- to eschew attempts at accurate historical interpretation and prefer, instead, simplistic stories that justify their way of life.

Jay Taylor provides some clear and concise perspectives on these dynamics:[1]

    The way we remember the past shapes the way we understand the present and prepare for the future. Thus the stories we tell about the past are critical. This is why history matters and why Americans contest its content so bitterly. History is political. Its ability to legitimate or condemn activities of the state, society, and markets makes it a force in public debates . . . Every explanation has rested on a rendition of the past, and each version holds profound social, cultural, and environmental consequences. Some stories have had greater currency than others . . . Thus we should step back for a moment and examine how and why people remember, portray, and respond to the past the way they do.
    The stories northwesterners have told about salmon reveal crucial tensions between the complexity of the past and the simplifying tendencies of storytelling in general and history in particular. Constructing any narrative requires an author to make decisions about what information to include and how to order it. The alternative is a seemingly random list of details with no apparent beginning, middle, end, or plot. These are basic rules for all storytellers, including historians, but history is a special form of narrative. Historians must not only document their evidence but be bound by extra constraints. Like any storyteller, they must select among details and subjects as they form and focus their narratives, but they cannot ignore inconvenient facts or reorder events that seem messy or aesthetically unsatisfying. Historians instead have to struggle with this tension between the simplifying tendencies of narrative and the complexity of the past. Since no single history can contain all details or encompass all viewpoints, all historians can expect challenges as to what information is extraneous. By its very nature, then, history is incomplete, and its rules open the way for numerous competing versions of the past.
    Some of the variability in histories stems from the contingency of experience. We do not all view the world through a common lense. Identity, culture, and location affect how we undersand the present and remember the past. . . . Culture only takes us so far, however. Space and class also separate. . . . . These factors produced a cacophony of explanations and accusations . . . No one viewpoint dominated because no single experience encompassed all people or reconciled all interests.
    Nothing illustrated the way interest could shape stories better than how resource users explained the roots of the salmon crisis. . . . In the process most Oregonians absolved the consumptive edge of capitalism of its central role in the accelerated exploitation of the region. By tacitly accepting the commodification and widespread consumption of nature as inherently just, observers had to adopt other explanations to understand why salmon, and so many other species, diminished rapidly after 1800. Unwilling to critique the marketplace, they pitted resource user against resource user in a Spencerian struggle.
    The way Americans managed the fisheries also encouraged people to assign blame rather than assume responsibility, but to cast blame effectively, contestants had to shape their explanations of the crisis so rivals appeared as unambiguous villains. The key to political success, in other words, lay in thinking simplistically[2] . . . As different interests scrambled to maintain their access to resources, history fissioned into severely distorted partisan visions. Each group cultivated a highly selective memory, scapegoated opponents, and marginalized the weak through violence or legislation. Complexity and contingency evaporated in this superheated atmosphere through deliberate acts of amnesia. Political myopia infected every group in the debate.
    In decrying the excess of other resource users and management agencies, environmentalists have artfully converted self-interest into principle. Their demonization of rivals has conveniently obscured their own material interests in nature as consumed experience, yet these interests are not less tangible and no less biased by class, race, and location.
    Advocates who invoke symbolism testify to their concerns, but when they insist that their concerns are, or should be, universal, they simply expose the social and cultural fissures that underlie these environmental contests. This is one example of how simple stories can fail humans and nature, yet the way Americans use these state to resolve such conflicts empowers just this sort of simplistic thinking.
[1] All quoted material from Taylor, Making Salmon, pp. 237-257; specific references to the salmon crisis redacted, when possible, in the interest of generalizing Taylor's conclusions.

[2] Italics in this section are mine. This dynamic corresponds with the point I made some weeks ago about Sarah Palin and other purveyors of untruths.


1 comment:

  1. Along similar lines:

    "Over the past quarter-century, historians have stressed the manifold differences of humanity’s complex past, so unlike our own circumstances they seem bizarrely incomprehensible. But the public at large increasingly domesticates that past, refashioning it in modern terms, and then praising it for echoing with their own precepts or damning it for failing to conform to them."