Posted by: The staff | December 19, 2010

The false dignity of historical memory

From John Hennessy:

Kevin Levin has an interesting post today over at Civil War Memory, asking whether or not, really, the American public is divided in its perceptions of the American Civil War. His is a thoughtful, provocative forum, well worth reading.

On a separate note, few things have reshaped our understanding of the Civil War and its place in American culture more than the emergence of “memory studies” over the last 25 years. In the business of public history, nothing is more important than understanding how the public’s perceptions of history have evolved and come to be what they are. Public memory as a lens through which to understand the perceptions of our forebears is very useful thing.

But, it seems to me that viewing memory retrospectively and viewing it in the present are two different things. Have we gotten ourselves into a place where we accord misplaced dignity to bad history practiced in the present by referring to it as “memory?”

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Responses

  1. John,
    I am intrigued by this discussion, but am not sure what you are talking about. Please clarify your “memory studies” reference. Historians know that memory is not history, but far too much questionable material gets presented as history anyway. The term “oral history” is certainly a misnomer, but “memory studies.” Hmmm.

  2. John,
    I perceive memory studies as more a method of understanding and coming to terms with the “bad history” (or the occasional good element) of the past. The idea of giving dignity to past interpretations or writings implies that memory studies excuse this bad history or give it greater respect or importance. I try to look at memory as a way to understand the influences of earlier cultures. If it’s bad history, why? What led these brilliant historians to go down a certain path? Does that mean we should preserve what we perceive today as bad history, or that we should treat it with reverence? Certainly not. If we can learn from it before it disappears, then by all means we should take advantage of that opportunity. But I think if done right, memory studies primarily aim to understand past historical interpretation/commemoration, and this dignity is either an unfortunate byproduct or an unconvincing way to excuse poor history. Either way, the benefits of memory studies outweigh the potential false dignity, as I see it.


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