Historicism vs Social Memory or How to Tell History
Commentary on Tosh’s Pursuit of History, chapter 1
Historical awareness is a “universal psychological attribute” arising from our innate desire to explain the origin of present circumstances and represents our personal understanding of the past. This understanding is influenced by two distinct modes of perception: social memory and historicism. Social memory is the understanding of history we are born into through the socialization process and relies on cultural understandings of the past while historicism is a methodical and analytical approach to observing history “as it is.”
Social memory stands as a society’s perception of the past, a popular knowledge of history framed in narrative, absorbed by the members of a culture through the socialization process, and often sacrificing historical accuracy for the purposes of serving as national mythology. Social memory is the mode of perception which the common man tends to adopt, unable or unwilling to consider a more empirical approach to examining the past and to which the leadership caste too often exploits for purposes of intrigue and conquest. The people’s zeitgeist is intimately wedded to social memory, as the ethos of a people cannot be justified without a common genesis (the “foundation myth”), common tormentors and common devotions. A world view is not possibly formed without a perception and meditation on the past, a past as colored by social memory. This sort of memory does not consider the archeological record or carefully scrutinize historical documents but instead is formed on the basis of storytelling and thus belittles the complexity of ages now past.
While the people of Israel claim to have descended from a powerful, expansive and ancient kingdom unlawfully conquered, a perception which justifies the existence and supposed liberation of the modern nation state, Professor of the Archaeology of Israel in the Bronze Age and Iron Ages Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University after having carefully scrutinizing the archaeological record has found no evidence of such a realm ever existing; at best the Jewish settlements of the biblical period were “small hill towns[i].” Herein we encounter another form of historical perception, one bound faithfully to the rigors of logic, reason and science, a perception formed on the assumption of evidence rather than the seductions of ideology and which holds social expectations irrelevant in the formulation of knowledge: historicism.
Essentially historicism holds that we should attend to history as a science rather than as storytelling, reporting indifferently upon findings and forming together a report on the basis of mutually supporting evidence. While this method of writing history may appear to be pedestrian to the common man in the contemporary age it in truth holds fast as a potentially dangerous way of reporting on the past in the sense that it is amoral and is not truncated or amended by the will political. As a consequence of this latter law of study, nations whose identity and political mandates are based on the false reporting of social memory (such as Israel) are at risk of dissent or collapse when the illuminating light of reason burns away what is false and reveals the truth.
Since what is the case has the potential of disrupting delusions of what is purported to be the case by its mere revelation society tends to ostracize men like Israel Finkelstein out of fear alone. Historicism is concerned with accuracy as the greatest good while the social memory tends to distort the times of yore in order to justify present designs. Practitioners of the former refrain from judging past peoples and instead present them “as they were,” remaining faithful to the data, while history colored through social memory tends to judge the past in order to guide the people of society in living today. Fundamentally, historicism is involved with the study of history, a science of painstakingly rebuilding the past through mutually corroborating, critically scrutinized evidence, while social memory is just mere memory, fallible and easily distorted by fault of our flawed human perceptions.
The Virtue of History
Commentary on Tosh’s Pursuit of History, chapter 2
With the study of history naturally comes the question of the virtue of history, a question which is critically connected to the method in which we not only write history but also perceive the past. Two systems which seek to provide a utility of history are metahistory and the rejection of history. As we will observe, neither of these perspectives do service to the task of explaining the true complexities of the past and how they relate to the present.
A metahistorical approach seeks to impose an ideological lattice on the entire past in order to explain the present and future; it proposes that what we must study history in order to discover our destiny. Rather than reporting indifferently on the ancient past metahistories tend to include logic of cause often stemming from cultural and philosophical maxims. These latter maxims apply, at least to the proponents of the metahistorical account, to all of history and are the basis of why history has unfolded, and will continue to unfold, as it has. Essentially metahistories are tasked with answering the question of why does history unfold, why do nations go to war and why do human beings seek to fulfill desires; what is the cause of change.
The Sumerians, for example, believed that as the cursed blood of Kingu, they were tasked with pleasing the gods by laboring in their stead as beasts and burden[i][ii], and so perceived the disasters and wars of the past (and indeed their current predicament) as punishment from on high. These people would have looked to the future as one of labor to the gods, a capricious lot that would strike them with flooding and locusts if they failed to work hard enough to satisfy them.
To the south west in 609 BCE the Egyptians would slaughter Josiah, the king of Judah, at Megiddo in what is now northern Israel. Within a generation Judah was destroyed, Jerusalem’s temple and palace was leveled and its people became exiles, profoundly influencing the content of the Old Testament and inspiring its authors to reconsider the pattern of history. Confronted with having to explain the suffering inflicted upon them and the apparent abandonment of God in the stewardship of the people, the biblical authors through an 7th century BCE addendum in the book of Isaiah charged the people with enduring the “sin of the nations” (idol worship) in order to bring them into the grace of God, that their suffering and rejection would be relieved through a new Eden brought about in the end of days by virtue of a Messiah[iii]. This view of history explains the past suffering of the Jewish people as voluntary cosmopolitan atonement rather than as simply a symptom of being conquered by foreign invaders. This notion of atonement for the sin of all nations would come to serve as a metahistory to explain both Jewish origins as well as the role of a Jewish people in the future to come, enduring the ridicule and rejection of others in order to bring about the return of the Messiah.
Yet it is not only religion and mysticism which tends to view the past metahistorically. Historical materialism for example proposes that history can be studied in terms of economic production, with all societies evolving toward a system in which the needs and desires of the people would be abundantly and justly provided. Proponents of such a perspective hold that societies which are enslaved by capital and profit will eventually adopt a “higher” form of production which caters indifferently to all citizens on the basis of needs rather than social prestige and rank. For Karl Marx, the originator of such thought, capitalism was a barbaric economy which awarded the members of a society not for their merits but for their deceptions and led to dysfunction and inhumanity in a culture. Through a series of implosions and self-liberating action by the working class, Marx believed that such an inequitable system could be abolished and be replaced by a just one of equal economic distribution. Following this line of logic, all the suffering and failure of the past age could be attributed to a lack of communistic government while we could expect the future to fail if it did not adopt a communistic system.
Contrasting these metahistorical views is the rejection of history as being relevant, the notion that there are neither patterns in the past or in the future to come. Proponents of this perception have either adopted it as a defense against the sort of demagoguery which enabled the autocrats of the 20th century to rise to power spouting racial metahistories and capitalistic oppression, or as a means of highlighting the virtue of modernity. This latter proposition holds that clinging to the past only inhibits the human potential of the present and deludes us into believing that we live in a cycle of past experience. In this sense knowledge of history is said to only to contribute to degeneration rather than progress in a society as we become absorbed in delusions of recreating a grand age that never was.
In truth neither metahistorical analysis nor rejection of history may be a proper way to judge the use and virtue of history. History’s value is in itself and it is not the domain of the study to define how it is to be applied to a country or philosophy but rather it is the domain of the individual. Just as science stands on its own without need of commentary so should the study of the past: history should serve as an indifferent report on what once was, without call for moral judgment. While we can look to the past and observe the errors of our ancestors we cannot assume that current conditions are identical enough to warrant a metahistory, nor can we reject them outright as to claim they are of no influence. We must instead contend that the past may influence the present but does not define the present and that the burdens of the past era may be righted by the will of those in the current era; we are not shackled to some preordained story which has yet to unfold but instead create our own destiny by virtue of free will, a will influenced by the record of the past as submitted to us by our parents and community. As historians we can seer through mere opinion and instead observe the state of things inherent by carefully scrutinizing what is actually known, evidenced and submitted rather than being seduced by ideological schematics or the obediently cynical outrage of modernists.
[i]Sumerians. Washington State University World Civilizations. http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/MESO/SUMER.HTM[ii] Sumerian Religion. Minnesota State University Mankato. http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory/middle_east/sumer_religion.html