public history

Book Forum: Symbols, collective memory, and political principles 

by guest contributor Andrew Dunstall

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. The inaugural forum is devoted to Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016).

Jeffrey Andrew Barash has written a very scholarly book that proves both a philosophical work and a history of ideas. The one offers a conceptual account of collective memory, and the other a narrative of changing conceptions and ideological uses of “memory.” In both cases, he argues that careful attention to the border between memory and history is politically significant for criticising appeals to mythical bases of political unity. I have some thoughts on that, but first it is worth summarising what I take to be key contributions of the book.


Obama’s Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial (Steve Jurvetson)

The main contention of the book is this: collective memory designates a restricted sphere of past references. These particular references operate in practical life within a community, a “web of experience” (p. 52). Crucially for Barash, such a web consists of symbols (defined on p. 47-50). Symbols “confer spontaneous sense on experience by lending it communicable order at the primary level of its organization and articulation” (p. 47). What Barash means here is not that we attach various symbols to our everyday experience in a secondary process; rather, our perception is originally patterned in symbolic ways according to our learning, habits, and interactions.

Barash gives an example of an illuminating contrast. The quiet, “sacred” space of a church, and the banal (but still perhaps quiet and still) space of a car garage. Each space is meaningful in perception, because we are acquainted with their style and the activities that take place in them. Even when we are not familiar with the setting, we pick up cues from others or elements of the scene.  Experience is hermeneutic, which Barash refers to as “symbolic embodiment”. Our ability to communicate with each other in, and about, our experiences rests on this spontaneous symbolising activity.

Also note that we are not locked into our original perceptions. Experience is neither a private language, nor fixed, nor voluntarist. We constantly layer and re-layer interpretations of our lives as a matter of course. We can, for instance, understand somebody who describes their car garage as a shrine or sacred space, transporting the qualities of the cathedral to the domestic site of mechanical pursuits. We are readily able to creatively adapt our references through conversation and imaginative reconstructions. We can understand each other—even when we have radically differing interpretations.


Martin Luther King press conference 1964 (Marion S. Trikosko)

Thus our memories come to be shared with those whom we regularly interact; for Barash, collective memory is this web of interaction. He gives an excellent example by analysing Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, which included his own memories of watching it on television (p. 55). This sets up well the key distinction between experience “in the flesh” as opposed to that mediated by communication technologies (analysed in detail in chapter five). An important clarification is made here. When we are talking about events that are supposed to be real—like King’s speech, then we expect that they will mesh well with the other references our fellows make, and which are materially present in our environment. When they do not cohere, we are justified to be suspicious about the claims being made. And that disjunction motivates a critical reappraisal. Symbols themselves do not differentiate between reality and fictional states, but their overall network does. Thus imagination is essential to the “public construction of reality”, but such a construction is neither arbitrary nor imaginary (p. 49).

Collective memory is therefore neither a fiction nor a mere metaphor, but refers to a web of symbols formed through communicative interaction, reaching as far as that sphere of interaction does—across several generations, and within the context of a shared language, set of public symbols, and common purposes. Barash, however, carefully emphasises a corresponding diffuseness, differentiation and inconsistencies of such memory—and he insists on its epistemological limits to a living generation. Knowledge of life passes beyond living ken when it fails to be maintained in any real sense by a coming generation. Too often, such discontinuities are not benign: displacement, war, and oppression can be its cause.


Mémoire (Benhard Wenzl)

Collective memory needs to be distinguished from the reflective activity of historians, as Barash clearly argues in his choice of title for the book. The critical targets of the book are twofold. Recent scholarship, on the one, that has conflated the work of history with the idea of collective memory (see p. 173ff.). On the other hand, Barash is all-too-mindful of the way in which collective memory is invoked for political purposes.  There is a normative-critical point to the distinction between collective memory and historical work. The historian or scholar of collective memory is someone who holds our memory work to account, scrupulously attending to myth-making and historical over-reach in political discourse. The historian is in the business of re-contextualising, of rediscovering the coherence of a set of events in the real. And so Barash takes a position on the reality of the past, and we see the importance of establishing the level of the real in the analysis of symbols (p. 175ff).

We can see some clear implications for historical methods as a result of Barash’s careful analysis. Collective memory is a part of how archives and diverse sources come into existence. History work needs collective memory, and it needs to understand its various forms. However, rather than take up debates about the reality of the past, or the distinction between the forms of collective memory and historical understanding, I am interested in a rather different and less explicit theme, which my preceding commentators have already raised. Let us think a bit more about the normative and political emphasis that Barash lays on historical understanding.


Fête de l’Être suprême (Pierre-Antoine Demachy, 1794)

While collective memory is limited to living generations, there are nevertheless long-term patterns to community life that reach beyond memory. Martin Luther King, for example, called attention to the political promises of the Declaration of Independence, and of Lincoln, in the shadow of whose memorial he stood with those who had gathered with him. King, Lincoln, and their contemporaries belonged to a larger unity, an ethos; a particular rendering of democratic freedom. Michael Meng argues that Barash is drawing on a democratic emphasis in his insistence on finitude. Êthos, as in Aristotle’s Politics, translates as “custom.” Barash’s symbolically oriented theory incorporates ethos as an “articulation of long-term continuities in the symbolic reservoir upon which collective memory draws” (p. 105). While Barash’s examples consistently point to progressive and radical democratic examples (he also discusses the French Revolution’s republican calendar), the concept of ethos launches an analysis of the ideological invocation of memory by radical right wing movements.


Front National (Marie-Lan Nguyen, 2010)

Right wing groups sometimes evoke age-long memory in direct connection to social homogeneity. There is a French focus; Maurice Barrès, the late 19th and early 20th century conservative political figure and novelist, and Jean-Marie Le Pen and his party, the Front National, are Barash’s primary examples. Le Pen wrote in 1996: “When we denounce the terrible danger of the immigration invasion, we speak on behalf of our ancient memory” (cited at p. 109). The theoretical construction of symbolic collective memory has reached its sharp, critical point. For the finitude of collective memory, in its anchoring in a living generation, disallows the age-long memory and homogeneity of national identity that the right call upon. So while collective memory is not simply imaginary, as Barash has shown, the latter metaphorical use of it is mythical. Finitude must be, ought to be, reasserted.

Finitude is a common hymn amongst intellectuals today. And yet the normative argument for the critical function of historical work is not very strong here. I disagree with Meng’s interpretation then. Finitude does not supply a normative principle which would tell us how collective memory ought to be invoked. The alternative progressive examples show the point. Martin Luther King could equally draw on an ethos; so too should progressives today. And this is a practical, normative point, as Sophie Marcotte Chénard suggests. Repetition is not continuity, however. We must draw on the historical past and collective memory to defend progressive normative principles. Where else do they come from? Of course, a normative choice by the historian is that—a choice of what to inherit.

Barash bases his argument on a formal analysis of memory, symbols, and temporal intentionality. Finitude for him is a matter of logical form: living memory can only extend a certain length; the selection of what we remember is secondary for him. Finitude itself supplies no clear ethical principle, however. Which normative struggles, which injustices breathe life into “living memory”? Often such struggles far exceed that memory, as I have argued elsewhere. Barash, to my mind, implies these questions at various points, but does not make them explicit. Barash’s work is a provocative opening. When we come to reflect on our heritage, whether age-long or recent, the point is to choose what is worth preserving, and what needs changing.

Andrew Dunstall  is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Wollongong, where he teaches political philosophy. His research interests are in phenomenology and critical theory. His recent work studies the way that normative principles draw upon historical precedents, especially those beyond the “modern” era. You can read more about his work here.

Thinking About Knowledge in Motion and Social Engagement at HSS

by guest contributor Patrick Anthony

Amidst the great diversity of ideas and perspectives circulating at this year’s History of Science Society (HSS) meeting in San Francisco, two themes continue to resonate in my mind: knowledge in motion and social engagement. Indeed, the annual HSS meeting is itself an example of the far-ranging mobility of ideas and the impulse of many scholars to engage with diverse and interdisciplinary audiences. It is fitting then that some of the most palpable themes at HSS concerned the transmission and translation of scientific knowledge on the one hand and the social and political engagement of scholars on the other.

With sessions and round-tables like “Knowledge in Motion,” “Translation as Process,” and “Translation as an Epistemic Tool,” I was reminded of the text of James A. Secord’s plenary lecture at a Halifax conference titled “Circulating Knowledge” in 2004. Under the title “Knowledge in Transit,” Secord expressed his concern that a focus on localized sites of knowledge creation had lead to a “loss of direction,” suggesting in stead that we begin to view “knowledge as communication” and shift our gaze toward “patterns of circulation.” “It means thinking about statements as vectors with a direction and a medium,” Secord argued — and this is precisely how many of his colleagues were thinking at this year’s HSS meeting.

The “Knowledge in Motion” session featured a host of scholars who had indeed found direction. In his analysis of letters to and from the twentieth-century physicist Paul Dirac, Aaron Wright, for instance, sought to identify the “Principles of Correspondence.” Wright suggested that correspondence contains a unique “form of knowledge” akin to Michael Polanyi’s “tacit” or “personal knowledge,” one that allows for a freer and more metaphysical exchange of ideas than we find in published works. Also in this session, Noah Moxham reconstructed the eighteenth-century distribution circuits of the scientific periodical, the Philosophical Transactions; Barbara Di Gennaro traced pathways of knowledge concerning the origin of the “true” balsam plant through a network of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian thinkers that spanned the Eastern Mediterranean in the sixteenth-century; and Sophie Brockmann’s “Geography of Knowledge in Central America” followed roads, trade routes and correspondence networks to elucidate the role of “local ‘lived’ and ‘imagined’ landscapes” in the creation of geographic knowledge.

With an eye toward both the visual and the textual, the public and the private, scholars are currently not only concerned with how knowledge travels, but also with the ways in which knowledge is reconfigured while in transit. Studies of translation figure centrally here. In “Translation as Process,” Martina Schlünder examined the 1979 English translation of Ludwik Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (first published in German in 1935) to further Fleck’s own argument. Fleck argued that scientific knowledge is conceived, situated, and, as Schlünder phrased it, “trapped in” but “blind to” socially conditioned “thought styles.” Can the same be said for translations? Schlünder said yes, suggesting that the English translation of Genesis and Development is itself an example of a text being appropriated by a different thought collective.

Historian Lynn K. Nyhart was thinking along similar lines. In her exciting new project, presented at HSS under the title “Reproducing Science: William B. Carpenter and the British Reception of German Ideas on Generation, 1839-1854,” Nyhart set herself the task of explaining how scientific knowledge changed while en route from Germany to Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. Thus far, Nyhart has found that ideas once rooted in Germany were, by the time they reached British students by way of French and then English translations, heavily “mediated,” and in some respects “decisively Anglophilic.” I was struck by the affinities between Nyhart’s project and Nick Hopwood’s new book Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud, which explores the social life of a set of controversial drawings by Ernst Haeckel to argue that images, like texts, are not just mindlessly recycled, but creatively reproduced. My sense is that the red thread here — in studies of translation and circulation as in the work of Nyhart and Hopwood — is an enthusiasm for studying the mobility of ideas as they evolve through time and space.

If “translation” and “motion” were on the minds of many in San Francisco, “engagement” and “justice” seemed to be rival buzzwords. While one session, facilitated by Janet D. Stemwedel, exchanged ideas on “How to Engage with Government and Beyond Using the History of Science,” another round-table, chaired and organized by Joanna Radin and Myrna Perez Sheldon, posed the bold and noble question, “How Should the History of Science Engage with Political Activism and Social Justice?” Of the sessions I was able to attend, the most dynamic and compelling was a roundtable titled “Historians of Science in the Public Sphere.”

Chaired by Joshua Howe of Reed College, the panel featured a set of scholars working at the intersection of academia and social justice: Erik M. Conway, co-author of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming; Jane Maienschein, director of the Embryo Project at Arizona State University; Alice Dreger, whose work on intersex research and identity politics has courageously fused scholarship and activism; and Robert Proctor, who in 1999 became the first historian to testify against the tobacco industry, and continued to do so in over one hundred cases.

“What happens,” Howe began, “when historians of science use their craft to make the world a better place?” In their profound and inspiring answers (and in spite of their differences) the panel revealed many commonalities. Most panelists had received hate mail, and some, death threats; all expressed a deep resentment of relativism, and alternatively, for “ultra-postmodernism”; and each expressed a commitment to truth and justice. While Proctor and Maienschein set their social/academic aims within a broad “Enlightenment” tradition, Dreger spoke of relativism as a position held by those who have not had to consider justice—that is, as a privilege. Only briefly mentioned then, but certainly worth recalling here, was the gendered nature of hate mail. As Conway related, Naomi Oreskes, his co-author of Merchants of Doubt, had received thousands of hate e-mails after the book’s publication — a striking quantity beside his few.

The panel agreed that much of the value in the study of history lies in its potential to humble us. “Humility,” Dreger said simply and sardonically, “might be a good way to approach things.” But the problem with being a historian in the public sphere, Dreger continued, is that people want simple, black and white, stories of good and evil. Proctor concurred: “Complexity can get in the way,” he said, especially in the courtroom. But it was Proctor’s stirring meditations on humankind that seemed to dominate the tenor of the session. Beginning with the premise that “to be human is to want to make the world a better place,” Proctor’s principal message was that one ought to be “a human first and a historian second,” and that we ought to be wary of the evils that follow from the reversion of this relationship. He concluded with a bit of levity and the words of a Rabbi: “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship!”

Patrick Anthony is a first year graduate student working on the history of science and exploration at Vanderbilt University. At the HSS meeting in San Francisco, Patrick presented a poster titled „Views of Justice in Views of Nature: Mapping Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmic Law.“ Aside from his work on Humboldt’s Romantic conception of justice, Patrick is also developing a project on Americans’ views of revolutions in Saint-Domingue and Latin America during the early national period.

Legacies of British Slave Ownership: Thoughts on British Imperial History and Public Memory

by Emily Rutherford

Last week, I was meant to be teaching the women’s suffrage movement to my modern British history discussion section, but my students only wanted to talk about one thing: Prime Minister David Cameron visited Jamaica last week, but was dismissive of calls from prominent Jamaican politicians and public figures that Britain pay reparations to Jamaica and other West Indian nations whose people were the victims of Britain’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave trade. My students were interested in this, I suspect, because they are of a generation of American and international students who care deeply about imperial and postcolonial history, and see a greater understanding of empire (and its sins) as a key reason to study British history. If you count the US (as we should) as a former British colony, nearly everyone enrolled in the lecture course for which I TA has a heritage that is somehow implicated in the history of British empire.

Yet my students were also particularly keen to discuss the subject of slavery and Jamaica because a couple weeks ago, I enthused to them about the most successful piece of academic-history outreach to the public that I have ever seen: the Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project (LBSO), a collaborative research project based at University College London and headed by Catherine Hall, along with Nick Draper, Keith McClelland, and a number of other historians. These days in the UK, research council-funded collaborative research projects are the norm, but they don’t tend to take on the life that LBSO—which has spawned not only an academic volume but also a BBC documentary and countless community- and school-based workshops—has had. I’m writing this post in large part to bring some incredible work to the attention of those who, like my students, aren’t scholars in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British history. But I also think the project offers a model for how we can all think about the public-outreach applications of our work, and about its messier political ramifications.

Screenshot of the LBSO website, October 5, 2015.

Screenshot of the LBSO website, October 5, 2015.

LBSO’s signal contribution is its database. In 1833, when Parliament abolished slavery in Britain, thousands of individual slave-owners filed claims of compensation for their lost “property,” and a total of £20 million was paid out to these individuals. In order to process these claims, meticulous records were kept, with individuals’ names, addresses, occupations, and so on—and a value was placed on the body of every freed man, woman, and child as part of the compensation process. Historians always knew that these records were in Britain’s National Archives, but only with present-day advances in technology and the financial and staff resources of a collaborative project has it been possible to turn the records into a publicly-searchable, online database that yields findings astonishing and undeniable in their clarity. Compensation claims reached right across the British Isles. There are claims from lavish country houses (and, of course, from the plantations of Jamaica and Barbados) but also from widows or clergymen in more modest circumstances. A map feature reveals the extent of the geographic range—and allows you to see records of compensation claims from your own town or neighborhood. During a presentation about the project to Columbia University’s British History Seminar last week, Catherine Hall mentioned an exhibition the project leaders had put on at UCL, about the compensation claims that emanated from the university’s own neighborhood: “The Slave Owners of Bloomsbury.” The compensation records also allow historians to trace a complicated flow of money: compensation money bought its recipients land, buildings, fine art.

Anyone can type their own surname into the database. I just did, and nine individuals came up, with claims ranging from twenty pounds for one enslaved person to many thousands of pounds for 892. Without more work, I couldn’t tell you if they were my ancestors—plenty of Rutherfords aren’t related to me—but seeing my name at all is still startling. The LBSO database has featured on the popular genealogy TV program Who Do You Think You Are?, with many celebrities confronting their own ancestors’ profit from the slave trade. And—here we come to the point—arguments for reparations for Jamaica have made appeals on these kinds of personal grounds. In the database is General Sir James Duff, a first cousin six times removed of David Cameron’s, and campaigners have laid stress on this fact: it means, they argue, that he is personally implicated in one of the British Empire’s ugliest legacies.

I’m not a fan of Cameron or his party myself, but I don’t think that’s fair—and it’s not the lesson that LBSO teaches. Cameron’s particular branch of his family acquired their wealth after abolition, but more to the point, I suspect that anyone with white European ancestry would be hard-pressed to find a first cousin six times removed who wasn’t implicated in racism and imperialism in some way. As Hall explained to the Columbia seminar last week, the LBSO project doesn’t seek to lay the blame for the slave trade, and how it has been forgotten as a part of British history, at any particular individual’s door. What it shows is precisely the opposite: that quite a lot of people of white British ancestry can find their surnames in the database, and anyone can find compensation records from their own town or city, if not their very street. LBSO uses an unusually clear, empirical record drawn from a public archive to show that slavery is part of Britain’s national story.

In the state schools in California and Massachusetts that I attended, I was taught American history three times: in fifth grade, eighth grade, and eleventh grade. Each time, we began at the “beginning,” with the first European settlements in the Americas, and saw how far we could get. In eighth grade we got bogged down in the Civil War, but in eleventh grade, with the AP US History exam to sit, we made it as far as Vietnam. US public history education tells a rose-tinted, whiggish, not always accurate story about the long history of race relations, but it tells a story. It can’t just pass over, for instance, the Civil War and Reconstruction; the three-fifths compromise and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. But in Britain, secondary history education is taught in thematic units without an overarching narrative or a sense of a national history: an approach with some benefits, to be sure, but it makes it easy to avoid the bad bits. Tie this to (as Hall pointed out in her presentation) a long history, dating back to 1833, of valorizing Britain’s role in abolition while forgetting its role in slavery, and you have all the elements you need for a widespread case of collective amnesia. Often, this amnesia is downright disturbing—as anyone who has watched the Last Night of the Proms, while having a sneaking suspicion that none of the spectators madly waving Union Jacks and singing “Rule Britannia” have any notion that Britain once forcibly ruled half the globe, will recognize.

LBSO is about undoing that amnesia: its historians are writing prominent individuals’ slave ownership back into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where it rarely appears; campaigning for more accurate accounts of the funds that purchased paintings in the National Gallery; working with local genealogists and historians to document the history of slavery in their own families and communities (you can read about some of these efforts on their great blog). In the process, they’ve been very careful not to tell a story that casts blame, but rather one that raises awareness. In its marshalling of facts and letting the facts speak for themselves, LBSO can’t easily be co-opted by one political perspective or another—except inasmuch as it very clearly shows anyone liable to pontificate about the golden thread of liberty running through British history from the time of Magna Carta that it was, after all, Britain who brought slavery to North America. It shows us, I think, that work which is really going to make a difference in how the national story is understood can do so as much through careful empiricism as through ideology. When I go to British history conferences, I hear countless orations about the left-wing political stakes of historians’ work. But that database—and seeing your own surname in it—speaks volumes that no speech ever can. No wonder my students are amazed by it, as am I: it’s history at its best, and it clearly demonstrates why public outreach, communication, and teaching have to be conceived of as a central part of historians’ job.