The Uses of the Past   /   Summer 2007   /    Bibliographic Review

Bibliographic Review on the Uses of the Past

Andrew Witmer

Margaret Hamilton standing next to the navigation software that she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo Project (1969).

In a world bent on barreling full-bore into the future, the past shows up with surprising frequency and force. Examples range from the commonplace to the terrifying: an entire channel of cable television serves up history in entertaining one-hour segments; politicians call for a return to old-fashioned values; and suicide bombers invoke the words of a seventh-century prophet before destroying themselves and their victims.11xThe author thanks Allan Megill and Monica Black for commenting on drafts of this bibliography.

On closer examination, the enormous velocity of social and cultural change during the modern era may actually be one of the causes of the modern preoccupation with the past. “We speak so much of memory,” Pierre Nora famously observed, “because there is so little of it left.”22xPierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations 26 (Spring 1989): 7. Human beings have always been backward-looking as well as forward- looking creatures, but in a world that nearly always prizes “progress” and “growth” over stasis, the past may seem to offer particularly welcome possibilities—consolation, justification, critique—for individuals and even for entire societies. As Karl Marx once noted, even modern radicals, from Luther to the French republicans, conjured up the names, costumes, and battle cries of the past at the very moments when they seemed most engaged in “revolutionizing things and themselves.”33xKarl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (Chicago: Kerr, 1913) 9. Even for revolutionaries, the past is both useful and inescapable.

The interwovenness of past and present, the ways in which individuals and societies constitute themselves through reference to the past—these alone would suffice to make the study of the past in the present interesting and important. Growing awareness of the malleability of history and memory, and a growing horror at the ways they have been deliberately manipulated to justify the atrocities of the modern era, have made the topic unavoidable over the past several decades. In the academy, these aspects of historical consciousness have been examined most frequently under the rubric of “collective memory,” a term highlighting the insight that memory creates and is created by collectivities as well as individuals.

The rise of memory as a popular subject of academic study during the 1970s and 1980s was driven by a mixture of social and intellectual developments. The task of studying the Holocaust and other atrocities strongly suggested the need for new approaches to the past. What sort of justifications had been powerful enough to rationalize wholesale genocide? Could any sources document that horror as adequately as the memories of the individuals who had suffered at the hands of the Nazis? At the same time, critiques of the historical profession’s claims to objectivity created intellectual space for the study of memory, which seemed compatible with the newly tentative and fragmented nature of historical knowledge. Growing interest in narrative and social constructionism within the social sciences drew attention to the ways in which various pasts had been “assembled” or “invented” for specific purposes. Some scholars argued that the writing of history had been used as an instrument of cultural domination, that it was often not so much about “getting the facts right” as about justifying some present or encouraging some future social order. As a field of study and a source base, memory seemed to offer greater scope for unmasking oppression and attending to the voices of the marginalized and oppressed, those whose histories had not been recorded in the traditional repositories of historical knowledge.

Although the critiques that paved the way for the burgeoning field of “memory studies” have been widely accepted, the new emphasis on memory has created a great deal of controversy among scholars, particularly in the field of history. Some historians have identified a sharp divide between memory and history and worked hard to protect the study of history against the relaxation of scholarly standards they associate with the study of memory. Even some historians who affirm the importance of memory studies have criticized the way the field has developed, calling for more careful attention to the historical context and reception of memory as well as more concentrated efforts to tease out the implications of memory’s lapses and suppressions.44xAlon Confino, “Collective Memory and Cultural History: Problems of Method,” The American Historical Review 102.5 (December 1997): 1386–1403.

This bibliography highlights key theoretical contributions to the study of how individuals and societies form and use their histories, narratives, memories, and other accounts of the past. In ways as seemingly frivolous as a trip to the theater to watch the latest Mel Gibson epic and as obviously significant as the formation of modern nation-states and the justification of atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda, the past is continually called into the present. It never arrives without being shaped by those who summon it and, in turn, shaping its summoners.

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