The Uses of the Past   /   Summer 2007   /    Essays

From Usable Pasts to the Return of the Repressed

Jeffrey K. Olick

Sigmund Freud with his daughter, Anna, at the International Psychoanalytical Congress (1920). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Contemporary scholars of memory have thought about the relation between past and present in at least three ways. The first is captured by the term “usable past,” originally coined by the literary critic Van Wyck Brooks.11xVan Wyck Brooks, “On Creating a Usable Past,” The Dial 64.7 (11 April 1918): 337–41. Writing dur­ing World War I, Brooks argued that the American arts, in distinction from those of Europe, were riddled with contradictions stemming from their lack of an obvious bind­ing tradition, as well as from the mixing of immigrant cultures. In order for American culture to emerge from its state of incoherence, Brooks argued, it would be necessary to construct a “usable past” for it, a set of historical referents that could give shape to contemporary efforts. A “usable past” is thus an invention or at least a retrospective reconstruction to serve the needs of the present.

Indeed, this view was for a while the dominant one in contemporary social scientific work on memory. In 1925, the Durkheimian sociologist Maurice Halbwachs intro­duced not only the concept of “collective memory” but a “presentist” understanding of its operation.22xMaurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, trans. and ed. Lewis Coser (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). Collective memory, Halbwachs argued, is formed and reformed in the present for present purposes. This line of argument became even more directly instrumentalist in the well-known work of Eric Hobsbawm, whose landmark 1983 book with Terence Ranger was called The Invention of Tradition.33xEric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). Hobsbawm argued that, particularly from the 1870s to 1914, European states sought to shore up their declining legitimacy by propagating a bogus sense of historical endurance for their institutions and practices.44xEric Hobsbawm, “Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870–1914,” The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) 263–307. In this vein, research into the “politics of memory” sought to demonstrate that behind every version of the past there must be a set of interests in the present; changes in collective memory result from efforts to use the past to attain present goals and can thus be debunked.

Nevertheless, for at least some scholars, such a presentist and instrumentalist approach is unsatisfying. In the first place, much research has shown that collective memory is often fairly impervious to efforts aimed at remaking it. Additionally, a purely presentist approach, critics argue, fails to explain where present interests come from in the first place. Moreover, an instrumentalist approach is unable to give a good account of why it is that the past works so well as an instrument of present interests. In contrast, then, a second possible understanding of the contemporary relationship between past and present is one that seeks to understand why the past is usable at all. What is it, exactly, that the past does for us? How does the past work on the present to shape identities and define purposes? This line of inquiry, while not entirely distinct from the first, often employs a more functionalist vocabulary: history, a sense of the past, tradition, collective memory, etc., all function to establish identities and give them moral pur­poses. In their bestselling book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his colleagues argued that communities “have a history—in an important sense they are constituted by their past—and for this reason we can speak of a real community as a ‘community of memory,’ one that does not forget its past.”55xRobert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985) 153. This sense of the past, moreover, is fundamentally moral, not instrumental. “The stories that make up a tradition,” Bellah and his colleagues added, “contain conceptions of character, of what a good person is like, and of the virtues that define such character.”66xBellah et al. 153. The insights here may come with a Durkheimian inflection on social solidarity and the collective representations that embody it, or a Tocquevillian inflection on “mystic chords of memory.”77xSee Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage, 1993). Either way, the past is not just a tool in the arsenal of power, but the very wellspring of identity.

In the first view then, the question is what we do with the past; in the second, it is what the past does for us. Nevertheless, there is a third view that sees the relationship between past and present as neither under our control nor functional. Rather, with a much darker vision shaped by the violent culture of nineteenth-century Romanticism, as well as by the unprecedented destruction brought on us by industrial warfare, a third understanding has emerged that asks what the past does to us. And what it does to us is assuredly not good. Here the keyword is “trauma,” and the model is psycho­analytic. According to Freudian theory, repression can work effectively to prevent dangerous knowledge from rising to consciousness, as in repression of Oedipal urges. Repression is also part of “latency,” the period necessary for processing traumatic events. Nevertheless, most asso­ciations with repression are negative, whether it is the repression of instinctual drives (a form of socially organized self-punishment, the “discontents,” in Freud’s term, imposed by civilization) or the pathological repression that prevents us from “working through” the past. Without a healthy working through of the past, there can be no escape from its grip, which thrashes us about in a miasma of “repetition compulsion” and fragmented identity.

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