Tag Archives: Andreas Huyssen

Historical memory is not what it used to be

The future is shaped by how we think the past occurred and worked. Andreas Huyssen, in his book Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, introduces his book by writing:

“Historical memory today is not what it used to be. It used to mark the relation of a community or a nation to its past, but the boundary between past and present used to be stronger and more stable than it appears to be today. Untold recent and not so recent pasts impinge upon the present through modern media of reproduction like photography, film, recorded music, and the internet, as well as through the explosion of historical scholarship and an ever more voracious museal culture. The past has become part of the present in ways simply unimaginable in earlier centuries. As a result, temporal boundaries have weakened just as the experiential dimension of space has shrunk as a result of modern means of transportation and communication.

In times not so very long ago, the discourse of history was there to guarantee the relative stability of the past in its pastness. Traditions, even though themselves often invented or constructed and always based on selections and exclusions, gave shape to cultural and social life. Built urban space – replete with monuments and museums, palaces, public spaces, and government buildings – represented the material traces of the historical past in the present. But history was also the mise-en-scene of modernity. One learned from history. That was the assumption. For about two centuries, history in the West was quite successful in its project to anchor the even more transitory present of modernity and the nation in a multifaceted but strong narrative of historical time. Memory, on the other hand, was a topic for the poets and their visions of golden age, or conversely, for their tales about the hauntings of a restless past. Literature was of course valued highly as part of the national heritage constructed to mediate religious, ethnic, and class conflicts within a nation. But the main concern of the 19th century nation-states was to mobilize and monumentalize national and universal pasts so as to legitimize and give meaning to the present and environ the future: culturally, politically and socially. This model no longer works. Whatever the specific content of the many contemporary debates about history and memory may be, underlying them is a fundamental disturbance not just of the relationship between history as objective and scientific, and memory as subjective and personal, but of history itself and its promises. At stake in the current history/memory debate is not only a disturbance of our notions of the past, but a fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures.

from Polis