The two articles looked at this week are “Social Memory” by Paul Connerton and “Concrete Memories: Fragments of the Past in Classic Maya Present (500-1000 AD) by Rosemary Joyce. I’ll be looking at both, starting with “Social Memory.”
You can’t break with the past. You, your conceptions and your expectations of the world were created in the past and any attempt to make a is doomed because as soon as we try we will only reproduce it again. Perhaps not the same world, but it will still be one that is a product of the circumstances from before the revolution (p. 7).
We can though reject the past and in seeking to build a new world this is a critical part of the development. We don’t know what the new world will look like, but we know what it won’t. The new way is found by breaking down the old. Way, for example, if you want to create a secular, egalitarian society, kill God’s incarnation on Earth in a fair trial. You force the old to bend the new rules (p. 7).
Why is this an important thing to do? Because of the overlap between “social memory” and “history.” Social memory is what a collective (and the comprising individuals) remembers about itself and themselves. Social memory is when a village remembers the last festival, when the rumour about Mary and Mr. Pamuk resurfaces.
History is a category all its own (p. 14). History can be about “what happened to us” but it is constructive. History creates and follows a narrative of everything that happened “during that time” and bundles it up into a collection that is understandable. A formalized “history” of something is always ultimately interpreted through a person, be it in the memory of an oral historian, in the written words of a biographer or group of historians working in concert. What this means is that history is not only a nebulous, social-constructed thing, it means that alternate histories of the same general time can be only tangentially related (p. 16).
Getting back to the revolution, the reason why a symbolic destruction of the old order is important is because for the people who are being presented to, that destruction is going to be a powerful moment in both. You’re trying to rebuild the world, a historical moment. But you want the people to live in that world to sit up and take notice. So you invert something historically significant that is within the collective social memory to act as a touchstone and bring the history to them, in a sense. Things won’t be the same anymore and people will feel that things aren’t the same anymore because of the impact of affecting something so important in their social memory (the king).
Most important, when we are reading a historical account or a historian’s piecing together of the details, we are not reading precise, scientific measurements. We are reading theory-laden facts. We connect to a interpreted, personal, collection of understands, facts and inter-related concepts that evoke one another, through the medium of text. The text should be the start point for our understanding of what it presents, not the endpoint “truth” or even “one view of the objective truth” that should be taken as gospel.
Alternate viewpoints are not just the same event viewed a different vantage. A different viewpoint has different ways of interpretative events, focus on different aspects of the event, has other events happening at the same time that might be more or less important in relation, has other concepts that linked to events, etc, etc. Since context is so important in constructing a narrative (and therefore constructing history), the different in context between a dominate and subordinate group are going to be very different.
So alternate histories aren’t two different viewpoints of the same thing, they are two different stories that happen to intersect spatially and temporally. It’s not that the Islamic world has a different interpretation of the Crusades from the Christian world because they saw it from the other side. The actual event, “a bunch of people with swords going to Jerusalem” was seen differently, remembered differently, labelled differently and put in an entirely different conceptual box. In the same way that the story of your life doesn’t make complete sense to anyone except yourself (maybe not even yourself!), the same goes for history.
The idea text is more reliable than an account in an oral history is due to our assumption that texts are more accurate because the physical article is permanent, and the words written are perfectly reproducible in a way that speech isn’t. In the same way that Stonehenge is commonly seen as an monument frozen in time, text can be seen as frozen in time. And while we are able to see the ways a text might be reinterpreted, reexamined or debated, we see these as independent outcroppings from the solid, unchanging document.
Second we look at Hodder, Ian and Craig in “Daily practice and Social Memory at Catalhoyuk.” Catalhoyuk is a site in Turkey. They looked at what we might consider provincial life over the course of time. Burial practices, household chores and cleaning, house construction, etc. People are born, age and die in a cycle that does not seem to change much. The next generation of actors are taught the old rituals and things go on. Of course we know that the process is dynamic and that nothing is ever truly replicated, but that’s the general idea and to an inside observer the traditions are unchanged.
Of course as archaeologists we are interested in the seeming sameness of rituals performed again and again, and of the impact of that material culture on the people, and the reasons why these practices arose. They argue that the intensive regularity of chores were a response to the conditions that the people of Catalhoyuk lived in, a dense population with sanitation needs, space needs, economic needs, etc. The regularity was a way of teaching the proper rules for how to deal with these matters.
How regular? Very. Analysis showed that a single wall was replastered 700 times over the course of 70 years. Pottery is never found in graveyards. Obsidian deposits are left at hearths. There is a marked degree of regularity that covers many aspects of these people’s lives
But why? Why the incessant chores that seem to be more than what would be required?The traditional functionalist argument is that these rituals are a necessity for organizing a complex society, and since Turkey is one of the earliest sites of sedentary societies (which, as common-sense dictates is the first step towards increasingly complex societies) the regularity of the patterns seen in life at Catalhoyuk over the ages only reinforces the idea that ritual builds order and order creates ritual. It’s only common sense.
But no! Of course not. We’re cleverer than that. The argument presented is that the daily chores were a way to ingrain social memory for people, enculturation and social learning. The repetition serves as a social and communal touchstone for the tasks, a way to order time without an official calendar and a way to delineate local space based on what tasks happen where. This even goes so far as embodiment, as you do not move through a crowded kitchen in the same way that you move through a open field.
1991 :Social Memory.” Chapter 1 in How Societies Remember. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Hodder, Ian Cessford.
2004. “Daily practice and Social Memory at Catalhoyuk.” American Antiquity 69(1):17-40