Thursday, July 07, 2005

Schwarz on Phantoms of the Past

I'm not entirely sure why, but I like Schwarz's use of Pierre Nora below.

"The first was the question of temporality itself. The debates on memory, wittingly or unwittingly, foreground questions of temporality. It was only really through theorizations on memory that I came once more to understand the centrality of the complexity and plurality of differing temporalities. [footnote 7] The manner in which memory collapses the given external distinctions between past and present is itself of great significance, but at the same time raises the more general question of the way in which the past inhabits the present. A very important text in this regard is Althusser's essay on 'Contradiction and overdetermination', where Althusser, in conventional marxist manner, confronted the question of the ways in which past forms 'survive' in the present - as in older feudal forms 'surviving' in early twentieth-century Russia. Althusser made it clear, though, that he didn't know how to develop this concept theoretically. He couldn't determine, for example, whether survivals were largely a matter of objective, external historical time (his preferred explanation), or whether it was something to do with the way in which the past entered the mind, through acts of memory - rather like Thompson's entire 'inside' being opened up to the force of the past. Althusser was reluctant to contemplate the latter option, as for him it smacked too much of idealism and of Hegel. To centre memory in this way, it seemed, would be to pitch things too much in the domain of consciousness. Down this route, Althusser surmised, lay too many phantoms, in which the past could only appear in the present through the medium of ghosts and spirits. [footnote 8]

"My own view is that we needn't be frightened of phantoms: of understanding the-past-in-the-present as principally located in the human imagination. To speak of the past-in-the-present is precisely to grasp the symbolic, psychic means by which the past is represented in the present: in which, as Pierre Nora suggests, the past in all its myriad forms is governed and articulated in the contemporary moment, and organized by contemporary determinations. [footnote 9] Individual memories are one means by which the past-in-the-present is activated. But I don't think that the analytical procedures which the study of memory offers can carry the full weight of coming to terms with the articulation of the past-in-the-present" (103).

7. It was instructive, from this vantage, to return to Thompson's 'Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism', republished in his Customs in Common, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1991 - whose object is precisely transformations in the 'inward notation of time', p.354.

8. Louis Althusser, 'Contradiction and Overdetermination' in his For Marx, Allen Lane, London, 1969.

9. Pierre Nora, 'Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire', Representations 26, 1989.


Schwarz, Bill. "Not Even Yet Past." History Workshop Journal 57 (2004) 101-115. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/history_workshop_journal/v057/57.1schwarz.html

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