History: a pillar made of Memories or Dreams?

, by Valter Cassar

History: a pillar made of Memories or Dreams?

The Historical transformation of how we evaluate History

Upon hearing the word Medieval, the most salient image that comes to mind in the context of modern liberal democracy, is the sceptre of divine rule by which laws are set, morals established and truth revealed. It is almost a knee-jerk reaction for us today to consider this system as having been repressive of individuality and the rights entwined in it. Yet on the other hand, we can appreciate (sometimes nostalgically) how people lived a life that was part of an order winded up like clockwork by gods, a structure with a higher purpose and an existence endowed with meaning. Personages like Galileo, Descartes and Newton mark the second coming of Prometheus, or seducer to the tree of knowledge - depending on how one looks at it. Ever since this irreversible turn in history, mankind has gradually adopted the values of enlightenment by which, presumably, every individual no longer seeks guidance but determines his future on the basis of reason and calculated facts.

This ethos revolution arose hand in hand with the technological revolution through the mass-creation of jobs, edification of entire cities and efficient transport and communication. These factors allowed for the creation of the unprecedented metropolitan man who shifted to the formal roles and individual identities which replaced the folk values and community roles dubbed Gemeinschaft by the sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies.

It is worth noting, that man does not immerse himself in an isolated present age, but rather, has a historical sense of what once was which is heightened in times of distress: The grey and mechanical industrial age thus witnessed the rise of the Romantic Movement exemplified by the likes of Adam Mickiewicz’s poems, yearning for the return of a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the operas of Richard Wagner which deified ancient Norse chivalry. In an age when the mystical has supposedly been abandoned, history is the only available narrative which is factual, yet malleable enough to allow for the creation of legends which are resistant to reasoned refutations and this is due to their being established on real events. Any further inquiry into the details of such historical narratives is bound to always reach a stalemate due to the fact that logical analyses cannot be conducted if a given historical reference has countless possible interpretations.

The shift from a centralized source of knowledge to the modern enshrining of the individual, naturally brought about various liberties that allowed for the pursuit of one’s own potentials and expression of his own thoughts. This, along with the rise of the printing press, led to pluralism being a fundamental value of modern society. Yet upon reaching the so called Information Age, society also reached a point at which knowledge is created faster than it can be processed and a plurality of voices does not fare well when one has only a pair of eyes and a pair of ears.

Realizing that there is simply too much information to handle, individuals became discouraged and disinterested in attempting to engage with truth: The running of society now had to be done inter-disciplinarily by technocrats with specialized knowledge. It has become a widespread sentiment that the citizen today is as in touch with the rulers as he had been in Medieval times and that tolerance towards different beliefs is actually apathy towards any truth finding. In such times, it seems pointless to aspire for any rational truth, for that possibility is already forsaken by the likelihood that it will be given as many interpretations as there are TV stations. Instead, post- modernism led to the people demanding a return to a mystified narrative, which can be either reflected in the past, or projected onto the future.

Future Projection of History

In the occidental sphere of culture, Europe and the USA are intimately bound to the extent that the two realms are neurally connected and there is no symptom that is exclusive to either side.

The recent Trump Phenomenon was an embodiment of the sentiment demanding the singularity of narrative and the return of myth into history. The whole array of media bombardment was pigeonholed under the genus of ‘Fake News’; The people were reassured that it was indeed wise not to take notice of the range of different portals and instead trust in the real Trump Twitter account as the only credible source of information. Hence, the first step of re-mystification was done by eliminating plurality, and now the second step was to stage the historical narrative.

While there wasn’t a whole historical catalogue which was proposed to be resurrected, the sentiment was vaguely huddled under the ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan. Interestingly enough, there was never a particular pinpoint of a Golden Age which America once enjoyed, but the sentiment was nonetheless abstracted in the slogan itself and amplified by contrasting the dream with the failures of previous administrations. The implication was that America was once exceptionally better-off and so the mission must be to resurrect that splendour once again so that it can be enjoyed by the citizens of the present age and those yet to come.

Reflection of the Past

Historical narration is not necessarily applied to propose a better future, but can also be applied to suggest amendment of the past. In other words, there is revision of historical events which at the present are considered to be damaging to the society which inherits that history.

A most recent such event is Poland’s outlawing the use of the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ and the whole debacle surrounds the historical debate on the involvement of Poles in the Jewish holocaust. Its controversial and irresolute nature stems from the plurality of ways by which people identify themselves in the absence of a singular identity; It is a fact that a portion of polish people collaborated with Nazi occupiers while another portion vehemently resisted and paid the price with their own blood, yet this fact alone is unbaked information, and says nothing without being applied in a narrative.

The controversy arises at the point that since there is no central cultural authority defining how Polish people should collectively identify themselves, different people may base their nationality on their ancestry, citizenship, ethnicity, language, religion, residence or rejecting a nationality altogether. In post-modern thought, it is hard to find a solid common identity beyond the individual, and so, multiple conflicting narratives exist in the same given domain. Furthermore, given the globally-connected nature of contemporary politics, the opinions of foreign nationals about one’s own country is no longer simply the opinion of the ‘others’, but a relevant judgement by a member of the international society that indicates the respect attributed to one’s own identity.

Revising Mankind, not History

Whether necessary or not, a government’s banning references to or the revision of certain parts of history is a proclamation acknowledging the limits of human rationality and objective investigation. While one may agree or disagree with such measures, it stands to be recognized that we might soon have to choose between a free flow of misinformation presented as ‘alternate truth’, in hopes that objectivity shall prevail, or a chief authority entrusted with deciding what is true, in hopes that it doesn’t develop into a tyranny of citizen education.

It is high time for us to come to terms with the fact that while the quest for objectivity does make us reach valuable discoveries in sectors such as physics and technology, when it comes to providing concrete explanations of human intentions, we are only as successful as the classical Sisyphus; for we are lost in the Hyperreality of information bombardment that destroys impartiality and forces us to ceaselessly start evaluation from scratch. At this point in the progression of mankind, we have to again question the limits of human rationality and not take it as an unlimited power that guarantees our freedom: If we truly are products of the enlightenment, then we have to turn the mind and its knowledge inwards and, with sincerity, reflect on the mythological part of us that has never died. Otherwise, historically speaking, we would have simply moved from medieval piety to a post-modern willing self-deceit.

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