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Historical Culture: Three Levels of Analysis

In the most general sense, historical culture is a holistic meta-historical concept that opens the investigation of how people deal with the past. The term “historical” refers to past events, including thoughts and ideas. The term “culture” comprises shared attitudes, values and perceptions of a group of people. The concept of historical culture encompasses not only the specific contents of collective memory and historical imagination but also the ways in which relationships to the past are established in a dynamic interaction between human agency, tradition, performance of memory, historical representations and their dissemination, including the presumptions about what constitutes history. We therefore discern three mutually connected and interactive levels of analysis in the study of historical culture:

  • 1. Historical narratives and performances of the past
  • 2. Mnemonic infrastructures
  • 3. Underlying conceptions of history

Historical Narratives and Performances of the Past

Telling specific stories about the past or expressing historical experiences is both describing and (re)creating what happened, it is both narrating and performing the past (Winter, 2010: 11). This process includes the production, (re)mediation, appropriation, dissemination and transmission of substantive interpretative frameworks by people who share in the present specific human experiences of the past. These substantive interpretations are articulated in, for instance, myths, historiography, texts in history schoolbooks, travel guides, recounted memories, but also staged re-enactments and rituals that relate past and present in various configurations. The term “configuration” refers to the process of narrative emplotment.

According to Ricoeur (1991), individuals and groups create identities through narratives, by producing oral, written or audio-visual stories which confirm, alter or undermine other (grand) narratives. Narrating is therefore not a means to express an identity that already exists; rather, it is generated by arranging facts, experiences and events in the meaningful coherence of a plot. In this way, Ricoeur (1988: 246-247) tries to overcome the dilemma between the continuity of a subject identical with itself—the formal category of identity (being the same)—and sheer change, by posing the dynamic category of narrative identity (oneself as self-same). This identity consists of a constant narrative refiguration in the view of new events, knowledge and experiences (Grever, 2012).

The vast majority of representations of the past rely on a plot that makes the past meaningful to its creator and his or her audience. This is the case for autobiographies, collective memories, academic historiography, popular media, historical re-enactments and even musical pieces. The plot has a mediating function on three levels. First, a plot mediates between individual events, experiences and the story as a whole. An individual event gains meaning from the way it is configured in the plot. The plot is in its turn more than the mere sum of the recounted events, because a story as a totality contains a certain “thought”. Second, emplotment ties a large range of heterogeneous actors, situations, meanings, interactions and unexpected results together. Third, the plot mediates between the time of the clock and experienced time as it creates a temporal unity of its own (Ricoeur, 1984: 64-70).

Although the narrative analysis of historical representations has been popular for decades, a more recent trend focuses on the performance of memory (Dean et al., 2015; Dening, 1996; Magelssen & Justice-Malloy, 2011; Taylor, 2003). Although performances could be analyzed as narratives—stories could be conveyed through performances, or performances could itself contain a narrative structure—the act of performing memory comprises a set of acts, which may be partly embodied in speech, but also in gestures, art or the body (Winter, 2010:12). Staged performances such as rituals, dances, plays, re-enactments or political rallies, or performed identities do not simply represent, but embody, recreate and actualize the past. Not only what is remembered is the subject of investigation but also the agents that remember and the contexts in which this remembrance takes place (Plate & Smelik, 2013: 5-6). This is an important step to overcome the deficiencies of memory studies discussed earlier. Interactions between the individual and collective levels are crucial here. Living in communities, individuals always somehow interact with externalized representations of a collective, often resulting in the synchronization and reduction of their experiences of the past (A. Assmann, 2010: 49; Zerubavel 2003). Hence, our starting point is a participatory historical culture (Rosenzweig & Thelen, 1998), referring to the ways people are involved in a mnemonic praxis, using various audio-visual means and a range of articulations, from popular to academic. We will address the issue of participatory belonging more extensive in the next paragraph.

In the dynamic process of assigning different meanings to the past by individuals and mnemonic communities, such as families, religious communities, college fraternities or generations, they articulate (perceived) shared experiences in rituals, commemorations and reunions. Here emphasis is placed on identity formation and emotion (Cornelissen et al., 2003), acquiring a social identity and familiarizing members of a specific community with that past to assimilate them (Zerubavel, 2003: 3). These articulations assume at least some kind of organization: a mnemonic infrastructure.

 
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