Is the Past a Foreign Country?

Posted on June 13, 2009 by


Yes, says David Lowenthal from 1986. He named his book that.

I definitely hated its Eurocentric bent which he brazenly admitted at some point. I also slept through a lot of his 412 page verbosity, but in between the flowery language, he made some really good metaphors about the way we perceive the present as well as the large chunk of time called “the past.”

1. From the get-go, he makes two metaphors of history as a type of sterilization and gentrification.

…one thing that history does…is to fumigate experience, making it safe and sterile…Experience undergoes eternal gentrification; the past, all the parts of it that are dirty and exciting and dangerous and uncomfortable and real, turns gradually into the East Village (xxv)

Or into the perennially gentrifier’s paradise called Silver Lake in LA. They’re on to you now Eagle Rock, Echo Park, and East LA!

The bit about “fumigating experience, making it safe and sterile”, is J-Baudrillard’s concept of symbols, signs, images – OBJECTS simulating reality. That can be applied to media, movies, and books, objects that are only meant to be representations or mediums of reality. But living in the US with access to lots of that stuff, we experience reality almost exclusively through media: television, music, movies, books. We’ve gotten so much engagement into those mediums that they become THE reality. Our reality is television, music, movies, and books, which tend to reduce the actual realities experienced by “others” to a hash of words, images, lyrics which make them seem conquerable.

Lowenthal is saying we tend to understand history in this way.

2. The idea about reduction of reality to words, images, lyrics, and subsequent conquerability dovetails into this quote:

Visitors to the past often fancy that advanced technology along with foreknowledge gives them an inestimable advantage; modern know-how will make them powerful, famous, or rich…Another dreamer supposes that ‘all the treasures of the past would fall to one man with a submachine gun. Cleopatra and Helen of Troy might share his bed, if bribed with a trunkful of modern cosmetics. (25)

Part of the scientist outlook of progress where based on technology, we know better now or we should.

Technically, we do or we should based on the fact that we see the pattern before, but what we don’t see is everything else that might have led to decisions in the past. The history that we learned from school about Lamarck, Descartes, Mao Tse Tung, Marx, Crispus Attucks, other random brown peoples is only simulated in our minds. We don’t know what drove any of them to make the decisions, theories they made, but boy is it easy to look back at them, point, and laugh.

3. Lowenthal makes a pretty bold statement about immigrants and their relation to history:

Those who lack links with a place must forge an identity through other pasts. Immigrants cut off from their roots remain dislocated; discontinuity impels many who grow up in pioneer lands either to exaggerate attachments to romanticized homelands or stridently to assert an adoptive belonging (42)

The phrase “immigrants…exaggerate attachments.” Sometimes true, sometimes not. But I don’t think iimmigrants exaggerate their attachments any more than archaeologists, Egyptianists, Greekophiles, or historians.

My kasama Ivan Penetrante would probably have something to say about that.

4. Ironically, the author, a historian, says that focusing too much on the past is not a good thing.

…over-attention to the past turns men into dilettante spectators, their creative instinct destroyed, their individuality weakened; seeing themselves as mere latecomers born old and grey,…the practitioner of monumental history invokes past authority to ensure present failure. (65)

I’ve been wondering myself if I’ve just been too concerned about my own episodic memories and the concept of “memory” as this academic topic and ability, but haven’t actually gone out and made any new ones.

5. Memory is simply self-help.

What matters….is not what my past actually was, or even whether I had one. It is only the memories I have now which matter, be they false or true. HH Price (190)

With my posts about identity and amnesia on the wire, and a lifetime (or last 6 odd years) of “no history, no self, know history, know self” the concept of memory seems to be a self-help mechanism. You try to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind the bad, embarrassing stuff, while you do your darndest to memorize all the labels of human anatomy and standard reactions when doing surgery.


People vividly recall their own thoughts and actions at moments of public crisis because they jump at the chance to connect themselves with a meaningful cosmos (199)

I know this is true in American culture. I know where I was during 9/11. I know where I was during Hurricane Katrina. I know where I was when the Chicago Bulls won their 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th NBA Championship.

But how are certain events received, retrieved, and remembered in societies/cultures that aren’t as linked to the globalized network? Like the Inuit, the Eskimo…etc.

7. Towards the end of the book, he makes a metaphor of memory:

Memory is the great organizer of consciousness. Actual experience is a welter of sights, sounds, feelings, physical strains, expectations, perceptions that memory simplifies and composes. Above all, memory transforms the experienced past into what we later think it should have been, eliminating undesired scenes and making favoured ones suitable. (Susanne Langer 206)

A reified homoncular “organizer” of the messiness called consciousness. Not that “reified” or “homoncular” are necessarily looking down upon the idea.

But taking this metaphor of an organizer, I think of how sticky or adhesive memory is (via Eviatar Zerubavel). It’s a sticky thing that holds things together. Something that holds thing together is a network or networker that maintains some connections, loses some, makes new ones.

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