Encounters: change in cultural meaning of the past

“Dust: the archive and cultural history” by Carolyn Steedman

The comparison Steedman make between Archive and human memory (p68); archive as being bounded in space and limited to what goes into it compare to the timeless place where everything goes that is the unconscious, is one that draws from ‘ancient authorities’ in giving their accounts of how History came into the world.Does that authorities define what History and Archive stands for in its modern mode?

Absolutely not.

Archive as put by Steedman is a place of dreams, is where Jules Michelet believe the past lives. True that Archives initially was created ‘to solidify and memorialize first monarchial and then state power’ (Steedman P69) but as cited of Michelet understanding of historian’s tasks, Archive becomes the treasure box where meaning of the silenced and absent stories of individuals can be found.

So, what is the modern use of the past?

Steedman walk us through History in the 18thcentury as being distant “vraisemblance” as Stephen Baan describe it in the clothing of Clioand the historical representation in the 19thcentury rather “vérité”. What differ the 19thcentury from the 18thcentury in terms of historical representation is that historians of the 19thcentury strive for a representation, desire for the life-like historical representation. The past becomes a home of the ideas of how people wanted to live, wanted to be (this new use of imagination was called in 1980 ‘identity politics’) and becomes components of the we understand a modern self to be.

This modern use of the past, allowed history to evolve through the process of searching and understanding past object (the object; event, the happening, the story from the past, Steedman p77) and continuous search for the meaning of the lost object.  Imagining and visualizing the stuff of the past, the things, according Raphael Samuel’s compressed history into the interior spaces of remembered things. Samuel’s suggested historians to remove historical explanation from the hypnotic fix of linear time (Steedman p79) and urged a ‘molecular’ vision where everything connects, that each entity and event contains the stuff that might illuminate another one. Just as explained about how administrative archive came to memorialize monarchs and a state power to reveal traces of the others (the guardian of the poor, the justices’ clercks, Steedman P75)

Steedman line up the process and change in the way history and past is been seen by historian and scholars in general and recognizing what she calls “the third dimension” “the third area of human living” which is basically neither the individual nor the object but rather “the place where cultural experience is located”.

This process long described by Steedman backed by many theorists on history and Archive (cited in Dust) turns Archive from a space where historic objects stored to Memory’s potential space.



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