Living in the past July 29, 2016Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
A most thought-provoking point made on Slate in this examination of US based couple who attempt to live their lives as if it were the late 19th century. If your sense is that that seems like an over-extended variant of cosplay you might be right. The author Rebecca Onion, I suspect would agree.
The question of health brings me to perhaps the greatest fallacy inherent in the Chrismans’ method of “living history.” The “past” was not made up only of things. Like our own world, it was a web of social ties. These social ties extended into every corner of people’s lives, influencing the way people treated each other in intimate relationships; the way disease was passed and treated; the possibilities open to women, minorities, and the poor; the whirl of expectations, traditions, language, and community that made up everyday lives. Material objects like corsets or kerosene lamps were part of this complex web, but only a part.
Onion points to some of the more contradictory aspects of the Chrismans’ approach – for example they appear to believe that society now is more rigid and conformist than in the late 19th century (and some of the comments BTL make it clear that one doesn’t have to go as far back as the 19th century to see massive changes in everyday life – and many of us here will remember vastly less technological lifestyles only a relatively short time ago. Though speaking of BTL, the phrase ‘Cultural Marxism’ rears its ugly head in one criticism of the author). A questionable assumption many would think. And while they make great play of their desire to ‘escape incomprehensible technologies that now govern our lives…’ they also happen to have a website.
Of course the past is interesting. It has a fascination for us. Looking through some documents recently from the 1970s, a period I and it would seem a fair few who engage on this site actually lived through, someone commented that it was amazing how evocative the papers and photographs were.
Sure – the whole of the Left Archive is, on one level, an exercise in revisiting that past – we could have transcripts of content and once someone very thoughtfully offered to provide same. But my sense has always been that to get a better understanding of the time it is probably best to present texts in the format they were originally found, that is on the printed page of a magazine accompanied by photographs, advertising, etc.
Onion notes that the very process by which materials survive to this day or are represented is in itself a ‘type of commentary’.
The primary sources the Chrismans choose to read made it to the present day because they held some kind of value for the intervening generations. The couple finds its period magazines on Google Books, that redoubtable Victorian technology. It seems not to have crossed their minds that a series of human decisions resulted in the digitization of those magazines and not others, and that those decisions are themselves a type of commentary.
But the Archive is about getting a sense of the time, not about a hope to position oneself within it. On one level what the Chrismans are doing is innocuous, on another a little troubling. Onion notes that they tend to gloss over the problematic aspects of ‘living in the 19th century’. They’re not living as labourers, or as servants or as African Americans, theirs is, as Onion says ‘a version of … a comfortable and privileged life’ and even that is a stretch. Moreover the Chrismans appear to believe that only through their route is it possible to understand the 19th century – that historians of the period are intrinsically untrustworthy, and that ‘their’ understanding of the period is the only correct one. This too seems a stretch.
One thing that continually strikes me, and this again is drawn from my own historical research, an engagement with the Archive and just general general observation, is how much is beyond the grasp of analysis, materials that don’t exist – or are lost, partial accounts of a time, the lack of knowledge of life as it is experienced. Try doing an oral history of a given topic, say in the late 1960s – as I’ve had cause to in recent years – and you’ll soon realise how, even for a period of time well within living memory there is so much that is lost, so much that is unrecorded, so much contingent on fallible memory. For periods before living memory, well, that’s an even greater challenge.
None of which is to say that one shouldn’t attempt to engage with the past. Anything but. But it’s worth keeping one’s head about it – no?