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things 7
winter 1997-98

Back and forth

Things happen to us sequentially - just one damn thing after another. But we do not remember them sequentially. Chronological accounts of the past are not there inside us, waiting to be uncovered; they must be reconstructed. For, far from living in a Cartesian world in which impressions are built up from combinations of simple sense data, we are constantly apprehending totalities, with all our senses acting all of the time. This synaesthesia is the norm, in experience and memory. It is language - successional, if not linear - that lags behind: just one damn word after another. 

So, in documenting memory, or writing history, we must be careful about how we use language. Language is an excellent analytical tool - we can use it to tease out causes and effects, to aid our understanding of the past. But as we do so, we have already moved one step away from our source - the unreliable, skewed, shifting material of the human mind. Perhaps the most dangerous temptation, in the end, is to make too much sense of the stories we tell about the world.


It was, it seems, a characteristic of the period that has shaped all our lives - that defined by the condition of high modernity - to regard the present (including our own lives) as merely a stepping-stone to the future. Until very recent years, the art and the design of the main bulk of the 20th century denied its own links with the past, construing its relationship with history as almost entirely one only of difference from it. The rhetoric of modernism was one of self-transcendence; of self-denial in the name of progress. Hence, one might  reflect, the many extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice of this century, in particular those which made possible the terrible modernisations of China and the Soviet Union.

But something has changed. In the transformation of modernity that goes by the name of post-modernity, the wall that separates us from the past has lowered. We look backwards as well as forwards. And as we reconstruct the past, it is difficult for us to avoid making it look like our own world.


Of what do we construct the past? Our materials are limited: we have only our sources - our documented memories - and ourselves. As the time that separates us from past events grows longer, documents grow fewer, and we interpolate more and more of ourselves in what we often persist in seeing as objective history.

This is true even of periods that are relatively well-documented. To anyone who has worked with 18th-century sources in London, it must sometimes seem that the Georgian city continues to live in the richness of surviving documents. The imagined past is alive. But, as Stephen Escritt points out in his study of an ephemeral 18th-century piece of tobacco paper in this issue of things, such empathy can make us forget that the concerns of the people of the past were not necessarily the same as our concerns. Struck by the apparent similarity of attitudes to the world of goods that emerged in the 18th century to our own, scholars of the period have been keen to analyse it as big history, a grand economic narrative, using terms such as product, commodity, consumer and consumption. But these are not 18th-century words; or rather, they are not used as they were in the 18th century. They are words that we use in talking about ourselves, and our senses of ourselves, and we should be careful in applying them to the earlier period lest we condemn ourselves to a line of enquiry that will not tell us how the past developed from its past, but only how it became the present.

One aspect of high modernism's insistence on the importance of progress was its neglect of developments that did not belong to the in the forefront of its story. One such is the period of rapid modernisation that took place in Jamaica in the late 19th century. Carol Tulloch's essay on Jamaican women's dress charts little reactions to big historical changes - how the changing fabric of the lives of women of all races and social classes reflected the fabrics and fashions in which they chose to clothe themselves. Another detailed study of little history, Sorrel Hershberg's article on the mildly modern, and highly successful, products of HK Furniture in the 1940s and 1950s, challenges the modernist view of the avant-garde as progressive and everything else, broadly, as reactionary. 

Once modernism's rejection of the past, and its insistence on self-transcendence, became part of its established dogmatics, this ideology became self-evident, apparently a product of pure logic and a relentless aesthetic of minimalism. But Flora Samuel's startling exploration of Le Corbusier's design for his celebrated chapel at Ronchamp, and its origins in the architect's interest in arcane subjects such as alchemy and the early Christian Cathar heresy, reveals the murkier areas of the human psyche in which modernism had its birth. However strongly the rhetoric of high modernism may have wished to deny it, the past was covertly present, for those who had eyes to see in this, the work of one of its most revered masters.

things 7, winter 1997-98

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