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things 9
winter 1998-99

The whole story
We make ourselves out of the past. It is all we have. The future does not yet exist, and the present is a tiny sliver of time that, as neuroscientists are beginning to discover, is not apprehensible until it becomes the past. We live, one might say, in the past. 

But that is not the whole story. For, through memory - the mechanism through which we know what the world is like - we are constantly taking the past forward with us into the future. Our experience of the past conditions our ideas about what is possible for the future; and the memory in which that experience resides is not merely individual, but collective, ancestral and genetic. It may be true, as the novelist Douglas Coupland has remarked, that the invention of the computer means that we are living for the first time in an age where more memory is stored outside the human body than within it. But objects - things - too can act, not as  receptacles for memory, but as primers for it: prompts for the retrieval of memories from the 98 per cent of the activity of the brain which is not conscious.

Our objects, and what we know and remember about them, are therefore of the greatest importance in priming the memories which will allow us to shape our futures. Ambrose Hogan begins this issue of things with an analysis of and meditation on Basil Spence's Coventry cathedral, completed in 1962 amid the ruins of the bombed-out shell of the old cathedral. This deeply ambiguous building, so difficult to read today, was designed as an encapsulation of both victory and the horror of war; as a monument, it stands for the experience of a generation that had stood for a long moment on the brink of Armageddon, and continued to live with the possibility of total destruction.

In discussing women's clothes for working in the home in late 1950s and early 1960s Yorkshire - her mother's generation - Lisa Hirst touches on an aspect of the past that has not often found its way into the historical record: the fabric of home and family life, which shapes us all. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera, whose wry evocations of life under Communist rule trace the distortions of private lives under a totalitarian regime, remarked: The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Esther Leslie's essay-review of David King's remarkable book, The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia traces the extraordinary manipulation of memories that became part of political reality in the Soviet Union. In Russia, and in other countries such as China  where, as Andew Bolton describes later in the issue, similar disappearances were rife  the story of how we begin to remember must begin with the story of how we learned to forget.


Four years ago, when a group of young historians and writers engaged in post-graduate research in the history of design started things, our conviction was that objects can open up new ways of understanding the world. Then as now. But in those days we thought of ourselves as historians, and although the relationship of history with the present was something to which we gave a great deal of thought, we thought it was self-evident that we were dealing primarily with the past. It was only gradually that we came to realise that there is no useful way of dividing the past from the present. In studying what we call the present, we are brought back to the past; in projecting the future, we find ourselves face to face once more with the past. That is not to say that the future is dictated by the past; but it is conditioned by it, and that conditioning is in the substance of everything we do. The scope of things is not a modest one. For in looking at the past, we are looking at the present and the future; and in looking at things, we are looking at everything.

things 9, winter 1998-99

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