Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Thinking about the past

111.3 million people
 watched the Super Bowl on television on Sunday. Football is a game with clear rules. The broadcast was very well done, with numerous cameras and a production staff selecting clear and appropriate views; knowledgeable announcers explained what was happening. There were flashbacks to review plays, and where calls on the field were in doubt, the officials on the field could review the play with a variety of recorded views of the incident. One would think that what happened was very clear.

It occurs to me that even the players on the field understood what was happening in very different ways. The quarterback sees a different game than does the center or the wide receiver on his own team. The players on the Giants saw the game from a different perspective than those on the Patriots.

Probably the head coaches of the teams brought more expertise to the game than anyone else. Each knew the playbook of his own team and the strategy for the game. Each knew his own players abilities and limitations well, and each had studied the other team carefully. Each brought a lifetime of study of the sport to his understanding of this game. And I am sure each has carefully reviewed the game in retrospect to draw lessons from it.

Chess masters can remember games very clearly. They do so not only because they care a lot and have good memories, but because they can recall that the opening was according to a specific gambit already memorized, met by another gambit also already memorized. The master knows a priori what moves are likely and which can be ignored during the game. Thus the new information needed to describe a specific new game is much less for a master than for a neophyte. So too, the head coaches of the Giants and Patriots must have been able understand and recall the game more fully and more clearly than the members of the television audience because they brought expert knowledge to the task.

Memory is selective. One is bombarded constantly by a huge amount of information, and the brain selects from that flood only a small part to recall. Indeed, recollection is a reconstruction of what was perceived and is not always accurate. Moreover, we forget. There is no such thing as a photographic memory. Things we once knew disappear from memory, are no longer available for recall.

Moreover memory is fallible in the sense that myth and false memories intrude upon reality. So too, the communication of memory is at best a noisy process, with the recipient gaining only a partial version of that which is intended, filtered by his own processes, and by the sender's. In the case of the Super Bowl, there are more than 100 million different recollections of the game, all incomplete and all at variance one from another in some way.

The way that those recollections are shared depends on who is sharing and for what purpose. The post game comments of the participants will be brief and polite. The newspaper sports reporters columns on Monday would have been designed to interest the newspaper readers, while the television reporters would have voice over to complement the visual coverage of high points of the game. The post game discussions of the coaches would probably be detailed and knowledgeable. The discussions among fans around the office water fountain would have been superficial and casual.

Thus the way in which a very simple event in the recent past is construed is very complex. Getting at the "truth" of what happened would be very hard. Indeed, even if one could find a recording of the video of the game, that video would present only one version of the game, and in all probability a version less nuanced and less well understood than that of many of the participants in the game.

Consider then the memory of the causes and effects of the 1929 stock market crash or World War II. Here we have events that were much more complex, much wider in scale, much less orderly, involving hundreds of millions of people as direct participants. It is no wonder that there are different narratives as to what happened and why.

I would suggest that there are not only the memories of individuals of these events, but the socially constructed memories of groups of people. Moreover, not only do the "real" memories of participants in the events influence the socially constructed views of the past, so do do the socially constructed narratives influence the memories of individuals. Indeed, as the generations that actually experienced these events pass away, the entire memory of members of the culture comes to be that socially constructed narrative.

I would further suggest that there are many social groupings that construct their own narratives of historical events. Perhaps the most common in the American news is the school board that determines which books will be used in the schools, and thus the version of events that will be taught to children. Unconsciously holding their own socially constructed views of past events, the newsworthy boards often deliberately select curricula to views in the children which the members of the board find desirable as moral, patriotic, etc.

Obviously different nations construct different views of the same events, Not only are views of the winners and losers of a war different, but the views of the English, French, Russians and Americans of World War II are different within the allies. Moreover, subgroups within nations may construe the war differently, as skin heads construe the war differently than do mainstream members, or holocaust deniers from the majority who recognize the holocaust.

Military historians, economists, sociologists, and other professional groups also create social constructions of these events, as Kuhn described in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Moreover, the memberships of these groups overlap, and so too do the versions of the narrative influence one another. We hope that the versions of the groups with the strongest institutions for validating information inform those of other groups -- that the accepted versions of the community of historians informs the school boards and citizens. It must be the case, however, that the narratives of historians are influenced by the views of their nation and the schools which they attended.

If the construction of the narrative of a single event is so complex, so open to the intrusion of myth and false memories as well as the deletion of aspects of what happened, how then are we to regard the narrative of the history of a people, of a nation state?

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