Thoughts on the Disappearance of History

by David Watson

Daily Barbarian > Thoughts on the Disappearance of History

“so that when there is no more story that will be our story when there is no forest that will be our forest”
—W.S. Merwin, “One Story”

I’ve spent most of my life in the inner city of Detroit, a place both like and unlike many others in the industrialized world. I still live in the neighborhood where I did most of my growing up, attended school, met and married my wife. Despite the urban desolation, I’m tied to the place; even after long sojourns abroad, I always return to the same few square blocks.

Our house looks out on land that was gradually cleared of buildings after the 1967 black rebellion and the city’s economic decline in the 1970s. During the 1960s it had been a thriving community of poor whites and blacks, students, longhairs and young radicals. I found the local anti-war committee, a friendly poor peoples’ diner, communes, poor churches, and a sense of community there.

Like so many of the decade’s dreams, the neighborhood was demolished. At the far west end, on the other side of the expressway, was left a fascinating miniature wilderness of great, old trees, wildflowers mixed with perennials where once were gardens, and rich bird habitat. Eventually this green place was also flattened and a typically ugly housing development constructed in its place. (Named, nightmarishly, “Freedom Place,” a huge sign at the entrance lists a dozen or more prohibitions, each with the word “NO” twice the size of the rest of the lettering.)

Recently the builders returned to the section directly across from us. In a few days it was fenced, and all the trees were smashed. Expensive condominiums, almost completed, are being leased at rents well beyond the means of most locals. Our view of a park and the sunset is blocked. Someone is getting upscale, sterile housing, and someone else is getting rich, but our lives seem to be incrementally poorer.

Such things happen all the time, happen everywhere. One might wonder what they have to do with history and its abuses. I think that in a small, perhaps obscure way, our experience is like that which many people have had walking down a familiar street and realizing some landmark is missing, but not quite remembering what. It is somehow emblematic of the disappearance of memory occurring relentlessly around the globe. The process may seem anonymous because it is inertial, or because nearly everyone assumes it to be perfectly natural. But history, big and small, is not just disappearing; it is being disappeared just as surely as human beings are disappeared by dictatorships.

Of course, history has always been an ambiguous affair—a (consciously and unconsciously) constructed official story employed by powerful men to legitimate and sacralize their rule ever since the armed Mesopotamian god-kings conquered the wilderness to build their city-states. Since then, history has been a long series of cataclysms. In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin described the “angel of history” being thrown backwards by a storm out of Paradise. At the angel’s feet lies “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.”

While he would like to “make whole what has been smashed,” the storm “irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.”

Despite its many disasters, there have always been counter-stories to imperial myth, and history has remained contested ground. Individual memory is a knot in the web of collective memory, and this shared history is an immense, diverse psychic commons sustaining our sense of human community, a reservoir where glimpses of freedom, and the remembrance of atrocities and triumphs are all preserved. We need this common historical space to replenish our inner capacity to remain human in the same way that forests and wild places are needed to nourish and renew the lands that sustain human communities. But just as the world’s forests are being destroyed, so too is memory’s commons.

Empires have always worked to undermine authentic memory—for example, the book burnings by the Ch’in emperors, a method still employed in our time. (This strategy was updated in 1970s China by the Maoist regime, when photographs of a lineup of party leaders were retouched to turn purged bureaucrats into shrubs.) Monumentalism is another age-old form of control. One grotesque recent case was the construction by the Balaguer government in the Dominican Republic of an enormous lighthouse, far from the sea, to honor Columbus and his “discovery”—a project which leveled poor barrios of Santo Domingo and now causes frequent electricity shortages throughout the city.

Despite their destructiveness, such methods have limited results, to which the patent shabbiness of the Columbus story and the toppling monuments of the Soviet bloc dramatically testify. There are now greater threats to memory, greater weapons in power’s arsenal. The modern transformations in consciousness brought about during the last century by mass communications and consumer society seem to be changing the form memory takes. And history’s form shapes content as surely as it takes particular words or kinds of words to make a certain kind of statement. This change evokes the legend of the Chinese emperor who decreed for himself the exclusive use of the pronoun “I.” The modern media has now donned such imperial robes, speaking while everyone else listens. One can no longer even make a revolution without making sure to seize the television stations (as was apparently the case in Romania), since instead of directly making history, people watch the screen to see what is happening. The contemporary erosion of people’s capacity to think for themselves, and the monopolization of meaning by the media, seem to be succeeding at what the legendary emperor could only have imagined.

A new society emerged in Western Europe and North America during the last century as the organic structures of life began to unravel. In the United States, where this development seems most pernicious, the colonization and control of culture was an explicit strategy for labor discipline and goods distribution. As historian Stuart Ewen writes in Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Roots of Consumer Culture, by the early twentieth century, business leaders, coming out of a period of mass labor unrest, recognized the need to manage not only production but consumption as well. A new kind of citizen had to be shaped to respond appropriately to the plethora of industrial products offered by the emergent corporate market system. Scientific time management studies in the factory were mirrored by expanding techniques of human management. One businessman wrote in the 1920s that education must teach “the masses not what to think but how to think, and thus…how to behave like human beings in the machine age.”

By the 1950s, industrial expansion and economic growth had become a universal secular religion, and consumerism an unquestioned cultural norm. Of course, the rapid obsolescence of commodities and a throwaway society was also a conscious, explicit strategy of managerial elites. One prominent marketing consultant, for example, urged “forced consumption,” arguing, “We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate.” Now that the ethos of consumerism (if not necessarily its material benefits) is quickly spreading to the countries of the post-colonial world and the former Soviet empire, the question culture critic Vance Packard asked about North American culture in the 1950s is increasingly relevant. “What is the impact on the human spirit,” he wrote, “of all these pressures to consume?”

Since then, the impact of television—which has become the key vehicle for consumer culture worldwide—has more than confirmed Packard’s fears. Television flattens, disconnects and renders experience and history incoherent. Its seemingly meaningful pastiche of images works best to sell commodities—fabricated objects devoid of any authentic history. But more importantly, it also affirms the whole universe of commodity consumption as the only life worth living. Wherever the set is turned on, local culture implodes.

Though sold as a tool that could preserve memory, television utterly fragments and colonizes it. What remains is a cult of the perpetual present, in continual, giddying motion. The jumbled, packaged events of recent and remote history come to share the relative weightlessness of soap operas and dish detergent, and perspective evaporates. Power no longer needs to shout; as Mark Crispin Miller once remarked, Big Brother isn’t watching you so much as Big Brother is you, watching. Henry Ford’s cynical quip that history is bunk comes true as people grow up more and more on television, rather than hearing about events through convivial conversation. Historical memory is now becoming what was televised, while that commons of the mind, domesticated and simulated by the media, is receding.

A striking case in point is the way people (especially North Americans) were manipulated into supporting the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Someone who has already seen tens of thousands of people “killed” on TV has a difficult time understanding the human suffering caused by the technological special effects that TV is good at presenting. Yet even the war hysteria, which one journalist described as a “nightly electronic Nuremberg Rally,” faded with time, as the images crystallized into scraps of last year’s mini-series. When Iraq was later attacked and several civilians killed on a couple of different occasions, many passive patriots who had been glued to their sets during the height of the war were now barely aware of it. It was all, as is often said, “history,”—which is to say, in the common parlance, it no longer existed. Their indifference today is as disturbing as their spasm of enthusiasm was before.

The “information society” and the culture of its mass media-driven market system are doing something to human meaning far more serious than organized government propaganda or censorship ever could. Now that the peoples of the former colonies (as well as women and other formerly invisible groups) are beginning to rediscover the stories that official history formerly suppressed, modern technique is poised to shape everyone’s story, to make them all a fragment in one long photomontage. But, to paraphrase Packard, how will so many different peoples tell their unique histories when TV itself has become the dominant mode of communication and recall? How will memory express diverse modes of being when work, buying and selling are the core of what is rapidly becoming a global monoculture? Will those cultures that aren’t as compatible with the television sensibility, and even memory of them, just disappear altogether, like the trees that once stood across from my window?

The disappearance of languages and cultures is as terrifying a prospect as the current mass extinction of species. At current rates, some ninety percent of the world’s languages will be dead or moribund in the next century. And without language, there can be no memory. Ironically, the greatest threat is to those scattered cultures whose memory precedes official history—primal and indigenous peoples, some with traditions reaching back to the Pleistocene.

The native Hawaiians, for example, have seen their culture wither under the onslaught of progress.

Today many Hawaiians speak only the language of their American conquerors, and remembrance has eroded as the places to which words and sensibilities were bound now come under the bulldozer’s blade. Enormous resorts, shopping malls and golf courses (as well as military bombing ranges) have devoured burial grounds, old fishing villages and sacred sites.

I will give just one devastating example. On the island of Hawai’i, where the active volcano Kilauea constantly creates new land, is some of the richest lowland tropical rainforest left in the island chain (only about ten percent survives). Even according to the conqueror’s laws, the forest, called Wao Kele O Puna, was to be held in perpetuity for Hawaiians to practice subsistence activities and to gather ceremonial and medicinal plants, many of which grow only there and nowhere else.

To some, the volcano is simply a resource from which geothermal energy could be tapped by harnessing volcanic steam. Though risky, it could provide energy to fuel the already obscene growth ravaging the islands. There are few meaningful memories of the place in the minds of the developers that would recommend restraint; so, in the late 1980s the state government of Hawai’i traded the 27,000-acre forest to corporate geothermal developers for some lava-covered lands where earlier drilling sites had been destroyed by the volcano.

The Hawaiians, however, have an entirely different way of seeing things; their concept of aloha aina is far more subtle, complex and fleshy than the simple translation we might give it of “love for the land.” To a Hawaiian, the terms mean not two separate elements, love on the part of a subject for an object called land (something real estate agents deal in), but rather interconnectedness and kinship, reciprocity and subjectivity, impassioned desire and an attentiveness rooted to the spirit and the specifics of place. Thus, the volcano is a living being, the goddess Pele. She created and continues to create the islands, and her family is not only the diverse life forms that slowly turn burnt land into verdant forest, but the Hawaiian people themselves.

The Hawaiians and their allies have many good reasons to fight geothermal development—its risks, its cost, its violation of native land rights, its inevitable destruction of pristine forest. (One University of Hawai’i biologist called it a place where one could see “where life comes from.”) But the project is above all an assault on the heart of their culture and religion, and thus on a tangible reminder of what it means to be Hawaiian. As Pualani Kanehele, a respected teacher of the sacred Hawaiian dance, the hula kahiko, argued, to cap Pele’s steam would be “putting a cap on the Hawaiian culture…and Hawai’i will be dead. [Then] this may as well be new California. Because we’ll all be haoles [foreigners] with the same goals as the haoles: make money.”

Meaning, like ecology, is context: everything is connected to everything else. As strands are pulled from the skein of memory, what it means to be a person within a human community shifts toward some troubling unknown. The experience of the Hawaiians, who have seen their ancestors’ bones turned up by machines where someone else’s paradise will be fabricated, lends special resonance to Benjamin’s warning that even the dead are not safe when power triumphs.

If, as Czech novelist Milan Kundera has written, “the struggle…against power is the struggle against forgetting,” the need to remember must also inevitably confront power. We may come to need truth commissions to recover shared memory, like those organized to uncover and preserve the lost stories of disappeared persons in Latin America. Taking responsibility for our past might help us uncover the complex weave of histories that now connect us all in our shared suffering and grandeur.

As I write this I imagine the new tenants across the street plugging into the free cable television they’ve been promised, staring at the instantaneous news on their dizzying array of channels, and seeing “history” in the moment it is conjured. I hear the heavy equipment beeping as the machinery backs up over the past, shifts into forward, and growls into the future.

—David Watson

Postscript: Since I wrote this essay, Pele’s eruptions have probably done more to stop geothermal development than anything else. A Supreme Court decision allowing native Hawaiians access to Wao Kele O Puna has also brought the battle to a standstill and partial victory. Many questions remain open and much destruction has already occurred. To support native Hawaiian struggles contact/donate to the Pele Defense Fund, P.O. Box 404, Volcano HI 96785.

An abridged version of this article first appeared in the September 1993 issue of The New Internationalist (1011 Bloor Street West, Toronto, Ontario M6H 1M1 Canada). The abridged version was then gutted and printed by the Utne Reader! This is the first time the above article has been printed in its entirety.