Key Debates in Anthropology Edited by Tim Ingold General introduction Tim Ingold the nature of anthropological theory

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Part I
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This proposition differs from others previously debated here in at least four ways. First, it is a quotation; second, it is the title of a book; third, it is a metaphor; fourth, its chosen champion is a non-anthropologist.

Let me address the quotation, which comes from L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between. Hartley’s opening line, The past is a foreign country’, is the title of my own book; my main theme is his next phrase, ‘they do things differently there’. 5 Both lines are packed with meaning for life, life stories and history proper. The gulf between childhood and maturity echoes that between then and now, historical changes in English manners and mores. Ability or failure to heed such changes counterpoints The Go-Between’s private tales.

Significantly, the film-script of Hartley’s book omits these lines and shuns their implications. The past is not foreign or different. The entire weight of the film rests on the shock of sexual revelation, the calamitous gulf between the world as seen by young Leo and by the adult lovers. History vanishes; change is simply life-cycle nostalgia. For film-makers and film-goers the past is not a foreign country.

In neglecting the novel’s social and historical dimensions, The Go-Between’s film-script resembles many popular tales set in other times or bridging past and present. Beyond their costumes, docudrama characters differ only in age and gender or status; the same motives and mentalities are shown to animate mythical or medieval as modern folk. In stories stripped of specific place or context, elemental passions are enacted on a timeless stage.

The second departure is that our proposition derives from my book. Do not conclude that I have a vested interest in defending it. My use of the phrase did not mean that I believed the past was a foreign country. I chose it to reflect a profound shift in scholarly perceptions of the past since the late eighteenth century. But to show that the past is viewed as a foreign country is not to claim that it is one.

Third, the metaphor. No metaphor is strictly true, or it would not be a metaphor. Many metaphors are such common coin that we forget they are not literally true. That is not the case with ‘the past is a foreign country’—at least not yet. Hence there are logical grounds for dismissing the motion straightaway. To avoid this trivial impasse, we must hold to metaphorical intent, not insist that the past be shown as actually foreign.

Fourth, I speak as a historian who sees the past as contingent and disorderly, patterned only by hindsight. Historians have spent two centuries sloughing off universal explanations; few now doubt that the past is foreign. Why should anthropologists? Perhaps your doubts reflect the discarding of the notion of a pre-contact ethnographic present, a once-foreign past now exposed as a flagrant fraud. 6 Perhaps, with Luisa Passerini, anthropologists who fault historians for neglecting unsung, anonymous lives are still seduced by the deceptive timelessness of many vernacular songs. 7 Perhaps the journal History and Anthropology, after four years of hibernation, is now reawakening to truly exotic medleys.

The past’ is too protean to parse here, but its doubleness demands one caveat. The past is both what has happened and how we view what has happened, knowing that we can never see it whole or unscreened by present goals and grammars. With time’s arrow the actual past is gone forever; it is not just foreign but antipodal, beyond reach. The past is perceived through memory, with which it constantly interacts, and through historical texts, whose fixity distances us from them. Not the actual past, but this compage of recalled and chronicled pasts, should engage us here.

Now consider the ‘foreign country’, where ‘they do things differently’. Whether visited in fact or in fancy, this foreign country induces culture shock. It is foreign because strange, mysterious, even incomprehensible. The present—our own country—is not easy to fathom either. But familiarity persuades us that we do or at least should know it. With Hartley, I view the perceived past as not merely different but foreign, inscrutable and alien to most travellers, even anthropologists.

Recent critics have refuted claims of ceaseless change, at least in Britain, where change is anathema anyway. Perhaps a while ago the past was foreign; but not now. ‘Do I amaze the young with my unbelievable tales of Britain in the Fifties?’ asks an observer. ‘Blink, today, and you could be in the 1950s. My…Land Rover actually is from the 1950s. So is my dinner jacket.’ 8

As with luxuries, so with landscapes. A time traveller from the Great Exhibition of 1851 to the Festival of 1951 would be surprised how little had changed, and forty years on still more so. Unlike the Victorians, who replaced Britain’s whole man-made environment within forty years, the twentieth century has left it largely untouched. ‘Board a train anywhere in Britain’s prosperous South-east and the odds are that the station has not changed since the 1870s.’ Nor have the tunnels and cuttings, embankments and bridges, or the rows of backstreet terraces your train traverses. 9

But a closer purview from another historical perspective yields a much more foreign view. In this light, ‘even the nearby 1950s now seem a profoundly different and…ost unimaginable time. [We simply] do not live in a world of push-buttons, delta-winged cars, asymmetrical ashtrays, and Tupperware sociality’ Are such things not too trivial to matter? It depends on the nature of the gaze. For many, ‘this collection of objects gave off and took in the meanings of this now deeply alien period’. 10

In pre-Enlightenment Europe, the past was domestic because human nature was thought universally the same. Circumstances and motives were constant over the entire sweep of mundane time, past and present wholly analogous. History taught lessons because the past kept repeating itself.

Two sets of discoveries made the past foreign: comparative scrutiny of datable texts showed how unlike our own were previous modes of thinking and feeling; and manifold contacts with exotic peoples dispelled belief in human uniformity. Loss of faith in a divinely ordained history and the acceleration of visible change made the past not just remote but fearsomely different. As history diversified it also grew ephemeral: views of the past were now always in flux. ‘In the same town,’ wrote Goethe, ‘one will hear in the evening an account of a significant event different from that heard in the morning.’ 11 The mere passage of time made the same past look different.

It is stunning to watch Goethe’s contemporaries shift the paradigm. Thus Chateaubriand in 1797 tries to parallel old and new revolutions, reasoning from past to future in the customary way. But he was forced to realize that whatever he had written during the day was by night already overtaken by events; the French Revolution had no previous example. 12 From then through Henry Adams, the pace of change increasingly foreclosed resort to a past ever more foreign, hence ever less relevant.

Consciousness that the past was unlike the present, that people in other times and places did things differently, came to be central to progressive Western thought. The past became a cluster of distinctive realms, each with its own motives and mechanisms. And other mentalities seemed the more intriguing because so remote from our own. Even the social Darwinists’ evolutionary resemblances are now gone; we no longer think of exotic ‘others’ as living fossils from our own ancestral past.

But these insights are not widely shared among other cultures, nor widely accepted even in our own. Even for academics, most of the time, the past is not a foreign country but our own, however filtered or sanitized. And the public continues to explain the past—their own or others—in terms of the present. Historical empathy, morally louche and mentally limp, is extolled by educators. Present-day aims and deeds are imputed to folk of earlier times. Heritage jettisons the past’s cultural distance. Historic sites, museums, and costume romance cleave to the hoary dictum that human nature is constant, that people are essentially unchanged from age to age. The past is seen as another present. 13

Even the best historians further this fallacy. The immediacy of Montaillou and Martin Guerre thrills many. But they yield little more than a voyeur’s view of remote peasant lives. Their vivid intimacies promote empathy but limit understanding: they underscore the constancies of life, but obscure or ignore the historical trends that both link past and present and differentiate past from present. This is why the historian Natalie Zemon Davis rewrote her film script of The Return of Martin Guerre as a scholarly book. It troubled her that the film departed ‘from the historical record These changes may have given the film the powerful simplicity that made the Martin Guerre story a legend in the first place.’ But they weakened its contradictions, she felt, by glossing over sixteenth-century religious and social realities. 14

The foreignness of the past precludes its desired domestication. We are too easily swayed by a spurious likeness, a seeming continuity. Take the word ‘artificial’. Today it is a slur denoting the second-rate. But in 1610 a composer was praised as ‘the most artificial and famous Alfonso Ferrabosco’. Time has reversed the meaning of artificial from ‘full of deep skill and art’ to ‘shallow, contrived and almost worthless’. We should be wary of anything from the past that appears familiar. 15

The pictures of Piero della Francesca ‘are enclosed in a terrible carapace of false familiarity’, notes Michael Baxandall, because we assume we know the biblical themes of Renaissance painting. Yet we do not understand them as folk did then: we lack their spontaneous and unselfconscious use of their own cultural conventions. And because we see Piero with eyes widened (or blinded) by Poussin and Picasso, we can never fully enter their perceptual world. 16

Nothing replicates the past as it was for those who lived it as their present. We meticulously revive bygone times; but we do not engage with them as natives or re-create their original auras. When writing his books about the Edwardian period, a fictional historian marks each page ‘with some pungent signal—a brand name, song, form of speech, public person or event in the news—to bring the odour of the period to life. Cheating, of course. Few people living in a period notice such things. Their real sense of their time is as unrecapturable as the momentary pose of a child.’ 17

The authentic early-music movement epitomizes the past’s obstinate foreignness. It enhances what we know of and how we enjoy baroque music. But original intentions, original scores, original instruments, original ambiences all elude us. Unlike the A minor Fugue that Paul Richards invoked in a previous debate, 18 some of Bach’s music was written not to be performed; his B minor Mass was presented to the Elector of Saxony as a promotional portfolio, thus ‘the most “authentic” approach to [it] is not to perform it at all, but to read the score and consider Bach for the job of maestro di capella in your local church’. 19 Facsimile instruments do not guarantee facsimile sounds; the acoustics of modern concert halls depart from those of earlier locales; broad-band mechanical noise is now an all-pervasive background. We have no castrati to sing scores composed for them. And because boys’ voices break much earlier than in the past, less-skilled youngsters today have to sing soprano parts meant for older boys who were more musically mature. 20

The musical past stays foreign because we now grow up with other musical experiences, inhabit other acoustic worlds. The modern performer never wholly internalizes music of the past, feels it in his blood and bones like a native of the period. Nor can we shed our familiarity with subsequent music. Those who have heard Verdi are bound to hear Monteverdi differently. Similarly doomed is Sam Wanamaker’s dream of performing the plays of Shakespeare as they were originally done, in the ‘authentic’ new Globe Theatre, whilst neo-Elizabethan audiences pelt the cast with Kentucky Fried Chicken. 21

Modern museum visitors, no less than musical audiences, are ineluctably of their own epoch. What they make of what they see is shaped by creations and viewing habits that post-date the relics they observe. Time’s erosions and accretions are bound to alter viewers’ perceptual frameworks as well as the objects themselves. We cannot see the spinning wheel displayed as those who used it did. For us it is not a new tool, but a former tool, left stranded in the present by the tides of industrial change. Its proper role today is that of antique decor in some atavized locale. For people to see spinning wheels as they were once seen, the whole history of spinning jennies, Crompton mules and so forth would have to be unknown to them. 22

But if the past is indeed a foreign country, is it not many lands rather than just one? Like any place abroad, each past is unique—as unlike others as it is unlike the present. Yet in two senses the whole past departs from the present, just as all alien lands are unlike our own. The sojourner in any foreign country remains an outsider never fully naturalized. Nor are we ever wholly at home in the past, however steeped we may be in its relics and memories and in sympathy with its denizens. Time travellers cannot escape the remembered experience of their own temporal prism. In the past, unlike its own people, they eternally engage the unfamiliar.

A second feature sets the past apart: bygone times lack the uncertainty of our own, because they are over. The past makes a better narrative than the present because it ends. Hindsight gives a clearer shape to history than to present raw experience. Hence historians endow the past with an ordered clarity contrasting with the chaos or imprecision of their own times. The view that the past has a pattern, evident in our much edited memories, is an illusion bred and bolstered by historians. 23

It is the essence of nostalgia to yearn for a time when life was different. Not the past as it was or even as wished, but the condition of having been, with an integral completeness lacking in any present. No one ever experienced as ‘present’ what we now view as ‘past’; selective oblivion, hindsight, and narrative necessity lend it anachronistic coherence. We recast the ongoing present as we live through it; we stand outside the past to view its more finished forms, including its now known consequences. Despite its strangeness, the past thus feels definitive and magisterial.

Because it is over, our own childhood is like this too: unlike later stages in our lives it is finished, completed, summed up. We may not come to terms with our childhood. But in memory, childhood feels unlike our present incoherent mess; its tale is framed by a timeless beginning and end. The saga of childhood has the shape of fable: ‘once upon a time’, it starts, and the story ends with ‘living happily ever after’. Only in the past, we know, did things ever happen that way. 24

The patterns we find in the past, personal or collective, are patterns rewoven by ourselves on old family fabrics. The past is a sanctuary for whatever versions of reality we seek to promote. And it goes against the grain to confess to ourselves that this precious legacy is a modern contrivance.

Twenty years ago Punch (remember Punch?) termed the past the ‘foreign country with the healthiest tourist trade of all’. 25 Back then, ‘healthy’ meant what ‘seriously’ means today, as in ‘seriously rich’. Back then, tourism was funny but not fatal. When you sold the past you lost your soul; but the past itself was safe. No more; that foreign country is now so fragile that heritage hucksters threaten to exhaust the resource. When no past remains but an Orwellian contrivance, we will have colonized and domesticated that foreign country.


I argue against the motion—‘the past is a foreign country’—first because Hartley 26 coined the phrase ultimately to contradict it, and we should at least begin by addressing the participants’ own views; second, on more general logical and phenomenological grounds, because all we know is here and now. Our knowledge of the ‘past’ is based on ‘present’ evidence, and at the deepest level of our being, this evidence is intensely spatial, mediated through our bodily movements. I shall argue that taking this approach does not condemn us to presentism. On the contrary, it may provide us with more precise ways of grasping the distinctiveness of people both in their face-to-face relations and in more global spatial and temporal contexts. And finally, having included ‘us’ among the participants, I want to move from these linked contrasts between foreignness and sameness, distance and proximity, past and present, to the questions of direction, of the meanings of human lifetimes and of human history, that they imply.

I begin with Hartley’s own book, The Go-Between, from which the terms of our debate come, recalling the advice of Beruriah, Talmudic scholar from the second century of the Common Era (Palestine): ‘Look to the end of the verse’, before pronouncing impetuously on the significance of what is actually just a beginning. She gave this warning about methodology in a commentary on childbirth: Isaiah’s vision of the birth of a ‘people’ from an ostensibly barren woman 27. The narrator in The Go-Between, Leo Colston, states at the very outset: The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ But the central theme of his story is not the past as a foreign country, but how the past has come to seem that way, owing to energetic forgetting, desperate attempts to deaden feeling. And it is about the going-between from which new life comes.

Leo Colston’s journey begins when he accidentally discovers the diary in his collar box, taking him back over the ground of his forgetting to himself as a child, innocent messenger of Marian and her lover Ted, for whose subsequent suicide, when their secret relationship was revealed, he feels responsible. As the author states at the end of the book, 28 Leo has returned to ‘the world of the emotions’ to which he has become a ‘foreigner’. There he serves again as a ‘go-between’, now between the elderly Marian and her young grandson ‘Edward (only don’t call him that)’, Ted’s grandson and positional successor, as Africanists might say, who is concealed within Hugh Edward Winlove, 11th Viscount Trimingham. Freed of shame about his illegitimate past by Leo’s new going-between, Hugh Edward may be able to marry and regenerate new viscounts. Even Leo may now be able to love again and create new life.

Hartley’s book went through twelve reprints between 1953 and the 1974 impression I read, distributed in Britain, North America, and perhaps elsewhere. The book is still available in hardcover, paperback and large print editions. All this suggests that its theme has some enduring popularity. Given other great literature on this topic—including, if we follow Hyman’s The tangled bank, 29 the dramatic metaphors of Darwin, Marx, Frazer, and Freud—it seems likely that European and North American scholars too are still preoccupied with long-standing eschatological concerns to reconnect far and near events, which we see as critical to our own redemption and rebirth, our continuity through time.

If we really followed Hartley’s logic, we would not oppose ourselves, but attend to the dynamics of connection, suppression and reconnection that he describes. And indeed this is the logic of David Lowenthal’s book, as shown in his conclusion. 30 But for the sake of debate, I shall argue that these movements begin from our most immediate, proximate circumstances. We begin from the here and now. As Peel puts it, this is the ‘ontological truism (that conceptions of the past are facts of the present)’. 31 We have no access to a ‘past’ that is not mediated through the ‘present’. Or to rephrase this point in a way that does not abstract these processes of knowing from knowers: we have no knowledge of past people except through present people; we have no way of knowing others except through ourselves.

In different ways, Peel, Appadurai and Toren have pointed to fruitful ways of recognizing this dilemma, while avoiding presentist traps, by emphasizing, as Peel puts it, ‘the mutual conditioning of past and present’. 32 Here I wish to consider research on history and memory. To some extent, this research reproduces earlier oppositions between historicism and presentism using the imagery of a genetically universal individualism. And in practice, work on memory alone seems to be bifurcating along the lines of a dichotomy between textuality and embodiment. But some of the literature deriving from psychologists’ so-called ‘ecological’ approaches to memory, together with some ethnographic accounts, suggest ways of getting beyond these nested dichotomies.

They do so by focusing not on ‘history turned into nature’, as Bourdieu saw the habitus of memory, 33 or even on the hegemony achieved in ‘naturalizing’ social inequalities, based on the assumption that this process of naturalization somehow bypasses our critical faculties, stereotypically associated with speech. Rather, they show that remembering, which some scholars identify with consciousness, involves processes of our human being-in-the-world that cannot be severed along the lines of such distinctions as between mind and body, inside and outside, individual and society, or distant and near.

The orientation of the most fruitful research could be characterized in biologist Ruth Hubbard’s terms as ‘transformationism’. She is arguing against the separation of biology and culture, or at least against their simple connection. The relationship is neither determinative nor additive; it is interactive and transformative. This means that ‘biological and environmental factors can change an organism so that it responds differently to other, concurrent or subsequent, biological or environmental changes than it would have done otherwise. Simultaneously the organism transforms the environment which, of course, includes other organisms…. There is no way to sort out the biological and social components.’ 34 This also seems close to what Ingold calls the ‘mutualism’ or ‘synergy’ of persons and environments. 35 This is the perspective from which we could integrate recent work on the physiology of remembering in the brain with work by ethnographers, historians, psychologists, philosophers, poets and others that puts remembering back into the world, showing how we experience time through the immediacies of place.

Peculiarly—though perhaps explicably from an ethnographic point of view, taking into account explanatory metaphors linking mind-brain and globe—the major recent discovery in neurophysiology is that long-term, or declarative, memory is not coextensive with the whole brain, as most had assumed. It is localized in the medial temporal lobe: the hippocampus, together with adjacent anatomically related cortex (entorhinal, perirhinal and parahippocampal cortex). As two prominent practitioners put it, ‘the ability to acquire new memories is a distinct cerebral function, separable from other perceptual and cognitive abilities’ (otherwise described as ‘regular, on-line functions’). 36 Yet the key purpose of these local organs is to bind together or integrate the diverse elements of which memories are made by linking together the several sites all over the neocortex with which they are associated.

The hippocampus (with its related organs) is crucial in establishing these links at the time of first learning, and continues to strengthen the global connections in the brain until they eventually become ‘independent’ of the medial temporal lobe system. 37 In this state, any one element may call up all the others, leaving the medial temporal lobe system free to create new memories, new integrated systems.

The memories created through the localized medial temporal lobe system are called ‘declarative’ memories, defined as long-term ‘information about facts and events…accessible to conscious recollection’, in contrast to ‘nondeclarative (implicit) memory includ[ing] several kinds of abilities, all of which are unconscious and expressed through performance’. 38 This contrast may actually have the effect of perpetuating mind-body, verbal-nonverbal, propositional-ritual distinctions. Yet even by the neurophysiologists’ own accounts, the relationship between speech and other sounds, word images, and visual and other sensory imagery is much more complex, frustrating conventional dichotomies.

Furthermore, these same declarative memories have been found, especially by so-called ecological psychologists, to be highly ‘state dependent’, meaning that some details about the circumstances in which a person first learns or experiences something become inextricable from it, critical to recalling it years—even decades—later. Some of the most interesting examples of this research on the way memory ‘goes between’ distant and near experiences have to do with odours, 39 as the ethnography of Gell, Howes and Siegel might lead one to suspect, although their research does not have to do with memory or ‘smellscapes’ as such. 40 The spatial dimensions of experience turn out to be even more crucial. The place that held the experience together, like Combray in Proust’s teacup, continues to hold together the several places in the brain, confirming the view of phenomenologists who argue that we experience temporality spatially in moving. 41

Thus, our ways of characterizing the past, or past people, in spatially distant terms are likely to be secondary elaborations of the processes involved in objectifying or distancing others. The work of psychologists, even the ecologically inclined, has been limited to fitting people with beepers as they go about their daily rounds. 42 The ethnographic data on this issue are much richer, suggesting the existence of other phenomenological theories, comparable to those of Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard or Casey in Europe and North America. For example, Western Apache use place names and stories about places associated with persons to evaluate moral behaviour. Once heard, the stories are felt to ‘stalk’ people through their thoughts, ‘piercing’ them like arrows, and finally ‘re-placing’ where and with whom they can ‘live right’. 43 The weeping ‘bird sound word’ songs of Kaluli funerals and gisalo ceremonies evoke powerful images of landscapes, paths and places through which, as they ‘harden’ in the course of the singing, living people reconnect with their ancestors in seen and unseen worlds. 44

Malagasy ethnography shows how these phenomenological connections between space-time and persons may be related to wider political-economic relations—in the capture of people in slavery and other states of servitude, which Malagasy see as a condition of being ‘lost’ to one’s people and place. Malagasy data also show how the politics of history, divesting people of identity, of their presence in a contemporary world, is above all a politics of place—dispossession and reorientation, burial and exhumation. 45 It is more than ironic that so much recent scholarship on history, tradition, or even memory in anthropology, has focused on questions of time, when the most salient feature of relations between Europeans or North Americans and the ‘non-Western’ category of foreigners has been the appropriation of land, the places in and through which people create their times and beings, where memory and history are inextricable from political presence and political economy

Once we recognize how our experiences of time are rooted in the immediacies of place we can no longer affirm that the past is a foreign country, except in so far as we have tried to distance the presence of people in our actual lives. Nevertheless, this view does not condemn us to the individualist prisons of presentism. In addition to contemporary ruins and reconstructions of past actions, including those ‘substantial convictions’ about the past 46 with which we continually reassess our present places, we may invoke Gadamer’s ‘historicity of reason’, 47 which he developed in an argument against historicism, and examine the process of ‘fusioning’ along ‘horizons’ (curiously very fitting with phenomenological, psychological and ethnographic data on memory and place) as a continuing social process.

There is also the possibility that such phenomenological, sociological and political-economic understandings of the spatial historicity of reason, which ethnographic data suggest might be quite widespread, could find their way into linguistic semantic systems, not simply in the deictics of language, but perhaps also in widespread foundational metaphors of landscape as knowledge. 48

I have been arguing about the placedness of time. The past is not a foreign or a distant country; it is the very ground on which, in which, with which we stand, move and otherwise interact; out of which we continually regenerate ourselves in relations with others, partly through distanciation. But if we ask whose problem is this and reconsider ourselves as participants, this still leaves unanswered the deeper questions about time’s arrow, whether these places have any direction to them. I see no clear direction, no foreign country against which we might see or measure our redemptive nativity, as it were—our renewed becoming. The possibility that direction might be our main concern in distinguishing between foreign and native, past and present, was provoked for me, first, by Trautmann’s recent article on ‘the revolution in ethnological time’ in the 1860s; 49 and second, by the very particular form that these questions about history and memory, past and present, have taken these days. Trautmann argues that the key event in the formation of anthropology alongside history in the 1860s was not Darwinism, but the prehistoric ‘abyss of time’ that suddenly opened up with the collapse of biblical chronology.

Progressive evolutionisms did seem to dominate during these years, but they did so alongside a keen awareness of countervailing movements in the work of scholars like Marx, Darwin, Frazer, and Freud, while their colleagues in physics were beginning to formulate the second law of thermodynamics concerning entropy. And it is clear from current debates in astrophysics and evolutionary biology that these questions about ‘time’s arrows’ (Stephen Hawking includes ‘psychological’ as well as thermodynamic and cosmological arrows)—especially the question of whether these arrows have any direction—remain wide open. And scholars of human behaviour are surely brooding on the same questions, which is the basis of my second point.

For North Americans and Europeans, these are not remote questions; they are concretely embodied in people. The Holocaust now stands at the centre of the most significant controversy about our ability to claim that a ‘past’ exists at all, and about the strongest evidence on which we can base such claims—namely conventional historical data, like archival documents, and the ‘substantial convictions’ of people whose memories are indivisible from their flesh and blood. These controversies have existed since the 1940s, but have been intensifying since the late 1970s and early 1980s, finally provoking the President of the American Historical Society to make a formal response at the Society’s annual meeting in autumn 1991, declining to affirm explicitly that the Holocaust had occurred, and instead calling on scholars ‘to initiate plans now to encourage study of the significance of the Holocaust’. 50

Since well before that moment, now elderly survivors had been provoked by these controversies to place their memories on record by means of videotape, a medium whose more intensely sensory nature was itself felt and seen as lending greater veracity and authenticity to their words. 51 This sense of the historicity of the immediate person was most graphically expressed in Spiegelman’s subtitle to Maus: a survivor’s tale—‘My father bleeds history’. 52 What these records document is the co existence in the present, in themselves, of what one woman called ‘these double lives. We can’t cancel out. It just won’t go away’. In his analysis of the videotapes in Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive, Langer (following Charlotte Delbo) distinguishes between ‘common memory’—coherent, chronological images of the past detached from the present, and ‘deep memory’—the intensely painful and chaotic reliving of irremediable losses. Yet these are continually interconnected in the actual testimonies. One of Langer’s main themes is the survivors’ own conviction that the past must be made into a foreign country within themselves, as a condition for their belief in humanity; connecting past and present would only reveal the fundamental inhumanity of humans. Yet ‘you won’t understand’ is invariably followed by ‘you must understand’, leading Langer himself to affirm the evidence of their very testifying, that this connection is and will continue to be made. 53

It is striking that these controversies are focusing even now on redefinitions of a social category of people who, as Eilberg-Schwartz and Boyarin have argued, have long served as inner others, foreigners, or strangers within predominantly Christian regions and eventually nationstates. 54 These others exemplified in particular how Europeans sub-stantiated their past-to-present directional histories, associated with particular kinds of redemption in territorially defined states, by contrast to the ostensibly groundless chronologies of landless wanderers.

These events—as also logically these arguments I have made about the placedness of our times—raise further questions about the relation of our current concerns to our larger circumstances. These might include the outcomes of land transfers in global migration patterns associated with flexible accumulation; the development of electronic technologies connecting these far-flung places, whose chief attribute, reckoning by differences in price, is ‘memory’, yet which are deeply amemorial in leaving no generational trace; 55 and the possibility, through our experiences of these phenomena, of new ways of rethinking the ‘mind/ bodies’ through which we apprehend our regeneration in place-time. 56


It will by now have become obvious to you that we are not dealing with a motion of the same kind as those previously debated in this series, such as ‘language is the essence of culture’ or ‘the concept of society is theoretically obsolete’, but rather with a statement more along the lines of ‘my grandfather is a tapir’—a proposition which may, when uttered in the context of ethnographic research, be worth attempting to take literally, but which is otherwise more likely to be interpreted metaphorically. What we are asking you to consider is the metaphoric potency of the statement ‘the past is a foreign country’.

David Lowenthal has argued that although our view of the past is quite evidently an artefact of the present, it is nevertheless incommen-surable with the present. I want to push the application of this metaphor—to contemporary popular culture and to non-Western contexts—by looking more closely at the nature of this incommensurability. How might the notion of the foreign country help us to grasp this sense of difference? And what are the effects of producing such a difference?

Perhaps I should start by pointing out that L.P. Hartley’s use of the phrase in The Go-Between, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’, is already a qualification of the motion that suggests a place distanced from ourselves, inhabited by people whose ‘otherness’ is constituted by the distinctiveness of their actions. I will return by several different routes to this notion of the foreign country, but would simply stress at this point that we are not debating the usage in The Go-Between and that there are ways in which we might conceive of the foreign country that do not concur with L.P. Hartley’s formulation.

I start on familiar territory—the foreign countries which we visit with ever greater ease and frequency, on business and on holiday, as members of what James Clifford has called the ‘traveling cultures’. 57 Some commentators on the post-modern have suggested that we have in such travels radically altered our senses of both the past and the foreign—in what David Harvey has referred to as the ‘time-space compression’ of the contemporary world. 58 I would argue that difference is still an important aspect of these experiences, but it is an anodyne difference, a difference that relies on the generation of massive variety and choice—but a choice in which everything is easily accessible because there is no hint of that difference which cannot be immediately assimilated and consumed.

Expo’ 92, the Universal Exhibition which has just closed in Seville, raised interesting questions about the location of foreignness in the contemporary world. One of the striking things about the Expo was that despite the participation of 110 nations, each of which mounted an exhibit specifically designed to communicate an image of that nation to the world, none of the countries felt very foreign. All the pavilions displayed a very familiar brand of otherness—the familiar differences which we find on television, in travel brochures, in the shops, in public galleries and on foreign holidays. Cultural variety was consistently represented in terms of folkloric dances and songs, history was invariably portrayed as chronological narrative or an array of ancient artefacts. Difference was most evident in the form of the differential access to the technologies of hyper-reality through which visitors could experience the sensation of movement through space and time. There were some displacements involved: Spain, Canada and Venezuela emerged as the new world superpowers in the competition for sensation; the United States was embarrassed.

The Expo is one way in which we produce and consume foreign countries—not the European or Western way, but a significant one none the less, in which governments are prepared to invest considerable resources (the estimated cost of British participation was 54 million US dollars, Morocco spent 35 million just building its pavilion) to generate images that products people are anxious to consume (there were 40 million visits during the six months of the Exhibition).

Furthermore, it is a way of producing the foreign which has resonances in many other areas of popular culture. For example, in the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Ridley Scott’s latest multi-million dollar production, a thoroughly late twentieth-century Columbus ‘goes in search of paradise’. The Costa Rican coastline is already amazingly familiar in its guise of the Caribbean island, and though Hollywood’s ‘savages’ (no credits to know how they might identify themselves) are distanced by language, they are still quite familiar—we’ve seen them before in The Mission, Fitzcarraldo, and even Emerald Forest.

Foreign countries can thus be thought of as examples of the tasteful, sanitized, ubiquitous difference that we produce for ourselves, in the vicious circle of what has been called ‘postplural nostalgia’, 59 where the innovations and changes that produce variety have simultaneously destroyed tradition, convention and choice. My main point, of course, is that if the past is not foreign in a contemporary world, then neither are foreign countries.

But I can also bring to your attention other ethnographic cases in which the distance implied by temporal difference, while not rendering the past totally alien, nevertheless calls for its domestication. The past is foreign in the sense of indicating difference, but it is a difference across which interaction and communication are possible, and productive engagement can be achieved. In these ethnographic settings the concept of separation is important to the generation of continuity and tradition.

Susanne Küchler has documented the Malangan sculptures of New Ireland which, after they have been displayed and transacted in mortuary ceremonies, are disarticulated, distanced or physically removed: ‘left to rot, burned or sold to European visitors’. 60 But they do not disappear, they maintain a presence in memory which makes possible their reproduction. Subsequent sculptures, although never exact replicas, are reminiscent of an object seen in the past and of the past relationships which that object entailed. 61 Separation is required conceptually in order that continuity and sameness can be made apparent. The past is thus brought into the present, but the process requires that its otherness be addressed.

I am also thinking of recent Amazonian studies which have noted the ways in which people conceptualize kinship as the memories of productive engagement. Here again, the incommensurability of the past is problematic, and its otherness has to be dealt with. Memories of prior actions and relationships are responsible for the concrete effects of engagement, which are felt in the present. Thus for the people of the Bajo Urubamba in the Peruvian Amazon, history is kinship, and self-identification is that of a ‘mixed people’. 62 Not to remember someone is to do them violence, leaving them alone and segregated.

But these are not people for whom there are no foreigners. Their own immediate past can be prevented from becoming foreign, so long as memory operates to humanize it; however, this domestication of the past is vital in order to separate the domain of human relations from other temporal domains which are intensely foreign, times of which no human being has any memory.

Accounts of ‘first contact’ give us an opportunity to consider the dynamic between a remembered (actualized) past where people seek to overcome temporal distance in the production of human sociality, and a distant, inaccessible temporal space inhabited by non-human forces. Moments of first contact are strange and unusual because we are dealing here with extremes of foreignness, a degree of otherness which is, by definition, dangerous and unpredictable. The disconnection between parties to the interaction is such that the relationship has no past, and thus there is no memory through which to understand its nature.

Marilyn Strathern has argued that the significance of the appearance of the first White Australians in Mount Hagen centred on the Hageners’ recognition of themselves in the outsiders. 63 Once the Hageners discovered that the outsiders were a source of pearl shells and could be engaged in productive relationships they could then be understood as operating in a human time dimension; their past was of this world. The encounter was no longer one of first contact, the Australians had simply emerged from those previous temporal engagements that constitute the present. The foreigners were neutralized. They could be domesticated in similar ways to other aspects of the past.

The Australians knew differently and arrived in Mount Hagen, armed with their cameras, to film the sensation which they expected to cause.

They knew that they were participating in a significant temporal event, believing that their presence was to have a transformative effect on the history of those with whom they came into contact. This was an interpretation totally at odds with that of the Hageners who seem to have decided that the Australians themselves were the effect, an effect which -I understand—they were pretty impressed with nevertheless.

Consider now the currently topical first encounters between Europeans and native Americans. Contemporary fifteenth-century commentators conceptualized the nature of these encounters through the evocation of extreme distance. Here we find accounts of absolute foreignness. The European response to the native Americans was one that concentrated on their difference—an otherness which was constituted through an appeal to temporal and spatial domains of which they knew, but had no memory. The authoritative texts of classical antiquity had informed them of the existence of the monstrous races, of people with heads on their chests, with ears that covered their bodies, the one-eyed cyclops, people who walked upside-down or whose feet pointed backwards—just some examples from the lengthy catalogue of inversions, suppressions and exaggerations of known human bodily features. 64 The perverted habits of the cannibals, the sodomists and the incestuous, who were also reported as inhabiting the New World, furnished further examples of difference as extreme distortions of the recognized limits of human bodily practice. The dilemma of how to produce a recognizable image of absolute otherness is of course impossible to overcome, and we find that even the monstrous races are therefore inevitably imaginative variations on familiar forms. The temporal connection between these monsters and the fifteenth-century Europeans was one of coexistence in radically demarcated spaces on the far edges of the world—the simultaneity was not one of time-space compression.

The native Americans seem to have had the opposite reaction, and considered the possibility that the Europeans were beings not so much from another space as from another time—returning ancestors, prefigured catalysts for the catastrophe that would destroy the world and produce a totally new social order. The complex preparations for the new age can be glimpsed in the millenarian movements that took place throughout the Americas in the sixteenth century. For them total otherness was expressed by temporal rather than spatial distance.

Finally we have the foreign country in the sense of the contingency and disorder of contemporary nation-states. When Eric Wolf argued, a decade ago, that anthropologists need to discover history, he stressed that he was not referring to ‘Western history divided into separate nations…but the contacts, connections, linkages and interrelationships’. 65 He wanted to do away with ‘the notion of the nation as internally homogeneous and externally segregated and work instead with a notion of “differently oriented accents…in a state of constant tension, of incessant interaction and conflict’”.

All governments seek to produce nation-states as discrete entities, with populations that, if not homogeneous, maintain at least a pluralism of mutual accommodation. Expo is the cosmetic version of this attempt, with its images of the desired end product. But the processes through which governments attempt to produce such nations are, as we can see in the world today, not just extremely violent but also perpetually unresolved. Government strategies for the production of the nationstate do not simply rely on the imposition of order, stability and structure but in many cases also operate through normative disorder, through secrecy, silence and paranoia. 66 However, the force of disorder is not a state monopoly. Official versions of state history can be produced, but the interpretations of such histories and the memories of those whose experiences are not articulated therein are not so easily controlled. Alternatives do not necessarily emerge as coherent narrative connections—indeed, they often carry more force or resistance if they remain in a state of disarticulation. Their forms may be totally unfamiliar and hard to fathom, as for example the Andean ñaqaq—slaughterers who ambush people at night, mesmerize them, slit their throats and extract their grease to run the economies of European nations. 67

I have been working round to those depictions of the most alien of foreigners, which anthropologists have produced for us, in order to address finally what I think is an important issue implicit in the motion that the past is a foreign country. This is the question of ‘time and the other’ in contemporary anthropology. 68 Harris has noted that time ‘fascinates both by its ubiquity and its invisibility. It is universal and yet it seems to offer the possibility of entering into “different worlds”, so that it is a common means for expressing the exotic and cultural difference.’ 69 My interest in this issue lies in this notion of cultural difference in contemporary anthropology.

I have tried to show that the foreign country is a vehicle for the expression of difference that can range from the anodyne difference of consumer variety to the empty space of the exotic, devoid of memory and thus of relationships, ready to be filled with fantasies, doubts and nightmares. I have pointed to the otherness of disarticulation which is often required for the ongoing generation of kinship and identity, and I have discussed the contested effects of memory in the constitution of contemporary nation-states.

How might anthropology engage with these possibilities? How do we deal with the dilemma posed by the apparent inevitability of reproducing either the distance of the exotic or the triviality of the anodyne difference? Anthropologists have tended to take one or other of two solutions: there are those who use anthropology rhetorically, to relativize our own cultural practices. They run the risk of generating self-other dualisms, the structures of distance which produce the exotic, and the homogeneity of a collective Western self which converts difference into privilege. Then there are those who use anthropology historically to look at the complex interactions through which the foreignness of others is produced, but who run the risk of denying the fact that our understandings of history and political economy are dependent on culturally specific concepts of persons, time and space.

I believe that it is vital for contemporary anthropology to be mindful of this contradiction without trying to iron it out. The past is a foreign country’ is an admirable maxim for this endeavour as it encapsulates both the notions of incommensurability and the limits to knowledge, as well as referring to the process of differentiation and exclusion by which we produce our constructs of time and space.

The present always requires some concept of disarticulation from the past, and that disarticulation invariably connotes a degree of otherness. My argument, in essence, is that there is no way around the issues that this metaphor of the past as a foreign country evokes, and that whether we like it or not, we have to find a way to use it.

To speak of the past as a foreign country is to make a metaphorical statement about difference. That difference can itself take a range of forms, and this range is pertinent to the theoretical dilemmas of contemporary anthropology. The facts of the matter are that the foreign is no more (and no less) accessible than the past, and that we are always caught between the twin poles of anodyne difference and absolute otherness. Remaining mindful of these poles we must steer a course between them as best we can. To pretend that the differences highlighted by the metaphor are ephemeral is a delusion.


The motion for this debate invites comment on all three of its key terms. First, to most people it would make more sense to say that it is the present which may be construed as foreign; the uncertainty over the past implied in the motion puts us in mind of Oliver Sacks’s case stories of amnesia and multiple personality, which show how dependent commonsense behaviour and identity are upon the ability to live with one’s past. 70 Second, the foreign character of the past may be asserted as an ideological statement that serves to make the present into an island that is isolated, defensive and incommunicado. Yet from another point of view, both cultural transmission and innovation involve acts of remembering which require that the past be rendered into a familiar thing that can be grasped intuitively. 71 Third, by saying that the past is a foreign land, distanced from the present, the past, and thus memory itself, is made into a passive repository from which certain valuable commodities may be selected to be used or traded in the present. The peculiar property of remembering, however, is the active role it plays in consciousness—only when seen from the mechanistic perspective of behavioural science does memory lose its interested and intentional facets as an embodied mode of understanding. 72

If there is a key assumption underlying the motion it resides in the supposedly disembodied character of remembering; suggestively ‘placed’ where it can only be intellectually possessed, that is in a ‘foreign country’, the past is taken to be literally out of touch from those who produced it. Without stating the point explicitly, the motion implies that there is nothing about the past which is effective beyond the moment in which it was lived time. We are told to envision ourselves as though we were as distanced from the past as we are from the land of our dreams and adventures; to suppose that what we know about the past is, like a dream or a travelogue, but a mixture of truth and imagination—made up as we go along to fit our vision of what it must have been like. The transcendent quality that the motion attributes to the past is a romantic illusion, construed indeed by romanticism, and betrays a certain attitude carried forth by historians in their own project of colonizing the past. The motion fails, I argue, because it disregards the complexities created by the fact that we live with, and by virtue of having, a past which at one and the same time is shaped by memory, and also shapes our memory. The past may have its uses in the legitimation of the present, but is this all there is to it?

Having described the key assumptions of the proposition, I would now like to put forward an alternative view which restores the past to its active engagement in the present, not as a fictional by-product of that present, but as a constituent of the real world.

We know about the past, whether our own or that of our culture or of the cultures of others, through photographs and written documents, but more importantly, through our bodies and through artificial images—from landscape to architecture and painting. Body and image bear the traces not just of time, but of memory-work, that is of a process of remembering or the material acts of inscribing which reify cognition itself. 73 Bodily habit, as found in gestures or skills or simply in our ability to move about in the environment both predictably and without accident, testifies to the significance of relying on the presenting of the past in an unquestioning and indisputable way. 74 Man-made images similarly posit a remembrance. In order to consider images as embodying memory-work we have to revise the prevailing assumption that the mnemonic function ascribed to the image is to operate as an aide mémoire; this function is in fact historically specific, resulting from the displacement of a rhetorical mnemonic technique into the visual realm during the Italian Renaissance. 75 Image production, however, always involves mnemonic processing in the form of the artificing function of the hand, which consolidates and reifies cognition in the act of inscription upon the material. The trace left of mnemonic processing in the products of image-making is in no way unconsciously perceived, but is vital to the reception and transmission of the works themselves. 76

The past, whether personal or cultural, is thus in no way uncontaminated by memory, but is already the product of memory-work, and only as such a product is the past present in consciousness. The belief in the purity of past experiences, of learning, and of their testimony which survives as relics, is an essential cornerstone of twentieth-century psychology, which has assumed that the past is carefully stored in the unconscious, to be brought into consciousness only through remembering. This notion, that memories of past experiences and learning—once rendered unconscious—are stored in the brain, has come under increasing attack during the last decade and now seems to be untenable. Conventional wisdom ignored the possibility that memories were part of the very structure of consciousness. Yet as Israel Rosenfield has argued, ‘not only can there be no such thing as a memory without there being consciousness, but consciousness and memory are in a certain sense inseparable, and understanding one requires understanding the other’. 77 As an aspect of consciousness, human memory is thus relational, ever evolving, and ever changing, intrinsically dynamic and subjective. If we therefore have to discard the comforting and age-old belief that our knowledge is ‘stored’ somewhere in the brain, only waiting to be unlocked, we have also to do away with the idea, contained in the motion, that the past is ‘stored’ in a distant, ‘foreign’ place waiting to be opened up through selective recollection.

Memory in the sense used here is generative, as it allows for the generation of ever new versions of experience without deviating from the familiar. The presenting of the past in memory is relevant in the sense that it is self-relational and thus involved in the fashioning of identity, but this in itself forms a predisposition for certain aspects of the past to be incorporated within personal or cultural history. These aspects are ones which either occasion a remembrance or else are construed as doing so. Certain odours, as famously described by Marcel Proust, evoke extensive chains of remembering; 78 certain places evoke memories of the long past days of childhood; 79 architecture, artefact relics and poetics entice remembering because they are the products not of compulsive repetition of the past, but of a remembering which implies a mastering of the past through the transformation of material. 80

I propose to get away from the model of cultural transmission which states the obvious, that is, that the present is in some manner governed by our perception of the past, and to move towards an understanding of the presenting of the past in consciousness and its effect upon the shaping of the future. Consciousness, as recently defined by Israel Rosenfield, is the dynamic synthesis of the past, present and ego in remembering without which a person would act like a character in one of Oliver Sacks’s books—disoriented, helpless, alienated and lacking identity. In its immediacy, such synthesis in remembering is essential to habit formation and thus to skill, something usually associated with the repression of consciousness and the work of the unconscious. On the one hand, it can be a wholly subjective experience, such as when the developing infant gazes at a bright spot on the wall which is there every morning during waking hours; he does not have to selectively reproduce in his mind all the previous times in which he saw this bright spot—his memoryscape encompasses all past and present occurrences in an instant which is one step towards the development of the sense of self. On the other hand, the synthesis of past and present is essential to the formation of social memory in objectification; a Malangan sculpture, an Aboriginal bark painting or an engraving by the Dutch engraver Goltzius does not selectively reinterpret the past, but rather encompasses the past. Constancy and correctness are important attributes of these cultural images. Their forever reproduced form or underlying template testifies to the fact that they do not serve as aide mémoires for a contextual past, but are rather products of memory-work through which a culture may possess its past immediately, without hesitation or speculation.

Transmission at the personal and cultural level is not an activity involving choice. But nor is it a passive mechanism. It is not like a game of Chinese whispers, whereby changes in the message are brought about by successive mishearing. The non-problematic aspect of remembering, something Neisser has termed ‘natural memory’, and the active appropriation of the present involving consciousness in habitual action, have

yet to be explained. We have not found a solution by claiming, as the motion does, that recall is inherently transformative and that it reappropriates the past in ever differing ways. This is because remembering has an organization which is likewise reproduced in every act of remembrance, the changes of which are still unaccounted for. We have, then, to acknowledge not only that remembering is active in transforming our versions of the past, but also that remembering has its own history.

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