PAUL RICHARDS I would like to ask all four speakers whether they think the future is a foreign country.
DAVID LOWENTHAL In my view the future suffered the same fate as did the past, when people began to realize that the course of history was not uniform or predictable, that one could not learn from the past in order to predict the future. Thus the future has become unutterably foreign. We simply cannot know what it is going to be like, and in the meantime we solace ourselves with notions about the end of history.
GILLIAN FEELEY-HARNIK I see the question as relating to time’s arrow. Even to ask whether the future is a foreign country is to presuppose that there is an arrow. Following on from my earlier arguments, it seems to me that this kind of future is in the same category as the past, though conceptually it is like its opposite. In a sense it is just a mirror image of the past. In speaking about the future people do indeed take up the same kind of logic as they use to speak about the past. With regard to the way our ideas concerning time have been changing, we have in fact become increasingly presentist, even intensely so. And in this presentist perspective the future does appear like a foreign country—one that, compared to the present, has little reality.
PENELOPE HARVEY The answer to the question will depend on what you think a foreign country is. In one sense the future is completely unknown; in another sense it is what we make of it now. Clearly, the images by which we can portray the future in the present can only be drawn from the contemporary context. This is why science fiction or futuristic films that may have been made no more than fifteen years ago nowadays look so dated. Thus a concept of anachronism that applies to ideas of the past can apply just as well to our changing ideas of the future. From this perspective, the future is a foreign country.
SUSANNE KÜCHLER Going back to my argument about how, in the act of remembering, the past is immanent in the present, I would hold that the future is also immanent in the present—in so far as it can be foreseen. The future is always regarded as what is within our grasp, what is seen as effective. Whether the intended effects are actually realized is, of course, another matter.
GILLIAN FEELEY-HARNIK I have been trying all along to anchor the questions raised by this debate to ethnography, to concrete circumstances that would help us to sort out these questions both substantively and theoretically. Now there is one point concerning the issue of the way we think about the future—and indeed about time generally—that ties in very closely with the argument I put forward about the presentism of contemporary perspectives. It is that the techniques and technologies of memory have changed so radically. I have referred to Carruthers’ study of memory techniques, The book of memory. 81 Carruthers goes back to the Greeks and Romans and their ‘Method of Loci’, by which a collection of things may be committed to memory by visualizing each as though it were placed at one of a series of locations along a well-known path. She traces this method right up through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and then shows how it began to collapse with the invention of printing. The earliest books—all those beautiful illuminated manuscripts with their decorative initials and so on -still furnished mnemonic loci: they were not things of a bookish, textual nature, but rather offered a succession of visual images that would assist those who saw reading as a form of remembering. Yet to return to our own time, Carruthers could write her book thanks, in part, to a technology which—however reluctantly we may have embraced it—is so radically different from what has gone before that it has actually transformed us. And even though computers are priced in proportion to their memory, this electronic technology is, to my mind, deeply amemorial. Ironically, computers now have the capacity to erase any trace of generation. A striking example of this capacity is ‘morphing’, the technique whereby you can transform one picture into another, dot by dot, on the computer, with no way of knowing to which generation each belongs. Here, time and the future are obliterated. Our capacity to experience and perhaps even to think of the future is changing into something else altogether.
RICHARD FARDON The phrase, ‘the past is a foreign country’, put
me in mind of the country from which no one ever returns, and which we cannot therefore know anything about. I mean the land of the dead. And this led me to ask: Whither are we supposed to come back once we know about the past? There has been much talk of presentism, and some concern with the different ways in which memory—whether individual or to some degree shared—intervenes between the present and the past. But my question is: how does the past figure in the arguments we have heard? Are the four speakers talking about the same kind of past? And bearing in mind that I am already trying to remember what was said barely half an hour ago, how are we to understand the present?
TIM INGOLD Richard Fardon has raised three separate issues. The first concerns how we are to think about death in relation to life as a past or future state. The second concerns the differences between the sort of past that is so far off that it seems beyond our experience altogether, a past that is bound up in our biographical experience, and a past that is very close—such as a few minutes ago—but which still leaves us trying to remember what happened at that time. Can we treat all these pasts together, or must they be kept distinct? The third issue follows from this question. What exactly is the status of the present? And do our speakers mean the same thing by it?
DAVID LOWENTHAL Let me take up the question of death. It has been said that everything we know of the past exists in the present. This is certainly true—almost by definition. Yet we also have a profound sense of generation, albeit threatened by the electronic monsters to which Gillian Feeley-Harnik has referred. All of us have a deep knowledge of having come from somewhere, of having been generated. And most of us have the feeling of having generated someone or something that will survive us: children, ideals, functions or whatever. Considerable parts of the meanings of our lives are bound up with these senses of not existing only now, not being just in the present, but of having a past from which we have come, and a future to which we are presumably giving or lending something of ourselves, as well as what we have acquired from others. The question that has been asked about death is significant, for it bears on the issue of how we conceive of ourselves in a stream—if not necessarily in a time—of generation. These conceptions are constantly in flux. You may recall what Woody Allen had to say about immortality. When an interviewer pointed out to him how wonderful it was that he was leaving all his marvellous films to the future, his response was: ‘I don’t want to be immortal by leaving all these films to the future; I want to be immortal by living forever.’ This is a paradigmatic response to the issue of the role of the individual in a world with a sense of time in which the notion of passing on a heritage or an inheritance has become more and more atrophied. Our sense of personal death thus seems to me to be bound up with the extent to which, and the ways in which, we feel we are part of both a personal, a familial and a social stream of time (if I may use the word ‘time’ without the arrow, for the moment).
GILLIAN FEELEY-HARNIK There are, of course, some anthropologists who would seek to formulate universal theories on the basis of what people have to say about death. But in this instance I would be more of a relativist. It is quite obvious from ethnography that although death is a universal phenomenon, it evokes the most particular and diverse ideas concerning its significance. Understanding these ideas calls for further studies of memory, time and history of just the kind that Susanne Küchler has carried out. Turning to the question of what are pasts and what is the present, I have tried tentatively to explore, in a more general way, what seems to be an area of convergence between psychology, physiology, phenomenology and ethnography, concerning the manner in which we experience time in intensely spatial ways. When you look at ethnographic accounts of memory, you find that much of what people talk about does in fact have a common theme. One of the most striking of these themes is food. Malinowski noted that whereas Trobriand Islanders thought of consciousness and the intellect as being located in the larynx and in speech, they imagined their memories to have sunk deep into their bellies: thus the seat of memory was the stomach.
With reference to language, Joel Kuipers 82 has coined the term entextualization to denote the way in which particular strands of speech are taken up and become progressively generalized. In trying to imagine how people generalize their very particular experiences of time and place, it occurred to me that we might adopt an analogous notion of ensomatization. But some sort of universal foundation is necessary in order to be able to grasp how people coming from different vantage points can engage in the politics of history as effectively as they do.
PENELOPE HARVEY On the question of how to draw a line between the past and the present, it is most important to realize that past and present are relational categories. Thus the past, and any significance that may be attributed to it, exists in relation to the perspective of the present. Clearly, understandings of death are ethnographically specific; however, for many people the distance involved in death does not prevent a deceased person from remaining in the present—indeed, considerable effort may be invested in keeping death and presence concurrent. But we need to bear in mind the way in which memory operates here. We may have to distinguish kinds of pasts in terms of kinds of memory. I am thinking in particular of Peter Gow’s work on the people of the Bajo Urubamba, 83 though I am sure there are many other appropriate examples. Gow shows how these people distinguish kinds of relationships that are remembered from those of which they have no memory. The latter are assigned to a nasty, pre-human time when people didn’t remember each other and when groups were far too specific and different, by contrast to the contemporary human world in which, so long as you can remember people, you can keep them with you in the sense of achieving some kind of sociality. But even if the argument is cast in terms of the operation of memory, we are still dealing with something that is grounded in ethnographic specificity.
SUSANNE KÜCHLER So far as meaning is linked to understanding, some immediate synthesis of past and present is surely implied. In the ethnographic example just mentioned, the people construed as living before the time that could be remembered were presumably not capable of being understood: they could not be remembered, they could not be understood, they could not be known. If we accept the idea of a relationship between remembering and consciousness, then we cannot ask such questions as ‘When does the past begin, and where does it end?’, ‘When does the present begin, and where does it end?’, or ‘When does it go into the future?’ For it is precisely in the perception of familiarity that the act of remembering and the act of consciousness lies. I am thinking in relation to my own study of the Malangan sculptures of New Ireland. 84 When they see a sculpture, people do not call up the different kinds of images they have seen in the past, but rather interpret the present image in the light of the kinds of relationships that are actually in the process of being established. They are trying to influence the relationships that will exist in the immediate future; they are not speculating about other kinds of images that existed in the past. Thus in my view, the past is not something that can be regarded as having started at a particular point, or even as having entailed certain kinds of events. But one can of course assume the position of the historian who seeks to interpret the past in terms of particular interrelations between specific events.
ALFRED GELL It appears to me that there are, in fact, two distinguishable meanings that can be attributed to the past, and depending on which meaning you adopt, you can support one side or the other in this debate. When the subject of time is discussed by philosophers, one device they use is to distinguish between two kinds of temporal series. The first, known as the A-series, is based on the ideas of ontological subjectivity and linguistic tense, in which past and future are anchored in present experience; the second—the B-series—consists of a spread of events in abstract space-time, such that the relationship between events is described as one of their coming ‘before’ or ‘after’ each other. 85 It seems to me that from the perspective of the B-series, ‘before’ is indeed a foreign country, situated in an inaccessible region of the spatiotemporal continuum. It is by definition a foreign country, in the same sense that Mongolia is a foreign country—that is, it takes time to get there. Yet the sense in which the proposition has mainly been taken has been in relation to the A-series, a sense which is clearly subjective, based not on the past as a spread of events in space-time, but on the past as a map, constructed and held in people’s heads, of relations between events which are salient today. Since any such model or map of currently salient spatiotemporal relationships emerges from a process of cognitive functioning that is going on in the present, the past as construed within it cannot possibly be described as foreign or alien. Thus to argue—as I think Penelope Harvey did—that the past is a ‘foreign’ country (with quotation marks around the word ‘foreign’) is actually to oppose the motion rather than to support it. For it is to suggest that the foreignness of the past exists only within the terms of people’s present-day cultural constructions. If, however, we adopt the B-series notion of the past as a spread of events in space-time, then the argument for the motion is perfectly reasonable. In that case we can speak of the past as a foreign country without having to place the word ‘foreign’ in quotes.
PENELOPE HARVEY Alfred Gell suggests that I had put quotation marks around the word ‘foreign’. But I had not, rather they were placed around the words ‘foreign country’. I agree that in terms of the space-time continuum of the B-series, the past is irrefutably foreign. From a phenomenological perspective, on the other hand, it is only so if you regard foreignness as tantamount to alienation and total otherness. My point, however, is that if you think about the past not as ‘foreign’ but as ‘foreign country’, then it no longer necessarily implies total and absolute difference. But this solution, however neat, still raises the question of how we come to terms with difference, and of how we are to deal with it. The positive value of thinking about the past as a foreign country lies in the way in which it opens out to a consideration of the various ways in which relational terms such as past and present can actually be treated. Moreover, we are brought face-to-face with the problem of incommensurability and the limits of knowledge, as well as with the fact that we can only represent these through our own particular constructs of time, space and person.
GILLIAN FEELEY-HARNIK I too have been trying to sort out my position with regard to the two alternative views of time which Alfred Gell has outlined, and which could—so to speak—make either side in this debate right. That’s why I became interested in the question of time’s arrow. Why should philosophers have imagined there to be an arrow of time at all? Seeking an answer to this question led me to the second law of thermodynamics, and to the writings of physicists like Stephen Hawking who—with the philosophers—have been wrestling with the problem of the directionality of time. They think of at least three different kinds of directions: there is a psychological arrow, a thermodynamic arrow (in the direction of chaos), and a cosmic arrow (that is, the expansion of the universe). So long as the universe continues to expand, the cosmic arrow of time will continue in its present direction; but once the expansion has ceased and the universe begins to implode upon itself, the direction will be reversed. There has been much controversy about what will then happen to our time: will we live backwards or think backwards? Will time disappear? Hawking himself has recently reversed his own opinion on these matters; moreover, there have been further complications. Thus the second law of thermodynamics predicts a disintegration into chaos which, as Hawking points out, will be the end of us human beings as well; yet there are those such as Prigogine who have argued, to the contrary, that out of this increasing chaos has come life, and life’s increasingly complex forms. 86
What I ask myself as an ethnographer is: how is it that these physicists have come up with such ideas about time and time’s arrow? There are many possible ways of formulating ideas about time and of grounding them in the events of the physical universe. So why are they thinking of time in these particular ways right now? It seems to me that this question has to be asked and answered in the context of current events. This is not an entirely presentist point of view. I am merely saying that as ethnographers and historians we have to ask such questions in relation to social life.
JAMES WEINER Let me try to make the two sides of this debate collide more directly by suggesting that the proposers are more interested in the writing of the past, whereas the opposers are concerned with the past as it is remembered by those who actually experienced it. However, I would like also to focus on one particular point that Susanne Küchler made. She criticized the dualism that suggests that the perception of an event is different or separate from its recollection. I agree that there is no way, prima facie, in which we can distinguish between perception and recollection. I do not think, however, that this observation lends support to the phenomenological position that both Susanne Küchler and Gillian Feeley-Harnik have put forward. On the contrary, it offers more support to the position taken by Penelope Harvey. She is the only speaker in this debate to have acknowledged the idea of difference—of unrecoverable, undefinable difference. In the absence of such acknowledgement, the two speakers for the opposition are both advocating a form of presentism—in the sense that only what is present in consciousness is worthy of our attention. Penelope Harvey, by contrast, is trying to account for the things that cannot be present to our consciousness, but which nevertheless involve human endeavour, human behaviour. An important aspect of her argument is the idea that it is the writing of history that lends a semblance of reality to these things, such that history seems to be about real things in real time. Let me remind you of the point Freud made, which has been seized upon by so many writers involved in post-modernist debates, namely that the patient always begins his or her analysis with a repetition. We might say that the historian likewise always begins his or her treatment of a subject with a repetition. Thus the division between the original perception of an historical event and its recollection, its passing into memory, is something that can only be imposed by the form of writing.
GILLIAN FEELEY-HARNIK It is not that Susanne Küchler or I failed to acknowledge the idea of difference. To take a more presentist position is not to deny difference, it is rather to ask the question:
‘How do we apprehend those things that are not immediately present to our consciousness?’ Whether our concern be with what Peel calls ‘substantial convictions’ that might even be written in texts, or with objects we encounter, or with monuments, or with other human beings (who are, after all, different from the human being that I am), the problem is to envision how these things are apprehended. And in tackling this problem, it seems to me, anthropologists can usefully join forces with psychologists, physiologists, ecologists and others, since what we are trying to do is to break out of the straitjacket of old dichotomies and to do justice to the intimacies of these processes of apprehension, as well as to their global extent. This requires more interdisciplinary work.
SUSANNE KÜCHLER I would simply like to reinforce Gillian Feeley-Harnik’s point, that we are not arguing for the impossibility of the conscious perception of difference in the present. Our concern is with how the different is actually assimilated into the present, into the familiar. Referring back to the case of first contact between the people of Mount Hagen and White Australians, were not the latter wrought upon by the Hageners themselves to produce images of their own making? Of course it is possible to perceive difference, but is it not at the same moment turned into something familiar—into another image that one has created for oneself? And if the different is thus familiarized, how can we any longer sustain the notion that there is some ultimate strangeness that absolutely resists assimilation?
ALEXANDER LOPASIC It seems to me that both sides of the debate are perfectly compatible within the terms of anthropology as a discipline. If we need a definition of anthropology for the purposes of the current discussion, we could say that it is the study of distance and difference, or of ‘otherness’. As such, it can be traced back at least to the time of Herodotus, who has been called the father of history and who may be regarded equally as the father of anthropology. Now at that time, difference and otherness were the concern of societies that were still largely illiterate. Such societies had their own interpretations of past, present and future, and in many cases they could move quite readily from one temporal domain to the other, backwards and forwards, through rituals and dreams and in many other ways. For them the idea, as we know it today, of a clear-cut historical, evolutionary and scientific divide between past and present scarcely existed. But when anthropologists (that is, students of difference) from illiterate societies move to literate ones, then of course the situation changes: they become aware that there is something called the reconstruction of the past, which is a very difficult problem. To do it properly, one has to go through a series of documents which must be verified, clarified, compared and contrasted, and so on, in the course of which a certain past is reconstructed.
DAVID LOWENTHAL With regard to James Weiner’s surmise that we (the proposers) are on the side of the writers or makers of history and they (the opposers) on the side of those who suffered from it: I think there is some merit in that argument. By having to take up these positions we have been forced into an emphasis, on the one hand, on a historical approach to the past, and on the other hand, on a memorial approach to the past. The arguments of Gillian Feeley-Harnik and Susanne Küchler have certainly emphasized the role of memory. They have also stressed the salience of a much more recent past than that with which we have been dealing. Thus in a sense, where their approach has been psychological, or even physiological, ours has been more historical. This does not mean, however, that we are on the side of historians against the sufferers, though I can see how such a misapprehension might easily arise, and I can also see how distinctions between oral memory and written memory, or between oral evidence and written evidence, may in this context take on a political significance. Indeed, the history of scholarship is replete with illustrations. Take the case of Herodotus, who was mentioned a moment ago. In the second century, Herodotus was denounced by Lucian as a liar. He must, said Lucian, be tormented in Hades more than anyone else, 87 for historians—unlike all other people who are inclined to lie whenever they get the opportunity—should never lie. Even today, the stock phrase ‘he lies like an eye-witness’ indicates how little credence we are prepared to attribute to ordinary, first-hand observation.
In many ways, then, the arguments used by our opponents in this debate have been concerned much more than have ours with memorial processes, with pasts that are not written down and not thereby preserved from alteration. It is certainly true that the arrival of print culture has made a huge difference, even in societies that remain oral societies—as all societies do to a considerable extent. We need to take into account the really extraordinary and important differences between things that endure relatively unchanged or can be checked for change, such as writing and (to some extent) relics, and the stuff of memory which is more difficult to check and more subject to the specific dynamics of individual interpretation. This is not just a matter of distinguishing between a distant and a more recent past; it is also a question of the kinds of evidence at our disposal and the kinds of understanding to which it gives rise. Thus in one particular sense you cannot deny my memory, because it is my memory. If I say I remember something, you could perhaps seek to verify it by checking it against certain kinds of evidence, but you cannot deny that it is my memory.
TIM INGOLD Is not this thesis, that our own memories—in so far as they are part of us, of who we are—cannot be denied, the plank on which we tend to rest our claims to ethnographic authority? Thus, speaking as an ethnographer, I might claim that what I write about a certain people is authoritative because it is based on my own experience of fieldwork, of having ‘been there’. I raise this matter only because there does seem to be a connection between current debates about ethnographic authority and the contrast that David Lowenthal has drawn between memorial and historical approaches.
GILLIAN FEELEY-HARNIK Our basic problem is as follows: how do we apprehend a world that contains so many different and diverse things? How do we apprehend things that are not ourselves while recognizing that we have no way of doing this except through ourselves? How can we understand what they are, while acknowledging that it is we who are looking at them? For they do exist out there; they can be documented. I do not believe, therefore, that ethnographic authority rests solely on the authority of the ethnographer. For other people have their authorities; other objects have their qualities. Our task is to do justice to these others, and to our involvement with them, not to flood them with our own preconceptions. This is the essence of empirical responsibility.
We are dealing, of course, with a situation of plural knowledges. There are many co-existing ways of understanding time and space, whatever terms you may use for them. What Susanne Küchler and I have been trying to do is to excavate forms of consciousness, knowing, understanding and time that have been marginalized by what you could call the hegemony of the book. So effectively have they been marginalized, indeed, that we can only begin to grasp them now—in radically changed circumstances—through the work of scholars such as Carruthers, to which I have already referred.
ALFRED GELL David Lowenthal argued that the past is a foreign country because you can never experience, say, early music as it would have been experienced by the people of the period in which it was originally written and performed. But I would seriously question whether it is the purpose of modern purveyors of early music to recreate that original experience. Consider Handel’s Coronation Anthem. Apparently the official who was in charge of the coronation was thoroughly disgusted by the music: in his view it was all noise and disorder. For one thing, the musicians were unable to play it; for another, he didn’t like it anyway. It would surely be impossible to reconstruct a performance of music that is both badly played and completely misunderstood (unless the audience was carefully selected to consist only of persons known to dislike it intensely). And indeed there would be little point in doing so! What the purveyors of early music want to do is furnish music for our enjoyment, not to provide us with some experience of early music as if one was there, say, at the Coronation itself. And this is a perfectly valid objective, so long as it is not confused with the realization of historical truth.
DAVID LOWENTHAL In proposing the motion, I did bring up the now discredited notion of the ethnographic present. However, it has not otherwise figured in our debate. I wonder whether the anthropologists here would have more to say about it.
MARILYN STRATHERN A brief response: the ethnographic present does not lie in debate, it lies in books. It has to be understood in the context of the way books are written.
It appears that the arguments on both sides of this debate collude in the assumption that the past is somehow subsumed under the present, regardless of the kind of past it is. But they disagree over the outcome. On the one hand, the past is portrayed as recollectable, as not only our past; on the other hand, it is portrayed as non-recollectable, remaining both intact and foreign. I would like to ask the speakers on each side to explain what they see as the dangers entailed in adopting the other side’s point of view.
ANDREW HOLDING And whichever way the debate goes, what are the implications of the different arguments for anthropological theory?
PENELOPE HARVEY There is indeed a sense in which the proposition can accommodate both sides to this debate. If we agree, as Marilyn Strathern has just put it, that the past is subsumed under the present, then what are the dangers of concluding—with our opponents—that the past is not a foreign country? I see two problems. First, David Lowenthal has pointed out that we cannot re-enter the perceptual world of the past, for the ways we perceive are bound to be affected by what has happened since. How, then, if we take the point of view of the opposition, are we to understand the experience of anachronism? Second, how could we deal with not knowing: with things that cannot readily be incorporated into one’s present?
GILLIAN FEELEY-HARNIK Let me respond to Penelope Harvey’s second question. Empirically, it seems that we are able to deal with unknown things, in part, because we do not come to them with a sense of complete not knowing. Rather, we attempt to grasp and apprehend them on the basis of what we have. This is where I found the work of Gadamer on the historicity of reason so enlightening. 88 Gadamer tries to grasp the exact process whereby we bring to bear a certain historicity of reason on persons and things we have never experienced before, such as in situations of first contact. But there is another side to this process, which has to do with the way we forget things or put them at a distance. We have not yet discussed this aspect so extensively, but it too could be understood from a more phenomenological viewpoint.
DAVID LOWENTHAL With regard to the dangers inherent in adopting our opponents’ position, let me first say that I am delighted by the reminder that it is a country we are dealing with. There is, after all, something to a country: we may not like other countries, but they do have certain aspects in common, some degree of comparability. We are not dealing with Hades, or even with the Antipodes, but with places that are to some degree known. Now it seems to me that to conclude that the past is not a foreign country is to run the risk of legitimating the efforts of those who would continually remake the past to be like the present, for whatever presentist purposes they have in mind: political, social, economic, polemical. I am worried by the extent to which people—especially those without a knowledge of history—are enabled, by the fact that the past is very vivid to them, to treat it continually as though it were just like the present. This can work at the expense, especially, of those who have been savaged by history, or who have been its sufferers in one way or another. I am thinking of minorities, or tribal groups—peoples with pasts that are different, pasts that we think of as group possessions. Many pasts are like this; that is to say, each is in the nature of a heritage. Each is exclusive to the group or country concerned, and must indeed remain so—incomparable, mysterious
to outsiders. I have in mind the example of the Sacred Bundle of the Pawnee Indians, presented not long ago to a museum in the American Mid-West, with the specific injunction that it should not be opened. The Bundle was regarded as the embodiment of tribal memory, and would hold its significance for the tribe only so long as it remained unopened and thus unknown to others. 89 It is important to recognize that many pasts must not be known by others if they are to retain their power and significance for ourselves.
TIM INGOLD We have discussed the relationship between history and memory at some length, but have yet to deal with the issue of forgetting, which Gillian Feeley-Harnik raised a moment ago. What, exactly, is involved in forgetting? Is it the simple opposite of remembering? If not, how should it be conceptualized? How are memories erased?
It seems that when we speak about forgetting, or about remembering, as something that people do, we run into similar contradictions to those surrounding the notion of trust. It has been said that you cannot build up a relationship of trust deliberately, or strategically, because the principle of strategic self-interest subverts the very basis on which the relationship is to be established. 90 Likewise, how can we regard forgetting as a deliberate, intentionally motivated activity, when the very formation of our intention entails calling to mind what we are supposed to forget?
GILLIAN FEELEY-HARNIK I think we have a deeply held conviction that forgetting involves a loss. This is very clear, for example, in Hartley’s book. Its message is that we need finally to be able to recover and reintegrate the forgotten past in order to become fully mature persons. But whether this conviction is specific to our own European or American background, or more widely held, I do not know.
DAVID LOWENTHAL I should like to make a general plea for forgetting, on the grounds that to remember everything is to be an idiot. A man who cannot help but remember everything can never generalize. Life involves selective forgetting. If we could not forget most of what we knew or even remembered, we would not be able to organize the rest of our knowledge sufficiently even to survive. But there are other levels of forgetting, such as oblivion—which requires of one, as a condition of survival, to be able to forget enormously painful events, in order to avoid the regressions that would otherwise follow. I am mindful of the role this has played in English history. Two ‘acts of oblivion’ were passed by Parliament in the seventeenth century, one in 1660 and the other in 1690, to ‘forgive and forget’ what was done by the opponents of the two kings of the immediately preceding period, in order to help reintegrate the country. This became a general principle of political philosophy with Hobbes, who emphasized, as have many others since, that in order to form a polity, or to be able to proceed as a collectivity, people must agree on what to forget and what to remember. 91
GILLIAN FEELEY-HARNIK I should like to conclude with two points on this business of forgetting. First, if we look at the ethnographic evidence, we find that the work put into forgetting is substantial. It may take the material form, say, of prohibitions on speech, and it needs to be organized so that people are made to forget. Particularly clear instances of this come from studies of Melanesian societies, and especially of activities surrounding funerals that very often involve the break-up of descent groups. We have scarcely begun to study the consequences of this kind of forgetting for people’s sense of themselves, their identities and their well-being.
My second point is that forgetting, it seems to me, is a deep and central issue in our whole way of thinking about past, present and future. It has to do with the significance we give to lifetimes. There are some things, certainly, that we all have to forget: we all know Sherlock Holmes’s dictum that you need to forget so as to rid your mind of inconsequentialities. But much of our sense of saving ourselves and of regenerating ourselves over time has to do with not forgetting, with reintegrating events from our very beginnings with events from our more recent past. This is an important phenomenon that could be analysed further in anthropological terms.