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The Future of the Past

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History, Memory and the Ethical Imperatives of Writing History

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The article examines revisions to theories of “linguistic turn” historiography in order to show the ways in which those revisions have created a path for a return of the analysis of individual agency and experience in history, changes that, it is argued, constitute a form of neo-phenomenology as the governing philosophical orientation in historiography. To the extent that this is correct, it establishes a philosophical and theoretical basis for the integration of memory and memorial testimony into the study of the past.The article proceeds to investigate the methodological, historiographical and ethical implications of the rise of memory studies in contemporary history. Memorial literature, as Berber Bevernage has so compellingly demonstrated, relies on a certain haunting of the present by the past. It thus deploys a conception of historical temporality significantly different from the modernist assumption of the death of the past as the basis of historical understanding. In that sense, as Michael Roth has argued, the “acknowledgement of the past in the present is a necessary ingredient of modern historical consciousness.” Yet, to incorporate “memory” and trauma into historical representation will mean acknowledging and accepting as historiographically viable the differing status of analytically recuperated “facts” and victim testimony. This will require, in turn, that we find a way to theorize, as has yet to be done, the materiality and reality of “voices” from the past, without assuming the necessary truth of what they convey, at least in terms of the factuality of its content. In the end, however, what is at stake in not the epistemological question of “truth” but an ethical response to the catastrophes of the last century.At the same time, it is clear that memory is no longer the sole vehicle for the promotion of a new ethical orientation in history, as recent work by Hayden White, Keith Jenkins and Frank Ankersmit, among others, suggest. Precisely how these different approaches to history, memory and ethics can be combined to constitute a viable and coherent mode of historiography remains an open, and debated, question.

Affiliations: 1: Johns Hopkins


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