Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Spotting Anachronisms and the Development of Historical Consciousness

Randall Stephens

In the forthcoming January 2012 issue of Historically Speaking Donald Yerxa interviews Zachary S. Schiffman. In Schiffman's new book, The Birth of the Past (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), he looks at how the past emerged in the West—a past that was more than just before the present, but different from the present.

The interview and Schiffman's accompanying essay remind me of David Lowenthal's The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, 1985). "Historical insight has indeed progressed," wrote Lowenthal in his now-classic text. "Awareness of the past as a web of contingent events subject to unceasing re-evaluation supplant notions of a predestined unfolding or moral chronicle. Antiquity no longer automatically confers power or prestige, nor do primordial origins seem the sole key to destiny's secrets. The old exemplary use of the past 'has been undermined, battered and exploded by the growth of history itself'"(364). Moderns are attuned to anachronisms in ways that premoderns were not. That cell phone, fax machine, Prius, or electric guitar does not belong in that 16th-century woodcut print. (I include one of my 19th-century Star Wars pics I created recently to have fun with this idea. [I saw another photoshopper do something similar.] It's not so far off from how things operate at a Renaissance Fair, where a friend told me he recently spotted some dudes decked out in Star Wars gear.)

Yerxa asks Schiffman to explain some of the outlines of historical thinking in the interview.

Yerxa: Would you distinguish among several notions that often get sloshed together in our thinking and writing: the past, anachronism, historical consciousness, and historicism?

Schiffman: “The past” is a very tricky term, largely because it is so commonplace. On this account, I find it useful to distinguish between “the past” as the time before the present, and “the past” as a time different from the

present. Priority in time does not automatically entail difference, and it is the sense of difference that constitutes “the past” as a conceptual entity. . . .

The distinction between past and present calls to mind the idea of anachronism, another tricky term. An anachronism is, purely and simply, something taken out of historical context—think of the “Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch,” a plot device in the faux-medieval comedy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. An idea of anachronism is an awareness of things taken out of context—hence the hand-grenade scene in Monty Python strikes us as “funny,” in every sense of the word. And this scene also demonstrates that the idea of anachronism can manifest itself in many different ways, not simply by the scrupulous avoidance anachronisms but also by the wanton indulgence in them. That the indulgence in anachronisms need not be funny—in any sense of the word—is demonstrated by the Renaissance idea of the “living past,” which at one and the same time accepts and transcends the distinction between past and present. For the humanists, this distinction evoked a gap—what Barkan calls the “sparking distance”—that inspired a dynamic interaction with the classical tradition.

The idea of anachronism brings us to a consideration of “historicism,” a term that has occasioned many disputes and much misunderstanding because it weaves together diverse strands of thought, each with its own long, complicated history. On this account, I find Friedrich Meinecke’s definition of historicism as the nexus of the ideas of individuality and development to be the most simple and elegant, for it precludes having to trace historicism’s many strands back to their beginnings. Meinecke located this nexus in the late 18th century, but some scholars have challenged this interpretation, claiming that there was a Renaissance historicism born of the idea of anachronism, which engendered an acute sense of historical and cultural relativism. However, as I realized many years ago in my dissertation, an idea of anachronism simply constitutes an awareness of individuality, which does not necessarily entail one of development. Ironically, Meinecke’s definition of historicism has led me to a conclusion that would have caused him to roll over in his grave, namely that a sustained sense of the difference between past and present was born of Cartesian relational thinking before “the past” became historicized in the late 18th century. . . .

How might history teachers use creative anachronisms to talk with students about historical thinking? Could we develop a Where's the Anachronistic Waldo games that exercise the historical part of the brain?

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