The Reciprocal Relationship Between the Past and Present

A few months ago, my historical methods class was assigned to read Michael Baxandall’s 1985 work Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of PicturesBaxandall was one of the foremost art critics/historians of the last half of the twentieth century, and his books are required reading at almost every prestigious art school in the country, I’ve been told. So, as many readers will be able to imagine, the book is an extremely hard read, not for the faint of heart. Even tougher, the book was assigned to us not for its content on art criticism, but for the methods and tools Baxandall used to frame his arguments. Reading for method, not content.

Just because an argument is hard to understand, however, does not mean that it is invalid. As I move along with researching the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, I find myself looking at the organization differently, and I think Baxandall is largely responsible for this. Perhaps the most poignant argument made in the book regards the question of “influence” and how art critics have typically construed this term. Let us look at a few brief excerpts from pages 58-62:

“Influence” is a curse of art criticism primarily because of its wrong-headed grammatical prejudice about who is the agent and who the patient: it seems to reverse the active/passive relation which the historical actor experiences and the inferential beholder will wish to take into account. If one says that X influenced Y it does seem that one is saying that X did something to Y rather than that Y did something to X. But in the consideration of good pictures and painters the second is always the more lively reality… If we think of Y rather than X as the agent, the vocabulary is much richer and more attractively diversified: draw on, resort to, avail oneself of…adapt, misunderstand, refer to…

The Classic Humean image of causality that seems to colour many accounts of influence is one billiard ball, X, hitting another, Y. An image that might work better for the case would be not two billiard-balls but the field offered by a billiard table. On this table would be very many balls…and the table is an Italian one without pockets. Above all, the cue-ball, that which hits another is not X, but Y. What happens in the field, each time Y refers to an X, is a rearrangement… Arts are positional games and each time an artist is influenced he rewrites his art’s history a little.

The more I think about it, the more profound these statements become for me. What Baxandall refers to is the fact that there exists a reciprocal relationship between things. He specifically refers to the reciprocal relationship as it relates to the arts, but the same relationship exists for people and their memories, and that is how a study of art criticism relates to the study of a bunch of old Civil War veterans.

We influence the past as much as the past influences us. President Barack Obama has repeatedly mentioned that Abraham Lincoln has been an “influence” on his life as a politician. By saying this, we get the impression that Lincoln is the active agent and Obama is the passive patient of a relationship in which we see the legacy of Abraham Lincoln continued into our world today. However, Baxandall reminds us that the Obama-Lincoln relationship goes both ways, and that the actions of Barack Obama also “influence” the way we see Abraham Lincoln. This is particularly relevant as President Obama receives increased criticism for his complicity in overseeing secret drone attacks that have killed thousands of people in other countries. Rather than seeing the actions of Lincoln during wartime as “influencing” Obama’s actions during wartime, perhaps we can use Obama’s actions to glean new insights into the ways in which we understand and interpret Lincoln’s actions as a wartime President.

Likewise, our memories of the past are constantly changing and influenced by new events that occur in our lives. Let us consider two examples.

A man meets a woman at a music concert, and they fall in love. The two eventually get married, and the music concert is later remembered as an amazing, unforgettable night, one in which a shared interest (music) greatly “influenced” the very constructs of the relationship. Perhaps one song from the concert evokes particularly strong memories of this relationship and is later used at the wedding. But the relationship later turns sour, and the two get divorced. The divorce would undoubtedly “influence” the creation of new memories about these past events. The music concert, the songs, all of it would evoke memories of sadness, bitterness, and perhaps many others. The present influences our memories of the past.

A soldier goes off to war. The war is miserable. Conditions are horrible, friends and loved ones are greatly missed, and fellow comrades die. The soldier, at least during the war and perhaps a few years afterwords, focuses his or her memories on the horrors of war. But new opportunities arise. The soldier is able to get funding to go to school. He or she also meets the right person, starts a family, and gets a great job. As the war fades further away, the soldier’s memories of the war change. He or she may focus their memories on how the war opened up new doors of opportunity during peacetime, or they may reflect on how the experience of war allowed for the passage into adulthood, or they may view the wartime service as a sort of heroic badge of honor or distinction. Perhaps the horrors of war would remain in that person’s mind, but the desire to make sense of the carnage and move on with life would undoubtedly change the memories of that experience over time.

Many historians have looked at how the memories of the Civil War shaped veterans’ views on events during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (roughly 1880-1918, more or less). Fewer historians have attempted to understand how events such as the Pullman Car Strike of 1894 shaped veterans’ views of the Civil War. I hope to fill this historiographical void, but I’m still trying to determine how best to approach this. Furthermore, since I now understand that this reciprocal relationship exists, I am wondering if our memories of the past can ever be set in a fixed state in our minds. Michael Baxandall has me thinking that such a notion may be false. What do you think?



11 thoughts on “The Reciprocal Relationship Between the Past and Present

  1. Excellent! I’m always interested in how our present circumstances influence the way we view the past. Recently NC State hosted Dr. James McPherson to speak. He talked about how he got into Civil War history-via the 1950s Civil Rights movement. McPherson mentioned how he studied 1840s and 1850s abolitionists (19th century Civil Rights advocates) which led him to the political turmoil of the period which led him to the war.
    I wrote a half baked article called “Killing from a distance” comparing the Civil War artillery bombardments of Vicksburg, Richmond, and Charleston to drone strikes in Pakistan.
    Again, great post.

  2. Thanks a lot, Nathan. The questions we have about our contemporary society determine the sorts of questions we ask about the past. Even though some of us work hard to forget the past, all of us consistently find ourselves relying on it for precedent and possible answers to our problems today. Sounds like this is the case even with preeminent historians like James McPherson.

  3. Just looked through your memory articles here. Lots of neat stuff. My dissertation will be on the historical memory of the Civil Rights Movement using film and similar artifacts. As you discuss here, the past and present are very linked together. In particular, I regularly argue that a film, documentary, anything that makes use of history, tells us more about the time in which it was produced, than the history it “tries” to recreate or present.

    1. Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for reading through my memory articles here. I’ve been reading about memory for a few years, but have only dug deeply into the literature about it within the past year. Realizing the constructive nature of memory and how it reflects the time in which it was produced has really allowed me to better understand how we make sense of our realities, and this Baxandall passage really helped me out at the time of this writing.

      I look forward to reading your dissertation when it is completed. Thanks again for commenting!

      1. Thanks. 🙂 I know I have plenty of additional reading to do in memory theory. That’s next week’s agenda. If you know of any harder to find, must reads, please let me know.

        1. Hi Andrew,

          I’ve been leaning on a lot of Euro and Afro-centric memory studies to help develop my understanding of memory. For whatever reason, I’m not seeing as much on the American side when it comes to memory.

          One book on Memory and Tradition in American that I highly recommend is John Bodnar, “Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century”

          On the European side, I’d recommend James Fentress and Chris Wickham, “Social Memory”, Jacques Le Goff, “History and Memory”, and just about anything from Jay Winter.

          I’d also recommend Karen E. Till, “Memory Studies,” History Workshop Journal (Oxford University Press), Issue 62, Autumn 2006, pp.325-341 for an excellent collection of Memory studies that may be beneficial to you.

          Hope some of that helps.

      2. Awesome. Thanks. I’ll add these to my list. If you like, I’ll let you know if I come across any especially good books on the US end of historical memory.

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