The Map of Memory
Hope that is Real

The Lost Maps of Reality



This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

Henry V

William Shakespeare

History is more than a record of past events. It is the story of the actions and decisions of people, and as in this scene from Henry V, the shared experience of endeavor. The Spectacle of the Real, on the other hand, wants no part in the kind of history shared by King Harry and his "band of brothers" on the fields of Agincourt. Rather, they seek the public's passive attention to their opinions, in effect to nullify the living presence of the past.

In my post, The Map of Memory, I write,

"History, in its simplest form, is a story in the context of a specific time and place.  It provides perspective for understanding how we got here, and, possibly, where we are going. The map of memory helps us decide today what is true or real within the culture of the spectacle because it reveals the embodied relationship we have to the past.This is what a well-told story does for us. Places us into a context of meaning that helps us to know ourselves within the larger scope of history.

History, as a living narrative, is accessed through memory and recollection. Seeing history as the facts of chronological time, retrieved as lists of dates, events and personalities is to fail to see that the meaning of the past has meaning for today."

History carries a deeper resonance than simply my story or your story. It is even more than our story. It is the story that illuminates the present so that we can understand why life is the way it is, how we got here, and where we might go in the future.

There is a great divide, greater than the span of the Grand Canyon, greater than the length from our world to the end of the universe, greater than the distance from mind to heart. It is the divide between individual initiative and acquiescent passivity.

This difference is the one that exists between a life lived to the full, and a life that is viewed vicariously through personalities portrayed in the virtual world of the screen. This latter existence is what I see as The Spectacle.

Look, watch, observe and be a spectator; don't speak out, just listen; don't think, just comment; don't imagine, just accept; don't act on your own initiative, just do as you are told; don't remember, just be in the moment.

This is the message of The Spectacle of the Real. A life suspended in order to absorb the opinions and conjectures of others. To do this, one must detach oneself from time and the course of history. One must live only in the moment, and forget the continuity that exists in time.

But history does exist. It is all around us. It is discovered in places of honor, remembrance, restoration and reenaction. It is where families gather to remember lost love ones. It is where communities restore historic districts. It is where people gather to commemorate significant historical events.  In these settings, history can live as an act of remembrance. In others, the commemoration is The Spectacle, where the historic occasion is just the excuse to direct people's attention elsewhere. Where history lives, we can become a part of the story as it connects to a past that informs us of the realities of the world in which we live.

William Cronon writes about what American historian Frederick Jackson Turner told his students,

"... they must bring to the past their most urgent concerns of the present. "Each age", said Turner in 1891, "writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions upper-most in its own time. Pursuing that idea, he argued for a history that would study not just politics and elites, but the social history of ordinary people: "the focal point of modern interest," he wrote, "is the fourth estate, the great mass of the people.' A history that would do those people justice would have to study many fields-literature, politics, religion, economics, culture. It would have to focus on places and regions which past historians had ignored, places which, as luck would have it, were also home to many of Turner's students. It would have to turn to untapped documentary sources and apply new statistical techniques to their interpretation. It would have to set American history in the context of world history, and it would do so not by simple narrative but by studying problems. If these things were done, then the histories of ordinary people in places like Wisconsin or Kansas or California might come to have the significance they deserved. "History has a unity and a continuity," wrote Turner; "the present needs the past to explain it; and local history must be read as a part of world history." "

This is The Map of Memory, where the connections between generations, between past and present, between my story and our story becomes a panorama of understanding that we can share.

This living narrative is lost in The Spectacle of the Real. History is swallowed up, digested and regurgitated, as the authorized perspective replaces historical context. We, then, suspend our skepticism, that is at the heart of learning, in favor of a passive acceptance of expert opinion.

Without critical awareness, understanding the causes and meaning of moments in time becomes unnecessary. The goal of those who profit from The Spectacle is a passive, attentive following, who believe what they are told and accept what they see as true.

The Spectacle, therefore, is the active nullification of individual initiative and thought.

History Must Be Destroyed

French critic Guy Debord, writing in the context of Europe between the 1960s and 1980s, makes this point about the Spectacle's effect.

"With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning. ... One aspect of the disappearance of all objective historical knowledge can be seen in the way that individual reputations have become malleable and alterable at will by those who control all information: information which is gathered and also – an entirely different matter – information which is broadcast.  Their ability to falsify is thus unlimited. Historical evidence which the spectacle does not need to know ceases to be evidence. ... Never before has censorship been so perfect. Never before have those who are still lead to believe, in a few countries, that they remain free citizens, been less entitled to make their opinions heard, wherever it is a matter of choices affecting their real lives. Never before has it been possible to lie to them so brazenly. The spectator is simply supposed to know nothing, and deserve nothing. Those who are always watching to see what happens next will never act: such must be the spectator’s condition."

The Spectacle is a form of domesticated thought control. It is the efficient management of public opinion through self-censorship and collective shame. 

All we need to know about what to think, who to trust, what to buy, who to vote for and what not to say is gained by listening to the expert pundits who fill the internet and television programming with their opinions and prejudices. To doubt is to court humiliation and shunning. To be a person free of having to think for him or her self, and take responsibility for making a better world is to listen, follow and do nothing. It is a kind of noble passivity where one feels apart of some great following, while contributing very little.

Bloggers know that embedded in the comment section of their weblogs lies a public seeking intellectual communion with others. The comments may be rude and disrespectful in many cases. And many are parrots and trolls who simply comment to suppress alternative comments. Yet, seeing one's ideas in print along side dozens or hundreds of other commenters creates the sense that individual contribution and mass support is possible, and can make a difference.

That difference can be made only if our perspective is broader than whatever is on the screen of our computer or television. To think independently, we must learn to read the Map of our Memories within the context of history. We need to realize that the context that we are often fed online is non-existent.

In order to think, to understand, to make our own choices, and act upon them, we must reconnect with our history.  We must look beyond the moment and recognize that what is happening now is a product of what happened in the past. It is all connected, and by making the connections, we gain wisdom for our lives, our families and communities. Here's an example of what I mean.

The Context for Understanding

Torkham - Kyber Pass - Afghan-Pak border
The border village of Torkham - Kyber Pass - Afghanistan-Pakistan border - July 1981

If we knew our history and the history of other peoples, would we have ventured into a war in the mountains and on the plains of Afghanistan?

But we did go. Do you know why? Was it to fight the war on terror or secure our rights to oil? Did we go because we didn't not want to show weakness in the face of terrorist destruction? Or, did we go to project American strength and confidence in the world?

See how confused our reasoning was. All those reasons are not reasons, but attempts to justify what essentially was an unclear context of understanding. These are the reasons that are derived from The Spectacle, which is founded upon the projection of unquestioned authority. For all the bright and intelligent experts who have continued to speak about the war on terror, not a one, in my opinion, has yet to provide a clear historical context for our actions, both domestic and foreign, since 9/11.

What do you think? Are we in a better place as a nation today than in 2001?

While I do believe America is exceptional, I also believe that it requires us to be far more humble and circumspect than we have been in our response to terrorism.

To know the history of the Afghan region is to know that war is not occasional, but perpetual. It is to recognize that no one invades and conquers. Rather one leaves as a stalemate is reached. It happened to the Soviets. It is now happening to us.

Without historical perspective, we believe anything. Collect the right images together, and anyone can be fooled for a fortnight. Then the next Spectacle is upon us because there is no real historical continuity, only momentary linkages.

Without historical perspective, we believe that history is on ourside. We look at the outcome of the Second World War, and think, we can do it again. We tried in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and now on the steppes of Central Asia. What has been the outcome? What is the endgame? Can there be a perfect outcome? Can there ever be an ending? These questions are much more easily answered when we have a understanding of history's continuity over time.

At the heart of that history is remembering the failures that brought perspective. What did we learn from our past wars?

From the Civil War on through to the current war on terror, what we learned is that if we apply enough technology, enough young creative minds and bodies to the battle, then we can defeat any foe. At least that is what we tell ourselves. In other words, we learned not humility, but hubris.

As a mindset, this hubris is applied every where American power can be exercised home or abroad.

I see this because as a person born and raised in the American South. As the descendent of men who fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War, I grew up in a region that understands what it means to lose a war, and the consequences of that loss. Many of those who fought in the Vietnam conflict feel in similar ways. Yet, their loss is not to the Communist forces they faced but rather from their conviction that their country failed to stand by them as they put their lives on the line for their country.

North Carolina Memorial at Gettysburg

Two members of my family served with the 55th North Carolina Vounteers, one, my great, great grandfather, Alfred Belo commanded the regiment at Gettysburg, and another, his brother Henry, died later, during the Battle of The Wilderness. The following two quotes are taken from Jeffrey Girvan's history of the regiment.

"Once in the Confederacy, North Carolina made important contributions to the South's quest for independence. Approximately one-fifth of all the provisions and supplies used by all Rebel armies came from the Old North State. An estimated 125,000 men from North Carolina eventually served in Confederate regiments and state militia units ... at least one-eighth of all soldiers who fought for the South were from the Old North State. Only 19,000 of these fighting men were draftees. Over 23,000 North Carolinians deserted during the war, more than from any other state in the Confederacy. By the end of the war approximately 40,275 North Carolina soldiers had been killed in battle or had died from disease while serving in the army. One-fourth of all Confederate soldiers killed on the battlefield were from North Carolina."

This is part of the historical context of the Civil War. Why did all these men leave their homes and venture off to fight in a war? Is it simply to preserve the institution of slavery as we are informed today during the 150th anniversary of the war? Or is there something more going on that gives reason to their service.

"The 55th North Carolina was probably one of the least homogeneous regiments from that state. The ranks of the unit were filled by men from every region in the state and represented over 20 counties. This regiment was a microcosm of the state. These counties varied in political ideology, social institutions, total population, slave count, and economic stability. The majority of the counties represented in the regiment contained less that 4,500 slaves, but the unit had a company of men from Granville which according to the 1860 Federal Census had more slaves than any other county in North Carolina. ... Most of the soldiers who fought with the 55th owned no slaves and worked as yeoman farmers or farm laborers. Although farmers constituted the majority of the regiment, there were also blacksmiths, teachers, merchants, lawyers, doctors, and mechanics. it is reasonable to assume, on the basis of the soldiers' letters and the 1860 Federal Census information, that most of the men who fought for the 55th were not strongly motivated by questions regarding slavery. However, they still felt motivated to resist when "outsiders" invaded their soil, and they were not about to let Yankees dictate how they should live their lives."

There is much more to be said about the historical context of the reasons why these men from North Carolina and the South would go to war against their own countrymen. It is the story that is missed in the coverage of the 150th. anniversary observance. It doesn't fit the narrative because it isn't simple or image based. This lost of historical reference points means a loss of perspective about what it means to be an American.

What is it that drives people to visit a battlefield like Gettysburg? Is it a shared experience of battle as soldiers? Is it family history? Is it a desire to understand this pivotal moment in our nation's history?

Today, what does the Civil War, understood both from a Northern and Southern perspective, tell us about how we should have approached the war on terror?  What about other threats to the nation?

In the end, what drove these mostly farm boys to war was an ancient notion of honor. This idea is gone, totally eradicated, from The Spectacle that is presented to us each day in Washington, on Wall Street, and through the media. If you look there, you will not see it. You must look away to those who do not seek your attention, but rather live quiet lives of service to their families, neighbors and communities.

What has not been lost by the public is an understanding of the importance of trust in relationships. People who venture to military parks like Gettysburg, whether they are aware of it or not, come because honor is, ultimately, the only answer to Why did they fight. And they seek, whether they realize it or not, the lost virtues of honor and trust that are fought for on battlefields wherever citizen soldiers fight.

Recovering the Lost Map of Reality

In my post, The Map of Memory, I present a perspective that characterizes our memory as a map. The more connections there are, the more detailed the map of memory, and the greater our understanding of the landscape of meaning.

French theorist Jean Baudlliard's Simulacra and Simulation, written a quarter century ago, is today more relevant than ever. He writes,

The great event of this period, the great trauma, is this decline of strong referentials, these death pangs of the real and of the rational that open onto an age of simulation. Whereas so many generations, and particularly the last, lived in the march of history, in the euphoric or castastrophic expectation of a revolution - today one has the impression that history has retreated, leaving behind it an indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references.

Walking the battlefields of Gettysburg during the 150th. anniversary of the battle, I wondered whether there were sufficient reference points for the thousands of people present to understand what had taken place. More than anything, as troop movements are described, cannons fired, and heroism celebrated, I wondered if anyone would leave with an understanding that these thousands of young men did not come to play war games, shoot their cannons recreationally, and go to battle to have stories of heroes to tell their grandchildren. They came to kill as many men on the other side of the battlefield as possible in the name of honor.

The Spectacle avoids death in these terms. Death as the purpose of fighting wars. Death to the Spectacle is something to sensationalize, as the daily murder trials that fill newspapers and televised news shows. We become immune to death when the killers become celebrity personalities. It becomes a game whose purpose is to divert us from reality.

The nation's awareness of the deaths on 9/11 are the exception. Within a few short months, though, we loss our historical perspective as Americans cheered the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I am not a pacifist. I believe that war is often necessary and unavoidable. I respect and honor the men and women who go to war. But I do not at the same time view it as a game, a Spectacle for our amusement. I hate the deaths that result, the loss to families and communities, and the desensitization to death that results.

French cultural philosopher Guy Debord, who was the first to write this phenomenon in Society of the Spectacle and two decades later, in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, writes,

History’s domain was the memorable, the totality of events whose consequences would be lastingly apparent. And thus, inseparably, history was knowledge that should endure and aid in understanding, at least in part, what was to come: ‘an everlasting possession’, according to Thucydides. In this way history was the measure of genuine novelty. It is in the interests of those who sell novelty at any price to eradicate the means of measuring it. When social significance is attributed to what is immediate, and to what will be immediate immediately afterwards, always replacing another, identical, immediacy, it can be seen that the uses of the media guarantee a kind of eternity of noisy insignificance.

This is how we came to lose our maps of reality. What is reality, if not a clear perspective where we can see ourselves in both a positive and critical light. We have lost this capacity for self-criticism as individuals and as a nation.

The things that provide us a basis for understanding the past are being lost in the unreality of the Spectacle.

History isn't simply facts, dates and names or a rationale for contemporary ideologies. History is a living human context of conversations about who we are as people and how we inhabit time and space on both a local and a global scale. It is also what has truly mattered in our lives when we reach our lives' end.

George Santayana is famous for having written, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

If we are to recover reality from the nullification of our minds and souls, then we must reclaim the context of history as a the map of memory, connecting past and present together as a living reality. 

All this requires is a willingness to think for ourselves and take responsibility for what we learn. That's all.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.
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