21 February 2010

Just Start Digging: a conversation about Memory and the Framing of Heritage

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The final version of this conversation with Jeremy Davies is published as ‘Just start digging: Memory and the framing of heritage’ in a special issue of Memory Studies entitled ‘Nostalgia and the Shapes of History’, edited by Nadia Atia & Jeremy Davies (3:3, July 2010, 196-203).

Jeremy Davies: We’re meeting to mark the publication of new, revised editions of your books On Living in an Old Country (2009a [1985]) and A Journey Through Ruins (2009b [1991]), twenty years after they first came out. I wanted to start by asking why you’ve chosen to reissue them, and why now? 

Patrick Wright: In a way I’m very lucky, because most writers don’t get a chance to republish anything. Between about 1980 and the early 1990s I wrote three books concerned with national identity and the changing presence of the past in what we used to call ‘Thatcher’s Britain’: these two and The Village that Died for England (2002 [1995]). Through them I got involved in arguments with Raphael Samuel of the History Workshop project (see especially Samuel, 1994). Then Raphael got ill and died at the end of 1996, which was a great sadness, and it seemed inappropriate to do anything other than leave our unfinished dispute suspended.

Later, OUP took on a more recent book of mine and, in the course of putting it together, asked me what else we might do. At the time I was beginning to think that I must revisit these earlier arguments. I felt I couldn’t really make substantial changes to the texts, which belong, for whatever they’re worth, in their own time. I did, however, take seriously the business of reintroducing them.

A lot of attention has gone into the question of ‘heritage’ in the years since those books came out, much of it quite detached from the broader political questions that interested me and more concerned with questions of museum management. I don’t object to the practical or ‘vocational’ orientation, and yet some of the ‘heritage studies’ courses I’ve seen appear to be systematically uninterested in the cultural ramifications of their subject matter. So, I suppose, what I was trying to do in the new introductory material and the annexes I added to the books, was to review the wider context in which these questions of heritage and memory came to matter so much in post-war Britain: to indicate why the subject emerged as a major public theme in those years, and why it should not now be lost to courses exclusively concerned with resource management and the rest.

As for your question, ‘Why now?’, it is, I think, only an accident that the books, which trace the rise and, in the case of A Journey Through Ruins, apparent fall of the Thatcher project, should have reappeared in the midst of a recession that may, even without a change of government, mark the end of the New Labour sequel. 

 Why was the topic of heritage of such pressing concern? The debates you and others had with Raphael Samuel were very sharp at the time. 

We had this dialogue going which was indeed often quite spiky, but there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s better than silence, after all! You learn in a sense to look after your discussants, and you maintain an interior dialogue with them even after they’ve gone, which I in my own way still have going with Raphael. But the History Workshop project was fundamentally about enfranchising subordinate memory and subordinate history, a project of testimony and of extending respect and interest to the excluded.

From that perspective my conjectures could indeed seem very abrasive, even destructive. I suspect the main issue was that the new focus on heritage was not just a product of laudable campaigns such as History Workshop. The emerging theme was also shaped by the coming reality of the age, which was the Thatcherite policy of market-led economic and social transformation: a project of change and modernisation, to be sure, but one that took a characteristically reactionary form, not least because it needed an appeal to history and tradition to give legitimacy to the upheavals it unleashed. The reactionary part of it was to reinstate an idea of British historical destiny that treated the whole period of the welfare state as if it was an entropic disaster that had reduced the true British people to abject creatures of a failing social democracy. I saw the restitution of an imperial and often racially defined idea of British identity, and tried to respond to the presence of history in the media and in the press and in political rhetoric, which really did demand a more critical than reverential understanding The whole conservationist agenda which had been developed over previous decades by campaigners concerned with old buildings, streets and sometimes communities too was being shaped by these broader currents, even if one should be careful not to overstate the extent to which it had been systematically hijacked. As these wider questions of national identity came to the fore, and were repeatedly ignited by policies such as privatisation, a lot of new ideological fall-out settled over what may still have seemed relatively innocent debates about architecture and history. It seemed to me quite clear that there were forms of memory and consciousness of history that had to be questioned in their influence on the present. One could not reasonably say ‘the more the better’ of either. 

Yet you always insisted that just attacking the heritage project from the outside wasn’t enough. That was the crucial move: to get beyond any kind of straightforward opposition.

 I think this remains the crucial question. Looking back, I think it also marks the failure of the debate we had in the eighties and nineties. It was possible, as might easily be concluded from Robert Hewison’s The Heritage Industry (1987) and even more from coinciding arguments in architecture by Stephen Bayley, Martin Pawley and others, to advance the critique of ‘heritage’ from a position that seems to deny any legitimacy to questions of memory and conservation – as if there is nothing to the much-derided sense of ‘nostalgia’ except a pitiful form of weak-mindedness. I’ve come across people in the conservation world – Alan Machin has provided a telling account of this experience in Halifax (Machin, nd) – who were doing really good municipal conservation projects, but who were told by councillors after Hewison’s book came out that this was all so much nostalgic rubbish. At the same time, there were quite a few in the conservation movement who thought that the new wave of criticism was the work of upstarts who didn’t know what they were talking about – mocking outsiders who could safely be ignored. That’s how the debate we had in the 1980s and 1990s looked when it came to a halt. It was left as a stand-off between modernisers and archaists, and that’s nothing, it’s a wrong calculation.

The remaining question, which I wanted to reopen, was how could one analyse and understand these questions of heritage and historicity, without merely offering dismissive polemics from on one side or other of a simplistic opposition. It was clearly inadequate to take up this sort of polarized position – as we saw in the absurd style war between ‘modernism’ and ‘classical revivalism’ stirred up by Prince Charles in architecture.

What I have tried to argue in my review of this debate is that a wider critical intelligence should actually be located within the movement for historical consciousness. There are particular reasons why this is the case now, but it is actually how things have been in the conservationist movement since the late nineteenth century. Given that we are in a situation where thinking about history and memory has certain possibilities and potentialities, the role of critical reflection is not to take the side of the bulldozers but to help the movement to define what its options are in any given circumstances, to identify the wider cultural loads it might be bearing, and to help clarify how it should advance its values. I’m definitely with those who want to use the past to illuminate, remind and caution the present, but I think the perspective has to avoid a kind of sentimental simplicity, and bear in mind the extent to which new circumstances demand new ways of thinking. Instead of a resurrectionist cult of the past (anyone tempted in this direction might do well to consider Zygmunt Bauman’s book Memories of Class (1982)), we need a practically orientated theory of history, and an intelligence that gives us a clearer sense of how the past might help us to address the present in its distinctiveness.

So I think the critical intelligence belongs in the movement itself, because the movement is a serious and increasingly important one.I’m not suggesting that one has to be polite or merely affirmative, but rather that the critique should operate within and accept the importance of the field. Going back to the things I was trying to do in those books, the post-war decades had produced an enormous efflorescence of interest in history and the historical environment, and I thought that these things shouldn’t in any way be made available to the reactionary polemic that was coming out of the wider politics of the time. I wanted to get a grip on how the presence of the past worked in people’s lives, and particularly in relation to the idea of the nation, because the past was very much being expressed in connection with ideas of national identity. Nostalgia had become a great issue, but I was interested in how nostalgia was generated: not necessarily in a programmatic way by doctrines and political movements – although that does happen – but as an aspect of everyday life. That was the move I was interested in making. I think probably I could have done a lot of it through Durkheim or Maurice Halbwachs and other sociologists (see Halbwachs, 1992), but I ended up reading Agnes Heller, whose book on history (Heller, 1982) very much interested me, and still does, for its attempt to reach through all that material. 

So you’re arguing for an epistemologically modest approach, one that would avoid presuppositions and ask what particular groups are actually taking from their encounters with heritage? 

I think that would be great. The question is what resources are to be drawn from history, and so it would seem to make sense to add another set of reflections, a proper analysis of what people are actually using this for. I would never say nostalgia is my subject or cause, I would never profess loyalty to it, because nostalgia and memory can play in lots of different ways, be articulated in very different directions. I think the critical job is to see them in their context and to work out what their potentialities are, and to help them achieve a level of consciousness. You don’t have to provide answers but raising these questions into view is important, because ideas don’t always travel in conscious forms. 

And yet I wonder if there’s a degree of tension between that project and another that you pursue, because there’s also a strong sense in both books that you want to work up a specifically Left critique, a critique that believes in the capacity of the state to plan and organise a public realm. 

 Well, that may seem completely archaic nowadays. But at the time I wrote these books, there was still a state to defend – and it wasn’t just the military with nuclear power stations and one-person-operated street cleansing machines added. There was still a sense of possibility about planning, urban development and even housing. To take the side of the state now might feel a bit like stepping into thin air with a lot of security cameras and a few contract officers and performance indicators thrown in. But I still think of myself as being on the left, although it’s a left that’s gone through its own enormous journeys, which may be hard to distinguish from a process of disintegration! The idea of an increase in democracy through the development of popular thought and concern – that argument in a way still does figure as part of the left. The decline of one form of statist collectivism might open the way for the recovery of other forms of mutual aid. You could look, for example, at the history of the common in British and European social life. People think of it as archaic, but as a way of organising activity, as a way of organising mutual interests that are not overwhelmingly the same, it indicates a form of collectivity that is not collectivist. If you have a piece of common land, one person may have rights to pick up firewood, another person to put a sheep on it: you have a system where everyone’s use is differentiated but mutual. It seems to me that the common remains a very good metaphor for what the public interest might be in the present.For me the miners’ strike was a real break. I was working then for the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and I used to go to Yorkshire to work with some of the women who were forming support groups in the mining villages, so I was quite close to some aspects of it. There was no question where your sympathies lay, but Scargill’s ballot-jumping politics hung over that movement like a fatal cloud. It was disastrous, and I couldn’t go the journey with people who were prepared to write in support of Scargill. I remember being sounded out to write something for a book on the ‘Coal Not Dole’ theme. I could throw coins in a bucket, of course, but actually making an argument for the cause? I couldn’t do it.

Much has changed since then, of course. But I still find myself exploring things from a perspective that I associate with currents on the left. Not just the centralized state, to be sure, but the memory, wrapped as it often is in an experience of failure, of a not entirely defeated universalism, and of unrealized potentialities that need to be handled with care.  

You once described the methodology of these books as based on a decision to opt for territory over genre, as if you were drawing on approaches from geography or area studies. Your work is often about affective responses to a place that becomes invested with great hidden resonances. As well as nostalgia being the object of the investigation, it seems that you use nostalgia as a way to write, as a way of entering into these places. 

As I think of it, a territory is not the same thing as a place. Perhaps a territory is what you get if you take a place and excavate its resources. You start with a place that seems really local and on the edge of everything, and then you discover the entirely central forces that have intersected in its creation. I was aware of writing in a topographical tradition, but I didn’t want to settle for the plangent losses of the picturesque. I wanted to approach these sites more ambitiously, to reflect upon wider themes, and to use various archives, not just for the sake of ‘evidence’ to back up preconceived ideas, but as a source of surprising potentialities that can bring even the most flattened place alive. That was how I thought of east London when I wrote A Journey Through Ruins. I think that book reads in a way better now than it did then, because it does give quite a good sense of what it was like to live through the shuddering halt that was brought to the system of welfare-state development. In many ways, of course, east London was a flagrant, even crazy place, full of writhing energy, but there was also this strange sense of immobility and arrest about the place, as if history had been drawn to a halt and no-one had yet figured out a new course. A Journey Through Ruins is a bit dyspeptic and rude; there’s a certain amount of score-settling going on in it. But I did that on purpose because the voice of the untroubled academic theorist droning on didn’t seem to engage with the chaos in the world that we were all having to make sense of.

I wasn’t involved with the universities at that time anyway. Iain Sinclair and I were running around that part of town together; he was writing Downriver (2004 [1991]), and I think that, for all their differences, our books have that impatience in common. We also knew for sure that we didn’t want to leave this experience to the usual literary voices coming in from Hampstead and other points west. As for nostalgia, I can hardly avoid pleading guilty to that charge. Perhaps you can divide people into those who feel the need to go back to places they’ve known in the past, and others who don’t. I’m certainly in the former camp. Nostalgia is part of my method, and I hope not just out of weakmindedness. And yet there is also a strong case for caution here. While it is possible to historicize almost any situation, you won’t always end up with an answer adequate to present problems. There are problems in the present that don’t have an answer in the past, so when you historicize your perceptions you have to be aware that you are not involved in any simple ‘problem-solving’ exercise. Nostalgia can be like Freud’s Melancholia. As Paul Gilroy (2004) has indicated, it can operate as an almost psychotic compensatory mechanism that produces consoling simplicities in an age of complexity. At the same time it can be a way of keeping all sorts of questions open, of thickening things up, of escaping programmed realities. When I was writing these early books, it was abundantly obvious that the centre of the culture was blown, and I was using fragments of memory to explore and also challenge that fact. From still derelict bomb sites to metal detectorists and telephone boxes, they appealed to me as traction points for a kind of critical intelligence and a reminder of what was being cancelled in the present. I was repelled by the idea of a progressivist framework in which time and societies only move forward and failure is invariably converted into defeat. Fragmentary as they certainly were, my adventures in critical nostalgia seemed one way of opposing the neo-liberal version of that. Your project is really about examining the ways in which people negotiate that awareness of loss or fragmentation, I suppose. A sense of disconnection exists in everybody’s lives in one way or another, and yet the nostalgic impulse needs to be handled with care. Memory can serve as a principle of solidarity as well as critique, a resource that enables people to gather energies against whatever is going on in the present. Like the ‘Melancholy’ of old, nostalgia is not just a psychological disease, but a form of creative disengagement and critical reflection. Yet it can also offer bad consolation, or imply a poisonous or oversimplified denial of the present. This is why it needs to be accompanied by a wider understanding of the conditions under which it exists. Hannah Arendt sounds a great warning in her preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism. Writing just after the Second World War, she reflects on the recent rise of anti-Semitism, imperialism and totalitarianism, and suggests that the liberal idea of a progressive history must be questioned: ‘We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition’ (Arendt, 2004 [1951]: xxvii). Obviously, Arendt is not thinking primarily of museums here, but I think that she says something of decisive importance about the way the idea of ‘heritage’ works in relation to the wider dynamics of history. At about the same time that Arendt was coming to this realisation, the British novelist and classicist Rex Warner was also considering what was happening to the experience of history, transformed as he saw it by the rise of science over religion and also by the near collapse of Liberal Europe as its basic values were challenged by both fascism and Stalinism. In books like Why Was I Killed? (1943) and The Cult of Power (1946), Warner suggested that the sense of national history that had once seemed to sustain these western societies in their movement forward had collapsed into disconnected and therefore easily manipulated legends, myths, and utterances about ‘our glorious heritage’. These questions are still very much alive. ‘Heritage’ remains at least as much an expression of discontinuity as of its opposite, and the bibliography continues to expand in the most interesting way in different national contexts. The Parisian historian Francois Hartog’s work on ‘regimes of historicity’ (2003) is full of suggestive insights. In his discussion of Walter Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’ Giorgio Agamben (1994) suggests that with the demise of traditional society, history becomes unable to drive or, in an equally figurative sense, even to accommodate the present. It becomes like nature in an age defined by the threat of ecological catastrophe: once conceived as the foundation of the present, it is now dependent upon the present for its maintenance, its meaning and its continued existence. These are big and ongoing changes in the wider status of memory, and they are why this enquiry should not just be considered some obscure annexe to museum studies. The theme of heritage is not just about ideological posturing in the present or the way regimes decorate themselves in history. It’s vitally connected to this fundamental question of the nature and experience of historicity in a period of massive technologically-mediated change. Your question about ‘fragmentation’ also brings us to the attraction or otherwise of the late twentieth century ruin. I took my subtitle, ‘a journey through ruins’, from the late Douglas Oliver’s still absurdly under-rated poem ‘The Infant and the Pearl’. In this context a ruin is not just a building that is falling down, it’s the mark of a wider dereliction in the relation between history and the present. You get an awareness of this in Aragon’s treatment of the doomed Passage de l’Opéra in Paris Peasant, but Walter Benjamin figured larger in my mind at the time: that great sense of the luminous and suggestive fragment that he seems to have derived as much from Jewish tradition and, indeed, from Dürer as from Marxism. What I found myself doing was attaching my attention to objects or events that seemed suggestive or symptomatic in their distress or anachronism. My research would nearly always involve archives of one sort or another. I used these both as sources of information with which to thicken up the reality in question, and also as alienation devices with which to confront prevailing assumptions and perspectives. So what I found myself trying to do involved both disenchantment and re-enchantment. The thing I enjoyed about these investigations was the detection of significant patterns even in trivial occurrences, the sense of surprise encountered in relation to apparently very routine everyday realities. It’s a continuing pleasure to find unexpected depths in the more or less habituated reality around you. But I don’t want to be too lofty about this. I was really just picking stuff up and then digging. I was very well aware that my approach fell short of any university-based method. It’s closer to the amateur metal detectorist than to the professional archaeologist. I suppose I was also following the advice of the American poet, Charles Olson, who suggested, in the ‘Bibliography on America’ he drew up for Ed Dorn (Olson, 1964), that it didn’t really matter what you chose to investigate, just so long as you started digging.  Perhaps this is where a certain strategic nostalgia becomes useful, because nostalgia is an emotion that arises from precisely that kind of encounter: one that makes us feel that our past is something necessarily strange to what we’ve become, or out of reach of what exists in the present. Well, it can be – although it can also be about hankering for simplicities, of projecting imagined ideas of identity back into the past, or hauling them out of the past and using them to delegitimize aspects of present life. In general, though, I’d agree with your point. This is what I like very much about Vernon Lee and her attack on the ‘Muse of History’, written shortly after the First World War (1920 [1918]). She declaims that history isn’t about identity and continuity as the propagandists had been invoking it. Instead, she says, it’s all about otherness. Attacking the costume-drama sense of history, Lee insists that the only certain lesson of history is that it changes; the only constant rule in history is change, and the past is always other than the present. It’s quite an extreme argument, made in opposition to state-fostered manipulation of history in the interests of war patriotism, but I think it remains valuable for its reminder that we should engage the sense of the past not just in terms of identification, but in terms of that sense of otherness. Both possibilities exist within the terms of nostalgia as we’ve been discussing it. If the past was entirely other there wouldn’t be any history, so there must be continuity and identity as well, but I think the issue is to ensure the play between the two. Under the rubric of nostalgia I’d gather all kinds of curiosity and half-formulated impulses and sentiments, but I’d also want to engage a more analytical perspective too, and there’s nothing wrong with the two travelling together.Finally, it’s crucial to say that whatever historians can do I hope we’re finally past the point that J.H. Plumb (1969) seemed to put us at, of thinking that the historian’s job is to obliterate all non-disciplined perceptions of history, and that your aim as a public historian should be to dissolve public awareness of history back into conformity with true academic history. The urge for truth is as important as ever, but I don’t think Plumb’s professionally framed project is either possible or worth embarking upon

Fulbourn, 14 October 2009 

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