Culture, History, and the Retrieval of the Past

by David L. Hall

David L. Hall is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso, Texas.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 120-126, Vol.15, Number 2, Summer, 1986. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Perhaps we had best not attempt to distinguish culture and history. Better that we understand them as jointly constituted. Together they form a diachronous web the strands of which lead backward into multifarious pasts and forward toward an unintegratable plurality of presents.

There were eighteen hours traveling time left, and I had not the slightest talent for sleeping on a bus. Granted a thirty-minute rest stop in Pecos, Texas, I went in search of a book. Inside a cafe I found a decrepit wire book stand of the sort that mercifully occupies every bus-rider’s oasis. Praying for "just anything interesting," I spun the wobbly roulette wheel that was to determine my fate for the next several hours. The motley hotch-potch of titles hanging from this leaning tower of Babel was almost completely unappealing, even to an indiscriminate adolescent. The book that finally captured my attention had a colorful, rather exotic, cover and a subtitle that promised, "A Brilliant History of Mankind’s Great Thoughts." (Its only serious rival had been The Way of Life: The Tao Te Ching.) I paid fifty cents, boarded the Trailways bus, nestled into my narrow seat and into the vastness of the desert spaces -- and soon into the yet vaster spaces of mankind’s great thoughts. The adventure begun that day opened me to the "endless beginning of prodigies" which life affords the fortunate.

As I recall that first encounter with philosophic thinking, I seem to capture the exact feeling -- the mixture of intrigue and perplexity, the congealed sense of awe the apotheosis of which is the lure for feeling that Whiteheadian philosophy now represents for me. Can I truly disentangle the original feeling, the original understanding? Recognizing the dense filter of the intervening past, how is it that the "I" I am can presume to celebrate the "I" I was then? Were I outside time, able to dip into it here or there at will, I should have little trouble in retrieving a specific past moment. I am, however, inexorably constituted by time, for without memory I should have no means of having, of being, a self. Only by remembering my self may I remain a self. In some crucial sense, I am my memories. The intellectual life, therefore -- conscious life, human life per se -- is a series of resorts to anachronism.

I could, perhaps, have learned this lesson from Hegel s totem owl, but not, I fear, without yielding to other, less productive doctrines. I might have learned it from Jorge Luis Borges, whose ficciones thematize that insight. ("Life is essentially anachronistic," he said, thus "every man is born at the wrong time.") But I encountered Borges long years after my introduction to philosophy. In fact, it was Whitehead who taught me this, and in the strange, roundabout manner that one is taught all truly valuable lessons.

The insight is entailed by Whitehead’s distinction between the genetic and morphological characterization of events, a distinction that contributes enormously to the power of his account in Adventures of Ideas. The constitution of a thing is both what it is and how it becomes. In a most important sense, a thing simply is how it becomes. But the genetic account cannot be the whole story. Most of what we see, of what we know, of what we are, is ex post facto -- anachronistic Thus process philosophies problematize the past in a dramatically urgent fashion: In individual experience immediacy is never fully enjoyed; satisfaction is a subsequent affair. Existence is ever-not-quite. We look to the past for the source of our enjoyment. That backward look, in fact, constitutes our enjoyment.

At the level of social and cultural existence the problematic aspects of the relations of past to present are construable in terms of the various cultural interests that channel our experiences and activities. An important way of characterizing that relationship is by reflecting upon the mutuality of the discipline of "history" as the shepherd of the past, and of "culture" as the repository of human significance synchronically presented for our celebration.

The relations of history and culture provide the architectonic of my present philosophic thinking. Its problematic, however, is the more general concern of process philosophy -- namely, the "past" in the sense of "subsequent enjoyment." My fundamental concern is with "remembering" and "forgetting" in their more general senses.

What does it mean to forget"? Certainly the most drastic sense of forgetting would be simply the renewal of ignorance: the cancellation of a portion of one’s past, the omission of it, its deletion. There is little to be said about this sort of forgetting except to wonder if it is indeed possible in the strictest sense. Such forgetting would entail the reconstitution of one’s character by virtue of the deletion of certain of the conditions occasioning that character. Can "effects," however we may wish to describe them, ever be cancelled? I have no wisdom with regard to this question, though I myself tend to believe not.

The less drastic senses of forgetting are expressed through three distinct modalities: incorporation, repression, and sublation. Incorporated experience is taken for granted. Even the weakest sense of such incorporation -- the acceptance of a portion of the past as "given" -- cancels its pastness and, a fortiori, its historicity. It is no longer contingent, no longer an event within a causal context that might have been other than in fact it was. The past so viewed has the character either of the given world -- nature itself -- or else that of a logical, atemporal truth, the sole response to which is: "Of course."

Repressive forgetting results in practical remembrance without conscious recognition or assent. The conditioning features of the past are efficaciously present, but not consciously so. Neither the incorporation nor the cancellation is complete. We must assume that the repressed elements are in active tension with the subject who has repressed them and, as such, are present to the subject as conditioning features.

The sublated past is forgotten in yet another way: like the incorporated past it is made a part of one, but not until it is transformed by recontextualization. The difference between incorporation and sublation is that, in the former, the propositional content and/or judgment form of the knowledge is retrievable, if only in the guise of a truism or an obvious "given." In the case of sublation, however, this is not so.

I have discussed so-called "forgetting" first in order to introduce the rather obvious paradox so often confronted by those who seek to understand the pastness of the past: It does appear that the senses of forgetting associated with incorporation, repression, and sublation are, in fact, meanings of "remembering."

The extreme importance human beings place upon meaningfulness argues for the dominance of sublated forms of remembering and forgetting in conscious experience. What is lost to memory in the act of sublation is preserved as an element of a context. The most fruitful forms of sublation occur with reference to interpretative schema that are, arguably, conceptual givens. An interpretation is a guide for the activities of incorporation and sublation. The maintenance of the balance between incorporation and sublation gives rise to the necessity of repression since initial data of experience which are inconsistent with incorporated or sublated elements must be handled in such a manner as to leave what are conceived to be vital incorporated or sublated elements essentially unchallenged.

Were we to consider the subject of meaningfulness at the level of cultural and historical experience and activity, we would be led to search for those structural elements that permit us to conform to the past and to conform it to ourselves. In Western culture this leads us to examine the three most general accounts we have given of ourselves -- namely, those of mythos, logos, and historia. These modes of accounting serve as the guardians of memory and, therefore, as guarantors of the persistence of the past.

Mythos is the first guardian. Its primary allies are the elements of meter and metaphor which give mythos substance and form. We survived the assault upon personal and communal memory which began with the invention of the brush, the stylus, and the pen in large measure because literature, music and the allied arts were conditioned by these guardians. Mythic themes, which gauge the profoundest dimensions of human life, ground our aesthetic sensibilities not unlike the manner in which principles ground our rational understandings. Meter, the soul’s own syntax, provides mimetic resonances of the cyclical themes of myth. Metaphor protects us from the fatigue that might otherwise be occasioned by repetitions of form and content. Less profound themes, unmetered, and without the comforts of metaphor, are trivialized and effectively lost to us. Art, literature, music, and allied cultural forms are remembered. And, through their agency, we ourselves are continually remembered.

The second guardian of memory is the account provided by logos. This account is privileged in our tradition and, thus, largely determines the manner in which the accounts of mythos are understood. In this mode of accounting meter is replaced by logical structure, metaphor is pressed into the service of literal, referential language. Archai, "principles," are discovered. Rational discourse is born. The attempt to separate logos and mythos is the heroic theme of rational culture. That endeavor is made on behalf of logos.

Historia is the third account which constitutes us as self-conscious beings. It is both in principle and in fact the most problematic of the three. On the one hand, history may be conceived as primarily concerned with particularities. This is Aristotle’s view. In the Poetics, Aristotle claims that poetry is more serious and philosophical" than is history, dealing as it does with universals rather than particulars. The poet is a maker of objects of imitation. He imitates actions primarily through the construction of plots. Plots, themes, archetypes, principles have universal characteristics. History, as the account of activities that did in fact take place, in contrast to what might have been, is concerned with particularities. The alternative treatment of history (certainly the dominant one in our tradition since Augustine’s De Civitate Dei) presumes to be an interweaving of the mythical and rational modes of accounting.

One must assume that the greater number of our philosophers have tacitly agreed with the Aristotelian claim, but have acted in distinctly different manners by virtue of that agreement. One group has thought to ennoble history by making it into a universal science" -- thus canceling its concern with particularities. The alternative response is to accept history as a chronicle of the past and nothing more. In the first instance history loses any claim to autonomy and serves as the story of the interactions of mythos and logos. Alternatively, history maintains its autonomy at the cost of its claim to cultural importance.

The fact that history has often been provided the universal themes of mythos and logos in order to render it meaningful has placed it into tension with "culture" insofar as that notion is held to name the presented matrices of meaning and interpretation that constitute communal consciousness and activity. For the danger is continually present that history may come to be construed solely by reference to the universal characteristics of the interpretative schema employed to make sense of it.

The historical enterprise is defended against this eventuality either by reverting to its status as the shepherd of particularities which are characterized strictly in situ or by claiming that culture as the presented immediacy of "the known," "the felt," and "the achieved" is but the latest in the series of historical products. There is an inherent danger to the discipline of history in the latter view. For if culture is conceived as the historically determined matrix of interpretations from out of which that interpretative scheme currently defining the meaningfulness of the past in relation to the present has been drawn, the discipline of history will remain viable only so long as it is believed that not all the interpretative schemata have been raised to consciousness.

Historicist reductions of cultural experience become increasingly difficult the greater is our sense of cultural self-consciousness. If culture, as the presented immediacy of communal experience and expression, is thought to contain the meaningful past in its entirety and to show it forth in a conceptually exhaustive manner, the sense of novel historical genesis may be lost.

The Hegelian claim that history, insofar as it may be construed as the story of the unfolding of cultural self-consciousness, has come to an end seems to be a given of the postmodernist. History as meaningful accounting comes to an end with the full consciousness of the interpretative schema that define and organize social activity and production. Historical accounts become repetitive when the philosophic and historiographical alternatives are long since known and catalogued. History becomes a tale twice-told and more.

Nietzsche confronted the problem of the "excess of history" most decisively. His first strategy was forwarded in the form of the ironic proposal that "active forgetting" might serve to revitalize the sense of historical novelty. We do well not to take Nietzsche seriously here. The active cultivation of ignorance of the past is no more satisfactory than is the meta-theoretical activity of charting the grand narratives that make sense of our historical existence. In the first case, history in its fullest sense is rendered inimical to creativity and survives only at the cost of excessive repression of its contents. In the latter instance, of course, history is reduced to the repetition of interpretation deriving from the inventories of mythos and logos.

As is true in so many other areas of intellectual culture, Nietzsche’s more serious response to the problem of the demise of historical consciousness was prophetic. Claiming that "only interpretations exist," Nietzsche was able to find the truth of things in the additive sum of perspectives. The accumulation of interpretations of a thing constituted the truth of a thing. The fragmentation of any notion of absolute perspective was expressed by Nietzsche in the doctrine of "the death of God." "Meaning" is no longer a function of coherence or consistency. History, if such it can still be called, is saved by the fragmentation of its narratives into unreconstructable elements which permit retrieval undisciplined by consensual interpretation. The most recent developments in contemporary culture in the sciences and the humanities suggest the prophetic character of Nietzsche’s thinking.

Culture, in the sense of high culture, is paradigmatically expressed through the humanities. Humanistic culture is constituted by the aims and interests in accordance with which social activity and its products are to be defined insofar as these are grounded in mythos, logos, and historia as modes of accounting. The humanities -- literature, philosophy, and history -- are the principal cultural modalities through which these accounts were classically expressed.

The contemporary fate of the humanities is a paradigm for the recognition of recent cultural developments. The fragmentation of cultural forms is rife, as evidenced by the deconstruction of narratives in literature, the substitution of the model of "edifying discourse" for that of foundational philosophy and the disintegration of the grand historiographical schemes into a plurality of nonintegratable minority histories. All these changes advertise the recognition that the futures of both culture and history as meaningful enterprises lie, paradoxically enough, in the disconstitution of the very interpretative structures that have until recently provided our resources for meaningful accounts.

The phenomenon of purposeful fragmentation may also be recognized in the development of computer technology. The computer as "retrieval system" is the primary illustration of the disconstitution of cultural forms. The term "retrieval system" is really an oxymoron, for the act of electronic retrieval could hardly be called systematic. Quite the contrary. The retrieval of stored data is an ad hoc enterprise determined largely by incorporative processes. Sublated memory is unproductive; efficiency and productivity are promoted if data persist throughout the storage and retrieval process as disjoined information bits passive to any number of distinctive combinations.

The traditionalist might feel more than a twinge of ironic sadness in recognizing the etymological connection of "retrieve" and "troubadour" (both deriving from trouver -- "to find"). Through their compositions, our medieval poet-musicians were retrievers of cultural significance. They composed, and in so doing, remembered. Culture is retrieval. Once that notion of retrieval entailed the conception of composition and remembrance. Culture composed us, remembered us. Our new paradigm of retrieval requires that the body of our culture be dis-membered, de-composed.

The refragmentation of the past, existing in the cultural present in the form of interpretations, is achieved through the agency of the computer as retrieval device. The computer is our contemporary troubadour. It is the winnowing sieve by which the past is disintegrated, deconstructed. It is perforce the savior of history by virtue of constituting the destroyer of form and interpretation our surfeit of which has rendered history into a mere rehearsal of a meta-theorist’s catalog.

Data constitute the fundament, the chaos of potentially new beginnings. But these beginnings are fitful, plural, and tactical. From this chaos one cannot expect a cosmos but a congeries of kosmoi, petites mondes -- ephemera. For without the interpretative schemes that make sense of the received data of the past, there is simple accumulation. History is the blind gathering of mere accretion. Any search for overarching meaningfulness must lead either to the all too familiar avenues which provide access only to the historically "old hat" or -- and this is the likely direction of our immediate future -- into the sense of sheer massiveness as meaningfulness.

I myself think there to be nothing desperate or cynical about such a reading of the contemporary relations of history and culture. There are histories, ad hoc manners of construing a (selected) present in relation to its effective past, but no history per se. The search for a single thread connecting past and present can only be motivated by political ideologues holding up the rapidly disintegrating myth of consensus or by romantic rationalists propounding the equally enemic myth of progress.

No longer construed in terms of themes or epochs or unfolding absolutes, history is the unorganized data initiating present experiencing. History as "initial data" supports the prominence of the genetic over the morphological character of experience. But at the very moment that history is transformed into the shepherd of particularities it is transmogrified once more into culture. For the immediacy insured by particular reference cancels the pastness of the past and makes all things present.

Perhaps we had best not attempt to distinguish culture and history. Better that we understand them as jointly constituted. Together they form a diachronous web the strands of which lead backward into multifarious pasts and forward toward an unintegratable plurality of presents.

The Mentor paperback of Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas which introduced me to philosophic thinking is still on my shelf, held intact now by a rubber band. I cannot but think it to be an interesting comment on the argument of this essay that upon my opening that hook this morning the pages fell piecemeal from the cover, landing in disparate array on desk and floor. Since its publication, the adventures of our principal ideas, "the history of mankind’s great thoughts," has followed a course not unlike that of this particular copy of that founding document of my intellectual life.