The Memory of History: Looking On

Synagogue Gate. Budapest, Hungary
From The Memory of History

Now open at Europe House in London is an exhibition of The Memory of History, my project on the role of memory and history in the recent Euro crisis and recession. For the two weeks that the show is on I’ll be switching focus on the blog and publishing two posts which look back at the project and the things that gave rise to it. The first which looks at the background to the project is here. This post is the second which looks at some of the ideas that were key to the development and form of the project.

My original intention had been to produce a very simple, almost journalistic project, but that idea dissolved as I began to notice the central role of history and memory in the Euro crisis. As I shifted my lens towards the past, the intellectual underpinnings to the project inevitably moved as well. Photographing began to reawaken my own memories of texts I had encountered while reading history at university as an undergraduate, and these texts directed me in turn to new readings, and new ideas.

Rather than attempt to select a single idea that seemed to definitively match my own vision of the past, I sought to integrate multiple competing and at times contradictory ideas into the texts that accompanied my photographs. The aim in doing so was to show history as a fragmentary, nebulous blurring of different ideas and processes. I wanted to show the past as something understood very differently by different people, and also to demonstrate how that understanding is affected by less commonly acknowledged factors like human psychology and the sheer randomness of the universe. Here I want to discuss just three of the ideas that fed into the texts, but there were many more, encompassing topics from psychology to semiotics, and from literature to quantum physics.

An early idea that interested me was Carl Jung’s conception of synchronicity, or what he termed the ‘acausal connecting principle’. Synchronicity is the experience of identifying a connection between two casually unrelated events. For Jung it appeared to be compelling evidence of some inexpressible schema underlying the cold randomness of the universe. Jung’s original theory now seems quite quackish and subsequent research has suggested the perception of synchronicity just reflects natural human tendencies towards pattern forming. For me synchronicity both seemed to be an interesting metaphor for the historians own search for order and meaning in the randomness of events, and also more problematically seemed to offer a clue to the ways by which historians might identify importance and connections in historical events which sometimes appear to defy causality.

A strange reverse influence was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. In it Fukuyama adopted a Hegelian conception of history to hail the collapse of the Soviet Union and the apparent victory of democratic free market capitalism as, in effect, the end of man’s economic and political evolution. Fukuyama felt that democratic capitalism had proven itself to be the best system of government and would be universally adopted, and while history (in the sense of the passage of time, the occurrence of events, etc.) would continue, our political and economic evolution had reached its zenith. The twenty years since have rather proven the opposite, as a number of countries have turned away from democracy and free market capitalism has demonstrated its many unresolved problems. The spectre of Marx has not only remained present but it has even been joined by the new spectre of radical Islam.

Probably the most influential intellectual encounter for me though was returning to Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, a text I had read at university but not properly absorbed at the time. Benjamin wasn’t, strictly speaking, a historian, but his insights into the subject are remarkable and the cryptic, metaphorical quality of his writings leaves space for constant reinterpretation and reinvention. In these twenty numbered paragraphs, he sets out his ideas about the functioning of history in typically beautiful prose. At the same time he manages to precisely and mercilessly waste to the traditionally held notion of history as process of continual progress, an idea which underpins most models of capitalism and communism.

The most significant paragraph for me was thesis IX, one of the shortest. In it Benjamin offers his alternative view of history, not as a continuum of progress but as a ‘catastrophe’ the results of which are a pile of constantly growing wreckage, watched over by an angel who desires only to restore these fragments, to make them whole again. The angel however cannot, as he is propelled away from the wreckage and ever forward into the present by a violent storm blowing from the past. ‘This storm is what we call progress.’ This alternative vision of history was eye opening for me, a vision of the constitution of the past and our relationship with it which became central to the way I constructed the fragmented narrative of The Memory of History.

The Memory of History is on at Europe House, 32 Smith Square, London, SW1P 3EU (nearest underground station is Westminster). The exhibition is open Monday – Friday, 10am – 6pm until 26 September.

Download the exhibition press release.

View more images from the project.

Visit the 12 Star Gallery site.