The degree to which we, today, draw upon events in the archive that we know as “the past” and then use them for contemporary purposes is evident whenever you look at an old picture — particularly a photo of a person or situation that, long after the pic was snapped, came to signify something that we now hold dear (whether as representative of something valuable or maybe even dangerous). I think of this each time I see those slick sites that allow you to smoothly scroll between an image from the past and then how it looks in the present, with people in either period or modern dress appearing and disappearing against a seemingly stable backdrop. So too with the curious juxtaposition of an old photograph held up to match a current background. Just what do we do with the gap that we in the present can see between before and after, then and now — or do we even “see” such a gap? Do we instead see the past seamlessly leading to the present, or perhaps the past not just informing but even haunting the present? For behind statements of difference, such as “It looked like that then but it looks like this now,” there is a presumed sameness: the eternal “it” that just changes shape.
For instance, what do you make of Adolf Hitler’s baby picture, above? Is it even possible to view it as just another baby or is there an evil lurking there…?
Ron Rosenbaum, an American journalist, put the photo on the cover of his book, Explaining Hitler (1998), using it as the entry point into his investigation of how we today understand such things as evil and humanity. For as he writes in his preface:
We could project upon that impressionable baby face the stirrings of some deep emotional disturbance in embryo. But we could just as easily see there not incipient demonism but a kind of gentleness and sensitivity. We could just as easily predict this child would turn out to be Albert Schweitzer.
The challenge for the historically-minded social theorist is to find the ways that contemporary concerns make items from the limitless domain that we call the past relevant and worth preserving. While knowing that we cannot get back to the source itself and somehow see things in their own original context — for we can’t overlook that the very selection of what to try to see in this way is itself a choice that we, in the present, are making –, we can at least find the variety of (sometimes complementary, sometimes competing, or even contradictory) ways in which the past is now used, shining a light on the multiple interests in the present that continually work over the malleable past.
So can one see, say, pictures of the the World Trade Center prior to the disaster of September 11, 2001 (for example, when they were under construction, in the mid- to late 1960s), without feeling at least wistful or possibly impending dread, without lamenting what at least we now know inevitably awaits, without seeing the smoke and the twisted debris?
For this is the moment (much as what we feel when we spy the twin towers in an older movie filmed in New York City) when a contemporary narrative is working with what once was but a benign item — mere background, perhaps, much like in those movies set in NY — an item that, because of our choices now, has moved to the foreground, thereby re-fashioning the generic past as part of our emotionally-invested, socially formative archive; after all, in its own historical moment, when the steel workers were scurrying all over what was then a triumphant structure, there was no such future, just as for us now: the future is indeterminate, imagined, and utterly unknown to those in the situation. But not to the historical imagination, of course, which has the benefit of hindsight.
Or, to bring it far closer to home, can you look at your own family before you were even conceived (as in the picture below, with my three much older siblings as small children, with my parents [the adults second and third from the right], taken several years before my birth), and see them not as that small group of people you automatically recognize as “your family” but, instead, as a group of people you never met — and never will?
Recognizing that imagining our parents before they were our parents, or our older siblings when they were just children themselves, is just that — an act of our historical imagination — is, I think, the challenge of taking history, and how we use it in our always contemporary acts of identification, seriously.