Over a year ago I wrote a post, which has haunted me ever since I wrote it; starting with the idea that “every present justifies its presence by clinging onto a past not considered previously,” I looked at two different readings of a fresco in the catacombs of Priscilla, in Rome, and concluded that these two readings of the past each authorize different interests in the present.
A few weeks ago I was recommended by a good friend to read Keith Jenkins’s book “Why History?” in which he writes (and which finds me in agreement):
Of course, the past per se is not imagined in the sense that “it” didn’t actually occur. It did occur, and in exactly the way it did. But it is an imaginary with respect to the historical meanings and understandings, the significances and purposes it has been deemed to have for us, both as a whole and in its parts. For no matter how much we may have “imagined” that such meanings and significances—both general and particular—have been found by us in the past, in fact the current generation of interpreters, like previous ones, constitutes the only semantic authorities there are: it is we who do the dictating in history. Put simply, we are the source of whatever the past means for us.
“The past” then, as I understand it, is subject to constant interpretations and often competing ones depending on situated readers and their interests, both consciously and unconsciously, in the sense that we understand the past through categories and concepts we have not necessarily invented but we nevertheless use – in other words: language itself, which is always historically specific and which we can’t escape.
Even though I do not wish to “give away the past” as Willi Braun wrote in his comment to my blog “to those who cavalierly represent it as an authorizing precedent for whatever interest gets them excitedly out of bed in the morning is, ironically, a means of enabling precisely the ideological representations of the past,” I’m in agreement with J.Z Smith’s famous line: “Map is not territory but map is all we possess.” So I’d argue that interpretations are all we possess. In other words, even though interpretations of the past may not be “the actual past,” interpretations are all we possess and through the uses of our own anachronisms and classifications, we fabricate the past – we make use of the past as we understand it now.
We do care about the past, or what we perceive is the actual past, because it is through talking about the past that we can authenticate ourselves in the present and we therefore invest time and energy in its understanding, interpretation, and preservation. In that sense, I can’t think that there will ever be a time when we will lose interest in stuff of the past since out of that we make objects to fit our own discourses and therefore interests. And that is because it is through our contemporary interpretations of past material, whether texts or material artifacts, that we learn and make sense not only of the world we now inhabit but ourselves as well.
In other words, interpretations, like mapping of the territory, are acts of identification. So acts of interpretation are all we possess; actually, understood in this way, interpretations make the past – even more so when the past is so far away from us that there is no one present, and in authority, to contest our interpretations (though different interests, and thus different readings, in the present will no doubt do in their absence).
So, I suppose now the question is what we, as scholars, wish to study: “the actual past” (which often comes with phrases like studying history “on its own terms,” and getting “back to the sources,” etc.), thereby trying to figure out which of those two readings of the catacombs fresco is correct, or those always modern acts of identification (i.e., interpretations, representations, anachronisms, discourses and the like) and the politics behind those acts that constitute “the past” in the first place?