Which Past Do You Authorize?

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I’m testing a theory, if tomorrow’s present is yesterday’s future-not-imagined, then every present justifies its presence by clinging onto a past not considered previously, by which it will then imagine a different future and so on. The problem that rises, then, is that since there are many presents—that is competing interests in the present about possible futures—then there are, as well, many available pasts, to choose from. I think that this, somehow, explains why we anchor to the past, because it’s the only thing we think we know, even though it is as obscure as the future. But since we “were” yesterday it stands to reason that yesterday was and no doubt yesterday was; but what form, shape and meaning we will give to yesterday is contingent upon our current interests and needs, and the possibilities are innumerable. Yes, you are right to think that just like anything else the past is in the eye of the beholder though it is fairly complicated and one complication is: who is behind the eye of the beholder?

Take for example a fresco that has been revealed in Italy. Before reading the story and just by looking at the picture I saw a group of people one of whom was at the center standing with the hands raised as if in appeal to the divine; of course I already knew from the headline that that was a fresco in a catacomb, therefore I was reading the fresco already in a preset setting. As my experience in religious matters derives from Greece and since there are no female priests there and any kind of discussion around this matter is out of the question, I was also pre-set not to see a woman-as-priest and I therefore proceeded to read the article with curiosity (making evident, from the start, how my present location as reader, is playing a significant role).


The article offered two explanations of what the fresco depicts: One comes from the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests which argues as you can very well imagine that the scenes show women priests, and the other from the Vatican. According to the Vatican the woman in the fresco is “just a woman praying” though of course theirs is a reading of the past as well despite what Fabrizio Bisconti, the superintendent of the Vatican’s sacred archaeology commission, said concerning others’ alternate readings of the past: “These are readings of the past that are a bit sensationalistic but aren’t trustworthy!”  Now, none of these readings is necessarily wrong or right, for that matter, and none of them is necessarily about what the fresco really depicts. If I take seriously the opening of my syllogism “there are as many pasts as there are presents” then the two explanations are two out of many possible readings, prompted by two out of many competing interests in the present, creating two out of many equally possible pasts because of different agendas in the present.

Suffice it to say of course that which past is chosen, which is read as persuasive, legitimate, or just right, affects not only the identity of specific groups, but also what kind of identity will be authorized in the present and whether and what kind of future that identity can imagine and work toward. Therefore what such readings “really” depict is no longer of much interest, at least to me, but instead how is it that one of the two readings prevails, and how will that reading affect me the reader/observer who, even though I don’t have anything at stake, is still part of the process of authentication and identification? After all I didn’t see a woman either (but to the careful reader I hinted as to why I didn’t “see” a woman priest!).

The answer to the above question, which I can barely touch in this post, lies I think in who has the power and means to authorize one reading, and thus one past, over the other. Though the article, which is itself a form of power/authority, doesn’t really take position and it seems that it leaves the reader to decide which of the two explanations is the “right” one, the fact that we, curiously enough, only learn the justification of one side, one authority (that of the Vatican) tells us much about the reading that the news source sees as legitimate!

So, the questions then about what happened in the past is better rephrased as which yesterday do you choose and authorize today?

One Reply to “Which Past Do You Authorize?”

  1. Vaia makes a strong argument, both Derridaen and Foucouldian as whispering influences, that the hinge of time in its large sweep is the present. While the pre-present, the past, really was, what and how it was can’t be known. Similarly, the post-present, the future is only imaginable. Both past and future, she appears to argue, are fundamentally rhetorical categories. The past, subject to innumerable representations, and the future, equally subject to countless imaginations, if imagined just so, are in the main, if not entirely, sites of legitimizing and authorizing human interests in the present. While I would not at all dispute the suggestion that “past” and “future” are ideologically redolent and rhetorically employed in much contemporary scholarlship, I would not go as far as claiming that the past is constituted only by representations to serve various interests in the present, or that the post-present is only imaginable and not predictable, at least in some sense. I’m not a von Rankian with respect to the past nor a “scientific” futurist. How it really was (“wie es eigentlich gewesen ist”) is not an achievable pursuit, but it seems that the traces of material and ideational traces of the past in the archive requires us to grant the past a bit more autonomy (or distinctiveness) that it is given in Vaia’s argument. The story of the fresco in the catacombs is an example. It is, as Vaia, argjues, on the hand a hapless puppet in the modern head-butting over women’s competency for the Catholic priesthood. But it is more that that. The fresco is there without reference to the modern conflict; it was painted by someone for reasons and motives that surely did not anticipate its future representation. That is, there is a “there” to the past prior to its representation. Vaia does recognize this but dismisses it as uninteresting, while she opts for the an interest in present ideological representation of the past object. There is not room to argue here for retaining an interest in the past object, giving the honour of studied, laboured description to the extent possible, if only to let this description stand there as a criticism of ideological takeovers of the past or its discrete objects. Furthermore, there are constraints to how the past is represented. We can definitely say, for example, that the modern structures, practices and ideology of capitalism is not vindicated by pointing to some anchor in the past. Similarly one could argue that the modern tendency to have sex and gender overlap is not found in the ancient past and that the gender conceptions in past are of interest quite apart from modern concerns. In short, I would like to think that to give away the past 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 that Vaia seem implicitly to lament.

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