Theatres of Memory

Theatres of Memory


341 Pages


The classic, passionate plea to “remember what others forget.”

When Theatres of Memory was first published in 1994, it transformed the debate about what is to be considered history and questioned the role of “heritage” that lies at the heart of every Western nation’s obsession with the past. Today, in the age of Downton Abbey and Mad Men, we are once again conjuring historical fictions to make sense of our everyday lives.

In this remarkable book, Samuel looks at the many different ways we use the “unofficial knowledge” of the past. Considering such varied areas as the fashion for “retrofitting,” the rise of family history, the joys of collecting old photographs, the allure of reenactment societies and televised adaptations of Dickens, Samuel transforms our understanding of the uses of history. He shows us that history is a living practice, something constantly being reassessed in the world around us.



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Published 11 September 2012
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Theatres of Memory
Theatres of Memory
This revised paperback edition first published by Verso 2012 © Alison Light 2012 First published by Verso 1994 First published in paperback by Verso 1996 Foreword © Bill Schwarz 2012
All rights reserved
The moral rights of the authors have been asserted
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eISBN: 978-1-84467-935-5
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
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Typeset in Solidus Printed and bound in the US by Maple Vail
Forewordby Bill Schwarz Preface: Memory Work Acknowledgements for Illustrations
INTRODUCTION Unofficial Knowledge
PART I Retrochic Retrofitting Retrochic The Return to Brick
PART II Resurrectionism Resurrectionism Living History
PART III Heritage Semantics Genealogies Sociology
PART IV Flogging a Dead Horse Heritage-baiting Pedagogies Politics
PART V Old Photographs The Eye of History The Discovery of Old Photographs Dreamscapes Scopophilia
PART VI Costume Drama Modern Gothic:The Elephant Man Doing the Lambeth Walk Docklands Dickens ‘Who Calls So Loud?’ Dickens on Stage and Screen
AFTERWORD Hybrids Index
‘At Camden Lock…the past has almost caught up with the present.’ RAPHAEL SAMUEL,THEATRES OF MEMORY
Theatres of Memory, at once labyrinthine and circuitous yet crafted as a self-consciously ‘open text’, sets out with determination to reanimate the historical imagination for our own times. In doing so the book is punctuated by periodic broadsides and many hostages are taken, from both the right and the left. The text endeavours to subvert closure, even if it is not quite so open as it seeks to proclaim. It appears to assume a life of its own, impelled by the enthusiasms and diatribes that jump across its pages. This is a book that works to minimize, at every point, the gap between the author and the printed word and between the printed word and the reader. Page by page the reader is exhorted to participate in the dramas it enacts: the writing dazzles and cajoles, explains and reveals, denounces and condemns, proffering tantalizing glimpses of the author’s own self-hood that historians are so often determined to conceal. It’s difficult to imagine anyone emerging unscathed from the experience of reading this book, such is the force of its argumentation, the vibrancy of the prose and the passions that drive it. There is an indefatigable quality that serves in equal measure to seduce and to mesmerize. And the tempo is so fast-paced – notwithstanding the various repetitions, detours and false trails – it is little wonder that, despite the vigilance of the writing, curious paradoxes lurk in its undergrowth. Raphael Samuel devoted Promethean energies to revitalizing the practice of history and, as is evident fromTheatres of Memory, he represented something akin to a permanent revolution in the field: whenever he sensed an orthodoxy settling, or when he believed that professional norms prevailed, he felt compelled to set in train a counteroffensive, commanding the resources, not of the big battalions, but of theguerrilla. It’s thus entirely appropriate that the project is launched with a sustained critique of the conventional production of historical knowledge. ‘The starting point ofTheatres of Memory…is that history is not the prerogative of the historian, nor even, as postmodernism contends, a historian’s “invention”.’ The argument is thereafter powerfully mobilized, deriving from an acute appreciation of the social relations that underwrite the constitution of historical knowledge. To suppose that history is the product only of the socially accredited elites who write the academic articles and monographs, who compose the reviews and who are installed in the university departments and research institutes, is to ignore the greater mass who labour to make the past known: the ranks of librarians, archivists and schoolteachers, and the sizeable if shifting and relatively inchoate gatherings of amateurs. It’s a book about history in which historians, or the fortunate amongst them, feature only in walk-on roles, as subaltern spear-carriers for those who make history, as an imaginative enterprise, happen. Samuel believed it necessary to understand the forms of knowledge which this social division of intellectual labour generates. Professional history, in this schema, is – exactly that – a discipline, a species of intellectual life bequeathed by the forces of modernity. In its own particular way, it is an embodiment of social and epistemological authority. Samuel contends, however, that history, more broadly conceived, is a discursive field riven by antagonism. In addition, he argues, the intellectual procedures of what passes as history, tout court, create a way of knowing that is predisposed to the ‘occult’ and is driven as much by professional interests as by an open, overriding spirit of inquiry. In laying bare the contradictory forces that underwrite the modern practice of history the author reveals a paradox. Samuel himself was drawn to the lure of the occult. The footnote, for example, that defining sign of professional mastery of the discipline, was also for him – as for many of us – a technique to be cherished, a means by which secondary, subtextual sorties on many fronts, could be conducted. Yet this ambivalence on his part only attests further to the essentially contradictory forms of historical knowledge that imprint themselves deep in our own collective mentalities. In an elegant, radical rendition,Theatres of Memory reverses the protocols of mainstream historiography and implores us to consider the degree of artifice that allows historical narrative to work, even as it masquerades as supremely Rankean. In the introduction, in a rare engagement with Freud, Samuel delivers the provocation that the discipline of history subjects itself to all manner of repression such that it functions as a screen memory, displacing what is significant and divesting itself
of all that is dynamic. The finished product of the academic historical imagination, even as it is polished and with all potential loose ends cut and tied, resembles nothing more than Freud’s ‘dream-thoughts’, the chaos of the lived condensed and displaced into a unitary narrative of explanation. Whatever claims may be made on its behalf, historical narrative indulges in all manner of ‘make-believe’, and is given to a genteel ‘dressing up’. Even when truest to its own protocols it nonetheless is vulnerable to the ‘interception of meaning’ (pp. 434–5). Turning inside-out the entire tradition of modern historiography, Samuel avers that it is not history that can grasp all that is most distinctively human about the social world but its putatively disreputable counterparts: memory and those modes of thought which stay close to the lived relations of the everyday. He presents these framing arguments with verve. Looking back across the interval of time since the manuscript was drafted his position has now, perhaps, become more readily accepted in the common currency of intellectual debate. History is inescapably subject to the imperatives of narrativization, for good and ill. Yet Samuel signals a recognition of the complex conceptual and ethical dilemmas that necessarily accompany the commitment to producing public stories and that seek to uncover the connections between the past and the present.
As readers ofTheatres of Memory will know, or will discover if they come to it for the first time, Samuel is less preoccupied with the procedures of mainstream or professional history. Rather he is engaged by the ‘unofficial knowledges’ that give form to the popular articulations of the past and the present. And this is precisely where the ‘memory’ of the title operates most forcefully. Since his break from official communism in 1956, Raphael Samuel consistently strove to situate himself as a figure who listened to the voice of the oppressed (of ‘the people’), as the tireless agent for the democratization of historical practice, in every department, and as a thinker who harboured deep suspicions of the legitimacy of all external sources of authority. This commitment to the democratization of the historical imagination required that he attend both to the forms of knowledge that comprised the complex, varied and mobile topographies of history, high and low alike, and – as a materialist – to the social divisions of intellectual labour on which these variant histories were based. Over the years he fashioned his interventions with great intelligence, and as he did so, he fashioned, too, his own self. The person and the agitator–historian merged into a single being. Like many of his political generation, he dedicated himself to telling the story of those who had been denied historical representation, a matter which he took to be no more, and no less, than a necessary democratic duty. He embarked, with a singular ingenuity, on the creation of alternative networks for the collective production of historical knowledge, most evident in the History Workshop movement of the late sixties and seventies: collective, partisan, and spurning the social conventions which habitually accompanied (and accompany) the colloquia of established, accredited historians. However, toward the end of his life, as can be seen inTheatres of Memory, he came to be more touched by the growing presentiment that the discipline of history was unusually prone to incubate within itself modalities of power and authority.
This notion of a disciplinary dimension to history, the imprimatur of its claims to a place within the hierarchy of social knowledges, is often stated inTheatres of Memory, but never fully investigated. Perhaps, for Samuel, this was so self-evident that he saw no reason for it to detain either him or his readers. I’m less persuaded, however: not of the fact that this is so, but of the political and intellectual consequences which follow. In any case, for the most part he was conspicuously less drawn to the business of critique than he was to the sensibilities of enthusiasm. This created the opportunity for him to signal the vernacular mapping of an alternative continent of history, which established historians, by virtue of their training in the mysteries of the profession, were liable to disown, or prove incapable of even seeing. Samuel was always on the lookout for new ways of imagining the connections between the past and the present that worked to unsettle the absolutism of the written word.Theatres of Memoryrepresents a sustained endeavour to seek out such new forms, in visual representations and in the practices of popular performance, where the past is dramatized in the present. At various moments the spirit of earlier traditions of agitprop presses in close, in which the conventions of play served to undermine the diktats of the reality principle. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill hover over these pages or – perhaps more accurately – it is the English, indigenous forms represented by Joan Littlewood that are most deeply evident. Either way, Samuel was keen to embrace the notion that the narrative exemplars of ‘magical realism’ might allow a more subversive and turbulent inhabiting of the past to struggle into existence (see pp. 429–30).
To think in this manner led him to address questions not only of history, conventionally understood, but also of past historical consciousness, as it’s been lived in all its multiple registers. In a winning, incisive formulation, he states that ‘our understanding of the historical past is constructed not so much in the light of documentary evidence, but rather of the symbolic space or imaginative categories into which representations are fitted’ (pp. 381–2). The mass of the population do not experience history, either as agents or as its recorders, in the way that historians do when they create a historical narrative: neither, as it happens, for the greater part of their lives, do historians. It thus becomes historians, of all stripes, in Samuel’s words, to search out the ‘dialectical relationship between the imaginary and the real’ (p. 246). ‘The sense of the past’, he announces at the start of the book, ‘at any given point in time, is quite as much a matter of history as what happened in it’. He completes the sentence, in a more quizzical tone, stating: ‘if the argument ofTheatres of Memoryis right, the two are indivisible’ (p. 15). The subjunctive seems to be inviting the reader to reflect on this point, and to ask whetherTheatres of Memory is indeed right. Predictably perhaps, the answer to the question cannot be clear-cut, for everything turns on the ambiguity contained within the notoriously tricky term ‘history’, and where the indivisibility is to fall. If it does so from the vantage of the historical agents themselves (the makers of history), this has to be right, as their ‘sense of the past’ does indeed constitute part of what the historical past is, and how it is worked through. If the vantage is that of the historian (the recorder of history), the issue is more problematic, for the historian, at some point, is required to discriminate between the historical consciousness of past historical actors, on the one hand, and the job of historical explanation, on the other. If they fuse indivisibly into the single phenomenon, the need for historical argument and explanation dissolves: all that is required is to reproduce the accumulated voices of past generations, in a great, amorphous cacophony. Of course, historians need to understand the voices of the past, to listen to them and to inhabit them. But at the same time it is equally necessary to acknowledge that the voice of the historical actors and the voice of the historian remain distinct. Their respective temporal locations are in part what the historical imagination is about. But inTheatres of Memory, Samuel appears to be reluctant to press this differentiation too hard. Indeed there is a sense in which he seems content deliberately to let ambiguity run through his prose. There is a logic here. The drive of his argument is to subvert the epistemological privileging which is commonly accorded to history and to view it as subject to the same artifice as any other competing version of the past. He relished a future where historians would feel obliged to release themselves from the desire to collude with what he took to be their overbearingly narcissistic cosmos. This is the import – the serious import – of the passing references to the figure of the historian, consumed equally by ridiculous pretension, cabbalistic ritual and by cutthroat competition, that come straight out of the traditions of the English campus novel. This is the import too of designating the practice of history as the equivalent of a vast screen-memory, dependent on make-believe and dressing-up. Indeed, there are moments when Samuel appears to be insisting that vernacular histories, in general, possess a deeper reach into the past than their professional counterparts. It’s difficult to know how to respond to these propositions, for it’s difficult to decide how far Samuel himself was prepared to take them. Like all of us, he speaks in different tongues in different contexts, shaped in part by which antagonists he has in his sights at any given moment. His determination to champion the epistemological value of particular vernacular forms, as they bring the past into the present, is often beautifully achieved, and we can all think of occasions when, far removed from the institutions of academic or professional history, we have gained new knowledge of how the past operates in the present. This leaves us conscious – all too conscious – of our own intellectual poverty as historians. This is one of the costs we, as historians, are obliged to bear. Of the many hundreds of narratives we encounter in our professional lives, some we rate and some we don’t. In some their authors are conscious of the conceptual problems involved in making a historical narrative, and in some they aren’t. Some take us somewhere new, while many don’t. But precious few of us – and revealingly not Raphael Samuel for one – have proved to be so despairing of the epistemological predicament we face that we give up, renouncing forever the possibility of creating new knowledge, however imperfect we know our efforts to be. Against the odds, we press on. Raphael was an astute reader of philosophy, well versed in the sub-discipline of the philosophy of history. He had been formed in the postwar years by the emergent Marxist–annalistein paradigms historiography that emphasized the moment of abstraction in the composition of historical narratives: that is, the moment of distanciation from the lived realities, in which order, form and argument rework the chaos of the past and transform it into history. In such a view, abstraction was conceived neither as
the starting point, nor as the end point, but as a necessary staging post by which thought itself could become properly concrete. In many of his essays, it is possible to detect the moments of theorization through which his formulations had moved, and if these remain visible in the final version only as traces, all to the good. However, Samuel was also peculiarly attuned to the violence of abstraction, which he believed to be not unconnected to the will for mastery on the part of the historian. In this lies an overriding dilemma of contemporary historical practice: the need, on the one hand, to maintain the moment of abstraction while, on the other, remaining true to the voices of the historical past. Invariably, when obliged to address this problem, such as in the early pages ofTheatres of Memory, Samuel would invoke the dialectic in order to capture something of this necessary tension. In doing so, he recognized his early tutoring in Marxism. But such an approach also served him well. Yet as the densely printed pages ofTheatres of Memoryhis commitments to accumulate, dialectical thought lessen. We lose sight of the contradictory properties of professional history and his arguments become more polemical. He gets caught in the undertow of his own prose. The popular becomes more heavily valorized and the professional more caricatured. The one feeds off the other, such that the criterion of the historian’s proximity to the voice of the past comes, in the final reckoning, to be definitive. For sure, it’s in the moment of abstraction that the potential dangers which derive from the will to mastery, encoded in a profoundly masculine manner, lie in wait at every step. But this is also where historical narratives become historical, and where historical contention, including political debate about the power of the past in contemporary life, becomes possible. If these contradictory foundations of historical inquiry slip from view, as I think they begin to in parts ofTheatres of Memory, complexity evaporates and, in its place, rudimentary oppositions insinuate themselves. These arguments about the workings of the historical imagination are likely to remain unresolved for a long while yet. The indisputable virtue ofTheatres of Memoryis not only the human passion and the intelligence with which Samuel presents his case, but also the very nature of the case he advances. His are tough, powerful, unsettling views, which need to be heard, and which require his readers to reflect with unusual diligence on their own practice.
The positions adumbrated in the book are, as one would expect, inseparable from the rhetorical drive which carries them; as the tempo of Samuel’s engagement with adversaries quickens, so his commitments assume sharper hue. The principal shift occurs in the innocuously entitled section ‘Sociology’, which prepares the ground for Part IV which immediately follows – ‘Flogging a Dead Horse’ – where he makes no attempt to disguise or temper the affront he experienced when faced with those he designated the ‘heritage-baiters’ (p. 259ff). This phrase I thought unfortunate at the time, and I still do. When it was first published in 1994 his reading of the politics of heritage, which I see as a secondary matter, came to dominate discussion of the book. In France at the same time, as Pierre Nora and his colleagues were recording the amplification of social institutions devoted to the creation of new public memories –Les lieux de mémoire– so in England heritage was subject to a vast inflation, and the cause of mounting controversy. A body of opinion had emerged, largely from the left, which linked – on the one hand – an ideological impetus in the preservation movement and (more broadly) in the practices of heritage to – on the other hand – the politics of Thatcherism and to the emergent neoliberal endeavour to recast public and private life in Britain. This dismissal of the heritage industry as the preserve of the conservative and parochial touched a raw nerve in Raphael Samuel and he moved to the offensive, propelled by an anger which he felt no compunction to conceal. Those in his sights were named the ‘heritage-baiters’ and were branded as metropolitan intellectuals, given to a deep-seated literary snobbery. They were aficionados of ‘Cultural Studies’, whose ‘vocation’ it was to ‘unmask’ all manner of ‘tutelary complexes’ (p. 260). I remember being aggrieved by these words when I first read them, for cultural studies had done much to form me and the last thing any of us needed at the time was – another – recycled bout of demonization. This was particularly so in this instance for, in my view, Samuel was more naturally an ally rather than an enemy. Yet the invocation of cultural studies that appears here is little more than a sign, standing in for a disciplinary formation bent on imposing the authority of the abstracted, soulless intellectual. Whenever Samuel felt he was confronted by hypostatized thought, whether (as he saw it) in the older idiom of history or in the newer idiom of cultural studies, he knew where his allegiances lay:
with the human energies and emotions which made history move, with the actual women and men who pushed and pulled against the tide of history and who, in the most unpromising circumstances, gave free rein to independent thought, producing as they went along new knowledge. It was in this light that he understood the new practices of heritage in the 1970s and 1980s, masterminded by ‘madcap enthusiasts’ and ‘magpie collectors’ who, wittingly or not, were drawing on long historical traditions of popular attachments to the past (p. 274). These practitioners of heritage were, he maintained, closer to the ground than their overly cerebral critics, improvising a ‘polyglot’ culture, and – in their identifications with vernacular cultures – professing ways of knowing the movements of history from which their professional counterparts, if they possessed the wherewithal, could learn much (p. 282). When the critics of heritage first got going they were seeking to mount a conjunctural argument, supplying a necessary cultural dimension to the readings of Thatcherism. This seemed to me then, as it still does, an entirely legitimate way to proceed. Inevitably, perhaps, the initial formulations, in their bid to impress their point, bent the stick too far, underestimating the plurality of the new social initiatives that had arrived under the name of heritage. Raphael was surely right to insist that theBrideshead Revisitedinvocation of the English past was, in the 1990s, only one amongst a much broader repertoire, and maybe not dominant. Indeed, he was probably correct in his supposition that ‘The new version of the national past, notwithstanding the efforts of the National Trust to promote a country-house version of “Englishness”, is inconceivably more democratic than earlier ones, offering more points of access to “ordinary people”, and a wider form of belonging’ (p. 160). To many of us at the time, bracing ourselves against the ill winds of an unwelcome historical turn, it didn’t seem like that at all. In retrospect, though, there is reason to think Samuel provided the more persuasive reading. Yet returning toTheatres of Memoryafter many years I find it strange, given the vehemence of his offensive against the critics of heritage, how various sections of the book make common cause with his adversaries. ‘It is for anyone, like the present writer’, he says, ‘who is a socialist, an unfortunate fact that these resurrectionary enthusiasms, emanating very often from do-it-yourself historical projects, popular in their sympathies and very often radical in their ancestry or provenance…have been subject to Conservative appropriations, and have strengthened the Right rather than the Left in British politics’ (p. 162). In discussing at some length two movies of the time,The Elephant Man and Christine Edzard’s Little Dorrit, his outrage is uncompromising. He indicts the former for ‘the way it travestied history’, asking that we might ‘pause to wonder what other atrocities are passed off in the name of authenticity’ (pp. 381, 388). And concerning the film ofLittle Dorrit, he took exception to the manner in which the poor were ‘sanitized’ and the rich ‘glamorized’, complaining that to watch the film was to witness the ‘fetishization of period effects’, and concluding that it corresponded symbolically to the social mentalities from which arose the new, corporate London Docklands. Indeed he thought it appropriate to coin a specific term to catch the novelty of this correspondence: ‘Docklands Dickens’ (pp. 404, 409, 441). In themselves these responses seem to me both right and uncontentious. But in the context of the overall arguments which Samuel makes his own in the book they do much to qualify the exuberance of his primary, unbending defence of the virtues of an intrinsically popular historical consciousness. Even though he initially sets out his stall by recognizing, formally, that heritage is allied to neither left nor right, the rhetorical power of his positions soon takes command, and in contrast to the lifeless imperatives of conventional history, it is difficult not to interpret Samuel as other than heritage’s zealous advocate. Yet while lauding the ‘promiscuity’ of heritage for its capacities to fuse together discourses which conventionally remain divided, and for its playful disregard for the niceties of mainstream historical narrative, the historical ‘travesties’ perpetrated byThe Elephant Man generate in Samuel, not admiration, as we might have been led to expect, but feelings of resentment. As the book nears its end it ceases to be clear on what grounds the artefacts of heritage are to be judged. At one point he defends heritage (in general) against the charge that it seeks to ‘commodify the past’ (p. 259). But in his invocation of ‘Docklands Dickens’, a symbolic formation that he concedes is sustained by its ‘fetishization of period effects’, isn’t this exactly what is occurring? When Samuel comes first to introduce heritage, he does so in spirited, imaginative prose. ‘“Heritage” is a nomadic term’, he writes, ‘which travels easily, and puts down roots – or bivouacs – in seemingly quite unpromising terrain…It sets up residence in streets broad and narrow, royal palaces and railway sidings, canalside walks and town hall squares. It stages its spectacles in a promiscuous