May 042008

[Originally posted on Familiar Stranger blog]

Derek passed on a provocative article to me. Frank Furedi argues that the recent spate of “false” autobiographies is a reflection of our therapy culture which both promotes the stories of victims and encourages a rewriting of the past as a mode of identity construction in the present. Interesting idea although I don’t agree with the basic premise of the article — that “real” history is being corrupted by our love of Dr Phil and Oprah. After all, I think that the writing of history is ALWAYS mitigated by the present in which it is written, whether it be a therapy-oriented culture or not, a point to which the author of the article concedes but doesn’t apply to his own example.

A drawing of the Wartburg castle by Goethe

Let me use an analogy: history is a castle which we continually renovate to suit our present needs, even if our present needs involve rethinking the past. To illustrate my analogy, I will use the example of the Wartburg castle near Eisennach, Germany. This is an extremely important place in Germany history — Martin Luther found refuge there, Goethe visited, and it is credited as the birth place of a modern united Germany. When I visited there in 1995, the thing that impressed me the most was that the castle had been renovated and redecorated several times and each renovation was a rewriting and new representation of the history of the castle. The East German government, for instance, renovated the castle in the 1950s. It is hard to imagine that this renovation didn’t involve a discussion which explored what the castle SHOULD look like from the socialist perspective. Most striking to me on my visit, though, was the hall that had been redone in 1838 in the style of the Middle Ages. It was very clearly a Romantic vision of that time period with very little interest in historical accuracy. Did it bother me that there is no way that this could be an accurate vision? Hell no! To me, how we construct the past is far more interesting than what the past actually was.

Remember when the guy who wrote A Million Little Pieces was discovered to have made up significant portions of his so-called autobiography? People were really, really angry at this man, and the publisher even had to offer refunds to those people who had bought the book. This really surprised me. After all, aren’t all memories a construction, an idealization of our pasts? My parents would write my biography much differently than I would write my own. Who’s to stay which is more accurate? I find surprising is that there is very little problematization of ideas of “historical accuracy,” “truth,” and “honesty” in popular culture.

I guess that the problem with the author of “A Million Little Pieces” is that readers felt that he had deliberately embellished his autobiography and therefore deliberately lied to them. It had gone beyond merely small variances in memory. He had broken an implicit contract between author and reader and he was therefore called back to Oprah’s show to explain himself. But aren’t we being rather unfair here? Aren’t all of our life histories a mingling of memories and plots which are deliberately crafted to be found interesting by others? Why are we so absolutely stuck on the notion of a singular truth?

Furedi quotes psychiatrist Derek Summerfield:

Any act of remembering is interpretative, driven by the concerns or ideas of the present. What a war survivor remembers will not represent a single, definitive narrative, will skip between victim and protagonist modes, will be shaped by the context in which the telling takes place and the purpose to which it is to be put.

Exactly. We are always, in some way, writing and rewriting our pasts to suit ourselves and our listeners at the time of the telling.

I suspect that our ideas of truth are strongly tied to the media on which we record our lives – stone (headstones), paper (Family bibles, typed accounts, bureaucratic records). Any genealogist will tell you to view all records with caution, even the carefully carved tombstone has been known to have errors or to reflect the survivors view of the dead person’s life. Carving it in stone does give your message some longevity, but it doesn’t necessary make your message “accurate”. Maybe we have been confusing physical longevity of the message with the “truth”. I suspect there is a much lower “truth threshold” for the stories we tell while sitting around with friends and exchanging anecdotes of our lives, anecdotes which are fleeting because the words spoken out loud disappear as soon as they are heard.

I just finished reading a book about the Mormons and the history of their interest in genealogy. The author basically deconstructs any possibility of genealogical accuracy. Whether it be from inextricable inaccuracy in the major genealogy database, the interference of social norms with ideas of biological parentage, or some other unmentionable nasties like incest or false paternity, any claims to genealogical truth are pretty flimsy. To give you an example, the author reckons that even using conservative estimates of false paternity there would be an 80% change of one line being biologically inaccurate in a tree which goes back 4 generations on both paternal and maternal sides. Of course, my reaction to this is “cool” and “god, I wish I could find out which one and hear that story”! (Mind you, I might be a little less enthusiastic if the error turned out to be with my own direct parentage!) Despite the obvious pointless of the search for genealogy truth, there is a strong commitment in genealogical circles to ideas of “accuracy”, even when the fact at stake is a year or two difference in someone’s birth date.

So I guess I’m wondering how our ideas of historical genealogy accuracy (and personal life story telling) are going to play out on a medium like the internet with its qualities of “secondary orality.” Words have some longevity, but the publication of these words is not mitigated by authority or ideas of privileged voices. Anyone can tell their story and find readers. Hello cacophony of human memory! Moreover, stories on the internet are built in hypertext which allow readers to choose their own path through the narrative (1) (Hey, do remember the Choose Your Own Adventure series? Was this the beginning of hypertext?). The internet way of storytelling is a retrieval of the oral way of storytelling – stories are never exactly replicated but are adapted for the context of the storytelling. The difference here is that it is the reader who choses his path through the story. It is not the oral storyteller who makes these judgments on behalf of the reader.

How are we going to stick to stubborn ideas of singular truth (both personal and social) in the context of a hyperlinked, polyphonous world? Hopefully, we are not. Wouldn’t the world be a much nicer place without the need to argue for the supremacy of one account over another?

(1) I got this idea from Stefik’s Internet Dreams. Page 13.

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