The Three Spheres of Individual Memory


Illustration of La Salle at the mouth of the Mississippi River, 1682.

Illustration of La Salle at the mouth of the Mississippi River, 1682.

One of the great debates raging in the United States at present is over differing perspectives on the past, and those perspectives drive perceptions of the present and then, in turn relate to how we deal with issues currently facing society. Recent studies suggest that most people tend to see history as personal and family oriented, rather than a restatement of some national master narrative. Collective memory of a community is a powerful force for any person and group. These memories allow us to interact with others. Through linkages of memory we identify and define ourselves.

Meanings for these memories are created through a social process aimed at deciding what is important and why. Museums, historic sites, and other cultural institutions are in no small measure a representation of cultural or group memory and most of the people who visit them, come at least in part to connect to artifacts of the past. Although these have been interpreted differently over time, they have become a part of the master narrative of the United States’ history and their place in this life-history has become compelling for most.

Mostly without even realizing it, individuals tend to divide time into three general, inconsistent, and individualistic spheres or cones of memory. The first is a sphere of personal experience. Events that individuals participated in personally or that had salience to their individual lives are the first and most immediate sphere. These differ from person to person, and include not only activities that the individual experienced firsthand but events of great importance that took place in their memory.

For instance, there are colossal events that mark the time of our lives, and they hold great resonance for those participating in them. Virtually all Americans know where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. The same is true for other dramatic incidents in individual lives. It is this memory of our individual and immediate experiences that govern most people’s perspective on the past.

Less immediate but still resonating with Americans is a sphere of history that is not intimate to the individual but related by members of the family, by close friends, and by mentors. While the person may have no individual sense of history about World War II, for instance, they have heard stories about it and its effects on families and loved ones. It has a reverberation of meaning because of this connection. While still important, they never enjoy the salience reserved for personal experience in most people’s minds.

The third sphere encompassing all humans is the past that has no special connection through loved ones or personal experience. In that context events, epochs, themes, and the like discussed throughout the broad expanse of history have essentially an equal importance. The Crusades, the Ming Dynasty, and various revolutions all essentially stand at the same level for most of those who have no intimate connection to them. Difficulties in creating resonance with those events of the past abound, and always perspectives are obscure as this past is digested. An important challenge for all historians is how to breech that truly lost and forgotten past and offer its meaning to most people. This is done through many processes, especially rituals, public representations, reenactments, museums and historic sites, and a range of other possibilities for constructing meaning.

Port Hudson Civil War Reenactment

Port Hudson Civil War Reenactment

For example, Civil War reenactors have taken a critical event in American history and made it their own, in the process personalizing this history. Why do they do what they do? In spending significant time with them at such places as Antietam National Battlefield, they seem to create their own spheres of collective memory about their experiences reenacting the war. These seem to hold just about as much salience as the actual history. Making the history personal through shared experiences seems to hold real significance in interpreting the phenomenon.

Understanding that civl war reenactments are a unique experience, it seems to me that a core question for educators and historians is how one might help to make salient to others the truly disconnected past that has no familiarity for the current generation. It is an important issue. I would welcome thoughts on how to open this world more fully for students and others.

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