Saturday, April 03, 2010

Le Donne on "History and Memory"

I don't plan on blogging on every chapter of Anthony Le Donne's book, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), but as I read I'm struck by how similar are Le Donne's conclusions to my own. This might not be too surprising, since we both approach the Jesus tradition from a perspective heavily informed by social memory theory. But even so we still take different (sometimes surprisingly different) routes toward our conclusions, and I haven't read a number of the sources Le Donne cites. Social memory theory is a broad perspective rather than a narrowly defined research program, so I'm pleased to find another memory theorist using the theory much the same way I do (much the same, but not exactly).

Le Donne's discussion of "History and Memory" has one simple, over-arching, and long-overdue point: "Memory is distortion, regardless of any claims to veracity" (51; original italics). Unfortunately, "distortion" is one of those words that connotes negatively even when used in neutral or benign contexts, like "discrimination," "bias," or "vegan" (well, maybe not vegan). Le Donne bends this way and that trying to emphasize his non-value-laden use of the term "distortion": "memory distortion is not necessarily malevolent, nor does it always need to be consciously strategic in nature. Revisionist history is only an extreme form of memory distortion, and is by no means distortion's most prevalent manifestation" (50).

Even so, Le Donne rightly recognizes the futility of his efforts to rehabilitate distortion as an analytical concept (especially with regard to gospels and historical Jesus scholarship, in which the stakes for historical authenticity are, for many, very high). So Le Donne concedes:
Still, I have found that no matter how much I emphasize [that memory distortion is an essential feature of memory and does not necessarily denote "unreliable" memory or "invented" memory] (in academic dialogue and elsewhere), the term distortion carries too many negative associations. In order to avoid unnecessary baggage, I thus employ here the concept of refraction in place of the word distortion. (51–2; original italics)

I think Le Donne is right; in fact, I spend some time discussion the issue of distortion in memory in Structuring Early Christian Memory (see §3.3 [pp. 50–64], especially pp. 55–7). The issue facing memory theorists and historians alike isn't the falsification of the past so much as the transformation (or refraction, to use Le Donne's term) of the past into another form. The point, of course, is that "the past" is useless apart from this refraction; you can't do anything with the past until it has been expressed in language, emplotted into socially meaningful narrative structures, given clear beginning, ending, and turning points, etc. But more than this, "the past" is distorted/transformed/refracted simply by being perceived in the first place. Here Le Donne is exactly right; this is precisely what justifies his stark declaration (quoted above): "Memory is distortion."

Clearly, I am very appreciative of Le Donne's argument. But, in keeping with the tradition of quibbling and minor points, let me raise one criticism. Le Donne, it seems to me, draws too sharp a distinction between individual and collective processes of memory at a number of places. For instance, Le Donne raises the example of a person's memory of a childhood event being "reinforced" by family discussions of that event: "Here the memory has not only been reinforced, but it has been socially reinforced. Moreover, it has been socially reinforced to such an extent that the memory has become entirely social in nature" (49). I think this distinction leads us astray, however; notice how a person's memory of an event is similarly reinforced by her own narrations of that event. The social and the individual were always already inextricably implicated in one another.

This is a fatal distinction in a number of contemporary monographs; perhaps the most recent and well-known example is Richard Bauckham's 2006 book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans; see my review of Bauckham in BTB 2008). Le Donne, however, does not put any real significance on this distinction, though he does come close to it in his differentiation of memory and commemoration (60–64). But even here Le Donne recognizes ways in which the individual's internalization of social norms and processes affect how they remember the past:
It is important to grant that such narrative distortions happen at the stage of personal memory long before these stories enter the realm of commemoration. . . . Because the first memories of a historical event are narrativized at the start by the acting agents themselves, these remembering individuals impact how their stories will be retold. "Narrative does indeed create meaning, but it does so in the course of life, and not simply after fact." Moreover, this becomes an absolutely crucial point to underscore when the historical memories are being narrativized within the lifetime of those who experienced these events. (62, 62; citing Denton 2004: 172)

To be sure, differentiating individual and collective aspects of memorial processes is analytically necessary; I really am just quibbling here. But when we forget that the distinction is only ever analytical, we distort (in a negative sense) the objects of our analyses. For more on this issue, I've found Richard Jenkins's monograph, Social Identity (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), very helpful in this regard.

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