Re: Photographs Reading Us?

Matt Tomaso (Tomaso@MAIL.UTEXAS.EDU)
Mon, 8 Jan 1996 11:00:06 -0600

>Stacey Ayeh wrote:
>>I'm not sure if we are in a position to lightly dismiss the idea of a
>>"collective memory" and or "a forgotten paradise".
>Actually, I think we are. There is a tremendous body of literature in
symbolic anthropology (see Raymond Firth, Victor Turner and some of the
symbolic interactionists, for examples) about 'universal' symbols, their
origin and meanings. Many of the meanings have simple, obvious and quite
proximate origins. I recently wrote a short piece on the origins and
etymology of the English word "mountain" and its cross cultural
counterparts. I learned that mountains are often powerful symbols because
of size, position between earth (profane) and sky (sacred) and, dare I say,
their ecological importance (the latter is especially true in the tropics).
The universality of the the mountain symbol is quite remarkable and can not
be explained with reference to undemonstrable common origins. We don't need
concepts of collective memory or forgotten paradises to understand and
interpret these symbols. While I agree that we should never casually
dismiss any idea and I don't pretend to speak the one and only truth, I do
not think we need to invoke greater mysteries than we already have on hand
in order to understand. In other words, we should try to avoid explaining
anomalies with concepts more anomalous (as in poorly understood and poorly
defined) than the anomaly itself. As Ian Hodder once said "the desire to
deconstruct is all encompassing."
>>whatever an individual makes of it when s/he sees a nice looking sunset,
>>surely s/he is drawing that feeling of sensation (or whatever) from a pool
>>of knowledge that is ultimately shared by those in the same community or
>>humanity as a whole?
>Yes, but teh question then becomes - 'what does this have to do with the
idea of collective memory or forgotten paradise?
>Why are these concepts necessary when all that they seem to accomplish is
to muddy already opaque waters?
>Furthermore, what evidence supports this position (besides biological
evolution and the bible, that is)?
>The only nearly universal collective memory or reality I can think of is
European colonialism, and, fortunately, that too will pass.
>>Are strong feeling of patriotism... and all that it entails something that
>>is learnt or is some of it already latent in some cultures?
>First, I find its impossible to generalize about things like 'latency' at
the level of 'cultures.' Remember, we are not dealing with single organisms
here, nor whole systems, but fragmentary, open, and often chaotic/dynamical
systems. Can we say, for example, that any particular culture is "more
patriotic" than some other? I can't.
>Check out Benedict Andersen's _Imagined Communities_ (ca. 1985?) - its a
great little book about the construction of nationalism and its ties to
identity. Andersen, and the dozens of anthropologists and historians of
the culture studies, social history and 'invention of tradition,' schools of
thought, have done a lot of work to illustrate the point that much of what
we take to be natural extensions o our personal life histories (eg. our
identities, nationality, etc) are completely constructed (and therefore, in
your terms, "learnt"). What we have are selective, or if you will,
constructed traditions.