‘Doing’ History in Light of Memes and Cultural Memory Both Ancient and Modern

A recent article by Paul V.M. Flesher on Bible and Interpretation was posted on cultural memory a few days ago, and it was while I was in the process of writing this post, so I thought I might incorporate it into this discussion.  Here is a snippet and a relevant definition of ‘cultural memory’ and how we might consider using it here:

For Bible-believing students, an academic approach to the study of Scripture may constitute an attack on their personal identity. It works to recast their “cultural memory”—a key component of their psycho-social makeup which identifies their past (their personal pre-history, if you will) and locates their place in its progression. A course presenting a literary or historical Introduction to the New Testament, for example, can become for these students a threat to their self-understanding and to their ties with their religious community.

Memories shape an individual’s identity. Frequently we think of memories as recollections of events, activities, or experiences that happened in our own lives. Some of these experiences happened to us alone and constitute private memories, while other events were experienced by other people and thus comprise shared memories. Often many shared memories take place with identifiable groups of people, whether small groups like a family or kindergarten class or large groups such as citizens of a nation, members of a religion, or even fans of a World Cup soccer team. These experienced memories are not cultural memories, although a few may ultimately enter that classification.

Most cultural memories, by contrast, do not recall experienced events, but instead refer to events that happened in the past, usually to people conceived of as one’s ancestors or forerunners. These “memories” must be taught in some way, whether through formal classes, informal instruction or storytelling, or through reading. They constitute acquired knowledge rather than recollections of experienced events. Cultural memories differ from other knowledge of the past in that the events selected comprise pivotal moments that shape the identity of the group preserving their memory, whether this is an religious, ethnic, national or familial group. These are not just any events from the past, but events that are particularly relevant to the social group passing on the cultural memory. To a Frenchman, the revolution of 1789 would constitute a national cultural memory, but the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs would not. It is one thing to learn history, it is quite another to acquire a cultural memory.

I suppose the subject of this post is threefold.  First, (1) how quickly historical memes spread (often false historical memes) and (2) how quickly they can become rooted in cultural memory.  From that point, how does a historian consider the question if ‘cultural memory’ is considered ‘truth’, as rooted in society as well as individuals’ upbringing?

Every few months now, and with greater frequency since the creation of the Tea Party,  there seems to be an onslaught of fictional attributions to America’s founding fathers.  Whether it be words they never spoke, or deeds they never did, or beliefs they never held, America is on the cusp of a knowledge revolution, wherein ‘facts’ are becoming less important than tradition–especially tradition, albeit newly invented, which conforms to America’s current ideological trend.

Paul Revere is also related to Jack Black, apparently... (but don't quote me on that)

Consider the lies being told, the refashioning of history, where in certain politician’s worldviews, is a past where the founding fathers said the Pledge of Allegiance and Paul Revere warned the British, or where Jon Quincy Adams (the son of John Adams) was a founding father and that these founding fathers worked to end slavery.  I believe one commenter said it best, “Will these historical snafus cause [these politicians – ed.] any supporters? It doesn’t look like it, but it makes one wonder if they could pass a citizenship test.”  And perhaps that is also the scary part.  Who educated these politicians?  I am reminded of the comment by junior Senator Mark Pryor to Bill Maher, “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the senate.”  Aside from the obvious question (“Why the hell not!?”), we must wonder how these politicians are elected into office and why they have such a strong following when they can’t even adequately reproduce the history of the country they are attempting to serve!

The answer, I believe, is in the transmission of the meme through an ideology already set in people who, clearly, don’t care about the facts.  And I don’t even mean just one political party, because it goes beyond politics (and as it turns out, both parties are responsible for disseminating quotes without fact-checking and fabricating false quotes to fit their agendas).  In general, and probably predominantly in this country, people are starting to care less about facts and more about impact.  And once such a powerful, traditional meme is transmitted through social interactions (general conversations, viral media, social websites, whatever have you), people latch onto it without bothering to fact-check, and in some instances some seek to actively include such falsities into books and websites used to educate others.

Why this happens  is as interesting as the how, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a result of seeking to propagate an agenda.  As my generation gets older, having grown up with the internet, and a new generation who is even more in tune with technology starts to come into its own, the internet is the one-stop source of information.  I know that the internet is becoming more integral to education as well, wherein students are allowed to use it for research, often under some guidelines.  What implications does internet research have for students today when the most used online encyclopedia can be edited and fixed without any sort of peer review?  Many will undoubtedly say that Wikipedia editors try to be fair and eliminate bias where possible, but it remains to be an editable site where the majority of opinion will supersede any balance at times and with complete anonymity, anyone can edit without the slightest worry about retraction.  And such a site has repercussions for those whose work has been stolen by Wiki editors:

By the time you happen to find your work copied onto Wikipedia, it has already been propagated all over the net by Wikipedia copycats, making the job of going through their copyright infringement office all but meaningless.

And once a false statement is disseminated to other sites, blogs, social media, people will trust it because it comes from people they, themselves, trust: a blog they read all the time, a friend on Facebook or Google+, a news source which might not have verified the facts first before writing a story on it, and in a more relevant case, a news source who runs with a story about either history or religion without consulting experts in the field first.  So people will assume, without much concern, that these sorts of memes are okay to spread and are trustworthy because, well, their friend on Facebook is smart and trustworthy and has no reason to lie,and in our social-media culture the share button is all too easy and tempting to hit.  And thus the fictitious meme is spread by those who, while not having negative intentions, are caught up in a wisp of a motion they do every day, unbeknownst that the shared content wasn’t fact checked by their friends on Facebook, nor the source that their friends retrieved it from.

Your Brain on Memes (via Graphjam)

When Osama Bin Laden was killed, the internet was abuzz with quotes attributed to Martin Luther King and Mark Twain.  The quote of Martin Luther read “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy” and of Mark Twain, “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.”  These were found everywhere, except by those who paused for as moment to fact-check, and a good thing they did!  It turns out they were both falsely attributed–that is to say, fake.  And as a result of some noteworthy research, a trail could be found–where it originated wasn’t some malicious attempt to subvert history but a ‘whisper-down-the-alley’ mash-up of cut and pastes which, somewhere along the way, were so convoluted what became of it was a fictional quote.  And as it turns out, we are doubly guilty of allowing this as it happens a lot.

Even a fellow Biblioblogger, known for his fact-checking and for his ridicule of others who spread false information, was just recently caught using a fake quote from Charles Darwin in order to promote a particular ideal to which he follows.  The quote was spread by Lady hope who claimed to have been with Darwin on his deathbed, but those who we know were actually there (like his family) state firmly she was never at the bed of Darwin and that her story is a falsity.   And the Biblioblogger’s source in this case was a friend on Facebook, one  with whom I also am familiar and know did not spread the quote with any intention of deceiving, he simply didn’t know.  The quote can be found on all sorts of quote sites, especially Christian/Creationist sites.  This Biblioblogger picked up on it, trustingly, and proceeded to spread it, unaware that he was disseminating false information; it is a rarity with this Biblioblogger, but even he, the ineffable scholar he is, can fall prey to his own ideological desires and cultural memory.

And it doesn’t even just occur with the use of quotes; chain letters are another popular internet phenomena proving, for our own age at least, that people care little about checking into the truth of claims and more about the message behind them.  Indeed, letters are sent around without a care whether or not the individuals are real or completely fictitious.  And this really brought to light, in my mind, interesting parallels to the past, sans current technology, and how quickly a meme can spread and change and what implications there might be.

When you stop to consider how popular ideas can become, and how ardent we are, as social beings who seek out patterns and affinities, about creating cultural references to popular ideas, is it any wonder that we fabricate and create and exemplify and exaggerate?  Some fictional legends about our founding fathers are already ingrained in our cultural memory and some are even teaching them as fact!  For example, I was tough in elementary school that George Washington had wooden teeth.  It was only when I was older and was able to read things for myself that i found this to be a complete fiction.  Washington actually had teeth carved from ivory and gold.  One set of them is on display at a Baltimore museum.  There are, of course, folk legends about historical figures: Johnny Appleseed, Black Bart, Buffalo Bill, and so on.  These were historical figures with huge legends about them.  But there are also folk stories, based around fictional characters from dime novels, which are also ingrained in our cultural memory.  Stories about Cordwood Pete and Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Ichabod Crane, and John Henry (a very noteworthy African-American folk legend) abound and I am certain there are those who believe these stories are based off historical figures, even though they are characters invented by dime novelists and writers.  There are even fiction figure like Uncle Sam (who is the personification of America, whose name stems from a historical person Samuel Wilson) who make up a large part of our cultural patriotism, who of course are not historical figures, but created to exemplify certain ideals we felt, as a nation, best covered us.

The same seems to be true for those in antiquity.  In a paper, soon to be published in a volume of great interest (if I don’t say so myself), Kurt Noll argues that the spread of memes in antiquity happened quite fast, faster than people currently give credit.  This actually makes sense, if we consider it from a standpoint of the ancient mythic mind.  In antiquity, fact-checking even among the more elite of society–the historiographer and biographer for example–was virtually nonexistent, and among the lay audiences or listeners of tales fact checking was just not important.  While it might have taken time for news to funnel through the trade networks and social channels in antiquity, once a meme was transmitted, they took on a life of their own.  This is perhaps why we have so many differing narratives, conflicting and divisive, even about common myths (like with what happened to Romulus).

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The same might be said about early Christianity (whether you believe Jesus was an earthly figure or not–it is irrelevant for this discussion); Bultmann, a believer in the earthly, historical figure of Jesus, still made clear his views that what we have in the New Testament represent cultural memory, or kerygma–the post-Easter traditions–from the early church and not ‘history’ in the sense of real, historical events.   Fictional words, deeds, and actions attributed to Jesus and the early church fathers are commonly found in our sources.   The Canonical Gospels are no different.  When the controversial Jesus Seminar analyzed the 1500 words supposedly spoken by Jesus, they could only agree on 2% likely being authentic.  In fact, 82% of the sayings attributed to the figure of Jesus were thrown out.  Of course, of the 2% left which the Jesus Seminar believed were authentic, other scholars have put forth studies showing they aren’t at all authentic (most notably, the inexpensive book The Messiah Myth by Thomas Thompson comes to mind, but also Thomas L. Brodie’s massive, yet decently priced, book The Birthing of the New Testament–so pick them up!).

In antiquity, this was a common occurrence.  Moses, for example, is often portrayed, similarly to Jesus, in different ways, speaking different (sometimes contradicting the modern canonical narrative we now possess) words, imitating certain actions, traveling to different lands, and so on.  Like American folk history, legends were built up around ancient individuals who had historically lived, and sometimes the legends came about during their own lifetimes, like Julius Caesar, but usually after their deaths like Apollonius of Tyana, Socrates, and Pythagoras.  Other stories, though, also arose from fictional characters, or those who appeared in fiction writing but were historicized later into cultural memory, like Lycurgus of Sparta, Moses, Abraham, Judith, Horatius Cocles, Romulus and Remus, Aeneas, and so on.  There are perhaps hundreds of cases where individuals who never existed were historicized into the past in antiquity.  No scholar worth their salt would dispute this (the numbers are too numerous).  The question isn’t about whether or not fictional characters could be accepted as historical figures, but the speed at which a fictional story could transform into a mythic one.

In out day, cultural memory plays a large part in the spread of memes circulating around false information.  Of course the internet and social media technology certainly don’t hinder the process.  But if cultural memory is the reason why we spread information the way we do, as self-serving as that might appear, then we must expect that in antiquity, cultural memory was also a catalyst for the spreading and distortion of memes surrounding legends and myth.  The introduction (by Bernard Knox) to M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus (See also Barbara Graziosi’s Inventing Homer: The Early Reception of Epic), contains an interesting little story about the power of cultural memory and the spreading of a story while highlighting the speed at which this can be spread within just a few decades.

In 1953 the late Professor James Notopoulos was recording oral heroic song in the Sfakia district of western Crete, where illiterate oral bards were still to be found. He asked one of them, who had sung of his own war experience, if he knew a song about the capture of the German general and the bard proceeded to improvise one. The historical facts are well known and quite secure. In April 1944 two British officers, Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain Stanley Moss, parachuted into Crete, made contact with Cretan guerrillas, and kidnapped the German commanding general of the island, one Karl Kreipe.

The general was living in the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, the house Sir Arthur Evans had built for himself during the excavations at the site. Every day, at the same time, the general was driven south from the villa to the neighboring small town of Arkhanes, where his headquarters were located. He came home every night at eight o’clock for dinner.  The two British officers, dressed in German uniforms, stopped the car on its way home to Knossos; the Cretan partisans overpowered the chauffeur and the general. The two officers then drove the car through the German roadblocks in Heraklion (the general silent with a knife at his throat) and left the car on the coast road to Rethymo. They then hiked through the mountains to the south coast, made rendezvous with a British submarine, and took General Kreipe to Alexandria and on to Middle East Headquarters in Cairo.

So much for epic history. Nine years after the event the British protagonists have been reduced to one nameless general whose part in the operation is secondary and there can hardly be any doubt that if the song is still sung now the British element in the proceedings is practically nonexistent—if indeed it managed to survive at all through the years in which Britain, fighting to retain its hold on Cyprus, became the target of bitter hostility in Greece and especially among the excitable Cretans.

It took the Cretan oral tradition only nine years to promote to the leadership of the heroic enterprise a purely fictitious character of a different nationality. This is a sobering thought when one reflects that there is nothing to connect Agamemnon, Achilles, Priam, and Hector with the fire blackened layer of thirteenth-century ruins known as Troy VII A (the archaeologists’ candidate for Homer’s city) except a heroic poem which cannot have been fixed in its present form by writing until the late eighth century, at least four illiterate centuries after the destruction.

Sobering indeed.  We have a world where a search on a browser will produce exact results to a search queue, which puts information at our fingertips, in our faces, in mere seconds..  Memes spread quickly in our era as a result of how quickly information is available.  But even in pre-computer culture, where memes are spread via oral tradition, something common in antiquity, it only took 9 years to alter the story completely, introducing a new character completely fabricated, and shine light on another faction of the narrative.  Only 9 years.  And the reader is only told of the one bard.  If the same question were posed to other bards, the song might be completely different still.

So the question that follows all of this is how does one locate ‘history’ when even our earliest sources are nothing better than cultural memory?  And clearly the first Christian communities, whomever they were, could not agree upon those existing cultural memories (which is why we have competing doctrines, competing Gospels, conflicting theologies and exegeses).  This doesn’t just follow for Christianity, but Judaism, or the history of the Greeks, or the Romans, or the Sumerians, or those civilizations for which we have nothing but bones and pottery shards?  How does one separate ‘history’ from the ‘meme’ and cultural memory when we have trouble even in our own day!  And it does make one wonder why future historians will be arguing about over our generation, assuming we don’t kill each other before then.

6 Responses

  1. Tom, I have to disagree with “America is on the cusp of a knowledge revolution, wherein ‘facts’ are becoming less important than tradition”. This is romantic nonsense, as if people in the days of Jim Crow and European fascism were more concerned with facts. When people weren’t getting dumb ideas from the internet, they were getting dumber ideas from their semi-literate neighbors.

    I do agree that oral tradition is highly unreliable, and written tradition not much better. Look though some old history books fro a good laugh, especially those made for school children. Their reasonable limits to this though. My formula as such, is time destroys precision, importance preserves it. People may misquote founding fathers, but how many thing that england was an American colony, or that we were a German one? Maybe in 5,000 years these factoids may be doubt, but there big enough to be preserved, while small characters may be lost, confused, or invented.

  2. I meant to say, less concerned than usual. ;-)

  3. I need to spend some more time with your full post, but I just wanted to say one thing first: good call on the Jack Black–Paul Revere connection.

  4. […] in the community will approve, some may worry, others may ponder the implications (as I have done in the past), but none the less, I will be participating.  This is quite exciting news indeed. […]

  5. […] that time and that place wanted to believe happened).  We’re not dealing with history, but cultural memory.  These tales are the products of the ancient mythic mind, not our modern rationalistic […]

  6. […] at that time and that place wanted to believe happened).  We’re not dealing with history, but cultural memory.  These tales are the products of the ancient mythic mind, not our modern rationalistic […]

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