Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Tension Between the Familiar and the Strange

“[There is] a tension that underlies every encounter with the past: the tension between the familiar and the strange, between feelings of proximity and feelings of distance in relation to the people we seek to understand. Neither of these extremes does justice to history’s complexity, and veering to one side or the other dulls history’s jagged edges and leaves us with cliché and caricature…

The pole of familiarity pulls us most strongly… Because we more or less know what we are looking for before we enter this past, our encounter is unlikely to change us or cause us to rethink who we are. The past becomes clay in our hands. We are not called upon to stretch our understanding to learn from the past. Instead, we contort the past to fit the predetermined meanings we have already assigned it.

The other pole in this tension, the strangeness of the past, offers the possibility of surprise and amazement, of encountering people, places, and times that spur us to reconsider how we conceptualize ourselves as human beings. An encounter with this past can be mind-expanding in the best sense of the term. Yet, taken to extremes, this approach carries its own problems. The past “on its own terms”, detached from the circumstances, concerns, and needs of the present, too often results in a kind of esoteric exoticism…

There is no easy way around the tension between the familiar past, which seems so relevant to our present needs, and the strange and inaccessible past, whose applicability is not immediately manifest. The tension exists because both aspects are essential and irreducible. On the one hand, we need to feel kinship with the people we study, for this is exactly what engages out interest and makes us feel connected… But this is only half the story… we need to encounter the distant past – a past less distant from us in time than in its modes of thought and social organization. It is this past, one that leaves us befuddled or, worse, just plain bored, that we need most if we are to achieve the understanding that each of us is more than the handful of labels ascribed to us at birth. The sustained encounter with this less-familiar past teaches us the limitations of our brief sojourn in the planet and allows us to take membership in the entire human race. Paradoxically, the relevance of the past may lie precisely in what strikes us as its initial irrelevance.”

-Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts


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