January 16, 2013

Posterity Remembers

Perhaps it's the "lowest common denominator" of various memories, whether individual or social/collective, but if that definition is indeed reasonable, functional and suitable, then Posterity may sit helpfully low, like a foundation stone. At the very least, "Posterity" is becoming a key term in my own thinking about historical research, and I realized today I've been using the term somewhat uniquely. To recap:

Twelve days ago I merged several of my own recent thought streams into a post called Narrativizing Critical Points, which clearly owes much more to gleanings and reflections on recent discussions among NT scholars than to anything resembling mastery of those scholars' actual positions. Natch. At any rate, in that post, I began coining this usage:
Sometimes narrative merely records the natural selectivity of a moment's posterity. 
Modern historians of our own recent past work from the first draft known as mass-media journalism. Ancient historians of their own recent past had no such advantage, but in their culture at large some expectations were doubtless more prevalent than others ... popular and dramatic envisionings sometimes pre-impose a particular narrative before the writer begins.
Sometimes a slanted narrative isn't necessarily imposed by a writer, so much as pre-imposed by the writer's sources, or by general posterity beforehand.
In grasping at ways of explaining my thought, I borrowed this less frequent use of "posterity" as something not in the future, but something current, ongoing, or instantaneous. A Google search for "posterity remembers" turns up a slew of examples (mostly from journalism) which illustrate the conceptual shift. Instead of predicting that future generations will remember certain aspects of the past with some degree of mnemonic uniformity, people sometimes remark that today's population at large currently shares some basic understandings of the past that are uniform in detail. (You've probably heard a similar phrase before. "Posterity remembers Lincoln as the great emancipator" and so forth.)

To my current knowledge and understanding, this is not necessarily the same as what any published scholar has yet referred to by "Social Memory", which is often described as being shaped within social groups, motivated by present needs. (Update: Not quite completely; See here.) In contrast, I suggest that "Posterity" may refer to the more generally shared recollections of multiple social groups, across any society with a shared historical background. By definition, then, this requires that Posterity's recollection will almost always claim and reflect less knowledge than any personal or collective memories, but in exchange those claims will also be more foundational regarding any particular topic. By foundational, I do not mean merely more reliable, but also more definitive.

For example, 2013 Democrats may remember Ronald Reagan in certain ways, and 2013 Republicans may remember Ronald Reagan in other ways, but while all of these "memories" are heavily suspect due to ongoing politicization of the past, it may yet remain possible to ascertain commonalities across all of these variously constructed accounts of the past. In the case of Reagan, Democrats and Republicans would probably agree that he was bold in dealing with Russia about nuclear weapons, and that it seemed to have a big impact. Such a common perspective, I submit, does more than testify to the basic veracity of the past memory. In the future, it will almost certainly dictate some contours of future historians' future narratives about Reagan. In short, the ubiquity of Posterity demands its own place at History's writing desk.

Four days after my post about Narrativizing Critical Points, that newly crystallized thinking suddenly intersected with some (also recent) deeper reflections on R.T. France's introductory remarks (in one of his commentaries on Matthew) about Judea and Galilee in the Gospels. Things that occurred to me in parallel now connected, and I posted on Identifying Jesus Geographically:
the basic geographic arc of Jesus' story, along with its corresponding good or ill fortune, was more than enough in the first century to let anyone know 'who he was', or at least who you were talking about.
the popular Galilean guru executed in Judea" is enough to distinguish him against anyone else with remote similarities
People said many things about Jesus' identity, but posterity recalled one basic set of parameters by which to identify Jesus.
The argument of that post built a case for discerning expected reader knowledge (which plays into my search for irony, below) but regardless of that at the moment, my use of "Posterity" continued finding its way toward helpfulness, hopefully. Anyway, by that point I think I had gotten a stronger hold of posterity as societal memories' "least common denominator", although I hadn't phrased it so succinctly for myself until beginning this post tonight, from the top.

In the follow-up post, Geographic Irony in the Gospels, the only new development was attempting to use the new language and/of the new concepts helpfully. The first paragraph from that post tried five or six different ways of saying the same thing, since I honestly had no idea which would make most clear what I was trying to say. Other linguistic and historiographical experiments from that (loooong) post include:
the easiest way of identifying Jesus must have been the primary thing most people knew about Jesus. That makes the above synopsis virtually certifiable as assumed reader knowledge 
the readers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John should not have to be told that Jesus remained safe while in Galilee and met ill fortune in Judea. Indeed, knowing that much was essentially a prerequisite, tantamount to being told, "This is a story about Jesus." 
the general audience of Matthew, Mark and Luke was already widely aware that Jesus had in fact, somehow, become very popular in Galilee without getting arrested 
posterity rarely seeks much explanation for ubiquitous absolutes. It doesn't provoke much challenge to mention something so universally familiar 
once we realize posterity's complete pre-knowledge about Jesus' basic geographical story-arc, the meager explanation [for Antipas' ignorance of Jesus] is easy to allow 
The writer isn't telling a story unknown to the reader, but building upon a story already known, the purpose of which was to enhance the story's significance, to review or entrench select details and to sharpen the writer's own favored perspective. There is art in all history, especially storytelling, but the narrative slant is no more fabricated than the narrative content. Sometimes, the basic narrative arc has been pre-imposed by posterity. 
the long noted geographic "theme" in the Gospels is not something the writers worked to create, or superimposed over their facts [but] actually an ironic filter being laid over a familiar narrative pre-imposed by posterity, a posterity reconstructed with great confidence by reducing the basic facts about Jesus' identity to their very most distinguishing details.
In conclusion tonight, I must again underscore how much I am still exploring my own paths towards saying helpful and meaningful things, both in analyzing the Gospel narratives for historical benefit and working towards more substantially confident ways of composing Narrative History based on the Gospels.

This fresh approach may or may not be entirely original, but I hope it has been applied uniquely and helpfully,  with all proper respect due to past posterity and present posterity, and for the sake of present posterity and for future posterity. (Or should that be "posterities"?)

Moreso than ever, now, your feedback and constructive criticisms will be greatly appreciated.

Anon, then...

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