Memory, Anachronism, and Articulation

By Knuuttila, Seppo | Trames, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Memory, Anachronism, and Articulation

Knuuttila, Seppo, Trames

1. Introduction

The first issue I am concerned with in this paper is how the articulation of memory and imagination makes it possible to move in time. Initially, I describe some rules and paradoxes of time-travel as they have been depicted in folklore and science fiction. In this context anachronisms are like vehicles and channels to timelessness or a place outside time, to a mythic history, mythscape. In folklore studies myths are usually understood as both imagined and remembered texts, as Barbara A. Misztal writes: "Memory is crucial to our ability to sustain a continuity of experience, while our imaginative thinking is based on our ability to make the world intelligible and meaningful" (2003:119).

The second issue concerns the prohibitions and regulations of anachronisms related to historiological methodology, in the old and new historicism. In the world of research simple anachronisms are of course errors and mistakes, but on the other hand, what in one context is a mistake, can in another be the correct interpretation if not a simple truth. It is said that logically taken the articulation of the old historicism and the rules against anachronisms are a kind of science fiction or time travelling as such. The anachronism debate has sometimes been a touchstone of interdisciplinarity as well.

The third aspect of this presentation concerns the use of anachronism. Because time-travel is so popular a theme in folklore, literature and popular culture, it demands a more complicated interpretation than the faults hypothesis. It would be productive to see anachronism and its family resemblance terms as a trope or on the specific level, as a temporal speech figure, in which case it would be parallel to such major tropes as metaphor, metonym and irony and also to other, more vague figures of speech.

2. The folkloristic perspective

My academic background is in folkloristics, and has been for over thirty years, so that I would like to make some folkloristic distinctions concerning the concept of memory. Folklorists normally use the term memory in connection with some other term. Briefly, for us, memory is always articulated through a text, even in the contextual and performance-centred approaches. For folklorists the text has been the most important research subject and object, full of meanings even without context. This is quite far from the anthropological statement written by Gregory Bateson (1980:24): "Without context, words and actions have no meaning at all." This broad interpretation of a text with complicated articulations stems--partly, at least--from the cultural semiotic school, which has its roots in Tartu.

From the Estonian perspective, Tiiu Jaago, Ene Koresaar and Aigi Rahi-Tamm have written, that "oral history in Estonian folkloristics is primarily characterised by the question of how folklore texts describe the mutual relations of the continuity and the changing of Estonian society and culture" (Jaago et al., 2006:6). They believe that one of the central research problems is why and how people from the same region, or more generally, the people of Estonia, see and describe the same events in a different way. Bernhard Giesen, a sociologist, claims that "differences between collective memories are as normal as differences between individual memories are" (Giesen 2004:32). For him the central problem is rather: "Under which conditions does this division become a problem and--above all why do different individuals merge their memories to form a collective memory of a generation?" So, the questions differ from time to time and from discipline to discipline.

By definition folklore is traditional, a shared verbal representation, which reflects and recreates worldviews and mentalities. For the earlier generations of folklorists, memory, or shall we say remembrance, was not the central problem, because according to their opinions and interpretations the folklore process followed the so-called laws of cultural models (evolution/devolution, etc. …

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