Avoiding Uncertainty by Making Past Usable

By Aarelaid-Tart, Aili | Trames, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Avoiding Uncertainty by Making Past Usable


Aarelaid-Tart, Aili, Trames


1. Introduction

I am interested in the specifics of the human cognitive capacity to reflect upon and rationalise past experiences and memories, to match them with present and foreseeable future circumstances via a strategy for making past usable (MPU). Individuals, communities, and generations--they all need to find ways of dealing with uncertainty in their lives and thus need to continuously use their past practices and memories to prepare for the unknown future. In the following, I develop an interdisciplinary argument for this process through three successive analyses, moving from the abstract to the concrete.

In the first section I revisit the old philosophical problem of whether time represents an aspect of nature that exists independently of human beings, or whether it is merely a notion rooted in human consciousness. The question of MPU has an important place in this relationship between subjectivity and objectivity in time, because it is precisely by raising such a question that we admit that throughout the long progress of humankind the human cognition of time has grown more and more synthetic, continuously using previous experiences to deliberately recreate a framework of perception to make its connection with environmental reality more definite. According to Norbert Elias, the problem of objective and subjective time is still relevant, as people have had more success in studying "natural" time from astronomical to quantum levels than in learning about the psychological and social aspects of time (Elias 1994).

In the second section I examine the same problem of subjectivity/objectivity from a socio-psychological point of view as a relation of inner and outer times. Inner time is defined as an accumulation of biographical Self-awareness, which constantly but creatively meets the regulations, restrictions and demands of the outer structure of time. MPU is interpreted as an enduring but changing balance between Self-reflection and the influence of cultural mechanisms. I argue that in biographical case studies, MPU is relatively easy to determine by using turning points in individual life stories, and that it is harder but more beneficial to analyse it in strategies for coping with cultural trauma.

In the third section I investigate the same problem of objective and subjective human time at the socio-historical level. Now I ask whether past events, as experienced by individuals, communities or states, can be later recalled in an objective manner. I answer with the words of Peter Burke that "neither memories nor histories seem objective any longer" (Burke 1989:98) after a serious exploration of the social framework of memory (starting with the work of Maurice Halbwachs in the 1920s). Reinterpretation of the past by the certain social groups for the purposes of the present is keying to the past's usability.

2. The essence of human time

Human time is paradoxical: growth and decay, durability and transience, certainty and uncertainty are genuinely interlinked. On the one hand, the homo sapiens of any period would like to control surrounding events and forecast the future and in doing so to build up a reliable living environment. Yet, on the other hand, humans constantly remake their understanding of the temporal structure of the universe--in both a very local and a very global sense--preferring to hide from the finality of human ontology. Time is a very sensible feature: people are afraid of discovering the essence of time because they do not know what they might uncover. Time could be an order or a chaos, a mystical deity like Chronos or a practical commodity like money, an a priori intuition or a stable social structure. "The problems of 'time', too, are often treated like a secret, protective cloak in which to hide" (Elias:83-84). Humans behave both like a creator god who gives rise to the temporal order of the world they live in, and a trickster god who disrupts the order of that same world and then remakes it in the oddest manner. …

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