Books, films and other cultural forms often turn to the past as a source of inspiration. It might have always been the case: that cultures draw on what precedes and surrounds them, retelling stories with their own particular slant on what things mean.
I suppose any dominant, overriding culture is in the position to rework how we see the past or other ways of living within our times. It’s this voice that can really shape our perceptions, ideas and conclusions about reality. The argument being that controlling the narrative serves the needs of society: casting events in a light that justifies things and reinforces the beliefs, attitudes and customs fitting with its aims.
Of course, in telling a story, we likely do so in our own words and using our perspective. We might make ancient peoples speak, think, look, act, and relate as we do – imagining people were always the same, that the process of living hadn’t changed us that much. But of course it has, even if we might struggle to relate to how things once were and what brought us to where we stand today (see Notes One).
Does this matter? Does it matter how our understanding is defined by those assuming the responsibility of informing us about the world? It’s a question as relevant to modern culture as to education, technology or the media. We have to get our ideas from somewhere, yet ‘facts’ often come with a coating of how we’re meant to receive them (flippantly, obediently, loaded with fear or superiority).
And everything can be seen to mean something: the ideas we hold reflect our sense of the past, of choices made and outcomes achieved; they inform our views on the world we live in, our attitudes towards systems, people and things; all becoming part and parcel of how we see ourselves and how we act as a result.
History, however, is a complex discipline seeking to uncover how disparate influences led to incremental or momentous changes; to understand a little more the paths human civilisations have taken over time. That kind of truth may not be straightforward or lead to simple conclusions, but it’s useful in seeing where we’ve come from.
By comparison, it’s relatively easy to spin compelling narratives with strong characters, stunning effects, and convenient outcomes. Such tales may also be far more memorable, visually and conceptually, than the delicate study of uncertainty described above. Yet we may want this clear arc to the past, neat themes and an obvious sense of right and wrong that fits with our views. Maybe that’s all very socially desirable.
As with anything, there’s no simple answer. The stories we tell ourselves may serve us well in navigating our times, but they might not give us an entirely accurate view of them. How we got here – all the complex relationships, transactions, ideas and compromises that created Western society and still ripple through it – might not be so entertaining, but could it be more valuable to see?
Notes and References:
Shifting more to the economic drivers of the stories we’re told, there’s Culture selling us meaning.