Debating Collective Identity: Does a Social Collective Identity Exist?

February 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

What is Collective Identity?:

A couple of months ago I weighed into a blog debate about historical methodology on the U.S. Intellectual History blog. Needless to say, I was deboned and quartered by another reader on my logic and methodology. Of course I was excited that my post had sparked a transition in the conversation, however it also provided a moment for me to clarify my ideas in writing. Therefore, I have posted below my side of the debate with the included inquiry questions. The point of this post is not to defend my abilities, but to demonstrate some great insight I had while thinking about these issues being brought up with my methodology.

As soon as California became an American state, influential individuals and groups began to establish historical narratives and perspectives on the past that legitimized and defined America’s conquest of Alta California. But how do the ideas of the few transform and transmute into a collective identity of place?

Join the discussion by posting below or responding on Twitter ~ @Calhistorian. I also encourage anyone interested to visit the U.S. Intellectual History blog for a locus of discussion and community. Any suggestions, challenges, or reading that I should know, feel free to post.

Discussion:

Q: Do individuals whom have deeper memories think or act differently than those with shallow memories?

A: As David Lowenthal suggests in, The Past is a Foreign Country, “all present awareness is grounded on past perceptions and acts.” And if so, could not an individual’s particular understanding of temporality, influence the construction of their identities and actions, let alone frame the landscape of their memories which seem to define in large part the characteristics of one’s cultural identity? Additionally, and as suggested by Ray Haberski’s post referenced above (Marking Time Through War), an individual’s broader understanding of temporality results not from a linear extrapolation of the past but from a non-linear, wrinkling web of retrospection.

Memories are certainly “of ‘the past'” as you say, however the character of the past recalled, the depth into history one’s memories travel, and the meaning placed on that depth, seem to represent formative structures of individual identity. “The past,” Lowenthal reminds us, “is both historical and memorial; its scenes and experiences antedate our own lives, but what we have read and heard and reiterated makes them part of our memories too.” Therefore, we should attempt to not only understand what memories a historical actor values, but how that actor’s memory is transfused with diverse and often contradictory conceptions of the past that are not of their own making.

In the words of R. G. Collingwood, the past is called into “being by recollecting and by thinking historically, but we do this by disentangling it out of the present in which it actually exists.” When James D. Phelan, mayor of San Francisco in 1896, announced the “New San Francisco” in a speech given to the Mechanics’ Institute, he presented a version of the past that had a direct causal connection with his present through his advocation of the City Beautiful Movement. In the speech (click for full source) he acknowledged and traced republican and democratic (political systems, not party) precursors as antecedent to San Francisco’s own version of American exceptionalism. Phelan wrote that:

[O]n the map of the world the great bay and harbor, opening into 76,000,000 miles of ocean, was stamped by the hand of Fate and destined for empire, and passing generations, now floating on the tide of fortune, dimly conscious of the greatness of their metropolis, little appreciate the strength of their position and the value of their heritage. We are, perhaps, too close to the object to take an extensive view. We have groveled too long in the slough of self-depreciation, and should arouse ourselves to the dignity of our citizenship, and more particularly to the duties of the hour.

Significantly, Phelan’s understanding of this progressive social perfection of American republicanism was just as much a consequence of his deep memory as much as his position in power and stance on urban reform. Phelan even seemed to understand and act on the difference between those with shallow and deep memories and in some ways indicating his derision for those who failed to understand his long-view of history and the nation’s progressive evolution of republican societies.

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