Jun. 8th, 2017

osprey_archer: (books)
Just about the only good thing about Francis O’Gorman’s Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia is that it reminded me of Svend Brinkmann’s Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, which I then reread with much pleasure and profit. I even highlighted a quote from Brinkmann that I think sums up what O’Gorman wanted to say in his own book: “The accelerating culture is at one and the same time preoccupied by the moment and the future, but it is definitely not particularly bothered about the past.”

Unfortunately O’Gorman never does say it as clearly or succinctly as that. He is often irritatingly non-specific, particularly when he’s being nostalgic. He thinks we ought to have more respect for the past, and eventually it emerges that what he means is that we ought to look at the past as a potential source of value and inspiration - as the ancient Greeks and Romans looked at Homeric epic, evidently, which may well be true but I find it hard to trust O’Gorman - rather than seeing the past as a cesspool of pure misery and approaching historical analysis as “a search for what are classified as another person’s hidden assumptions that are not ethically acceptable.”

I ought to be an easy sell on this argument: I quit grad school in part because I found this sort of analysis so annoying. If you’ve already decided what you’re going to find once you’ve unpacked all your sources (moral depravity and dehumanizing assumptions usually), why bother spending all that time analyzing it?

And I still can’t believe that so many extremely smart people can spend so much of their time dissecting the flaws in historical reform movements - spoiler alert: they always seem to reify the status quo somehow - without ever stopping to think “Gosh, do you think my reform-minded work might inadvertently reify the status quo too?”

But O’Gorman is remarkably coy about what valuable lessons he thinks we ought to learn from the past. Brinkmann wrote a whole book about valuable lessons we could learn from the ancient Stoics; surely O’Gorman ought to be able to pony up with at least one insight. But no, it’s all unmoored theorizing about the Value of the Past, the sort of word fog that slips out of your head almost as soon as you read it. Truly an aptly named book.


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