- Irregular Histories: Forgetting Ourselves
History is not a succession of events, it is the links between them.E. E. Evans-Pritchard 1
The dream, the ideal, the legend—in a word, the unreal—it is that which shapes history.Gustave Le Bon 2
The self is a cloister full of remembered sounds And of sounds so far forgotten . . . That they return unrecognized.Wallace Stevens 3
Any literate person who visited London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in the middle of the fourteenth century was confronted by the presence of history in the everyday. A sign installed in the cathedral sometime before 1366 measured the intervals between important moments in England’s (and particularly London’s) past and present. The intervals included, among others, those since the foundation of London by Brutus (2,405 years), the foundation of St. Paul’s (741 years), the conversion of the English by St. Augustine of Canterbury (751 years), and the death of Arthur (700 years). Mingling what we regard as mythical events and real events, secular history and sacred history, the sign transformed the Imaginary of London’s history into a powerful index of London’s symbolic identity, a visible reassertion of the antiquity of London’s cultural endowment. 4 Both the reasons the sign is there and the modes of history it invokes get us to the heart of historiography and its purpose: to establish ownership of real and imagined territories.
Since the sign is such a clear example of the popular making of history, I would like to examine first what it discloses about the conventional function of history, and its dependence on repetition, rhythm, and acts of returning. These principles are fundamentally dependent on acts of memory, which, as I will show, help to establish the ways in which things can be possessed. I will then be turning to the question of what happens when we try to undertake kinds of history that preclude the interdependence of rhythm, memory, and possession. And [End Page 161] finally, I will raise the question of how we might undertake histories that do not accede to the rhythmic configuration of history.
The sign in St. Paul’s discloses at least two ways in which rhythm structures history. It serves to reiterate the importance of historical events. Any return to St. Paul’s revisits the scene of history, and the rhythm of sacred ritual, the revisiting of the most sacred site in medieval London for services, also rhythmically reasserts the presence of secular history. The sign, that is, continually repeats the problem that is the subject of the famous alliterative poem St. Erkenwald, which is about the body of a virtuous pagan that lies buried beneath St. Paul’s. The pagan body metonymically raises the question of the extent to which redemptive history overlays secular history, the problem that continually would confront the readers of the sign. It serves to confirm the identities that are being forged in late fourteenth-century London, yet the need to continually, perpetually reassert the intervals of history suggests that the sign is also shoring up deeper incompatabilities and elisions. 5
The rhythm of the everyday is the extreme instance, the limit case, of our attempts to anchor the writing of history in the real. As a concept, it involves not only normative regularity but also the figure of the repetition compulsion. 6 Defined both by what it excludes as extraordinary and other, and by its necessary recursiveness—by what is enacted rhythmically and regularly—the everyday is, essentially, a practice of oblivion. That is, it occults and obscures whatever is not reiterated in representational practice, the practice of everyday life and the reproduction of immanent practices. In that sense, the everyday is much like Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus, a mediating system that both structures experience and practices and is itself structured by practices. Since, as Bourdieu argues, the imperatives of the habitus appear natural and inevitable because their historical contingency has been forgotten, reproduced in the unconscious, the particular and exceptional is doubly repressed. 7 The compulsion to repeat is also the compulsion to split the exceptional from the mythically simple, to suppress the...