Social Matter as Memory, Research Time, 16/10/2017

This weekend turned into a longer gap than I thought. I didn’t expect Friday to be so mental, but it ended up so full of stuff and so generally stressful that I couldn’t get much thinking done at all.

And while the weekend itself has been pretty packed full of stuff to do – catching up on marking, attending a conference on refugee integration, getting a bunch of work done for SERRC, and a pile of personal correspondence – I did at least manage to relax while doing all that.

Humanity's tendency to clear forests, I sometimes think, is rooted in
how bloody scary they are in the middle of the night. We've fought
against the prospect of our fragility with such success that we could
very well end up killing ourselves in the next few generations.
Thinking at least needs a moment. Just a moment.
• • •
The Polis was more than a city. It was more than the first democracy in the West, whatever democracy must mean if it includes modern parliaments, presidents, and these strange town assemblies.

Talking about the Polis as a primordial democracy is very inadequate to the deeper meanings of how Polis-era Greeks lived. That is, how they understood their lives, the nature of their society, their place in the world, and their relationship to time and history as individuals and societies.

The metaphysics of their societies, in other words.

A Polis Greek person’s relationship to nature. It’s about fear, really. People knew how fragile humans were compared to the power of natural forces, the forces of the Earth.

Powerful storms could wash away their homes. A few too many dry seasons, and your whole community starves. Even just getting lost in the woods would be enough to kill someone – dying of exposure, fatal injury, drowning, or even attack by predators.

All of this is still true, but the development and omnipresence of our industrial civilization has complicated our relationship with the Earth. And made it much more violent.

Most of our record keeping about history is totally unreliable. Danny
DeVito's character in Hoffa, a movie I loved as a teenager, never
existed. Bobby Ciaro was an amalgam of two different people
who couldn't work separately in the narrative.
Leave that to the side. Think about that relationship. The Greeks conceived of nature as immortal, cyclical as the entire universe. Even individual plants and animals were thought of as immortal because they understood such non-human organisms as interchangeable. Individually unremarkable, both in their existence and how they understood themselves.

Only humans were mortal – we had distinct, singular, unique identities and we knew we were going to die one day. That’s the condition of mortality.

The Polis was an institutional means to fight our mortality. The continuity of the Polis itself maintained the records and famous stories of debates, speeches, and displays in the assembly. The leaders of the community – those who were able to leave the hard labour of maintaining their lives and households to families and servants – had a shot at immortality.

Glory and fame in your community – the display of virtue in debate, speech, and leadership – was how a mortal could survive their own death.

How real can our modern myths ever really be?
The social institution itself was a form of memory, a way of making memory collective. Societies have always had oral histories, tales of the community’s past and remarkable leaders. The stories mutate over time, though, and become mythical. Real people morph and blend into different characters.

Hell, most Hollywood studios can’t even make a biopic without merging real-life characters and smoothing out their subjects’ messy lives into straightforward narratives. That’s just a matter of a few years of production. Think about the kind of mutation that happens to a society’s narrative memory over centuries of retelling.

Achilles wasn’t simply “brave and bold.” He was a person, with all the complications involved. But by the time he got into the song, brave and bold was all he was.

The Polis was an institution that kept the histories of its leaders – their remarkable speeches, their thundering arguments, their theatrical acts in the public square – rooted. The gathering of Polis leaders was a place of governance, but most people wanted to go there for the chance of mythmaking.

Myths that would preserve their memory without transforming them. Their great acts in public leadership would be preserved as the acts of men, not becoming literature or image. The stone of the city and the square made their memory material.

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