[Note to Ray: The following may disturb you.]
[Note to Everyone Else: The following may bore you.]
[Note to Sean: I find this frustrating and fascinating.]
In my response Sean's request for more on my problems with Walter Benn Michaels' argument in The Shape of the Signifier, I came to the following fruitless conclusion:
what's at issue in debates of History vs. Memory is really a matter of individual responsibility vs. collective trauma/guilt. Individual responsibility can be historically compartmentalized, whereas collective trauma/guilt necessarily extends to all members of the collective, past, present and future. In political terms, collective trauma/guilt subtends claims for slavery reparations; furthermore, it focuses attention on the sins of the past instead of the inequities of the present (and therefore botches the opportunity to hold contemporary individuals responsible for the actions that've created/perpetuated these inequities). I'm with Michaels there. I can see why the representation of this continuity in literature would also--if we grant culture this sort of formative power--have implications for politics at large, i.e. dispense with the idea of collective guilt on television and in books and movies and people might think differently. But even though I grant culture the ability to shape thought thusly, I'm not sure that sense of collective trauma and collective guilt could be eliminated. Logically, and ideally, it should be; but I'm not sure it's possible. Without saying that the capacity for this collectivist sense is hard-wired, I'd say I strongly believe that it's a necessary by-product of how humans have and will continue to interact. I realize I've backed myself into a corner, because I not only can't explain why I strongly believe that, I'm also well aware that I might only believe it because of the limitations imposed on my horizons by the cultural moment in which they've been shaped. And, of course, short of undertaking a Gadamerian intellectual history of the past 3,957 years, I can't responsibly refute that latter claim. In short, I currently think that that is necessarily true, but I can't substantiate that claim.
A couple hours later, I've devised a satisfactory way to talk about hard-wired models of historical continuity. I'm going to avoid the claims of evolutionary psychology; that is, I'm not going to try to explain why the collectivist model is a universal human default. Instead, I'm going to demonstrate, quickly, how language is built from the bottom-up and use that bolster the idea of an innate collectivism. So...
...Benjamin Whorf came up with the whole notion of cryptotypes, by which he meant pretty much the same thing Chomsky does by deep structure; namely, a level of linguistic categorization that is not directly visible/audible but explains why a language behaves in a particular way. One commonality of all languages is the dual inclusive/exclusive and plural inclusive/exclusive syntax distinctions. They look like this:
1st person dual inclusive - "you and I"
1st person dual exclusive - "he/she and I"
1st person plural inclusive - "we two/three/four/etc. and you"
1st person plural exclusive - "we two/three/four/etc. and him/her/them"
Clunky though these formulations are in English, in other languages these distinctions are ingrained into the nominal (and pronomial) morphology; not that that matters, as these would be cryptotypes in English anyhow. Now consider verbal morphology: the difference between the caustive verb "kill" and the non-causitive verb "die" aren't captured so well in English, but in Samoan, for example, the causitive/non-causitive distinction is captured by a single morpheme; as if, in English "kill-o" meant "kill" and "kill-om" meant "die." Nominal and verbal morphology interact to frame everything we talk about, what Talmy Givon calls a "hierarchy of topicality." What he means is that certain combinations of nominal and verbal morphological interaction trigger particular (and statistically verifiable and, well, pre-verified) grammatical responses. The basic distinctions in his hierachy are:
1) human > non-human
2) definite > indefinite
3) more involved participant > less involved participant
4) 1st person > 2nd person > 3rd person
As Alessandro Duranti explains, languages that "tend to separate human participants who are agents from human participants who are not...group the latter with the object of transitive clauses; hence the woman in the woman ran would be marked the same way as the door in the woman opened the door. Other types of languages might make other kinds of distinctions" (192). These basic distinctions lead to preferred argument structures, and I'd wager, though I've yet to do the work to back this claim up, that the majority of languages not only capture family/clan/society distinctions but can be observed to functionally distribute them. (Some of the linguistics who haunt these parts should chime in. I'm working on the vague memories of my undergraduate days as a linguistic major, and in an attempt to avoid the slightest trace of evolutionary psychology or linguistic anthropology, I fear I may've veered into some irrational abyss.)
A couple of things I'm not saying:
1) that language determines reality or The Real or what-not
2) that these deep structures make certain thoughts impossible to think; Michaels couldn't make the argument he makes if that were the case
3) that these deep structures make certain thoughts easier or more likely to be thought (though I may land somewhere near that position in the future)
Not that I'm obsessing, but I'm going to think about this more and edit this, that and the other sooner than later, and maybe even start a new series called The Statistical Improbability of Walter Benn Michaels Being Correct or something less inflammatory and more respectful...