As the dominant historical perspective on time in the contemporary age, presentism speaks to the urgency of the concerns of today’s historians.The holocaust and other egregious atrocities of the mid to late twentieth century have rendered the idea of history as a continuous narrative problematic. The motives behind such acts have been so incomprehensible as to defy ready historical explanation. As historical assessment is postponed, gaping holes in previously accepted narratives begin to appear. Nor has the wealth produced through capitalist economic expansion and the unprecedented affluence of Western society inspired unqualified optimism about the human prospect at the turn of the twenty-first century. Their benefits are measured against the deleterious effects of a seemingly insatiable consumerism, with its legacy of environmental destruction and overuse of natural resources critical for the future wellbeing of humankind. The outlook, moreover, is complicated by present day problems that have proved intractable, among them: fulminating and unsustainable population growth; the pollution of the biosphere; and the pervasive tenor of violence in global politics, exacerbated by media-driven publicity.
If the techniques of enhancing the quality of life in the present age are vastly superior to any that have gone before, widespread human suffering remains persistent as the divide between rich and poor nations widens. Given historical change whose dynamics are global in scope in the present age, the Eurocentric timeline of modern history has lost much of its meaning as a referent for interpreting today’s problems. The time of history, previously conceived in light of the adaptation of the people of the world to a Western conception of civilization’s advance, is now reconceived to consider the effects of encounters among diverse cultures, for good or ill. Such a vision of history reinterprets the past in terms of changing global patterns of equilibrium and disequilibria. World historians showcase the assessment of political, cultural, and economic interchange, and so discard the once dominant model of history that focused on developments within the matrix of Western civilization.
The advent of media culture has given a new power to imagery as a mode of publicity. It has effaced continuities between past and present in its constant creation, recreation, and recycling of images. It reveals the degree to which linear thinking about time was inextricably intertwined with the protocols of the print culture of the modern age. Therein images of the past were fixed securely in their places in time. Media, however, continually reinvents the images of human experience and mobilizes them in ways that intensify the public’s desire for present-minded interpretations. These tend to dismiss the preoccupations of the past as extraneous to present concerns. A present-minded perspective serves the needs of a consumer-oriented mass culture, while obliterating the traditions of the past and thereby losing sight of the complex, richly layered textures of societies in times past.
The revolution in the technologies of communication has multiplied exponentially the publicizing of events, and so has reinforced present perceptions of the ever more discrete segmentation of time. The effect has been to create the impression that time is speeding up a popular reference of historical chronology since the beginning of recorded historical time but heavily weighted toward the events of the present age.
Symptomatic of presentism as a new regime of historical time is the historians’ current obsession with history’s relationship to collective memory, for memory displays all of the traits that betoken the sense of urgency about interpreting the meaning of the present age. Memory is present-minded. It is also protean, unreliable, easily and quickly remodeled. The shapes that collective memories assume reflect constellations of social or political power. In the process, the importance of some memories is exaggerated, others diminished. The study of the politics of memory has made historians more aware of the frequent misrepresentation of the past in what is officially remembered and what is thereby ignored and forgotten. It has also made manifest how commemorative monuments and rituals are used to further present-minded political ends. The historians’ concern, therefore, is to tame memory—to expose its distortions, repressions, and politics in more refined, comprehensive, and discriminating historical interpretations. At the same time, the interest in memory has made historians more sensitive to their own motives, presuppositions, and biases.
But historians have also come to understand that imagination is the reverse side of memory, and that they cannot evade moral responsibility in the choices they make about how the past should be rendered in the histories they write. In an age that has lost the consoling faith in a transcendent past or future, the responsibility of revisiting the past to make sense of the daunting problems of the present age has become more momentous. For this reason, the present vis-à-vis the past appears to today’s historians as an expanding presence in their efforts to understand the nature of historical change. Historians are thus faced with a puzzle—the dilemma of how to reconcile the imposing demands of memory’s immediacy with their own need for more deliberate and discerning judgment.
(Excerpt from: Michel Phillipe “Essays of History”