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Reclaiming the past

March 7, 2017
In this blog post on the American Conservative website, Rod Dreher ruminates on Paul Connerton’s 1989 book, How Societies Remember, regarding how Connerton’s ideas about memory apply to Dreher’s Benedict Option. Quite apart from its significance for the Option, I found Connerton’s comments to be a helpful summary of the nature of modernity and its significance for the meaning of the past and for traditions and rituals that help us to remember. Here is a short section from Connerton’s book:
For the essence of modernity is economic development, the vast transformation of society precipitated by the emergence of the capitalist world market. And capital accumulation, the ceaseless expansion of the commodity form through the market, requires the constant revolutionising of production, the ceaseless transformation of the innovative into the obsolescent. The clothes people wear, the machines they operate, the workers who service the machines, the neighborhoods they live in — all are constructed today to be dismantled tomorrow, so that they can be replaced or recycled. Integral to the accumulation of capital is the repeated intentional destruction of the built environment. Integral too is the transformation of all signs of cohesion into rapidly changing fashions of costume, language and practice. This temporality of the market and of the commodities that circulate through it generates an experience of time as quantitative and as flowing in a single direction, an experience in which each moment is different from the other by virtue of coming next, situated in a chronological succession of old and new, earlier and later.
Our market system requires constant change. What would happen if people used their computers and printers and cars and clothes and home decorations and appliances, and the other stuff of life, for years on end without replacing them? No, we need to keep up with changing products. But this mindset of change has affected much more than our buying habits. Like the ideas of Darwin that were extended beyond the biological to purportedly explain and govern a wide swath of human life, the market mentality extends beyond merely selling and buying goods and services. It affects our way of seeing life and the world. It not only fuels consumerism (living to consume rather than consuming to live), but maybe more critically it detaches us in general from the past and its valuable contributions to the human experience even today, most obviously with regard to religious and moral beliefs. To be old is wrong; to be new is right. We are rebuked for not keeping up, for being “on the wrong side of history” (as if history itself has a mind). “Progress,” it is called, but by what measure do we judge whether life is truly progressing? If newness is the standard, then simply to be new is to progress. Just a moment’s thought reveals the weakness of that conclusion.
Whether Dreher’s ideas are the prescription the church needs to reclaim the past and let it instruct and anchor us, I don’t know (I’m trying to avoid reading reviews before the book is even available to buy). But think and act we must if we are going to regain a stable footing and weather secularizing changes in our society rather than being swept up in them or destroyed by them. Sometimes change has to be drastic, like over-steering a car in the other direction after running off the road. Whatever the church does, it cannot be just a new fad, just another hip idea for Christians to promote and debate ad nauseam. If the failings of the church today can be blamed to an extent on the infusion of a modern mentality, then maybe the past can provide needed correctives.
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