Civil War Remembrance 2.0

Stave Lake

Fifty years ago Americans emerged from the Civil War Centennial with a collective narrative that fit neatly into a pervasive Cold War culture.  Though slightly bloodied and bruised this narrative retained strong Lost Cause and reconciliationist themes even as the civil rights movement reminded the nation on a daily basis of the war’s “unfinished business”.  Much of this can be explained by the limited numbers of voices that were heard during the centennial years as well as the influence of relatively few historical and cultural institutions.  This lent itself to a narrative that emphasized consensus surrounding the fundamental questions of Civil War remembrance.

Now, fifty years later as we make our way through the Civil War’s 150th anniversary we are confronted by a very different reality.  The Internet and the introduction of Web 2.0 tools have shattered the ability of any one institution or even a select few to speak for the nation.  The democratization of the web allows all of us to engage in individual acts of remembrance through participation in wikis, listservs, blogs and the creation of ever more creative digital projects.  We have yet to fully grasp the implications of how this technology is now shaping how Americans remember and commemorate the past as well as what it means for our understanding of the concept of ‘collective memory’ itself.  We have always had the ability as individuals to create cultural or material forms of historical memory, but what has changed is the potential visibility of such artifacts through their publication and sharing on the Web.

What is clear is that artificial consensus building through the control of a limited supply of resources is dead.  What we need to come to terms with is how to sort through the overwhelming number of voices both in the United States and beyond that have contributed to our ongoing discussion/debate surrounding the Civil War’s meaning 150 years later.  Archivists will have to figure out what it means to catalog the 2.0 world.  Educators now have the ability to engage their students not simply in reflecting on the Civil War 150th, but in actively contributing to it.  Public historians have the ability to utilize this technology to more effectively engage a general public that continues to become more and more diverse.   Finally, fifty years from now historians will have to think carefully about how to sift through the noise to find some level of coherence and meaning.

Some questions:

  • Does Web 2.0 move us beyond a national to an international remembrance of the Civil War?  How do we set the boundaries and does it make any sense at all to talk of boundaries?
  • How do we judge the relative importance of individual voices?
  • What is the boundary between individual and collective memory when we are so easily hyperlinked to one another?

Fifty years from now, what will historians see when they try to understand how Americans remembered the Civil War?

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4 comments… add one

  • Rob Wick Sep 30, 2011

    Kevin,
    I don’t know that I feel the internet has expanded international comprehension or discussion of the war, which I believe has been a salient factor in Lincoln’s story since the days of his presidency. It may have made the discussion a bit easier to have across the continents, but I think it has been there for generations. I also think it is necessary to separate the international appreciation of Lincoln from the war itself. More people around the world hold a fascination with Lincoln, his life and, most importantly, his views and discussions of human freedom and dignity than hold an interest in the third day at Gettysburg or the merits of the Parrott rifle. As Richard Carwardine and Jay Sexton point out in their book “The Global Lincoln,” Lincoln’s defense of popular government and freedom has inspired people across the world for several generations. They describe a “burgeoning literature” on the globalization of history of the United States, but I think it has been there for a long time, but in the guise of a proto-western (largely British) influence. What I think makes their book worthwhile is its focus on Lincoln from a non-western perspective, with chapters on Lincoln in East Asia and Africa, just to name two.

    As regards the individual voices, I think that for them to have historical merit, they have to speak to a larger truth regarding the war and mankind. Individual slave narratives, while interesting (think LAY MY BURDEN DOWN) are entertaining and informative, but do they really highlight an important narrative over and above a Frederick Douglass? I guess I’ve never quite bought into the concept of “history from the ground up” as being in equal importance to more traditional avenues of past studies. Not that I’m advocating a silencing of the individual’s voice by any means, but without some universal truth coming from it, it seems to me in danger of becoming mere antiquarianism as opposed to something which propels our knowledge forward in any meaningful fashion. I’m sure many would disagree, and maybe the answer is in a blending of the two instead of an either/or, but from what I’ve seen in many instances, especially coming from some voices in the academy, the more traditional narrative is being supplanted by something which I’ve often viewed as more “trendy” than substantial.

    To speak of any “boundaries” in this connected world is, I think, futile. As Thomas Friedman has reminded us, the world is flat. Whether that is a good or bad thing is really a moot point. It is here and we must learn to live with it, and as historians, to incorporate it when necessary into our study and our worldview, but not do so in order to be “inclusive” for the sake of inclusivity.

    Best
    Rob

  • John Cummings Sep 30, 2011

    Is it really “memory” for us, or wouldn’t it be more honest to call it “analysis”? Those who had a real memory of it, the war, are all dead, every one of them. We can only read their memories and interpret them, as we will never have the luxury of knowing their mind. We will always be speculating to a degree with our interpretations since we ourselves are a product of a different era and our critique is unavoidably biased on our sense of all social and political factors, which will never be truly “theirs.” Six generations removed from the first shots means a great deal. For us to essentially psychoanalyze those who can’t really lie down on the couch is a bit presumtive. We are making judgement calls. I believe that a good majority of those we accuse of creating a mythologicalization were wholly convinced of their beliefs. Why should we write history in the context of today to satisfy current sociological expectations? But, perhaps we can’t escape that tendency. Is it really history if we are social engineering it?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 30, 2011

      Thanks for the comment, John. All of us engage in various acts of remembrance when we engage the historical past. I am simply suggesting that when we look at previous generations it is much easier to discern patterns of remembrance that revolve around fairly stable themes. As I suggest in the post the more visible forms were, in large part, the product of those people who exercised a certain amount of control over what aspects and how a specific moment was to be remembered. Think of Monument Avenue in Richmond. That space reflects a great deal of political and economic power at the turn of the twentieth century. What is different now is the ability through new forms of media such as blogs to enter into a broader discussion and take part in shaping it. Because of the increased number of voices it may be more difficult to discern any stable patterns of remembrance.

  • Doug didier Jan 26, 2012

    Hi

    Journeyed here from the jan 17 post..

    Pretty confusing post here..

    ” cold war culture” vice Cold War culture

    What needs to be now vice the future?

    Student contribution?

    Will historians be needed 50 years hence?

    My guess is. Some thinking out loud

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