Posted by: HAT | June 25, 2009

Appropriating History

The tulip, a spring-blooming bulb, has given its name as an acronym to a set of doctrinal assertions associated with the Reformed ('Calvinist') tradition

The tulip, a spring-blooming bulb, has given its name as an acronym to a set of doctrinal assertions associated with the Reformed ('Calvinist') tradition

Making additional progress. Cleared off/out about 180 inches of shelf space on my desk, got all the theory/philosophy books onto shelves where I can see them, in alphabetical order by author, and emptied the boxes I brought home from school 3 years ago. [Yes, well, some of us have these . . . personal limitations.]

This has produced a retrograde movement vis-à-vis my desktop, but — today is trash day. Although all the individual stacks of stuff (think of other words that start with “s”) require actions, I have a strategy. Courage!

Executing this strategy entailed updating a notes file, among other things.

Which included a story about our church — or rather, more precisely, the Presbyterian Church in Corydon, after the battle of Corydon in 1863, which the Union lost, btw, one of only two on Union soil, but you don’t get to choose your history. (This underscores the ultimate point, in a way.) After the battle, the Confederate wounded were brought to the Presbyterian Church for care, and laid out on the pews — better the pews than the floor, I suppose. We know this, because someone remembered having to clean blood off the pews later.

This is one of the stories of our little church.

The way our pastor tells the story, “I don’t know what effects that act had, on the Presbyterians who did the nursing, or on the men who were cared for in the church, . . . but I’m pleased and proud that they did it.”

The reaction of being pleased and proud is a way of appropriating that history. It is one of the ways history “makes us who we are,” in the sense that we can say “We are the people whose forbears took in enemy wounded and cared for them, we are the people who are proud and pleased to be able to say that about our forbears.” Presumably, we would want to do the same if circumstances called for it, or similar.

Now . . . this is a bit of history that doesn’t “determine” us. No doubt we could trace some “determining” influences in other ways, at other levels of analysis: larger social, cultural and economic effects of the Civil War, the foreclosure of this or that social and cultural option due to those effects, and so on. But this episode, and its half-life, which seems to exert some effect, doesn’t seem to exert a determining effect. And while we don’t get to choose it, we do experience it as offering some element of choice: how to feel about it, how to think about it, how to appropriate it, how to identify with or claim it.

That choice, it seems to me, does have a kind of decisive influence, in that it changes the calculus, the Bayesian probabilities for future action. Once we decide that we’re pleased and proud of it, there’s more push on the side of “trying to be like them” that’s going to apply to some upcoming episode, less on the side of “trying to be different from them.” So that there is a sense in which history (this kind of historic episode, anyway) makes us who we are just insofar as we ourselves make ourselves that way in our specific appropriation of or identification with that history.

This moment of choice seems, to me, extraordinarily important, especially from the standpoint of thinking about utopia, or pro-utopian activity.

[As a follow-up, here’s a brief indulgence of relevant particular-church and small town parochiality:
Wikipedia offers a narrative of the Battle of Corydon, and Nostalgiaville features a large number of Corydon pictures that include an image of the historical marker in front of the old Presbyterian Church building on the square — not the one where the wounded were cared for, which was the even older one, but the Anna Applegate Memorial one. They have inaccurate info. about the current site of the Corydon Presbyterian Church, however. Nevertheless, inaccurate info. is a little better than’s Presby-repressive walking tour of Corydon, which includes the Methodist church on the square, but not the old Presbyterian one, which is now the Wright Intepretive Center, with a museum in the basement and a gift shop in the SE corner of the old sanctuary, which, I admit, I would think would want to be included in a walking tour. On the other hand, if a person were to take that walking tour, they would be led ineluctably past the old CPC building twice, what with walking from the Visitor’s Center to the Gov’s Headquarters and then to the County Courthouse, so that the impulse to stop there would be well-nigh irresistible.]



  1. This is a cool point, and quite a liberating one; it points to a ‘therapeutics’ of history in which we get to experiment with ways to transform our worlds from within. But I don’t entirely agree that we don’t get to choose our history, because one of the strategies of this therapeutics is selectivity and creative interpolation; for example, it may well be that those Civil War Presbyterians were not given a choice at the time about whether to take in the soldiers and nurse them.

    • Yikes, hadn’t thought of that! Still, I’ll like to think at least one or two of them had read Matt. 5:41, and so could have been exercising a remnant of agency even in that event. (Which maybe underscores your point, in a different way.)

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