4 October 2009

Jeffrey Olick lecture at the Institute for Social Research (Melbourne, June 18th, 2009)

Professor Jeffrey Olick (University of Virginia) - Making Sense of Historical Analogies: Insights from Memory Studies

Politicians and commentators frequently frame contemporary events by analogies to the past: Waterloo, Munich, Hitler, the Great Depression, etc. Historians, by contrast, often show why such analogies are misleading, how the politicians got it wrong, while sociologists try to discover the hidden interests behind the analogy - what the politicians were trying to accomplish with it - and hence to discredit it. But analogies, philosophers have shown, are never completely right or completely wrong; no two events are exactly the same, nor are any two that involve humans completely distinct, which is why teachers always ask their students to compare and contrast. How, then, are we, the critical public, to make sense of the use of historical analogies in public? Factual criticism and discovery of intentions are indeed important, but they are not nearly enough. In this lecture, I outline a number of different dimensions that critical publics must bring to their reception of historical analogies. Based on recent work in the emerging field of memory studies, I explore the role of fantasy, emotion and aesthetics in the deployment, and hence reaction to, historical analogies in public discourse.

Listen to the podcast

source: Institute for Social Research

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