The Canon: Theatres of Memory. Volume 1: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture by Raphael Samuel

August 27, 2009

First published in 1994, Raphael Samuel's collection of loosely affiliated essays presents a compelling argument about the nature, purpose and value of historical knowledge and investigation. The book outlines the ways in which the past infuses daily life, and how historians (and all manner of scholars) should investigate this in order to understand popular memory and the "resurrectionary enthusiasms" of society. Samuel is particularly interested in "extra-curricular sources of knowledge", concentrating often on television but digressing through museums, film, folk song and architecture; he looks at sources as varied as The Flintstones, Ladybird books and the photos of Bill Brandt. The range and scope of his investigation allows him to make the compelling case that the past infuses contemporary popular culture. His enthusiasm for Dickens, Liverpool Street Station, retro-chic and photography is infectious, and his range all-encompassing. This diverse scope of reference and discussion, from serious discussions of the rise of history as a discipline to analyses of the ironies of retro-fitted shops, signals an attack on high-culture models of value and significance, as well as proving repeatedly that the manifestation of history in popular culture is compelling, strange, contradictory and ethereal.

Samuel takes on those who dismiss "heritage" culture and suggests that it was not "Thatcherism in period dress" but something more dynamic with a political potentiality that disdainful scholars missed. The book is a bracing assertion of the historian's role as obfuscator as well as elucidator, and an impish chapter suggests that all history is akin to forgery, or at least creative fabrication. He argues: "History is an allegorical as well as - in intention at least - a mimetic art", reminding us how legitimacy can be created through representational strategies. A second volume (of a projected trilogy) was published posthumously in 1998 as Island Stories: Unravelling Britain, engaging with questions of nation and identity and further elucidating the dynamic and crucial centrality of history to people's lives.

Samuel's work pre-empts contemporary historiographic attention paid to space and architecture, music, image, advertising, sexuality and culture. His hybrid approach, interrogating historiography using the tools of cultural theory as much as social history, has influenced scholars in disciplines across the humanities, from media studies to drama. A lifelong left-wing historian, along with others of his generation including Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson, he was a co-founder in 1952 of the journal Past and Present and created the History Workshop movement (1967) while at Ruskin College. The latter provided a forum for experimental, personal and innovative history writing and investigation, founded on a commitment to widening educational possibility and history from below.

Samuel's efforts in these various ventures, as in his writing Theatres of Memory, were to make the compelling case for history as a social form of knowledge. At a time when universities are closing continuing education departments, reneging on widening participation agendas and ignoring mature and non-traditional students, Samuel's fierce intellectual rigour and socialist historiography are needed more than ever. That said, he might well have been suspicious of his book being considered part of any canon, given that his purpose was to interrogate and undermine notions of authority, legitimacy and the power of a single master narrative.

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