09.00 Speaking About the Past: Historical Discourse in Contemporary Society
This paper will examine the value and function of references to heritage within political, media, and public discourse in contemporary Britain and the United States as an indication of the relationship with the prehistoric, ancient, medieval, and recent past. Although we speak in reverential terms of history and heritage, of the significance of preservation, the duty of curating and the importance of commemoration, the manner in which the past is brought to bear on the present through discourse reveals a very different perspective. As a rhetorical device, notions of heritage serve as negative comparative points through which we argue for advancement and acceleration into the future. Indeed, far from holding the past in the high esteem that might be indicated by the long queues at tourist sites and museums or the popularity of television dramas and documentaries, we are dismissive of our ancestors and our history as we seek to establish the primacy of our own era. By examining this “historical discourse” we can provide a new perspective on the value and significance of heritage within contemporary society.
We are so accustomed to statements from politicians, commentators, and public figures that venerate heritage as a positive influence on society, or that extol the importance of the study of the past, that the meaning and worth of our history almost appears self-evident. However, using rhetorical cultural theory, an assessment of the allusions to previous historical eras made within modern discourse reveals how contemporary society actually removes itself from such associations. To speak of the dinosaurs, Neanderthals, Egyptian Pharaohs, Roman Emperors, Medieval Kings, or the Victorians as a point of reference within modern Britain or the United States is not to celebrate the wonders of another age, it is to provide a damning indictment of a failure to progress. Those who are cast as possessing out-dated ideas are “dinosaurs,” the morally deficient are assessed as “Neanderthals,” ill-judges ventures by presidents and prime ministers result in accusations of behaving like an emperor or a pharaoh, dubious or exploitative businesses practices are deemed to be “medieval” or “feudal,” whilst poor living and working conditions can be regarded as “Victorian.” Through metaphor, allusion, and simile, we speak about the past as a failure to emphasize the present and the future.
Through an examination of how these references operate as structuring devices and conceptual metaphors, such allusions can be regarded as not just illustrative effects but a means of perceiving the past. This assessment can serve to challenge established notions regarding heritage; rather than suffering from a surfeit of nostalgia we are perhaps, more accurately, in need of these historical references to reassure ourselves of our place, our own sense of advancement, and our society’s progression.