A Presentist Past – Lowenthal’s “The Past is a Foreign Country”

“During most of history men scarcely differentiated past from present.” (Introduction, xvi) People’s relationship to the past is something that has changed over time. Today it takes a conscious mental effort not only to ‘relate’ to the people of the past, but feel as though we are a continuation of those very people. The latter is of particular importance, and often goes ignored by the layperson, who dismisses with haste struggles of the past due to easy solutions by modern technology, including things from communication and information access, to plumbing and HVAC. This presentist dismissal is destructive to that person’s connection to his or her own history as a human being who stands within the cannon of the human race. It divorces us from the past. It makes us consider the lives of those who came before us as wholly different and separate from our own, as if their world is entirely unconnected to our own despite the continuity of humanity and the places it has created.

Why is this the case? When did the divorce happen? Perhaps it was the industrial revolution that thrust the past forever behind us, when modern machine suddenly catapulted parts of the world into a place it did not recognize, despite it being in the same ‘place’. And it was perhaps furthered by the most recent “advances” (or changes) in technology that allowed instant communication and information access. These changes make us live differently from our ancestors. However, their daily lives were probably spent in ways not much different from our own: working, eating and drinking, and laughing with friends.

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