In Invisible Cities (pp. 96-7) Italo Calvino describes the anthropically named city of Clarice, where parts of the city's earliest architecture have been preserved through being found convenient for new uses in new contexts:
And then the shards of the original splendour that had been saved, by adapting them to more obscure needs, were again shifted. They were now preserved under glass bells, locked in display cases, set on velvet cushions, and not because they might still be used for anything, but because people wanted to reconstruct through them a city of which no one knew anything now... There is no knowing when the Corinthian capitals stood on the top of their columns: only one of them is remembered, since for many years, in a chicken run, it supported the basket where the hens laid their eggs, and from there it was moved to the Museum of Capitals, in line with other specimens of the collection. The order of the eras' succession has been lost; that a first Clarice existed is a widespread belief, but there are no proofs to support it...
Our grasp of the order of our historical eras is hopefully surer than that of the citizens of Clarice, but the passage captures both the human impulse to reconstruct vanished pasts and the limitations inherent in doing so; the final, rather Borgesian twist is suggestive of an anti-realist historiography, or at least an organisation of historical priorities, in which history is not so much about what happened as it is about the interplay of source material, as for example in Pierre Nora's methodology in his Les lieux de mémoire/Realms of Memory: 'a history... less interested in causes than in effects; ... less interested in "what actually happened" than in its perpetual re-use and misuse, its influence on successive presents'.
The philosophy of history is yet another region of enquiry with which my project is necessarily concerned but which it lacks space to encompass, and so once again I have largely to avoid relying on any more assumptions in that direction than are strictly necessary. Nevertheless, it does strike me that to date, when talking about artefacts and combinations of artefacts as repositories of potential for historical treatment, I have tended to emphasise history in its academic manifestation, and that in its less ideological forms: the discipline of the historian who, in the generation and application of historical theories, extracts information from source material and thereby reconstructs aspects of the past. To be sure, I've never denied that a thoroughly scientific historian whose analysis of causes and effects was conducted wholly without ideological aspects would be a rather idealistic figure—assuming certain ideals; and certainly, historical reconstruction may depend on the conceptual apparatus in use – my remarks about the value of whole conceptual clusters, with the example of Outsider Art, can no doubt be applied to historical research as well – but I've still been thinking predominantly in terms of information as something the historian seeks to extract from sources. (This, after all, reflects the kind of potentiality for surrendering information which objects, and collections of objects, can lose through damage or disturbance: in effect, information can decay. In contrast, a ruin may well be able to serve some sort of cultural role, though possibly a partly regrettable one.) Historical theorising, even when conducted on the outskirts of what's currently considered academically respectable, is meant to be constrained by the available evidence.
It readily catches a moral philosopher's eye, though, that matters of empirically investigable historical fact, and theories about how and why things happened as they did which respond to the available evidence, do not exhaust even academic interest in history: when someone judges that landowners mistreated their tenants during the Irish Potato Famine, for example, or indeed that historical figures ought to be judged by the standards of the times in which they lived, that person is clearly concerned with history and historical evidence, but the facts most critical to the judgment are moral facts (if they exist), and so we find ourselves condemned to deal with the notorious tendency of moral propositions to excite extended disagreement, not only for the usual philosophical reasons, but also because the past conduct of those with whom we associate or dissociate ourselves is frequently not a matter of fact from which we can readily detach ourselves: regrettably, grudges can be heritage too.
Of course, I've sometimes intimated that the historic importance of an item is not necessarily limited even to the historical interest it holds for professional researchers: that a war memorial, for example, records the names of 'our glorious dead' not so much in order to inform the public as to act as part of public memory, as a proclamation and a focus for common reflection. (Indeed, public monuments tend, inevitably, to be in some respects political: their existence reflects political priorities concerning the organisation of public space and the distribution of public funds.) Such a monument, of course, is still constrained by strict demands of accuracy: imagine the reaction if one of the recorded names had been found to be misspelt. In partial contrast, perhaps there are aspects of cultural heritage which are subject to less stringent requirements of exacting veridicality: what we might call the legendarian. Commenting on Alois Riegl's addition of 'age-value' to the other kinds of value ascribed to monuments, so that their very signs of visible aging and decay create a potential for impact on the observer, Stephen Bann remarks that 'the poets, novelists and indeed historians who were tinged by the antiquarian sensibility were able to carry their intuitions further by articulating new, colourful, dramatic narratives of the hitherto neglected past' (The Inventions of History, p. 131). Colour and drama need in no way entail historical fiction; but to poets we ascribe poetic licence, and in general we do not necessarily place stringent demands of accuracy on a hagiography or an elegy. The legendarian objective is not so much knowledge qua enterprise of fact-collection and the cultivation of theoretical understanding, but more of an engagement with or involvement in the past, and often specifically and significantly in one's own past: sometimes making our folk heroes and villains present to us, sometimes laying our collective ghosts to rest.
Commenting on Alexander Etkind's discussion of cultural recollection ('Post-Soviet Hauntology: Cultural Memory of the Soviet Terror' in Constellations 16 (1):182-200), Eli Zaretsky contends that 'there are two different ways to understand memory: the first conceives of memory as the recollection of an event, the other insists that the act of remembering is not completed until the event is situated into a meaningful, coherent narrative, one that is constantly changing in response to changes in memory...' ('Collective Memory and Narrative: A Response to Etkind' in ibid:201-204, p. 201.) Collective memory, for Zaretsky, means not merely commemoration but the establishment of 'meaningful narrative[s]' (ibid, p. 203). Whatever it exactly means to engage in remembrance in this sense, the aim in representation of the past is not so much simply to know it – that is, as a body of facts – as to come to terms with it: Etkind's 'cultural memory' embedded in our surroundings – 'multiple types of signifiers: from memoirs to memorials; from historical studies to historical novels; from family albums to museums and archives; from folk songs to films to [the I]nternet' ('Post-Soviet Hauntology', p. 189) – is accordingly not only a source of information about the past but moreover a collection of ongoing practices of commemoration.
Let us suppose, then, that what resides in artefacts is not merely information in its thoroughly dry and truth-apt sense, but more broadly material for the assemblage of historical imagery, not as outright unfettered creative inspiration but also not exclusively for a scientific (in the broad sense) approach to history which concerns itself with (ostensibly) disinterested explanation of historical processes and events. A legendarian approach, in some respects a rhetorical historiography, will be constrained by the expectation that its treatments of history – be they elegiac, hagiographic, epic, tragic or whatever – will in outline reflect the way things came to pass (whereas the narrative genre of historical fiction is constrained more by historical plausibility: the setting requires verisimilitude, but the plot needn't even be inspired by real events), and as such it can be concerned to reflect truths, but broadly so, taking an interest in 'the historical, scientific, cultural and æsthetic truth that [an] object and its context can provide' (John Merryman, quoted in Derek Gillman, The Idea of Cultural Heritage, p. 30). Bann again (ibid, p. 102, this time commenting on Nietzsche's The Use and Abuse of History for Life): 'The "antiquarian" attitude is not an imperfect approximation to something else—which would be the maturity of scientific, professionalised historiography. It is a specific, lived relationship to the past, and deserves to be treated on its own terms.' The legendarian attitude is perhaps likewise such a 'lived relationship'.
What then follows for our handling of those artefacts, stories, etc. which offer up historical information? For the scientific historian they clearly have a value inasmuch as they offer up information which enables historical reconstruction with a view to fact-gathering and explanatory theorising; what about the legendarian, whose aims will range beyond the satisfaction of these constraints? Historical precision in causal explanation does not necessarily assist the telling of a pleasing story: I mean not only that it may undermine biases concerning what we would like to have happened, but also that the muddy complexity of the real world does not automatically lend itself to narrative treatment at all (with the result that, indeed, I may have sketched a stronger distinction between scientific and legendarian attitudes towards history than can actually exist). The difference is not in the range of material that is of interest, but in what can be made of it: in the selections and configurations which can be constructed, the ways in which source material can be clustered to enable a certain kind of relationship with the past.
Put the case that in the act of historical reconstruction, whether or not we inevitably and constantly do so we at least frequently engage in contributing something of our particular intellectual background and concerns to the enterprise, to the extent that our enterprise is not only reconstructive but in certain constrained respects creative—so Cuno talks about a nationalist approach to proprietorship of antiquities, Benhabib seems to think 'culture' is the endorsement of certain narratives in constructing a self-identity, and so on. Put the case, in general terms (since as usual I'm trying to avoid dependency on any putative specifics) that groups A and B may not only value some object ω differently, and for different reasons, by each seeking to make it an instrument of the group's own project of telling its own story in its own way; they moreover may both value ω as a repository of what we might initially want to call the same historical information, and yet nevertheless they might actually be engaged in thoroughly distinct projects of (re)construction, their aims being more legendarian than scientific.
This complicates matters, since it means the value of ω qua information resource about sheer matters of fact about what happened in the past (which I'd associate with what I've previously referred to as quasi-intrinsic value) is, while not irrelevant, brushed aside in this hypothetical case as a largely settled matter: it's the bit both groups agree on, assuming they both value basically the same kinds of available information. Meanwhile, what's still contested looks a lot more like instrumental value: the role such an object as ω, and possession thereof, can play in the generation of a historical narrative within a group's culture. (An extreme position might even have it that historical truth is a contestable value: if the harmony of a people is best supported by a pious popular legend through which that people sees its history as one of enlightened civilisation, and the historical record does not unequivocally support this self-image, it is at least understandable that someone might wish to falsify that record.) In the first place, this raises the spectre of some deep and tricky disagreements: what approach should one take to trying to resolve differences between two parties engaged in projects of cultural self-construction? In the second, it provides new (or semi-new) epistemological headaches: even where the parties to such a dispute can clearly explain and support their judgments of value, can we expect with confidence that their judgments, reflective of different constructive projects, will prove commensurable?
A closing example would probably be helpful: sticking fairly close to home, to avoid having to deal with the complication that cultures markedly unlike ours might incorporate historiographies likewise unlike ours, let's take the recent case of the Bavarian State government's attempts to prevent the reprinting of items of Nazi propaganda by the British publisher Peter McGee as part of his Zeitungszeugen series of facsimiles. Glossing over the legal details – Bavaria attempts to use copyright law to restrict the circulation of unannotated Nazi propaganda, having taken possession of the publication rights after the War – we can perhaps see two different attitudes towards the same area of historical knowledge and study emerging. The Bavarian government has an interest in preventing certain malignant aspects of the mid-20th Century from seeping back into the present: it has engaged in a kind of appropriation of the past (in a more direct sense than Germany's usual restrictions of Nazi material in its Criminal Code) in order to keep it at bay. McGee, in contrast, regards publication as educational and 'scientific', making information publicly accessible.
In part, this falls into the usual template of anticipated media effects versus freedom of information and scholarship; but it also reflects different ways of treating the historical information available (or not) in propaganda documents. (An element of conjecture is involved here, but I'll try to keep transnational speculation to a minimum.) The Bavarian government is in the position of needing to facilitate a kind of 'safe' popular relationship with the Nazi era that permits soul-searching (and scholarship) while at the same time firmly dissociating it from present-day German culture. Consequently it finds itself acting as a kind of historical gamekeeper, and gatekeeper: its moral stance towards German history precedes its interests in historical scholarship. An educational publisher, on the other hand, will not necessarily take an amoral stance towards history, but will be engaged in the enterprise of looking at historical evidence and presenting it for public examination first and foremost. For the one, the material and written heritage of the Nazi era forms part of a political narrative of de-Nazification and emancipation from the legacy of the period; for the other, that very same heritage represents an object of study and analysis.