A Feeling for History

Adapted by the author from the introduction to California Continuum, Volume 1: Migrations and Amalgamations, by Grant Hier and John Brantingham (Claremont, CA: Pelekinesis, 2019).

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California has too often been misplaced within the “too wonderful” of El Dorado (triumph, health, liberation) and the “too terrible” of Donner Pass (displacement, loss, defilement).01 To be Californian has always required belief in a myth of blind luck. But the myth has a monstrous alternative: it is the story of the snowbound Donner Party and the cannibalism that followed. There have been times when just surviving California is a kind of success in its own right. The abstraction of these narratives—extravagant sales pitch on one side of the coin, dread on the other—leaves little room for local knowledges generated by the rhythms of daily life and the patterns in habit and ritual. Local knowledges are never more than tentative but never less than charged with barely contained intensities, pluripotent in effect, and lived. They are filtered, refined, and repurposed dialogically through generational narratives and communal remembrances (not without risk of inherited biases and phobias). In their attunements, textures, and atmospheres, local knowledges resist erasure. In place of the frictionless efficiency of the world’s regime of speed, local knowledges substitute rumination and speculation, particularity and partiality, fusions and confusions.

“To remain in touch with the past requires a love of memory,” wrote Gaston Bachelard, the philosopher of recollection. “To remain in touch with the past requires a constant imaginative effort.”02 Gaston Bachelard, “A Retrospective Glance at the Lifework of a Maker of Books,” Fragments of a Poetics of Fire, translated by Kenneth Haltman (Dallas, TX: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1990). Worlds unfold there for the subjective observer-participant, always felt but not apprehended uncritically. This sensibility is a kind of intelligence, emergent in interleavings, immanent in specifics, and poetic in expression. In its reluctance to give the obvious interpretation to events, it seeks to drag things into view that actually feel like something.03 “Worlds of all kinds that catch people up in some thing that feels like something.” Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007). [4] Lewis Mumford, The South in Architecture: The Dancy Lectures Alabama College 1941 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1941; repr., 2007). Ordinary practices, so embodied, aim to activate a moral imagination—one capable of dwelling in someone else’s experience—that is in “constant contact and interchange between the local scene and the wide world that lies beyond it.”04 Lewis Mumford, The South in Architecture: The Dancy Lectures Alabama College 1941 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1941; repr., 2007).

The much-handled things of the ordinary are touched and return a touch. Being touched and touching should have outcomes that are political (a sympathetic bond between neighbors) and cultural (a sense of place that maps an inner landscape of recollection on the external contours of the familiar). Californians—inheritors of El Dorado and Donner Pass—have to fall in love with their place at the same time they have to struggle to endure it. To quicken their desire, they “must awaken the stories that sleep in the streets and that sometimes lie within a simple name”05 “Living is narrativizing. Stirring up or restoring this narrativizing is thus among the tasks of any renovation. One must awaken the stories that sleep in the streets.” Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard, and Pierre Mayol, The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol. 2: Living and Cooking, translated by Timothy J. Tomasik (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998). To become native to their place, Californians need new stories and habits of being. They need a feeling for history and vulnerability to it. They need signposts that point them to habitats of memory. These waymarks will reveal themselves in the sharing of local knowledges and in handing them on to neighbors and to the future, where new Californians, in their myriad identities, wait to receive them.