Il pericolo a cui si sottopone una società che tende a dimenticare minaccia anche le aziende. Si parla sempre più spesso di resilienza, ma ormai è appurato che molte delle organizzazioni più robuste lo sono per aver superato in qualche modo una o più near death experience. Quando i dipendenti più anziani lasciano l’azienda e i documenti che testimoniano la crisi scompaiono in archivi polverosi o vengono digitalizzati in un supporto da molti terabyte, sconfinato come i sotterranei dell’Area 51, ci si convince che ormai si è immuni, che non può succedere di nuovo, perché ci siamo già passati e sappiamo come guardarci dal pericolo.
Eppure, nella società come in azienda, conservare gelosamente la memoria è uno dei pochi modi possibili per osservare l’evoluzione della cultura. Infatti dimenticare serve per smettere di confrontarsi col passato, mentre la stoffa di cui è fatta la storia intreccia alla trama dei fatti l’ordito delle nostre interpretazioni. Ed è proprio il modo in cui queste ultime evolvono a parlarci di noi, a permetterci di comprendere cosa stiamo diventando e di fare scelte consapevoli per tentare di orientare la deriva, lenta ma inarrestabile, di qualunque cultura.
Grazie alla cara amica Renata (…), che me lo ha segnalato, in merito a questo tema riporto un bell’articolo di Jo Ellison, comparso sul Financial Times lo scorso 9 febbraio.
Nota: non posso fare a meno di avanzare le mie riserve sul passo dell’articolo dove di parla di cliodinamica. Il biologo (?) Peter Turchin, dell’Università del Connecticut e i suoi collaboratori lavorano in un ambito di ricerca multidisciplinare incentrato sulla modellizzazione matematica delle dinamiche storiche. I risultati confluiscono regolarmente nella rivista «Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical ad Mathematical History». Mi chiedo, quanto le regolarità che questi studi cercano nel tessuto della storia dipendono dalla “trama” e quanto dall'”ordito”?
Riconosco di sapere assai poco in fatto di cliodinamica (mi sono occupato seriamente solo di fluidodinamica e già lì fare previsioni non è uno scherzo), ma sono tra coloro che guardano con sospetto e scetticismo a quelli che cercano di trovare “leggi storiche”. A non voler pensar di peggio, viene subito in mente il monaco Michael Stifelius che indicò il 18 Ottobre del 1532, alle 8 del mattino (quando si dice “la precisione”), come il momento della fine del mondo, in base a complessi calcoli fatti a partire dall’Apocalisse di Giovanni.
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Among the various anniversaries marked this week we passed a quiet milestone: after 28 years, two months and 26 days, the Berlin Wall had been toppled for longer than it stood. Modern Germany must now wrangle with its post-post-wall identity.
It seems extraordinary — not least because it makes me feel ancient. When I was a child, the Berlin Wall coloured so much of my world view. As I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, the shadow of the wall and its misty vistas were a fact of cultural life, understood via John le Carré or the lives of the musical and sports prodigies absconding from the east.
The wall was sinister and yet curiously glamorous to behold from the safety of the suburban west. As the physical manifestation of two opposing politics, it was a handy primer, too. We all understood that the east was a world of spies, danger and government omnipotence, where citizens were cruelly denied basic freedoms like Levi’s jeans or McDonald’s. That was them and this was us and here was a border to draw a line between the two.
Thinking about the wall all dismantled and long ago has made me feel awkwardly nostalgic. What does it mean, then, that I feel in no way moved by the centenary celebrations marking the Representation of the People Act? The anniversary of the first act of suffrage in Britain to allow all men and 40 per cent of women to vote (younger, poorer women were only granted that right a decade later) should have offered a moment to reflect on female achievement and how jolly far we have come.
These women were my sisters, my ancestors, people to whom I should have felt a blood connection, and certainly women to whom I owe a huge debt. But looking at faded black and white portraits of women chained to railings and waving political placards failed to stir the same emotions. They seemed so far away.
The story of the women’s suffrage movement is no longer a living memory; there are no voices left to recall what it was like. Maybe that’s why, without the grit of human experience, my appreciation of a moment that should have felt profound just felt like a random date in the calendar — another anniversary in the very long ago.
As students we are taught history in episodic instalments: we study the brutish years of early man, the Romans, the Tudors, the Victorians, the suffragettes, and so on, but we rarely consider the elasticity of historical perception. Without context, it’s near impossible to really appreciate our proximity to history, or the significance of world events until long after they’ve happened.
“Did cars exist when you were little?” asked my daughter when she was about six years old. She could parrot away about Norman hill fortifications and motte-and-bailey castles all day, but her understanding of the past was so abstract that its landscape had become infinite. She thought that I had spent my childhood perambulating around in a pony and trap, and ploughing fields with an ox.
Thankfully, the privilege of living in a democratic society that assumes certain freedoms means we’re allowed to be complacent about the where and when. I’m not worried my voting rights are about to be taken away. Likewise, my daughter assumes cars will be a feature of her future.
But we can scarce afford to take anything for granted. In an essay written for the Huffington Post last year, the writer Tobias Stone argued that “most peoples’ perspective of history is limited to the experience communicated by their parents and grandparents, so 50-100 years. To go beyond that you have to read, study and learn to untangle the propaganda that is inevitable in all telling of history”.
He used his theory as a warning: without making the effort to remember, new demagogues will rise, votes will be extinguished, wars will break out. And new walls will be built.
Science would seem to back him up. In America, the ecologist, evolutionary biologist and mathematician Peter Turchin has pioneered the study of cliodynamics, looking for meaningful patterns in history. In a 2012 study of US history, he argued that periods of violent, chaotic unrest, including major wars, were the inevitable result of a 50-year cycle that would peak every other generation. Many historians have charted similar patterns that have found us going to war, voting for tyrants and exterminating each other in tragically predictable cycles.
Becoming complacent about our past can have dark consequences. Just this week the Polish president Andrzej Duda signed a law mandating fines or imprisonment for people who accuse the Polish population of complicit in the crimes committed by Nazi Germany, and banning the use of phrases such as “Polish death camps”.
More than 70 years after the war’s end, the law will effectively rewrite the historical narrative at the exact same point at which it begins to fade from the collective memory. The Poles will be permitted to place the Holocaust deeper into the blurry fog of history. Just like the wall is now a remnant of an era long ago for the generation that has followed me.
We say we shall remember. And yet we tend to forget. Or perhaps we just want to.