Nearly every living thing on the planet has memory. Beyond the reach of our individual memories, fossils
“remember” long-ago landscapes, while groups of people use folklore to pass down a collective memory dating back centuries — or even millennia. But for all its utility, memory can be misused, too. Even today, wars are fought over conflicting accounts of the “true” versions of historical events dating back thousands of years. Whatever its function, memory is everywhere. Here, four USC Dornsife scholars discuss how it is expressed in diverse disciplines, from Earth sciences to history and from anthropology to American studies and ethnicity.
EARTH SCIENCES: Memories Preserved in Leaf Wax
Sarah Feakins, associate professor of Earth sciences,and her team study changing water availability and plant life, key components of the habitability of our environment. By studying ecosystems past and present, they advance knowledge of how the climate system works and how plants respond and interact with climate.
In her Leaf Wax Lab at USC Dornsife, Feakins studies climate and plant life through the waxy coating on plant leaves. Not only do these remarkable molecules have important functions for living plants, they are preserved over geological time. As Feakins says, “Leaf wax is the molecular legacy of past forests and grasslands. This waxy memory paints pictures of the landscapes in which our human ancestors evolved.”
Her work is not a historical curiosity. “The past illuminates what we can expect as we dial up the planetary thermostat,” she says. “It helps us to wrap our heads around the transformative change of ecosystem disruption ahead.”
Feakins and her team reconstruct evidence for how climate patterns and plant life have changed over tens of millions of years by studying the material that has been eroded from land and preserved in sediments offshore. To access these sea-floor sediments, she participates in the International Ocean Discovery Program.
“My research is driven by a need to understand environments in which we evolved and warm times of the past that are relevant to our future trajectory,” she says. “Warm periods of the past provide lessons for future climate states, beyond the range of historical witness.”
ANTHROPOLOGY: Shaping Our Cultural Memory
Myths, for example, are universal. They are found in biblical passages, Greek epics and creation tales. They provide a road map for those seeking order in the world or a guide to daily self-conduct. But this aura of universality can be inherently dangerous, leading people to believe their culturally inscribed behaviors are “natural” rather than habitual, Thompson argues.
“Mythology is not about history, but it uses history. It uses the idea of the past to make sense of our current condition,” Thompson says. Not all myths are problematic — some are simple entertainment, some provide a record of ecological events from hundreds or thousands of years ago, some convey general knowledge — but we also need to be aware of their potential for exploitation.
“Mythology naturalizes culture,” Thompson says. “Usually when people say something is natural, they mean it is mythologically set in stone, which is very different from saying that something occurs in nature.”
But while myths are often shaped by those in power, legends can be a more organic way of passing on information, one that often presents stories of those who have been left out of official accounts, Thompson says. He cites ghost stories as one example. Many such tales concern injustice — the ghost was wronged in life and returns for a reason.
“Often folk memories will remember what official memories don’t want to,” he says.
Folklore may or may not be factual, Thompson notes, but it provides an important counterbalance to some of the more dominant political mythologies and narratives put forth by different groups.
“History is written by the victors. Folklore is written by everybody,” he concludes.
HISTORY: Remembering Rome
“What fascinates me is the way there have always been competing claims to Rome, which has fed into the city’s prestige and mystique,” she says. “And Rome is malleable; it can be remembered and misremembered in different ways.”
The legacy of Rome — as a city, an ideal, an empire — has been forged, forgotten, rediscovered and repurposed by people in a nearly ceaseless cycle for centuries.
To Christians of the Middle Ages, it was a testament to the endurance of their faith. To Renaissance artists and Enlightenment thinkers, it was the ideal model for aesthetics and rational thought. To many countries, past and present, it has symbolized the rule of law.
“All of these different constellations make up what we imagine Rome to be,” Maskarinec says.
But these competing claims were not always compatible, she notes. The idea of having “rediscovered” the ideas of Rome was central to the foundational concepts of the Holy Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and many other groups or people that claimed to be rescuing Roman ideals from the darkness of the preceding era. But for Rome to be rediscovered, it first had to be “forgotten.”
After the sack of Rome in 410 A.D., the memory of the “eternal city” and all its glories was supposed to have faded, only to be recovered centuries later.
“Part of why we have these narratives of loss is this desire to claim an authentic rediscovery of Rome,” Maskarinec says. Central to claiming this authority was the argument that those who came before never truly understood Rome or what it stood for.
But as Rome is conceived, so is it misremembered, Maskarinec argues. The city of marvels was also a place of cramped tenement blocks, high infant mortality rates and disease for its poor inhabitants.
“As historians, we must tread very carefully on the topic of Rome and keep in mind how it has been misused and misremembered when we study the process of memory,” she says.
AMERICAN STUDIES AND ETHNICITY: Memory and Race
For scholars of American studies and ethnicity, memory — whether individual or collective — occupies a central role.
Natalia Molina, professor of American studies and ethnicity and a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, researches how historical narratives of racial difference shape modern views of race.
“Race is not made in just one moment or by just one powerful person or group,” she notes.
Molina studies the concept of “racial scripts,” social constructions of racialized groups that cross time and space as well as groups. A kind of shorthand — composed of attitudes, practices, customs, policies and laws — she says that once racial scripts are directed at one group, they can be easily repurposed and applied to others.
“By looking at connections between the scripts in the arc of history, we can see that they are always available for use in new rounds of dehumanization and demonization down the road,” Molina says.
“Racial scripts ‘work’ in large part because they are not new,” she notes. Their familiarity generates credibility, making racist ideas seem normal.
For example, we’ve seen renewed anti-Asian and anti-Asian American sentiments and even hate crimes since the onset of the pandemic.
“We can trace these stereotypes back 150 years to see how the Chinese were discriminated against when working in the gold rush, or on the railroad,” Molina says. “These racialscripts were also redirected and perpetuated against Latinx immigrants today, and widened the possibilities for mistreatment of other racialized groups.”
The powerful reality about race and racism, she argues, is that it succeeds by repetition.