On the thread that unravelled

When at a bootcamp for employees last year, the concept of our impact on the audience, viewer or reader was avidly discussed, my thoughts turned to Ricoeur’s concept of refiguration.

History abounds with tales of how a book once published takes on a life of its own, unforseen and unintended by its author. How early computer users revolutionized life as we know it by ways unintended or unforeseen by designers and makers of the early computers, supremely attesting to the ingenuity of the human mind, that takes a thing and turns it into another.

As a historian I waded into the deep sea of Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative without any background in philosophy or literature studies. Much of what I read puzzled me, some of it I simply couldn’t fathom, yet one passing phrase enchanted me: “One time, one history, one humanity” (vol. 3, p. 258).

The next book of his I read, Memory, History and Forgetting was easier to understand. Relatively, that is, to Time and Narrative, as here too, there were labyrinthine thought processes, which were not easy to follow. Until the day, I read a footnote.
Here I must digress. Compared with his texts, Ricoeur’s footnotes are a joy to read. Sometimes, when faced with an incomprehensible text, I would go to the back of the book and read the footnotes for a while, as he writes more simply in these.

The footnote in question, no. 2 on page 527, was a thread that helped me to unravel Ricoeur’s thoughts, one that literally helped me to understand his writings. Perhaps what the ancient historian who employs me would surely say was Ariadne’s thread that led me out of the labyrinth. This footnote concerned an article he had written on Architecture and narrativity.

Here, he considers the three concepts of Mimesis 1, 2 and 3 in poetics and history writing, incomprehensible to me in my first reading of Time and Narrative, and explains them more simply, as prefiguration, configuration and refiguration.

Thus, in the coming to being of an artefact, e.g. a building, the first stage is prefiguring the field, i.e. assessing and understanding the pre-existing formal structures, symbolism and temporal constraints, pertaining, in this case, to fulfilling the need for inhabiting and for moving through space. This is the knowing how to aspect of what architects, building engineers, skilled construction workers and interior designers, among others, do.

Configuration is the actual process of crafting, here, how people make, craft and construct.

And refiguration is what the users of the artefact do with it. What in literature is termed reception, thus its afterlife.

Refiguring Ricouer’s insights into history may help us unravel the very crafting of history.

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