The End of...Erasure of...Repression of...Challenge to...and New Beginning of—Memory
"A quick Internet check indicates that there are more than five thousand books in print with 'The End of . . . ' in the title or subtitle. There is the end of socialism, economics, marriage, sex, childhood, Western Civilization as we have known it, and, very famously, the end of history, not to mention the many biblical dispensationalists announcing, quite simply, The End."
Richard John Neuhaus, "The End of Endings," First Things
"Remembering and forgetting are deeply paradox human capabilities. A heightened capacity for remembering holds the promise of extended human access to the past, hence increased human sovereignty. At the same time, however, it is tied to the oppressive growth of the burden of the past, which hovers over the living like a nightmare. The burden of the past can, in turn, only be cast off through the development and cultivation of the opposite of remembrance, the ability to forget. The more we remember and thereby seemingly extend our power, the more are we in need of its opposite ability, forgetting. Forgetfulness ceases to be a fault – as it is generally understood – and becomes, as Nietzsche says, an "active, strictly speaking positive, capacity for restraint". We need it like a `gatekeeper', a `keeper of the order of the soul, calmness, etiquette'."
Helmut König, "Paradoxes of memory," Eurozine
"I opened a book called Illuminations and read Walter Benjamin's essay "The Storyteller," nominally a study of or a reflection on the stories of Nikolay Leskov, but really I came to feel, after several rereading, of an examination, and a profound one, of the growing obsolescence of what might called practical memory and the consequent diminution of the power of oral narrative in our twentieth-century lives."
Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, 1999
"The sciences and rational analysis can assemble and order facts, but the facts of the world are not and will never be “the end of the matter.”
"Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it…He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of general, platonic ideas. It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front)"
Jorge Luis Borges, "Funes the Memorious"
"I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.
"And yet if verb-futures, subjunctives, and optatives are the home of hope, tweets, texts, emoticons dismantle that home of hope. There is an actual sense in which every human use of the future tense of the verb ‘to be’ is a negation, however limited, of mortality. Even as every use of an ‘if’ sentence tells of a refusal of the brute inevitability, of the despotism of the fact. ‘Shall,’ ‘will,’ and ‘if,’ circling in intricate fields of semantic force around a hidden center or nucleus of potentiality, are the passwords of hope.”
"The past, he reflected, had not merely been altered, it had been actually destroyed. For how could you establish even the most obvious fact when there existed no record outside your own memory?"
George Orwell, 1984
The above "truisms," from Thomas Jefferson to Larry McMurtry, are done in a Jenny Holzer style to remind us that every truth story is countered by its opposite. So we must necessarily begin with with three caveats regarding the end or erasure of memory.
Memory ends when forgetting begins; forgetting ends when memory begins. The paradox of memory and its relationship to forgetting is similar to presence and absence; we have no sense of one without the other. Without memory, we are vulnerable to repeating our mistakes; without forgetting, movement in differing directions is obstructed. Whether or not we value the past and the memory of the past or consider it an obstruction to creative innovation, memory, like history itself, persists. Whether we predict its beginning or its end, memory persists.
Either history itself shows us that we humans narrate a past, which progressively leads to us, a past replete with memorable signposts pointing to where we are now, or we narrate a past that was opaque to what now stands illuminated in our own age. Either we have built upon the past or all that was darkened by irrationalities have long since been buried. It is an observation of our post-truth age to now note that the primitivism we prematurely and presumptuously discarded has worth, and that the pinnacle of civilization we believe we have reached is no more than a story that serves our cultural vanity. The intent of this special issue is neither to go down the path of presumption nor vanity.
Thirdly, the end of memory is a Chinese box phrase that conceals a number of memory arrangements, none of which has greater predictive power than a Las Vegas bet. When you speak of the end memory, you are narrating a story of that end while at the same time being aware that narration is always an attempt to capture a reality that changes. In that change lies our human projections of past, present and future, the attempt of the present to narrate the past always the narration of memory. If memory were to end, so too would our narrating. We are then describing no more than an end to memory narrated for a long time in a certain way.
In proper respect to these caveats, they yet do not overthrown the view that memory and the past are being diminished and dismissed as rapidly as species diversity by a very rapacious way of being in the world which has nothing to do with the paradoxes of memory or the postmodern disposition of the times.
The intent of this special issue is to describe the special circumstances of memory and forgetting that exist in the U.S. now. So the story of memory is titled "The End of Memory" because it seems that present day conditions frame memory in the same way that those conditions frame the poor as "Losers," government as "The Enemy," taxation and regulation as harmful, anything "public" as socialist, and anything analog, bricks and mortar, print and paper as "old, over and adios." The present day semiotics of history, the past and historical memory are wrapped up in the necessities of a "creative destruction." From other perspectives we could say that the "Working Class Heroes" of the past have been erased and replaced with a "Loser" signifier, that any good memories of solidarity and community have been repressed, that memories of an egalitarian democracy have been replaced with a plutocratic war of all against all, that a cultural memory itself, similar to the fate of society, no longer exists, replaced by the evanescence of daily personal texts and tweets.
This special issue will tell this story of economic growth and prosperity, envisioned in a particular way, as relegating historical memory to the dust pile. A radical departure from the past is now promised by our cyberspace innovations, one that has little or no connect with the past. Here, the past is a useless anachronism. Memory extends no further than the longevity of a hashtag. But the special conditions of the present also fashion a narrative in which both history and memory enter a new and amplified cyberspace dimensions, one that entails an end of memory as we know it and the beginning of a relationship heretofore inconceivable. Much must be forgotten in order to declare a "new beginning" or only what foreshadows this new beginning is remembered. There is nothing new in this; this is the historical case. What is new, however, is a complicity of market rule and hi-tech to sever an antiquated, analog past from an instantaneously changing present that we yearn to possess but yet remains elusive. A present that cannot be fully consumed is deferred toward a future full of promise. What cyberspace offers is both evidence that the past is continually refreshed and updated by a fast moving present and that the world is memorable by means of computer applications. Time is thus transferred from real world to cyberspace. It's rather like globalized techno-capitalism and its marketers have gotten all their target customers, clients, consumers into not a universe of infinite possibilities but a prison house, indeed, of personal choice and preference, a vicious circle without the challenge of a collective, social memory.
There are other narratives of memory besides this End of Memory narrative and they include:
Repressed memories The same need an individual has to protect and defend by repressing certain memories is paralleled by a culture's need to protect and defend a status quo. The lingering nightmare of Viet-nam is a resurrected memory by those in power at a moment when that nightmare could be expelled. And that moment was September 11th, 2001 and the means of expelling the nightmare was an invasion of Iraq, yet another nightmare for yet another generation. Had Viet-nam not been repressed in the cultural imaginary, its lessons would have been clear and obvious and repetition, with the same results, would not have occurred in the Iraq follies. A greater effort to repress involves a growing wealth and class divide as well as the unbridled larcenous and looting behavior of Wall Street. No amount of "Black Fridays" and S&L scandals and chicanery following the repeal of Glass-Steagall stuck in the American cultural memory long enough to prevent the Great Recession of 2008. No amount of insider trading and exposed Gordon Gekko-like greed sticks in the American cultural memory long enough to put financial practices and financiers under 24 hour surveillance. NSA surveillance has been directed elsewhere, specifically at the victims of Wall Street looters. We repress all memories of oligarchic rule and behavior. We have clearly repressed the memory of Joe McCarthy's tactics because he has been reincarnated as Ted Cruz.
Erased and Replaced Memories Memories either fall on the debit or credit side of market order accounting. Adhering to the existentialist belief that mortality vets all goals and ambitions is runs directly counter to a need in a consumer capitalist society to erase mortality from the cultural imaginary. Consumers consume in a timeless space; possession erases death. Any memory of workers' unions doing anything commendable in the formation of middle class democracy is erased and replaced by a continued campaign of demonization. Memories of property and business owner ruthlessness, greed and criminality are erased and replaced with a Reaganite baptism of the rich and powerful as democracy's champions. The continued failure of supply side economics demanding lower marginal tax rates and less regulation while prophesying a "trickle down" effect that will prevent a democracy turning into a plutocracy is replaced boldly with a narrative of its success. Whatever the liberal agenda of the New Deal brought to middle class well-being now exists as a remnant of socialism that must be erased. The Federal government itself is now identified as a threat to individual liberty and all defenses of its legitimate Constitutional role are erased. Most perniciously, the marketing and brain colonizing methods of wayward capitalism "brand" the identities they want by erasing what conflicts with those identities. Everything real about war needs to be erased and replaced with a Marine Corp call to heroic patriotism. Innocent deaths are erased and replaced with the dehumanized vision of "collateral damage." Perhaps most crucially, plutocrats need to erase the sketchy, criminal, brutal, or accidental beginnings of their wealth and power.
Challenged Memory: Historically, the biggest challenge to memory was made by the Romantic Movement in England, Europe and the U.S. Objection here was to a Lockean 18th century view of personal identity confined to memory which itself was confined to experiences that were real and not fantasized. The Romantics, particularly Coleridge, Blake and Shelley, valued imagination and not memory; Coleridge as a means to extend beyond the confines of experience; Blake as a means to see through the fallacies of the fallen world and Shelley as a faculty basic to the extension of an empathy that politics required. Wordsworth united both memory and imagination whereby deep imaginative experience inspired by Nature could be recalled in "spots of time" which rekindled such experiences. In our own age, the multeity of the cyber universe challenges human memory.
Orwell's historical revisionism needs no re-writers, merely the chaos of conflicting cyber-views that exercise fractal attentiveness. The mnemonic strategies of Giordano Bruno were based on the development of a narrative that linked geographical space with thought, a Renaissance version of the "song lines" Bruce Chatwin describes as an aboriginal memory system. Bruno's interconnected space/thought view of memory is the antipode to the cyber universe's unthreaded bits that preempt and overwhelm any connecting narrative strategy. Even what begins as focused pursuits in cyberspace are soon overpowered by random intrusions, so many that not enough thread exists for even serendipity to occur.
Both our Market Rule and the technology that has brought into existence this rule that we find ourselves powerless to resist, challenge politics' need for cultural memory. Unfortunately, we are branded to be political amnesiacs.
Ironically, the more we fail to "do politics," the more ignoble politics become and thus the need to "do politics" increases. No one heads for anyplace, not Valhalla or Doom, Heaven or Hell, if she drinks from the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. What they do is wander, not recognizing where they have been before, without direction because without memory there is no road, no destination, and no goal. We now live in a moving river of cyber seconds; no one scrolls down very far or ponders an archive of Tweets. It is difficult for memory of any kind to survive here. It is a failure that sustains Market Rule.
End of Forgetting: this is the reverse of the End of Memory scenario: here techno-capitalism has expanded our representations and guaranteed there perpetual existence in cyberspace. We therefore are creating a deeper and richer historical memory than ever before. Nothing will be forgotten. Tweets, texts, blogs, IM, email have each of us adding to that historical memory. (This is a version of capitalism's "the more we have of something, the better we are." I am also thinking of the murderer who murders a multitude to conceal and confuse his connection to his one target. Deluges of "memories" -- of the 140 character variety -- make it difficult to have any memory at all, an effective erasing memory strategy.
Joseph Natoli's OCCUPYING HERE & NOW: The New Class Warfare is available for Amazon's Kindle.