Memory Work (II)

15 Apr

As with endless loss, if we follow the logic of ‘everything is worth remembering’ to its extreme, we quickly realise the impossibility of such an undertaking. Hence, Jorge Luis Borges’s hapless character ‘Funes the Memorious’, unable to forget the detail of anything he has perceived. Forgetting, as Borges reminds us, is essential to our ability to function in other spheres:

With no effort, [Funes] had learned English, French, Portuguese and Latin. I suspect, however, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

(Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Funes the Memorious’ (tr. James E. Irby), Labyrinths, ed. Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1985 [1964]), p. 94.)

And it is not only the potential for mental overload that too much remembering can bring; there is also the connected danger of being haunted or trapped by the past. Andreas Huyssen provides a critique of what he sees as the conservative aspects of memory obsession. He points out that the obsession with discourses of loss does no justice to the ‘politics of memory’. In the introduction to Present Pasts he writes, ‘At stake in the current history/memory debate is not only a disturbance of our notions of the past, but a fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures.’ (Andrea Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 2). Huyssen recalls Nietzsche’s call for ‘creative forgetting’ in the latter’s Untimely Meditations. As Sylviane Agacinski points out, Nietzsche and Freud are unusual in that ‘they taught the value of oblivion’, Freud in his insistence on working-through and Nietzsche with his creative forgetting: ‘Life has always needed forgetfulness more than memory and even the desire for commemorative monuments satisfies the desire to entrust memory to material reminders – to better free us from the past.’ (Sylviane Agacinski, Time Passing: Modernity and Nostalgia, tr. Jody Gladding (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003 [2000]), p. 14.)

While it is necessary to recognize these points, they do not make the obsession with memory and loss disappear; in this sense, at least, loss cannot be lost, for forgetting, like remembering, is only ever partial (making it both partial and endless). This is what brings about haunting, the spectral permanence of the past in the present. Although the various thinkers I have mentioned have different notions of the politics of memory, they all share an obsession with remembering and all, we might add, have strong ideas about what they want memory work to be.

Yearning is a process that relies on the notion of some form of community in that it derives from prior experience. As Christine Boyer notes, drawing on the work of Maurice Halbwachs, ‘memories [are] recalled by time periods, by recollecting places visited and by situating ideas or images in patterns of thought belonging to specific social groups.’ It follows from this that memory is always social. In Halbwachs’s words, ‘the individual remembers by placing himself in the perspective of the group, but one may also affirm that the memory of the group realizes and manifests itself in individual memories.’ Furthermore:

[T]he collective frameworks of memory are not constructed after the fact by the combination of individual recollections; nor are they empty forms where recollections coming from elsewhere would insert themselves. Collective frameworks are, to the contrary, precisely the instruments used by the collective memory to reconstruct an image of the past which is in accord, in each epoch, with the predominant thoughts of the society.

(Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, ed. & tr. Lewis A. Coser (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 40.)

However, for Pierre Nora, whose work draws on Halbwachs, it is no longer clear that the collective memory knows what to do with itself. It may not even recognize its own existence:

Things tumble with increasing rapidity into an irretrievable past. They vanish from sight, or so it is generally believed. The equilibrium between the present and the past is disrupted. What was left of experience, still lived in the warmth of tradition, in the silence of custom, in the repetition of the ancestral, has been swept away by a surge of deeply historical sensibility. Our consciousness is shaped by a sense that everything is over and done with, that something long since begun is now complete. Memory is constantly on our lips because it no longer exists.

(Pierre Nora, ‘General Introduction: Between Memory and History’, in Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past Vol. 1: Conflicts and Divisions, ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman, tr. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).)

Because there are no longer milieux de mémoire, defined as ‘settings in which memory is a real part of everyday experience’, there has arisen a need for lieux de mémoire, ‘sights … in which a residual sense of continuity remains’. As for the relationship between memory, often associated with individuals despite the work of Halbwachs and others, and the collective autobiography that goes by the name of ‘history’, Nora sees clear differences: ‘Memory … thrives on vague, telescoping reminiscences, on hazy general impressions or specific symbolic details. It is vulnerable to transferences, screen memories, censorings, and projections of all kinds.’ History, on the other hand, ‘calls for analysis and critical discourse’. In short, ‘memory is an absolute, while history is always relative’. Due to its relativity, and of the multitude of ways of telling its stories, history requires its own history, bringing about the practice of historiography, which ‘begins when history sets itself the task of uncovering that in itself which is not history, of showing itself to be the victim of memory and seeking to free itself from memory’s grip.’ For Nora, there has been a renunciation of ritual, leading to an ignorance around what to make of the ever-increasing archives that have taken the place of memory: ‘Museums, archives, cemeteries, collections, festivals, anniversaries, treaties, depositions, monuments, sanctuaries, private associations – these are relics of another era, illusions of eternity. That is what makes these pious undertakings seem like exercises in nostalgia, sad and lifeless.’

Nora imagines a society so obsessed with the present that it spent all its time recording itself while postponing any self-analysis. He claims this is not the case with our society, which has become obsessed instead with history. But Agacinski offers a point of view more closely allied to the situation Nora denies. While agreeing that responsibility for remembering is handed over to the archive she claims that we are more interested in recording than analysing. Indeed the act of recording has become a part of the experience of the present – any significant present moment cannot go unrecorded. But, once recorded, it is seldom looked back on. For his part, Andreas Huyssen distinguishes memory from the archive precisely by the former’s location in the present; ‘it is this tenuous fissure between past and present that constitutes memory, making it powerfully alive and distinct from the archive or any other mere system of storage and retrieval.’

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  1. Memory Work (II) « The Place of Longing « iwalewa _ PublicSpace - May 26, 2012

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