Whiter than the marble of the tomb is the white of the blank page. The white of the forgotten.
But the calling (back) in to presence of the absent, their re-inscription disturbing the purity of the white page (this operation has a rhetorical name, ‘prosopopoeia’, the calling up of the absent, inanimate or the dead) has unavoidable consequences in the present, in the context of the present. And like the trope which lends it its name, or like any rhetoric, anywhere, it has persuasion as its end - that is, it has, or betrays, an interest.
Stealing the Dead.
The re-membering of the forgotten; remembering of what has been forgotten (whether in official and unofficial memory, a selective memory, according to ideological, national or other group-based or partial points of view). The remembering of what has been dis-membered; no longer a member of the community of recollections. Un-collected. So un-recollected. The forever absent. To remember is to replace absence with presence. The presence of what has been lost, is absent, takes the material form of a memorial.
The presence of social memory (artifacts, images and text), repositories of objects whose sole role is to preserve the past, augmenting the limited role of living memory – anyway often second hand. Together with commentary (the writing we call ‘history’) constitutes history. But why it is so constituted? Why so admitted? Why are selected events either remembered or ‘forgotten’? And why is it that certain events from amongst these, certain events in ‘history’, are chosen for special mention. The mention that adds a new dimension to the storehouse go social memory, an object dedicated to an event – dedicated to its un-forgetting. A memorial. What it is that admits that special form of ‘putting aside to help us remember’ that is memorialisation? And what is it that demands, that calls for memorialisation?
Grave Robbery. The cracking open of the tomb: to take the grave offering, gifts of the dead, but ignoring the dead themselves, their call. Our calling; to remember them and not just their exchange value on today’s stock market of personal profit.
White sepulcher: itself a material embodiment of a whitened memory, half forgotten, bleached, (semi)present in the mode of the past, devoid of the colour of the present. Un-present as a memory, old photograph, faded record; marked by time but still indubitably there, if robbed of its original context, an image whose narrative is partly lost, so liable to reconstruction, to … being borrowed.
Epigraph/epigraphy. Classical inscription, grave stone, elegy, stele, marker of the site of burial, the urn of ashes, the plaque on the wall, the recording of an event, a person, their life, their demise. Recorded for posterity, for meaning ‘a posteriori’, meaning made after the event (so constituting a new event, the event of interpretation), but, we like to think, not just for any meaning -although this is the bottom line in interpretation- rather a respectful meaning, as befits the memory of the dead. Yet telling these apart is often not as easy as we might like to think… (… ‘as we might like to think’, is this not a wish in need of support, support from whence, from without, from the realm of the dead…)? The ever-present temptation to shelter our self-interest in the shadows of the dead.
Let us admit immediately that all attitudes to the past are self-interested… All questions addressed to the past (to the ghosts of the past) are rooted in the needs of the present, even if we refine, and so redefine, these needs as the responsibilities of the present. The question is; what kind of self-interest is involved: that of the all-believing fundamentalist or knowingly-cynical, of one-sided narratives or the binary polarising of moral tales (the ‘world’ of the tale is divided between ‘good us’ and ‘evil them’) or that of another kind of self-interest?
Against these all-too-interested forms may be posed a principled form of self-interest, a use of the past guided by a principle: the memory of bad things is preserved not only to memorialize the dead (particularly where a sense of injustice lingers), but primarily to help us avoid the repetition of bad things (for everybody… and not just of a delimited group which then becomes the basis of yet further bad things done to a group of ‘others’). Opposed therefore to forms of memory that are used as a cover for bad things, as to forgetting in order that bad things may be done (or the laziness of those for whom it is easier to ‘forget’ than to admit to past error, complicity, or current advantage).
But beware a particular habit of the forgetters; once reminded they then attempt to steal the once forgotten… for themselves so still retaining control over memory, so moving from denial to appropriation (the child-abuse controversy and psychoanalysis, the treatment of the mentally-handicapped and the medical institutions of the State). To be fair, this along with many other forms of appropriation, are often a matter of (professional, political, socio-positional or economic) self-preservation, rather than a merely cynical perpetuation of evil.
Taking out the dead from their graves, their tombs, their places of rest; again to be placed on display, again to be put to use, exposed to the vagaries of exchange. Haggling over the dead.
Bringing out the dead: witness any argument between old enemies and very soon the ranks of the glorious martyred dead are brought out to bejewel the arguments of both sides. Any prospective progress that is to be made here is only to be made in forgetting or putting aside, for any forward movement in such cases relies upon pragmatism and good will to make progress… a classic case of the future requiring a break from the past.
Only remembering ones own, and forgetting the other’s past injuries; the sure sign of an ambitious, self-seeking (or habit-bound) take on the past. A sure augury of the perpetuation of the mistakes, the terrors, the injustices, the continuation into perpetuity of the horrors of the past.
A time to forget and a time to remember…
A way to forget and a way to remember…
Nietzsche: ‘The uses and abuses of history for life’. In one aspect bad in its implication for our everyday use of the dead; as offering an excuse for interested groups to appropriate for their own ends; so for power to appropriate, to repeat the crimes of power. A good aspect of this realization of the embeddedness of history as ‘history’, that is its conditions of enunciation as always implying an ‘interest’ (and its opposition to a ‘dis-interested’, if slightly out-of-date, notion of academic history) is that it may be put to agreed civilized ends. To remember to cure, to avoid and not to (re) perpetuate. History. In our interest.
Foucault, genealogies and institutions. Along with the insights of Pragmatic Linguistics’ and on Derrida’s emphasis on the context of all utterances as (non-final) ‘last word’, so it is with the institutional context of the production of ‘Truth’. The production of all knowledge bears the marks of institutional weighting. In addition the rationale for discovery, as for re-discovery (when not market-led, economic) is usually based upon the desire for reputation (identity). Desire as well as the rules of what can be said, where and when (‘the concept distorts the object’, Adorno) all contribute to the construction of knowledge which would not otherwise be made in the form it takes. Needless to add any trace of origin as final cause or explanation (‘the truth’ of an effect lies in a prior cause) in Nietzsche or Foucault is false or rhetorical, a form of historicism (a confusion of genetic with genealogy). In fact genealogy offers witness to the effect of power on the evolution of words and practices, concepts and habits
Just as there is no pure object, so there is no pure objectivity; although it may at times be advisable to set this notion up as an ideal: but not hypocritically, as an excuse for institutional dominance, or an empty piece of rhetoric that glosses over all difficulties or interest or interpretation. All claims to transparency, of protested disinterestedness are somehow suspect… it is as if the real reasons were concealed and in hiding… better a frank admission of ones interestedness, the part of oneself that is in this way invested, involved, implicated… just exactly what it is that we require from the always, already, outrageous, sacrilegious act of grave-robbing. For such a desecration, the justification must indeed be a good one.
For to open graves… is to open wounds… whose cure is time (if not the shedding, the libation of blood (itself incurring further wounds)).
The premature tearing-off of the medical dressing of mourning; the gratuitous exposure of traumatized, hemorrhaged flesh of the open wound, the rationale for such can only be the further avoidance of such, transgression as inoculation - and never the mere aggrandizement of the politician, economic scavenger or village bully.
For what is the ‘proper’, ‘normal’ or everyday function of memory?
Cast in its positive aspect, as a means to maintain culture and is multifarious roles, buy repetition and reproduction. As through ancestor worship and ritual (memory and its renewal as anti-entropic in function).
Cast in its negative aspect, as a means to avoid pain, to ensure survival through the avoidance of previous mistakes, and to further the avoidance of past horror…by remembering previous bad instances… by memorializing those who paid the price of such instances.
Yet what if the positive aspect of memory is given over to the production of horror (in its treatment of its own community or of another)? Then the role of the negative aspect of memory is to stop it. By reminding us of the last time… By attempting to ensure that it was, in fact… the last time.
Yet is there truly any way in which these strictures, these attempts at conditions of honesty or disinterestedness with respect to the past -or being interested in the best sense of the word, as interested in the essential issue, the greater good- can not be distorted, or appropriated by sectional interests? By those vaunting their martyrs, their ‘glorious dead’, their excuse for further carnage? In truth, self-righteous excuses can always be found. But only if the other’s claims are ignored, if the larger view is foreclosed… the longer view, the broader view, the ability to step back and be touched by both sides of the argument… to distinguish between the legitimate demands of the absent dead (their memorialisers, the maintenance of their memorials, a sense of justice done to those denied justice in the past) and the pious hypocrisy of the would-be pogromist, torturer or thief on the look out for an easy excuse.
So shifting the emphasis onto a choice guided by the outcome of the lesser harm, the lesser evil as the safest form of the greater good (or some reading of the greatest good for the greatest number). But how to gauge this ‘lesser’, measure this quantity (the head or, more literally, body count) and what of principle here, the cast of quality, of our values as absolute guide to our behaviour, liable to being side-lined by a reverse utilitarianism of the least harm to the least number? One can but take each case as it comes, in its context, with an open eye as to the interests involved…
Memory as self-interested: a reprise: Self-interest as that which takes the standpoint or point of view of everybody – without exception, exclusion or reservation. Self as others. All the Others.
As we become a self only by learning from others.
Remembering so as not to have to witness anew.
Perpetual witness as the price of prevention.
The occupants of the marble memorials of the past are in no great need of good company.
Copyright, Peter Nesteruk, 2010.