The entrepreneurs of memory

John Torpey
21 January 2003

The Apology debate initiated by Marina Warner’s essay has opened out a whole discussion of restitution, justice and our relations to the past. But shouldn’t we be careful? Isn’t there a danger that struggling to redress history will become a substitute for working for a better future?

In the various scenes she outlines, Marina Warner has given us a splendid meditation on the nature and meaning of apology in politics as well as on the meaning of the recent upsurge of attention to righting past wrongs. Critically alive to the ambiguities of apology, she offers a sophisticated understanding of both the virtues and the pitfalls inherent in the business of political regret. Warner demonstrates persuasively that apology, in her felicitous phrase, ‘adds to the sum of justice in the world’, and that the concern to ‘come to terms with the past’ promotes the valuable goal of bringing to light the stories of those whose past injustices have been slighted hitherto.

In her concluding remarks, however, Warner argues that: ‘too many crimes have been committed in the name of the future for us to see the rise of the call for apology as simply a self-indulgent retreat in the face of defeat.’ Warner is right to be cautious about justifying today’s actions in terms of some wished-for future. As I have written elsewhere, ‘the body counts associated with various utopian projects have grown too large during the course of the twentieth century for anyone still to speak glibly about “striding over corpses” on the way to the good society.’

My concern, however, is that the pursuit of the past by progressives during the last decade has come to replace a more vigorous and compelling idea of what such a society might be like. After the decline of the socialist project, and the only partial realisation of Martin Luther King’s emancipatory dream, we no longer build a future, but content ourselves with liberating ourselves from our past. Dreams survive only in the form of a rearguard reproach.

Warner’s response to my basic position, taking me to task for setting my face determinedly to the future, confirms my main point however. There are of course all kinds of ‘futures’, including those steeped in theoretical scholasticism, and based on a static notion of human well-being, that have led to crimes. What matters is not to blindly endorse some such blueprint bur, precisely, to think through what kind of vision of the future we construct. How long are we going to tolerate the situation in which we currently find ourselves, whereby utopias seeking to liberate human potential from the dead weight of past mis-steps have been largely discredited, while utopias concurring with the really existing (‘markets will solve everything’) parade as sensible, commonplace – and go largely unchallenged?

Much of what is positive about apology and coming to terms with the past in politics ought to go without saying (not that it does, to be sure). Of course we should bear witness to wrongs that have been done in the hope that they will not be repeated; of course we should help the voiceless find their voices, the better to understand the contribution of cruelty to our present state; of course we should try, insofar as possible, to make good the material losses people have incurred when they were wronged by states, companies, churches, and other ill-doers.

Coming to terms with the past seeks to ‘make whole what has been smashed’, to compensate for past injustice, to own up to and to atone for wrongdoing – well and good. But fixing the past is not the same as articulating a vision of where we want to go as a species, the absence of which strikes me as one of the striking characteristics of our time.

Exhaling the past

The preoccupation with the past is also part of what makes ‘progressive’ politics often seem whiny and insubstantial to the unconverted. It’s hard to draw inspiration from an expiration. We must recognise that people’s hearts are warmed less by demands to right past wrongs, even where this is appropriate, than by persistence in the face of adversity, by the dogged struggle against long odds, and by the simple justice that inheres in giving their due to those who have worked hard and yet been denied.

Part of the problem is the fundamentally therapeutic sensibility that underlies much of the preoccupation with coming to terms with the past – the tendency to view human beings as weak and, if exposed to adversity, ‘damaged’. As the philosopher of science Ian Hacking has observed, people relate to the past not in terms of what they experienced at the time, but in terms of ‘the kinds of memory that are current’ in society at a given time. Much of the talk about coming to terms with the past breathes a Freudian air, as Warner points out. It was Freud, after all, who insisted that the past was central to our present troubles, and it was no coincidence that Norman O. Brown opened his cult psychoanalytic classic Life Against Death with a chapter on ‘The Disease Called Man’.

The truth is that when people are tortured, when they or their loved ones are arbitrarily mistreated or killed, or otherwise needlessly punished by those who seek power – lives are terribly damaged. Without doubt, if they want it, such people deserve aid, comfort, and acknowledgement. They may wish to hear expressions of regret; they may want redress; they may seek reconciliation with those who have done them wrong. These ‘re-words’, concerned to make amends for a past in some respects irremediable, are at the heart of the process of coming to terms with the past.

But we need also to bear in mind that people are resourceful, resilient, resistant – other ‘re-words’ than those that typically animate the concern to come to terms with the past. It is this conception of persons as resilient and resistant that has not been a distinguishing feature of the concern to fix the past. For people respond to the ‘duty to memory’ in the terms available to them from their culture.

What the present has to offer

Coterminous with the decline of future-oriented politics, a lush variety of groups and organisations have come to devote themselves to one or another aspect of coming to terms with what they understand as the past – ‘trauma’, ‘memory’, ‘healing’, ‘reconciliation’. A plethora of special lectures, journals, conferences, and non-governmental organisations address these subjects; leading foundations pour money into undertakings devoted to examining the phenomena implied in such terms. The ranks of what one might call the entrepreneurs of memory are broad. I invoke them here not to cast doubt on the reality of the troubles to which they address themselves, but to identify them as contributors to a trend.

They include human rights activists concerned to build a better future by putting an end to a so-called ‘culture of impunity’ in offending states; theologians who see history in redemptory terms, and who promote a religiously defined conception of ‘reconciliation’ as the remedy for past wrongs; therapists who specialise in dealing with the ‘traumas’ of the past and who view history in terms governed by the aim of ‘healing’; attorneys, especially those specialising in class-action suits, who see the past as a series of potentially justiciable offences; historians, who have frequently come to play an important role as consultants and expert witnesses in political and legal efforts to ‘come to terms with the past’; educators with a political ‘agenda’ regarding the presentation of the past to younger people, who see history as redolent with ‘lessons’ for the present; and, finally, what one might call – with all due respect – the professionally injured, who are often associated with ethnic organisations and who seek to gain recognition or compensation for those of their kind who have suffered injustices in the past.

I mean no disrespect to those who have been wronged. It is perfectly natural that some of those wronged in the past would adopt this experience as their chief ‘mission’ in life. But the professionally injured are unrepresentative in the sense and to the extent that they have identified strongly and durably with their (former) victimisation, though this need not be and for others is not the case. Some injured persons make a profession of their past injury, but not all of them do so.

As Gillian Slovo so tellingly reminds us, since these ways of thinking promoted by the entrepreneurs of memory have grown more pervasive, the old rallying cry of the labour movement – ‘don’t mourn, organise’ – has been supplanted by the notion that we must ‘organise to mourn’. Hannah Arendt’s general reflections on the history of moments of profound social change make it clear how remarkable this shift is. Writing about ‘On Revolution’ in 1963, Arendt noted that some form of radical ‘council’ democracy had appeared in all genuine revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These ‘spontaneous organs of the people’ she regarded as having created ‘a new public space for freedom’, beyond and even against the designs of the putative leaders of the revolution. Since she wrote this, however, the truth commission – of which more than twenty have been instituted during the last two decades – has emerged as the quintessential institutional novelty associated with countries sloughing off authoritarianism, on the road (it is hoped) to some more democratic form of governance. The shift from the radical democracy of the councils, oriented à la Arendt toward the navigation of a common future, to the installation of truth commissions devoted to unearthing past injustices is remarkable indeed.

To be sure, Arendt was deeply concerned about ‘coming to terms with the past’. Indeed, she wrote presciently in The Origins of Totalitarianism that: ‘we can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion.’ Yet her approach to dealing with the past was distinctively forward-looking. She thus differed from her mentor and friend, Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), author of The Question of German Guilt. In that seminal text, Jaspers laid out an approach to coming to terms with the past that viewed the perpetrators’ embrace of their guilt, and the moral cleansing that would flow from it, as essential to renewing a riven moral order. Jaspers’ theological conception of reparation involved the restoration of a community in need of healing.

Yet it is by no means clear that such a community ever existed to be put back together in the first place. In contrast to Jaspers’ way of thinking about coming to terms with the past, Arendt’s approach avoided the fallacious notion that a reckoning with the past can restore some mythical political status quo ante that in fact never was. Instead, she advocated the achievement of more satisfying relations among citizens in a future that must be battled out in the public sphere rather than invoked, ex post facto, as the restoration of a lost equilibrium. From Arendt’s perspective, there is no Ur-community to restore, only one to create – in a never-ending, asymptotic quest for peace, justice, and the flowering of human capacities.

Over time, however, Arendt’s political approach to dealing with the past has been trumped by Jaspers’ more theological and therapeutic conception. Consider the following. A conception of history as redemption played a prominent role in the deliberations of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, despite the fact that it was at odds with many people’s desire for ordinary earthly justice and punishment. Meanwhile, Coventry University in England has recently created a ‘Centre for Forgiveness and Reconciliation’ – not in the School of Theology, but in that of International Studies and Law. The explosion in the use of the notion of ‘trauma’ to describe not individual physical experiences but collective historical events scarcely needs documenting. The existence of an International Center for Trauma Studies at New York University offering discussions of ‘trauma as a human rights issue’ provides a telling example. Against the background of larger social changes, a theological and therapeutic attitude toward coming to terms with the past has jostled with, if not supplanted, the quest of active citizens and mobilised constituencies for an alternative future.

Hoping for the best

I don’t want to dismiss efforts to come to terms with the past as ‘a self-indulgent retreat in the face of defeat’. Rather, I find more edifying than the deeply therapeutic sensibility, which presides over such efforts, the humanist vision of those such as Karl Marx who view human beings as endowed with enormous capabilities that are stymied by a world making it impossible for them to make use of those capabilities. To be sure, and most unfortunately for the socialist experiments of the twentieth century, Marx had an appalling lack of understanding of the role of politics in human life. But he revolutionised our thinking – and fired political imaginations for a century and more – by insisting that ordinary working people matter, and that a concern for what those people do during most of their waking lives is crucial to human emancipation.

Ultimately, we need both the kind of political vision once supplied by socialism’s emphasis on equality and rewarding work, and Martin Luther King’s utopia of the ‘beloved community’. Above all, we need to take heed of the resiliency embodied in Nelson Mandela’s readiness to sit down to tea with his jailer after decades of incarceration for what most non-Afrikaners knew was a just cause whose triumph was only a matter of time. And we must find new ways of rising to that challenge.

We admire, respect, and look up to those who rise above and overcome the adversity they face. Apology and acknowledgement of past wrong-doing are good things – let there be no doubt. But waking people from nightmares is not the same thing as giving them dreams to hope for.

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