Reflections on Memory, Trauma, and Politics, #4


The following is the sixth in the series of seven entries, made earlier in my philosophical journal, that pertain to Duncan Bell’s edition of essays by various contributors in Memory, Trauma, and World Politics (Pallgrave Macmillan, 2006).  The entry posted below concerns two different articles in Bell’s collection, both by European professors of international relations.  I address the first, by Jens Bartleson, only briefly, then the second, by K. M. Fierke, at greater length.  


Sunday, May 5, 2008

Jens Bartleson (Professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen), “We Could Remember for You Wholesale:  Myths, Monuments and the Constitution of National Memories” (in Bell,pp. 33-53), from the last paragraph of the article (p. 53): 

“[What happened to us with the rise and fall of the nation state has left us] as traumatized by the experience of nationhood as we are by the expectations of its demise.  As long as we rely on collective memories as a source of personal identity, we will inevitably face a certain loss of self whenever those collective memories are strategically rearranged to cater to  new political concerns.  The prospective loss of national identity looks scary indeed, yet our sense of personal identity will inevitably remain fragile so long as we seek to derive it from belonging to a community thus constituted.  There is neither a past nor a future that can provide the anchor points for individual or collective identity anymore, since what has been fractured in the present is any connection between memory and identity.  To some, this will pave the  way for a brave new world of individualized memories. . . If this is  the  case, we would then cease to be what we remember and start to remember who we are.”

And then, indeed, we may start to remember the political,  as opposed to politics, and enter into that “coming community”–that community of the always not yet future–wherein the only thing we have in common is the fact that we all die:  the genuinely open community of we who are alone together in the face of death.


K. M. Fierke (she is Professor of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews in Great Britain), “Bewitched by the Past:  Social Memory, Trauma and International Relations” (pp. 116-134 in Bell), first page (116)of her essay, mentions (as do others in Bell) “Maurice Halbwacks, who, through a concept of collective memory explores how present concerns determine what past we remember and how we remember it.  In this theory [which is actually that of Peter Novick, she says, in The Holocaust and Collective Memory–London: Bloomsbury, 1999], collective memory is ahistorical in so far as it simplifies and is impatient with any kind of ambiguity, reducing events to  mythic archetypes.  Memory in this conception denies the ‘pastness’ of its objects and insists on their continuing presence.  [My emphasis.]  A memory once established defines an eternal truth and identity for members of a group.”

I  would read the italicized line at least partly against the grain of her own apparent reading [by interpreting it as follows]:  The manipulation of the traumatic past (A pleonasm?) to form “collective memory” reduces the past, which, as [William] Faulkner says, “isn’t over, it isn’t even past,” to a past present–reduces time to an “image of eternity” [Plato’s line]–and, therewith, reduces the present to that vanishing point between what “was” but “is no longer” and what “will be” but “is not yet.”

A page later (124), she comes back to this (mistaken, I’m saying) idea, after citing a case I’ll come back to in a moment.  She treats the repetition [involved in] that case as follows:  “The victim in the one world [in the case at issue, a father who survived the Holocaust, “in” the world of which he was victim] later does to himself and to others what was done to  him [as this father ends up doing to his daughter], as a way of staying involved with a (now absent) perpetrator [which notion of victim identification with perpetrator I would also reject] or reproducing a (now absent) abusive terrain.”

Against [such a] reading:  The distinction between “historical” and “structural” trauma [e.g., in LaCapra]–[or,] as I’d recast it:  between triggering/signifying/activating occurrence and the underlying traumatism it triggers/signifies/activates–lets us realize that neither “perpetrator” nor “abuse” are “now absent” at all!  It is precisely the reduction of the “perpetration” of the “abuse” to a datable, and now dated, now “past,” event/occurrence that locks the “victim” into a sort of endless “eternal now.”  It is precisely because the underlying abusiveness of the situation remains ignored and silenced that it–that very abusive situation [itself]–can only perpetuate itself endlessly.

The case she cites is this (p. 123), from psychiatrist James Glass (Private Terror/Public Life:  Psychosis and the Politics of Community–Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1989):  A case in which “a Holocaust survivor passed on a set of meanings and relational patterns, acquired in the concentration camp [Acquired there?  Or already aquired long before, by birth into the sort of riven, non-communal community that was/is what passed/passes for community in that/this day?], to his  daughter Ruth.  As Ruth was growing up, she was never allowed to express suffering or pain.  If she did, she was told that her suffering could never compare to that in the camps and was thus of little consequence.  The father also replicated the communicative patterns of his Nazi tormentors [Indeed he did!  But not via “identifying” with them!  Rather, because such replication/reproduction of abuse is/was the very structure of the situation in which he continued/continues to find himself] in relating to his daughter, ordering her to ‘perform this, do that, be obedient, stay invisible, don’t get in the way’.  As a result, she never experienced home as place of  safety or security.  She dealt with this acquired worthlessness [one into which, I’d insist, she was born!] by dissociating the ideal public self she presented to the world from the miserable human being she felt herself to be.  The two selves are not distinguished by conscous and unconscious.  [Granted!]  Instead, they are two conflicting self-representations [Yet one of the two “selves”is not represented at all!  That’s the difference!] in which the public self is dissociated from the private self. By the time she was hospitalized for psychosis, she had entered into the world of 1943, without ever having been there physically.  [But that’s just where she’s been “physically,” given the abuse she’s received from her father!  The whole idea Fierke has here, of “the world” of a given date as itself “past” “in reality,” needs to be overturned!]  The beds of hospital became barracks, the staff were SS guards and Kapos.  Her therapist was Josef Mengele, waiting for  the right moment to do experiments on her brain.”  Indeed, that was just who these folks were, in the world Ruth inhabited!  It would be worthwhile to compare this case with that of Artie and his father in Maus.  The two cases have the same structure.

Then Fierke gives a longish citation from “Ruth’s narrative while in hospital” (Bell, pages 123-124), the last lines of which are:  “Is it 1983, 1943?  Does it make any difference?  Is anyone around here human?” 

Ruth may be psychotic, but she’s not stupid!  Does it make any difference?  Isn’t it still “1943”?  Just as 1984 is 1948 [when Orwell’s novel 1984 first appeared] is “now”?

After her remark about the “now absent” perpetrator and abuse, Fierke writes:  “that the daughter could enter into her father’s trauma [She is born into it!], as if [!!  Hardly a mere “as if”!  She is there!] she were reliving the pattern of interaction he had passed on to her [here, Fierke is quite right]. . . . The father did not narrate the story of his experience in the camps as past [and it is not past:  those who do so narrate it, as a past over and done with–just what Jean Améry refused to countenance!–are those who, in a certain sense, suffer from “false memory syndrome”–false and falsifying memory!]; rather he continued to live [unlike those of false and falsifying memory who continue to be dead!] within the linguistic [and far more than merely linguistic!] boundaries of that world.”

In traumatic repetition, says Fierke (P. 125):  “Far from being forgotten, the past is  continually relived in the present.  At the same time, as this past world becomes habitual, there is a forgetting of the uniqueness of the original event. [But there is no “original event” of trauma, insofar as trauma is always structural; and, thus, the very equation of trauma with “an original  event” that has “uniqueness”–i.e., is just an occurrence the occurring of which consigns what occurs to a date–is what forgets the trauma!]  This contrasts with the narrative memory where the self stands outside the past in the present and provides a representation of events gone by.”  I’d say against her, reduces events to what merely “passes by!  The end of the next paragraph, same page:  “Political trauma can be understood as the state in which fear and hypervigilance become habitual.”  No!  When fear and hypervigilance become habitual, political trauma–that is, the opening  of  a gap wherein the genuinely political can at last emerge, restructuring the entire situation–is not allowed.


Fierke, p. 127, on Ben Gurion around and in connection with the Eichmann trial, creating the connection of Israel to the Holocaust:  “The experience of the Holocaust was woven into Israeli identity, rather than distancing it in the  past.”

Given her discussion to this point, what she is doing  here–no doubt unknowingly enough–is conflating such Holocaust victims as Ruth’s father repeating the trauma [on one hand] with someone manipulating and exploiting the Holocaust to construct collective memory [on the other].  It would be the same as equating Bush with one of the survivor victims of 9/11.

She herself goes on to  note, in fact:  “Hitler himself called on the trauma of defeat in the first World War and the humiliation  of the Versailles treaty, in mobilizing an existential threat to German society, to the end of making Germany great once again.”  She prefaces that with a remark of how Milosevic used the same sort of manipulation of memories to justify Serbian aggression in the 1990s.  She goes on, after the remark about Hitler, as follows [pp. 127-128]:

“The United States Bush administration post-11 September 2001 and leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, made a discursive link between Iran and  the terrorist attacks, a link which lacked evidence in fact.  This was part of articulating an existential threat to America itself, despite, as was later revealed, the absence of any weapons of mass destruction capability on the part of Sadam Hussein.  While these very different contexts are by no  means equivalent [Why not, exactly?], they all relied on similar semantic and logical connections that were retained and repeated and became the container of past memory.  [So at least in that regard they are equivalent!]”

As she correctly goes on to note, “While distorted, the salience of the discursive move [in such cases] is dependent on a context of past experience. . . . [C]ollective anxiety is never purely a product of elite intervention or manipulation, although there is an element of this. The discursive moves are only effective if they respond to deep and genuine social concerns in a time of general malaise, that is, a population has to be receptive to  manipulation.”

Her qualifications are uncalled for here, and just weaken the point of the very observation she is making–which point is no more an no less than that there must first be a trauma before trauma can be manipulatively exploited in the construction of collective memory. 

P. 130 she uses the expression “a politics of trauma,” which is an apt name for the sort of manipulative exploitation of trauma she’s just been discussing.  A politics of trauma is the forgetting of the trauma of the political–a forgetting in the service of the perpetuation of abuse (oppression).


P. 131:  “In the political world, denial, rather than a function of unconscious repression [as it is in Freud], can be understood as a political act for the  purpose of creating a unity of interpretation . . . which require[s] the suppression of alternative memories.”

Indeed!  And such suppression is then not comparable at all to repression and denial in Freud’s sense.  They are two very different things.  The suppression directly intended by such a “political act” of the forced universalization of a single interpretation is, in fact, a manipulative exploitation of the very repression and denial that are an inseparable part of trauma. That’s why, for example, Bush is already calling for a moment of silence to memorialize the victims of 9/11 even before the towers have fallen and the planes have crashed in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon.

She continues:  “While this process involved an element of repression, it did not require psychological denial.  What is repressed is difference, debate or alternative narratives of the past.”  But this is not re-pression at all!  It is simply sup-pression, as she just said in what I’ve already cited above.

She ends this paragraph so:  “Individuals may be inclined, in a repressive situation [she means op-pressive and sup-pressive], to adopt an interpretation akin to that of the authorities, in order to  survive or avoid conflict, but this  is not the same as repression an in unconscious.”  It most certainly is not.  But the sort of situation she describes should also be carefully distinguished from cases in which those who are oppressed are not even granted the possibility of articulating their oppression clearly–in cases where they are denied any language in which to speak their oppression, as occurs when the “common,” shared language is hijacked as has so largely happened today, when public discourse can only be  formulated in terms that implant an unacknowledgeable prejudgment in favor of the  right wing (e.g., “color blind,” “reverse discrimination,” “illegal aliens,” “special rights,” etc.).

Insofar as the powers that be control even the means and media of communication, suppression and oppression reach the zone of such a maximum–the maximum of the closure of the trauma of the political, the gap granting place for the political, as opposed  to politics, to take place.

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s