Blogs > Cliopatria > Memory in Political Dialogue

Apr 21, 2008 3:54 pm

Memory in Political Dialogue

For the current symposium on Cliopatria, Manan Ahmed and I carried out a brief conversation about the role of memory in relations between communities and nations. We were responding to Valérie Rosoux's article, Foregiveness: Grandeur or Political Slogan, an article that focuses on the discontinuities of memory and ethics in the process of political reconciliation.
  • Jonathan Dresner offers comments at Frog in a Well.
  • Andrew Ross has, separately, contributed his own thoughts on the article ("Messing with Memory)".
    Our conversation starts below the fold.

    Nathanael: What attracted me to Rosoux's article, as a historian, was that she proposes that the process of reconciliation might bring about alternative interpretations of the past. Rather than being a political obstacle, memory can serve as a vehicle for reconciliation through acknowledgment and contrition. She writes,"It does not make what happen disappear, as if by magic. Instead it reveals other possible avenues from the past." The story of European integration, in its initial phase, seem to confirm this. The story of Adenauer, Schumann, and De Gasperi embracing the history of European civilization as an alternative to the history of European warfare is highly seductive. Adenauer, in particular, was quite effective in convincing Germans that their rejection of Western European traditions was poisonous. Nationalism and imperialism, symbolized by the hegemony of Berlin, had created unnecessary tensions between the European nations. Franco-German conflict, which was at the heart of Europe's great wars, diverted Christian Europe from realizing its common potential. Germans could embrace democracy, France, and peace because they had always been part of German culture; nationalism was a break therefrom.

    Obviously, there are loaded terms in this line of reasoning. Many scholars have argued that Europeans, Germans in particular, would have clung to anything that would have allowed them an honorable exit to the hardship they faced after World War Two. But I think it was also a successful discourse because it deflated what would seem to be central to Franco-German relations: the myth (and it should be considered a myth rather than historical reality) that they were hereditary enemies. Although they might be competitive at times, and hard feelings occasionally resurface, conflict doesn't seem essential anymore. That success can be attributed to a willingness to criticize the role of nationalism in the modern histories of each nation.

    I would say, though, that there have been limits. Hereditary enmity may have become an object of curiosity rather than a existential concern, but it doesn't change feelings about World War Two and the Holocaust. Focusing on the excesses of nationalism has meant that the people of each country have been willing to take responsibility (as inheritors of the past, as Rosoux points out) for hostility fermented within the nation. But if hereditary enmity was largely a chimera, demolishing it was easy. Atrocities committed by the Nazis have been more difficult to reinterpret, and French politicians have returned to them to rally support. Sarkozy himself willingly brings up France’s victimhood to Germany as part of his project to restore national pride (as in the half-baked plan to have French school children memorize the biographies of Holocaust victims).

    The critique of nationalism, moreover, does not reverberate far beyond the boundaries of European history itself. As France struggles with a multicultural society, much of it derived from its former colonies, many Frenchmen seem reluctant to admit the harm caused by imperialism. Indeed, the notion of the “Francophonie” has been seen as a backdoor imperialism that implies acceptance of the mission civilatrice. Germany’s imperialism, particularly the horrendous colonization of Namibia, have not been part of public consciousness until recently. The critique of German nationalism has done nothing to combat this amnesia. The willingness to reconcile seems only to affect the memory specifically related to France and Germany, not anything greater.

    Manan: Thanks Nathanael, for that opening salvo. Before I turn to your comments, let me say some of what I found intriguing in Rosoux's symposia pieces. She builds on Ricouer's notions of 'forgiveness' and 'obligated memory' to give a"future to memory" and suggest that these very public and political acts of admissions of historical guilt allow communities and nations not only a way forward but the opportunity to see the past differently, as well. Having said that, I think there are some caveats that need to be applied to Rosoux's piece. The case of Australia, for example, leads one to different set of questions: Does this collective mea culpa ignore the socio-economic realities of the present for the sake of erasing a contentious past? That is, given the vast differences between the health, mortality, life expectancy and income between indigenous and non-indigenous populations in Australia, what is the actual import of Kevin Rudd's apology? The state has seemingly failed this population on grounds other than history and collective memory.

    And while forgiveness can, indeed, clear new paths from the past, the Australian case seems to be a strange case of"Don't Forget" writ large - an inversion of"Remember the Alamo" plea to collective memory. I think there are two ways in which Rosoux forces us to ask difficult methodological questions: how do we understand and analyze interactions between the state and a community? Especially, through the limitation of an overarching nationalism? The nation-state, with its command over pomp and circumstance, is easier to read but a community - especially one at contretemps with the dominant nationalism - cannot assert their local memories and histories without considerable effort against the national. The possibilities of the different pasts that Rudd's apologia invokes are still possibilities existing only at the level of the state. The histories and memories - whether cultural or political - of the Aboriginal community continue to exist outside of national histories because they are tied, inimically, to the nation's perception of it's own present.

    When the conversation is between two states - France and Germany - who can conduct the 'work of memory' at various socio-political levels (or at Ricoeur's Ethico-Political level), Risoux's reading seems intuitive but, even then, I question her usage of the blanket 'memory' when she means a particularly political aspect of community relations - and it also seems to me that she conflates history - national, state versions of history - with memory at crucial levels.

    I think that your point above of that memory's work seems restricted to a singular version of French/German rapprochement and it ignores France's amnesia towards its immigrant populations is spot on - and it reveals the limitation of treating official narratives, such as text-book histories and official statements and imaginigs as all malleable 'memory'.

    Nathanael: As you point out, reconciliation can also be self serving. The moment of forgiveness may be but a break in the normal process of commemoration, and no real synthesis may occur. The nation, though, may leave with the ability to restore “the political culture of generality” (as Rosanvallon puts it): the sense that the nation represents the totality of the population, resisting mediation and fragmentation thereof. France’s immigration museum–a response to the “racaille" and the ill will caused by the loi du 23 février 2005– seems to do little more than assert the narrative of becoming French. Closer to home, this election has touched on questions of whether slavery and oppression were adequately compensated by Emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement, and whether ongoing resentment is legitimate or unnecessarily divisive. Of course, I don’t think either of us intend to dismiss the importance of national recognition; it is, rather, the beginning of a process rather than its culmination, and it remains to be seen whether the “other avenues” will be taken.

    Manan: I am curious to hear you thoughts on whether historians working in the realm of memory are doomed to some primordial methodological soup. Let me explain from my own research which examines the various representations of an Arab conqueror in South Asia from medieval to post-colonial eras. My constant struggle has been to make sure that I am absolutely clear as to what my understanding of 'memory' or 'history' is, within my archive. Especially, since the claims to memory or history are singularly political claims in their social function (to invoke Hobsbawm) to the past. While I am cognizant that there can be no rigid division between memory and history, I think that for my argument, it is important to delineate what is 'official or national history' and what is 'political memory' and the role each plays in the creation of a community's self-knowledge.

    Nathanael: Halbwachs claimed that “collective memory cannot be confused with history”, the former being that which belongs to social groups, the latter being the memory of the nation. It’s an arrogant assumption, but descriptive. It seems nigh impossible to build a national memory on the aggregation of collective memories, peculiar in that they define boundaries with other segments of society. The minority whose memories are a contradiction to national memory are severely disadvantaged, as you point out. The nation profits most from reconciliation because the terms of reconciliation are comparatively cheap. As Rosoux points out, there is little congruity between the oppressor and the penitent. I don’t know if I could be so cynical as to say that the community that receives the apology does not receive some satisfaction therefrom, especially if compensation follows.

    But that still leaves the bigger question that you end with: the possibility of a framework that differentiates political memory and national history. Here again, I am struggling with (and against) Halbwachs’ understanding of collective memory. Functional differences are certainly present, meaning that their use in discourse reveals the dynamics between nation and its constituent elements. Local memory, in my own research, can contradict national history, supporting a diversity of experience-but only at the local level. The contradictions are drown out, though, as one builds larger levels of representation, going up the national memory, which tends to converge with national history.

    Manan: I am not terribly enamored with Halbwachs claims and I think Michel de Certeau and Paul Ricoeur have abundantly answered Halbwachs. I especially like Ricoeur's formulation of"memory as the womb of history". What I mainly wanted to bring out was that just as there is a cognizant, deliberate, program for history-writing and memory-building (school textbooks, national commemorations, museums, etc.) on the national scale, there exist comparable forces within local communities - especially those that find themselves at odd with the national narratives, whether sub-national groups or disenfranchised population. The call for forgiveness, must then come in direct contact with the plea to remember. In the Australian case, the state vs the Aboriginal. Or, as you point out, the case closer to home of slavery and Civil Rights. The Jeremiah Wright" controversy" is a perfect example - wherein the national narrative is so out of touch - deliberately, I believe - from the communal narrative that it can react only by appearing shocked and insulted. I highly recommend Martin Marty's Pastor and Prophet , to get the sense of alternative and communal memories.

    It is with that in mind, that I wanted to complicate a bit further Rosoux's statements on public forgiveness.

    The local memories vs national memory is an interesting dynamic. At the AHA I presented one case study, from my research, where contrarian claims made by the local upon the national managed to actually change - passively, sure - the national narrative. I do think that a more forceful case can be made of the usage of history and political memory by savvy communities to influence the national histories. The processes Rosoux describes in"Human rights and the ‘work of memory’ in international relations" are still too over-deterministic and top-down to my reading and fail to see the flux that such negotiations inherently carry within communities and intra-communities (To be fair, that's just an excerpt...).

    Again, to inject some measure of quantifiable data into this debate, I prefer to use the"political" additive to memory and history and concentrate on the efforts exerted by communities and states on constructing pasts - real and mythic.

    Nathanael: German history, particularly as a product of nostalgic images of the past, has been greatly enriched by the paradigm of Heimat over the last twenty years. It helps explain the calculus that integrates divergent elements of local and regional memory into a cohesive national narrative. The nature of German history, fragmented until late in the nineteenth century, made it necessary to explain how the nation could be both whole and diverse at the same time.

    Heimat brings up an issue that is not often appreciated: that Franco-German rapprochement was part of a radical reconstruction of German identity following World War Two. Defeat left most Germans with a profound sense of loss as well as doubt that anything could be recovered. The piles of rubble where cities once stood drove this point home. Germans had great trouble relating to the past (not just the Third Reich because of its utter failure, but also all the accomplishments since unification in 1871). Rumors of partition and annexation brought hopelessness. Germans were open to any framework that would allow them to regain their honor and restore their sense of continuity with history.

    Adenauer premised the federal republic on “other German traditions”, that looking beneath national history, there were institutions, beliefs and practices that could be recovered in order to re-found Germany as a democratic state with a western orientation

    He drew these ideas from his own experiences trying to define the regional culture and history of the Rhineland in the 1920s and 30s. He intended projects like the Rhenish Museum to manifest what he believed was the commonly held image of the region in the consciousness of Rhinelanders. The challenge for regionalists in that era was to argue for greater autonomy in the Reich while distancing themselves from French propaganda, which said that Rhinelanders were a people distinct from Germany who ought to have their own nation-state. Reconciling the two, regionalists asserted that history had made Rhinelanders who had international and pacific in spirit, unique, but fundamentally German.

    In the 1940s and 50s regionalism offered alternative interpretations of the German past. Adenauer’s policies were predicated on giving the federal republic the most western face he could. To that end, he actively courted politicians and academics in the Rhenish states to promote the Rhineland as a bridge between Germany and the Western European nations, mostly notably France. The history of interaction between the region and France could then be taken as evidence that Germany could live peacefully with France.

    Adenauer’s imagined Germany departed from history in ways too numerous to list here. His critics, like Habermas, have been willing to credit the expediency of his vision; they’ve been less charitable when it comes to his accuracy.

    This all may seem tangential to our discussion of memory and politics. However, we ought to consider Germany as a special case–it does not fit into the box of a nation-state that has complete control over its self-image. The structure of German memory, with the interaction of local, regional, and national, allowed different interpositions to occur. Indeed, we should consider that Germans were better able to make an inventory of their losses by comparing what they saw in front of them with what they remembered had been there–absence was its own monument. German memory was in a malleable state, open to improvisation. It was possible, in this environment, for the different layers of memory to inform the nation in the short term, allowing a version of the German past that supported at turn towards France. . We should re-evaluate Germany, in its pursuit of integration, not as a great state, but as an entity diminished by its own excesses.

    I think that there is a question that you are in a unique position to answer. As a historian, you have been quite comfortable as an activist. In most circumstances, the historian would challenge the silence of national history on the treatment of minority communities. I wonder if the possibility of reconciliation--one that will offer more than a slogan like"don't forget"--burdens the historian-activist. Not that I expect her or him to embrace amnesia. In place of an accusatory voice, revelation might serve to mediate between nation and community. Should the role of the historian change if real progress is made in excavating memory? As an activist, is it possible to realize such ideal conditions for recovering the past?

    Manan: What an interesting question. I certainly feel that a historian - I wouldn't even add the activist - has to play a significant role mediating between nation and community, since histories they write, do.

    One ready example that comes to mind is the Ayodhya 1992 controversy in India. Wherein, the majority community decided - based on religious and cultural memory - that a medieval mosque had been erected at the exact site of the birth place of their singular God and proceeded to demolish the mosque. In the bloody struggle, to demolish the Babri Mosque and build the Ram Temple at its site, both Hindu and Muslim histories were extensively called upon - not to mention, archeology, philology and the colonial history. A group of the most notable historians of medieval India were actively involved in trying to ward off the crisis. As early as 1986, they issued a public statement, The Political Abuse of History: Babri Masjid-Rama Janmabhumi Dispute [JSTOR link]. It is a remarkable document, not alone for its history but for its activism. In the end, their voices proved ineffectual in stopping the rise of communal violence and destruction and their history was easily triumphed by the particular versions set forward by the overwhelmingly radicalized community.

    The Winter 2008 issue of Public Culture is devoted to Public Histories and has a very intriguing essay by noted historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Public Life of History: An Argument out of India. I don't want to side-track into a hefty discussion except to quote one piece that seems pertinent:

    Yet it may be that a general trend has marked the career of history in the liberal democracies of the world in the period since the Second World War and the waves of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. I will have to be brutally short and blunt in my description of this trend. Everywhere in the last five or six decades, it seems, the academic subject of history has come under pressure to incorporate and represent the pasts of social groups hitherto marginalized in or excluded from mainstream narratives. In almost every democracy this has given rise to the question of whether the distinction between “testimony” and “historiography” should be dissolved in the interest of challenging the authority of the academic historian.

    As the discipline of history has opened up to the possibilities of “multiple narratives” of the same event, it has attempted to accommodate multiple perspectives while expressing uneasiness over the danger of “relativism” — “as many truths as there are perspectives” — though many historians have also acknowledged that perspectives do not as such lead to the abyss of relativism. Along with this has come the welcome move, in all democracies, to diversify the faculty and the student body engaged in the discipline. However, all this has happened at the expense of certainty about what may constitute positive historical knowledge beyond the perspectives of conflicting interests. Historians believe that they offer knowledge that goes beyond the collection and description of factoids. The ideal of knowledge still animates discussions among historians, but we are less and less sure about the nature of this knowledge.

    I think that historians have - and continue to - play the revelatory role in excavating history but they can just as easily be perceived as part of the communal production of history than a objective, assertive voice.

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