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Gray Memory

On a Self-limiting Collective Imagination

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” So wrote Milan Kundera. Years ago, I found in his bold assertion confirmation of the findings of my first major research project on the sociological dynamics of cultural freedom. I would like to think my study of cultural life in Poland and America made a small contribution to what later developed as interdisciplinary memory studies.

Later, I spoke to students and colleagues about their studies of memory, and expressed my concern about the interdisciplinary study of and broadening public focus on collective memory. I noticed how memory was being considered, more or less, in the spirit of Kundera, and pointed out a darker side, all too apparent today, as people are making America, Russia, Poland, Turkey and Hungary great again. Collective memory (with some contrast to the study of history) is an imaginative process focused on the past, and this imagination has a seamy side.

Further, I expressed my concern that the focus on collective memory, on an imagined shared past, tends to constrain the imagination of a better future. I, along with most of my scholarly and political friends and colleagues, never thought that history had ended after 1989, but I feared that the focus on memory conceded too much to the lessons of experience and overlooked the possibilities of a more radical imagination. I, half jokingly, asserted that I am “against memory.”

Although I never had an entirely positive or negative view of memory, given present conditions of the world, the gray qualities of memory are especially on my mind now. Just as the great innovation in radical thought in the late twentieth century, in my judgment, was the notion of a self-limiting revolution, I think what we need today a focused and disciplined approach to a self limiting collective memory. To act politically, I think we should remember with caution, even as we must proceed boldly.

I am thinking about this as I am going to a very special conference on the interdisciplinary study of memory tomorrow, and after we launched our second Public Seminar Book, Against Trump: Notes from Year One by Jeffrey C. Isaac, earlier in the week. (For a free download click here.)

The conference marks the tenth anniversary of the first of five such conferences at The New School. The first conference posed a question: “Is an Interdisciplinary Field of Memory Studies Possible?” It was then and there, I recall, that I first raised my “against memory” challenge from the audience and that this influenced the planning of the conference the following year.

The book launch included a panel discussion about #Against Trump. The discussants included Isaac and Adam Michnik, Deva Woodly, and Elzbieta Matynia. I also took part. Michnik is the author of the essay that has inspired this weekly gray column, as I have previously explained. His sensibility and theoretical insights inform my response to an intriguing exchange between Woodly and Isaac.

Isaac argued in his introductory remarks, and explains in much greater detail in the book, the necessity of supporting liberal democracy as a first principle. Trump and his ilk around the world are posing a genuine authoritarian threat. Fundamental democratic principles of freedom of association, free speech, the rule of law, and much else are under attack. This must be taken seriously, and we must come together to defend fundamental principles before it is too late.

Woodly challenged him. The restoration of what came before the present attack on liberal principles is not enough. There must be something beyond the liberal gray of American pluralism. Too many people and concerns are left behind. Too many enduring problems that have been knitted into the American liberal democratic fabric would be left unaddressed.

It was an interesting exchange, tapping into basic political dilemmas, about the relationship between ends and means, and about the problematic relationships between shared ideals, as they are remembered and cultivated.

Both Isaac and Woodly pit themselves against the memory of America that those who want to make it great again are cultivating: a racist and xenophobic nostalgia. And they both remember an America with profound problems, but also with promise, with slavery and its legacies, and with democratic aspirations, partially and fitfully realized. Their debate is whether the degree to which the problems of the present day are more directly related to the continuity of the problems or a break in the limited, but real, principled accomplishments. Put even more starkly than I think Isaac and Woodly would, their debate was about whether Trump represents a continuity or a break with the American political tradition. This is the collective memory struggle among those left of center, the center left and the more radical left. And the practical challenge is whether those who remember in these different ways are capable of working with each other.

This is where my idea of remembering with caution, while acting boldly, comes in. There is a stark difference between the new authoritarians, on the one hand, and democrats, conservative, liberal and radical, on the other. The true belief in a singular memory script is the danger. I actually think any such script.

While today the threat mostly comes from the right, the terrors of the twentieth century came from both left and right, and even from the center (radical market fundamentalism, neo-liberalism if that term speaks to you, as it doesn’t speak to me).

But a certain fuzziness in our memory (in the understanding of Eviatar Zerubavel) provides the democratic alternative. This provides the grounds for people with some significant differences to be open to dialogue with each other (a point Michnik made in the panel discussion), then capable of acting together. This it is the kind of collective memory that provides the grounds for democracy.

Michnik made this argument in very different circumstances in his classic book The Church and the Left, which in the Polish version included the word dialogue in the title. It is the argument that informs much of his writing as a key dissident intellectual before 1989 and a key public figure ever since. I think the thought and writing of both Woodly and Isaac present this same sensibility. It is revealed in many of the chapters of #Against Trump. It is the reason why both Michnik and I see beauty in the color gray. But note, it is against the singular authoritarian memory of chauvinism, xenophobia, racism and sexism. Remember modestly, respecting and realizing that others remember differently. Remember modestly as the grounds to boldly resist together those whose memories would eradicate symbolically, or in the worst case. physically, those who are not one of them.

The conference tomorrow includes presentations by the organizers of the first conference, then students, now accomplished young (at least from my point of view) scholars, with significant accomplishments. I was on the dissertation committees of four of them, Yifat Gutman, Amy Sodaro, Lindsey Freeman, and Irit Dekel. All of their dissertations, now books, answer the question they posed in the affirmative. They along with many of the others have demonstrated that interdisciplinary study of memory is both possible and yields significant results. But further, their works address the problems I have raised here. Gutman’s Memory Activism: Reimagining the Future of Israel-Palestine, Amy Sodaro’s Exhibiting Atrocity: Memorial Museums and the Politics of Violence , Lindsey Freeman’s Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia, and Irit Dekel’s Mediation at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin show how collective memory absolutism may present alternatives, as Kundera imagined, but that they can also be very dangerous, as we are experiencing now worldwide. Dekel, Freeman, Sodaro and Gutman further show that self limiting memory can provide the dialogic grounds for democratic life.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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