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The Perils and Promise of Collective Memory

Reflections on Imagination and Forgetting

“We should remember with caution, even as we must proceed boldly.” This is the way I have already tried to succinctly summarize my approach to “gray memory” earlier this year. I know that memory holds great promise, as Milan Kundera once put it: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” But I also know that memory is an unsteady cognitive capacity, both for individuals and for groups. There are false memories that can be very dangerous. “Making America, and Russia, Germany and Brazil, Great Again” are recent and pressing examples. And even accurate memory can stifle imagination when it is most required. We can become prisoners of past experiences, thoughts and practices, and become blind to the imaginative insights and accomplishments.

Although there is wisdom in age and the ages, there is also wisdom to be found in youth, in imagination unfettered by too much experience. I’ve come back to such thoughts as I have been reading with great appreciation recent pieces we have published on Public Seminar.

I found the New School archivist, Wendy Scheir’s, reflections on our paradoxical archive to be fascinating, and not only, or even primarily, because of my long tenure at the institution. Her subtitle says it all: “How a school focused on the future has learned to love its past.” She demonstrates how being responsive to change and dedicated to the new and the inventive require cognizance of past experience, how remembering past achievements, and failures, informs our institutional capacity to be truly responsive to the problems of our times. She tells a very illuminating story of a lost lecture by Martin Luther King Jr., but also a censoring of Malcolm X, buried in the archives and recently discovered. Focus on the new, on the future, has led to a neglect of the past, but as the new has been developed, Scheir reports, knowledge of the past becomes invaluable, an archive has become a necessity, and her job has expanded. But clearly, if all we did was celebrate and try to live in our past, an institution that defines itself as new would die. And what is true for The New School is more generally the case.

Yet, sometimes decency and justice demand that the past ways of thinking and acting be forgotten, when unreflective memories or attempts to remember are deeply problematic and challenging, stifling imagination and the possibilities of change. This was powerfully revealed in a series of posts recently published on gender and sexuality.

It’s striking: wherever there are ascendant authoritarian leaders and new authoritarian movements and regimes, there is insistence on gender binaries, and the critical study of gender and sexuality are repressed, as Maria Bucur demonstrates. And this is closely correlated with attacks on democracy, “arrows into the heart of democracy, as Sabine Hark’s piece is entitled. Such arrows helped secure a populist election victory in Brazil and are being used to consolidate authoritarianism in Hungary.

The good old days, when men were men and women were women, when sex was supposed to be within marriage, which was understood as being only between men and women: from my point of view, forgetting this past, or at least keeping it in the past, and not in the present and future, is most desirable. We can then imagine and enact better social arrangements. Forgetting the good old days and its order of things as the normal and the natural are prerequisite for decency. It means the end of suffering of millions. It opens up opportunities of a rich life, the end of persecution, the opening of understanding.

Yet, putting this past behind us is no easy matter. It challenges our imagination. There is controversy about large and small things, particularly concerning transgender issue. Most intriguing here was a debate about pronouns. When to use or not to use, “he,” “she” and “they” is a matter of careful examination and debate. Forgetting the pronoun of a lifetime is difficult, and it may not even be desirable, “going around and asking about it” presents pitfalls, as Jen Manion explains. One person’s emancipation is another’s micro-aggression. Publicly ask for a person’s preferred pronoun ever so carefully, if at all. But don’t abandon this practice too quickly, Dean Spade insists. It does address in important ways “the harm and exclusion that trans people face that lead to astounding rates of poverty, criminalization, deportation, and interpersonal violence.” How much to remember, how much to forget is an issue, focusing on how to remember, with concern for others different than oneself. This is what I glean from the debate between Manion and Spade. Clearly delicacy is required.

Degrees of delicacy, for better and for worse, seems to be a primary distinction between white supremacist politicians, past and present. Jeffrey C. Isaac reminds us of this. The recently elected senator from the state of Mississippi in her speech and her action remembers the glories of the segregationist South, without critical reflection, herself having attended a segregation academy and enrolling her daughter in the same kind of school. She joked about attending a public hanging, and then gave a belated non-apology. Racist memory and racist imagination: the state of things that led Nina Simone to sing “Mississippi God Damn” seems to be well remembered and hardly changed. This is different than the whistle blowing racism of the recently deceased George H. W. Bush, though his kinder, gentler racism is what has enabled the election of Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, and the explosive and explicit racism and xenophobia of President Donald Trump, Isaac argues.

Such memory is toxic, but sometimes memory is the weapon against such toxicity, memory used in the spirit of the Kundera quote to which I referred at the beginning of this post, “the struggle of man against power.” Martin O. Heisler’s poignant memories of “crossing borders with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society,” was written as his response to the rise of xenophobia and anti-Semitism in America, devastatingly demonstrated in the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Pittsburgh. His is a remarkable personal story that speaks to what it takes to resist tragedy past and present, acknowledging the wonderful work of a wonderful organization. He, with many others, including me, sent in a donation to this remarkable organization after Pittsburgh.

Ezra Mehlman response was also personal, not about himself, but about his ancestors. He remembers a largely forgotten world that was exterminated, with only relics and cemeteries remaining, putting into perspective the barbarism of the present moment, comparing his ancestral East European hometown, Slonim, with the Pittsburgh neighborhood, Squirrel Hill.

Memory does enable us to defend ourselves, as it is also a weapon used by the reprehensible against the vulnerable. And at issue, as I have already indicated, is not only what we remember, but how we remember.

With this in mind, I read Angela Butel’s post on the conclusion of a labor dispute at The New School, a dispute between student workers and the administration. I deeply appreciated the report, both for the good news it delivered, the settlement particularly as it improves the lives of graduate students who I teach and work with, but also the way The New School is remembered in the report. Butel demonstrates how the negotiated settlement helped The New School be true to its progressive past, enacting a progressive future. Memory informs imagination.

Something new to be archived by Wendy Scheir, no doubt.

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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