Sunday, March 17, 2013

More on Collective Memory

The is a follow up to my previous post.

What makes collective memory so frequently memory-as-a-contested-terrain, is that it is most often closely linked to our self-identity.  And a common form of self-identity within a group is when we identify with our nation. The nation forms one of the most convincing communities of memory and, as such, collective memory is the foundation myth that forms the ideological basis of the nation. But the myth which is the national collective memory is always open to assault.  Groups that hold counter-memories may attempt to contradict the accepted narrative or try to force themselves into the national discourse.

Famine memorial, Dublin
National memory frequently becomes memory-as-a-contested-terrain when the conquered, the losers, the victims, usually in a deliberative, instrumentalist manner, attack the accepted narrative and push forward their counter-memories. When group membership involves an experience that might be deemed shameful, for example a past event that runs counter to the foundational myth (which is inevitably a positive self-image), collective forgetfulness is an option. Most British citizens will remember the triumphs of the Industrial Revolution but have well and truly forgotten the Irish Famine; Americans will remember their Declaration of Independence but are less likely to remember that its authors were not only slave owners, but were enthusiastically such; French children learn of the brave French resistance while French society as a whole has forgotten the massive numbers of Vichy collaborators.

From a psychological point of view the act of forgetting and repressing is a common collective strategy that may be imposed by a repressive government but can also be found in open societies, such as democracies.   Where the national community is concerned, it seems to be relatively simple to forget that which seems shameful or that which does not cohere with the positive self-image that the members of the community hold.  For instance, while we know that German soldiers misbehaved during World War Two, and that the soldiers of the Soviet Union perpetrated widespread rape against German women and children, citizens of western democracies have been able to forget that their own troops indulged in widespread rape of Japanese and German women. Johanna Burke quotes an American intelligence officer in wartime Germany: “There is a tendency among the naïve or malicious to think that only Russians loot and rape (…) the warriors of Democracy were no more virtuous than the troops of Communism were reported to be.” [  Johanna Burke, “Introduction to ‘Remembering’ War”, Journal of Contemporary History. Volume 39 (4), October, 2004, p. 473]

But to forget the past has become a non-option. Facing up to the crimes during World War Two, (or at least the crimes that were perpetrated by Germany and Japan), along with the popularity of Truth Commissions in more recent post-conflict societies (beginning in post-apartheid South Africa), as well as the call for justice through institutions like the International Tribunal for Crimes in Former Yugoslavia, has given the process of forgetting a bad name.  The truth must be told. It is often those who perceive themselves as the silenced victims, who take the instrumentalist approach and force their experiences back into the collective memory.
Historians are the ones who are professionally engaged with the past. Their rememberings (re-constructions) are partially shaped by their media, strongly biased towards the scholarly, written essay. Their interpretations, (with their scholarly apparatus externalized in the form of footnotes, bibliographies, jargon and peer review) form only one strand of representing the past; for the general public, perhaps, not the most vital representation. When analyzing the construction of collective memory, historiographical works earn no special respect.  Novelists, politicians, artists and, increasingly, film makers offer the public representations of a past reality and when these representations come to be accepted they in turn contribute to the construction and distribution and maintenance of a mediated collective memory. Steven Spielberg’s recent Lincoln will no doubt help to shape the American collective memory to a far greater extent than academic monographs on the same subject.

International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, The Hague

Collective memory is always mediated. Without the mediated representations there would be no collective memory and we would all be condemned to remember only those parts of the past that we have experienced directly or those which have been shared with us directly by those who have experienced them. Memory on the collective level – that is, the construction and circulation of knowledge and versions of a common past in socio-cultural contexts – is only possible with the aid of media. Of course media are not simply tools that aid remembering but, themselves, shape our constructions of the past. The representations provided by a movie, for instance, will be quite different than those provided in an autobiography or a work of academic history. Increasingly our memory of the Holocaust, and other past realities, is shaped by the entertainment industry, so called ‘histotainment’ and this does determine, to a great extent, how we remember.  In this sense the medium is the memory
There is no doubt that the years 1945-1950 in Dutch-Indonesian relations formed a major rupture in Dutch history.  It is no exaggeration to say that the period was experienced by the Dutch as being traumatic. For many decades after the conflict the main strategy seems to have been, for the most part, to maintain a silence. But the memory of the conflict would not disappear. Just below the surface, memories of the period became contested. Occasionally these contested memories broke the surface and representations of decolonization that contradicted the official version entered the national discourse by means of television, cinema and the arts. Eventually contested memories found their way into the law courts.  As I write, those who perceive themselves as having been victims of the Dutch are still taking their cases to court, are attempting to have their voices heard and are assaulting the Dutch national collective memory.  The silence has been broken.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Collective Memory

In 1946 Winston Churchill gave a speech at the University of Zurich, now known as ”The Council of Europe Speech”.  Churchill called for the former foes, the French and the Germans, to look towards a future in order to build a new peaceful Europe.  In order to attain this he called for the leaders of Nazi Germany to be punished. But then he also called for all Europeans to “turn our backs upon the horrors of the past. We must look to the future. We cannot afford to drag forward across the years that are to come the hatreds and revenges which have sprung from the injuries of the past. If Europe is to be saved from infinite misery, and indeed from final doom, there must be an act of faith, in the European family and indeed an act of oblivion against all the crimes and follies of the past”. 

Churchill seems to have been calling for Europeans to forget their recent past. Yet, after World War Two, nothing of the sort happened.  Just a year after Churchill’s speech, German philosopher Karl Jaspers published The Question of German Guilt, in which he called for the necessity to remember.  Even Churchill himself went on to write his own six-volume The Second World War.   Far from condemning the past to oblivion and embracing forgetfulness, in 1948 he wrote that “it would be wrong not to lay the lessons of the past before the future” and that it was his great hope that “pondering upon the past may give guidance in the days to come.” 

Although the peaceful Europe that Churchill envisioned was achieved, it was not through condemning the past to oblivion.  On the contrary, the “injuries of the past”, particularly the Holocaust, have become an embedded part of contemporary Europe’s collective memory. Indeed, since Churchill’s speech, the recent past that he spoke of has become even more alive, being remembered, commemorated, celebrated in minutes of silence and solemn gatherings, at memorial monuments and historical reconstructions, in official speeches of repentance and the payment of reparations, in state leader’s visits to the graveyards where the fallen of the former foe rest. Away from these official acts of remembering and state ceremonial occasions World War Two is continuously revived, reinterpreted and remembered in professional historiography but also by means of myriad bestselling novels, blockbuster movies, memoirs, documentaries and visits to places that once hosted mass atrocities – so called “Dark Tourism”. Europeans today, born decades after the end of the war, can claim to still remember the war, realizing the slogan “We shall never forget”.

These memories, which together constitute a collective memory, are mediated memories. Unlike individual memories which, though influenced by social frames of reference, are biological (they ‘live’ somewhere in an individual’s brain) and are limited to the individual’s experience, collective memory is manufactured and distributed, passed on and passed down, through a huge variety of media. The Holocaust, for instance, is remembered by an inevitably ever dwindling number who had first-hand experience of it, both victims, perpetrators and by-standers, but an ever increasing number remember it through listening to grandparents’ stories, through reading The Diary of Anne Frank, through doing a project at school, through viewing Roman Polanski’s movie The Pianist, through visiting Dachau or Auschwitz during a visit to Germany or Poland, through listening to Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrows, through seeing the television series Heimat, through reading a novel like Elie Wiesel’s Night or a graphic novel like Art Spiegelmann’s Maus or an historiographical work such as Saul Friedman’s A History of the Holocaust, through participating in a solemn ritual on International Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27th), through seeing Peter Eisenman’s  Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe during a visit to Berlin, through accessing the website of Washington D.C.’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, through noticing the numerous plaques that dot many of Europe’s cities commemorating sites that once hosted thriving Jewish communities. In this mediated way we are continually being reminded of the Holocaust and each act of reminding and remembering is the opposite of casting the injuries of the past into oblivion. Rather, they each contribute to creating a sense of collective memory based on representations of a past reality.
Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Although the word ‘memory’ is a noun, to believe that memory is a thing is to succumb to a form of bewitchment that language frequently casts over thought; just as the wind never blows (despite what language says) but is itself the actual process of blowing, so too memory never remembers (or does anything) nor is memory ever remembered but memory is simply short-hand for the process of and result of remembering. Collective memory is thus only the process or result of individual members of a group remembering. Consequently, collective memory contains no essence, no hard, indivisible core, no immutable, metaphysical status or being. It does not exist in some ethereal sphere nor is out there waiting to be discovered. It is born in representation.

It is French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs who is considered to have been the founder of the modern study of collective memory. For Halbwachs, even our personal memories are structured by social frames of reference. We are born into society and, as such, we are thrown into an ocean of memories, just as we are thrown into a reality of social class. Our identity is forged within a family and a nation state and social class and gender, none of which we have chosen. Our being is embedded within and shaped by a language that is given to us.  None of this negates our individuality, but it does mean that our individual development takes place within certain given parameters not of our making and our identity is formed within these givens.  Gadamer, in his modern classic Truth and Method, expressed this well: “history does not belong to us; we belong to it. Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society and state in which we live.”  [Truth and Method. New York: Crosswood Publishing, 1975, p. 277] Marx had the same thing in mind when he wrote: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past. The tradition of all the generations of the dead weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”   [The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1978, (1852), p. 9]

We are initiated into the memories of our social group soon after birth, as soon as we start learning language. We encounter memories from a past beyond our narrow experience by simply listening to conversations and children’s stories, looking at pictures in a book, learning to sing songs and recite nursery rhymes. Soon we are watching the television and, increasingly, exploring the internet. Before we are even conscious of it, mediated representations of the past abound, helping to form our identity within various collectives or groups – from the family to the nation state.

Which seems to imply, correctly as it turns out, that there isn’t one collective memory but many collective memories; just as there are many identities, even within the same individual. Just as an individual inhabits a multiplicity of identities (national, economic, ethnic, sexual, professional and so on) the individual can also participate in a variety of collective memories. Even within that great modern collective, the nation, there are subsets whose identities are forged within the parameters of a collective memory that forms an alternative to that of the majority. These are often based on language, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and frequently a mixture of some of these (and more – the list is far from exclusive). The confrontation between one of these sub-sets and the majority often leads to contested collective memory.

One process that invigorates the instability of collective memories is that they are frequently contested. Examples of contested collective memories increasingly abound: May 14th 1948 is remembered by Israelis as the Day of Independence but is remembered by Palestinians as Al-Naqba or Catastrophe; Orange Parades in Northern Ireland evoke collective reminders of the survival and flourishing of a proud protestant past for one community while provoking the collective remembering of the bigoted, sectarian oppression of an embattled catholic minority for another community; 1992 was widely celebrated as a collective reminder of 500 years since the triumphant discovery of the New World, but it was also collectively remembered as marking 500 years of oppression and even genocide.
Some national collective memories clash with others. In Britain today the wearing of a red poppy is commonly claimed to be a gesture of collective remembrance for those who gave their lives in war for their country, particularly during the Great War. During a visit to the People’s Republic of China, British prime-minister David Cameron and his fellow ministers insisted on wearing their red poppies despite the knowledge that it was offensive to the Chinese authorities.  To the Chinese, the image of a British leader proudly wearing a poppy was a brazen reminder of the Opium Wars, when Britain humiliated China during the 19th century. The poppy is not innocent. For one collective memory and identity it is a marker of patriotism; for another, it is a marker of imperialist triumphalism. Collective memory has a way of becoming contested terrain.

Read More on Collective Memory here.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Madonna Tickles Baby

My recent three day trip to Florence  was a delightful immersion in the great classics of the Renaissance. The main problem is, of course, knowing where to look - another Donatello or should we decamp to Santa Trinita or climb the Duomo or is it time for another espresso at Cafe Rivoire?

Such are the dilemmas when you are free and in Florence. Our visit to the Bargello was an obvious highlight: early in the morning we were the first arrivals and had Donatello's and Verocchio's Davids all to ourselves.With no one else in the room except for a couple of guards, I got so close to Donatello's David, I could see my breath momentarily stain his boots.

But of all the magnificent frescoes and paintings, great and small, it was this painting, in the Uffizi that struck the deepest cord within me.

It is a very small painting, probably by Massacio - the Tickling Madonna.  Somehow the intimacy of the gesture, for me at least, was wholly unexpected.  During this period, when humankind became the measure of all things, even the divine is brought down from the high heavens and made human (and the human is made divine). And here we see the divine, in the form of the Blessed Virgin and the infant Jesus involved in a gesture that signifies something that humans, but also other animals, engage in - play; the mother playfully tickles her child.

Your mother did it to you and even the Mother of God, the Queen of the Heavens, did it to her divine son. As she touches him gently in the folds of his neck and he grasps her hands, she gazes down at him lovingly, yet with sadness.

Jesus was tickled by his mum, that's the message that Masaccio unexpectedly revealed to me from across the centuries, one sunny winter's morning in the Uffizi Gallery.

Forgive the pun, but this painting touched me.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The selfishness of bankers has its uses

Tommaso Portinari
Although he lived many centuries ago, Tommaso Portinari would have been right at home in the world of 21st century banking.  Sent to the rich Flemish towns to represent the interests of the Florentine bankers, the Medicis, he became enamoured with the ostentatious culture  at the Burgundian court in Brussels.  Republican Florence had never seen the likes of this sort of public display of extravagance. Portinari used Medici money to become the main lender to the Burgundian Duke.  When the Duke defaulted on his repayments, Portinari took out huge loans on behalf of the Medici, and extended this money to the Duke in the form of further credit. When the Duke defaulted again, the Medicis found themselves bankrupted in the Lowlands. Portinari was sent for and found himself before the courts, as the Medicis naturally wished to get their money back. Portinari fought his case for four years, and although he was found guilty of mismanagement and ordered to pay back what he had lost, he never did actually make any repayments.  Throughout this, he personal amassed great wealth. In true 21st century style, he was a risk-taker, but only with other people’s money. He had all the qualities that we look for in modern bankers – avarice, greed and a complete lack of shame; in other words, he had what it takes to succeed in organisations like Barclays, the UBS, Bank of America, HSBC and other financial institutions whose leadership tries to make a quick profit for themselves, come what may. Just last week the Royal Bank of Scotland announced losses of 1.1 billion pounds (to be paid by the British tax-payer), while the execs of the company, for their good work, have decided to pay themselves 950 million pounds in bonuses (to be paid by the British tax-payer). Shameless, but rich!

But Portinari had two qualities that made him different from the executives who today lead the likes of Barclays, UBS, Bank of America and HSBC. For one thing, as far as I know, he never got involved in criminal activity. Unlike the HSBC for instance, he never knowingly laundered money for terrorists and Mexican drug dealers; unlike Barclays and the UBS, he never illegally cheated in the international lending market; unlike the UBS and Bank of America, he didn’t lie when it came to taxes. So maybe, after all, he would have had some problems fitting in in today’s banking culture.

Another thing that set him aside from the business school graduates who ru(i)n our financial world today: he had excellent taste. His interest in the arts resulted in a number of masterpieces, the greatest being the Portinari Alterpiece by Hugo van der Goes, housed today in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Portinari Altarpiece
Hugo van der Goes was a Flemish master who lived from 1440 to 1482. Born in Ghent, he was a lay monk in the order of the Red Cloister. His conviction that he was damned led him to sometimes use violence against himself, and he may have died as a consequence of a particularly vicious bout of banging his own head against a brick wall.  His mental instability, and his membership of a religious order, however, didn’t keep him out of the limelight, and he was one of the most famous and feted  artists of the age.  While living in Bruges, Tommasso Portinari commissioned van der Goes to paint the altarpiece.

It was the largest Flemish triptych ever painted. Portinari had it shipped to Pisa and from there it took 16 men to carry it to Florence. Its arrival in Tuscany was like an aesthetic assault from the North and its influence was felt in the work of a number of Italian renaissance artists. Today it hangs opposite Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus – two masterpieces, but very different from each other.

Van der Goes depicts the birth of Jesus, as revealed in the vision of St. Bridget of Sweden: “Mary took off her cloak and veil, let her hair loose, knelt in prayer; suddenly the new-born lay in front of her in a shaft of light”. In other words, no placenta or blood needs to be included, or any other reminder of what an actual birth involves.  Instead, the baby simply appears lying on the ground.
Portinari Altarpiece: Central panel
 But Mary doesn’t look all too happy.  The ground around baby Jesus has been beaten flat, a bit like the ground upon which villagers beat or thresh the wheat.  And of course, the symbol of Jesus is bread, that is, wheat. Some day in the future he will take bread and say: “This is my body”. So what we are seeing here is not so much a birth scene, but a sacrificial scene.  This baby will be sacrificed, and the mother somehow knows it. This baby will grow to be a man, will become God incarnated in the body of man and on the eve of his ultimate sacrifice he will announce that the bread is his body, and he will order his friends to “take it and eat it”. So, what van der Goes has painted is not just a birth scene but a sacrificial scene that is almost cannibalistic. This baby will be eaten in the form of the blessed Eucharist. In fact, the Portinari Altarpiece shows us the first ever sacrament of the blessed Eucharist. If we are in any doubt, look at the angel who stares back at us and use his hand to welcome us to partake.  He is dressed in the robes of an archdeacon and his robe bears the words “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” – “Holy, Holy, Holy”, the words recited at mass when blessing the bread that will become the body of Jesus, and will then be eaten by the congregation.
Portinari Altarpiece: detail
 If we need further evidence, immediately below the baby Jesus we find what Belgian art historian Dirk de Vos has described as “the most beautiful still life ever painted’. 
Portinari Altarpiece: detail
The bundle of corn, of course, represents bread, the body of Jesus. In front of it stands a Spanish albarello with a design of vines and grapes (the blood of Jesus) holds flowers – white lilies (the purity of Mary) and red lilies (the future suffering of Mary). In the clear glass with water we see columbines (Christ’s love) and carnations (Christ’s suffering) and along the floor we find a scattering of violets, representing Mary’s humility.
Portinari Altarpiece: detail
Above the baby, his mother Mary's hands, loosly joined, form the shape of a heart. These are the exact centre of the picture. Around the centre various objects are arranged in perfect balance: Joseph, on the left, is balanced by the group of shepherds on the right; the white angels in the lower left are balanced by the blue angels above; the seraphim in the lower right are balanced by the flying angels in the upper left; the mother and child form the hub of a giant cartwheel that encircles them. The entire left of the picture  is dark, the right half is light; darkness and light meet at Mary. Mary is, literally, the bridge between the dark and the light, between the human and the divine, between the profane and the sacred – she is the mother of God. In the portal of the palace above her head we see a harp, the symbol of the House of David, so she is of noble blood, and so is Jesus, descended from the King of Israel.

Of course this painting has a lot more to it, and I haven’t even mentioned the side panels. But it should be clear that Van der Goes has given us a painting that is not only beautiful, but incredibly rich in meaning. He himself was a torn soul. He has left us no self-portrait. But I think this central panel is the closest we have to a self-portrait. It represents Van der Goes’ agonized mind, a mind devoted to all that is holy and good while being tormented by the wickedness that he sees within himself and the conviction that he deserves damnation rather than salvation.  It is no wonder that Mary does not greet the birth of her child with joy, but rather with ambiguity, suspecting the pain that is stored in the future.

Without Tomasso Portinari’s wealth and vanity we would never have had this marvelous work of art. Which goes to show, in the great scheme of things, that the selfishness of bankers might have its uses after all.