"Our past is modern!” Remembering experience, as present memory

January 18, 2017

The past century has seen a collision of immense cultural forces – between amnesia and recall, between remembrance and forgetting, between the past of tradition and representations of modernity. It is such a collective memory that makes us who we are; stories of our pasts create a map of our identity and help situate us in social time and space. It is a discourse that old forms of history cannot begin to entertain. The exploration of this shared remembering, especially through the creative arts, avant-garde literature, poetry and modern film, focuses on recovering interpersonal representations of these epic experiences. Not least are those triggered by war. We live amongst anniversaries and memorials of such multiple, sometimes nameless traumas as those in Armenia, (Armenians partly in Syria [1915]), the swamps around Ypres such as (l917), forgotten death camps such as Chelmno in Poland (after 1942) or urbicide long before Aleppo, the relatively forgotten nuclear attack on the Christian suburbs of Nagasaki (1945). And who now remembers the slaughtered Indonesians of 1965? Modern memory gradually assumed its central role of acknowledgment, re-visiting and truth-telling as cultural responses to such catastrophes. After two world wars, multiple genocides and the continuing threat of nuclear omnicide: the arts of modernism have been powerful innovators in representing the past.

Equally and increasingly the role of radical critical journalism, innovative, whistle-blowing and dangerously independent has assumed an essential entry into present history. Now that this immediate reality is brought by the internet direct and unfiltered, it may need art and criticism. The destruction of Aleppo revisited on YouTube is just one more episode in the attack on mass civilian targets. But we need reminding that these were initiated in the Great War, and witnessed in Armenia. Our confrontation now is immediate, but transient. To oppose the denial and sharing of past memories for a century, artists, writers, poets, film-makers, have created memory fields that stressed a cross-border empathy. In tension with an ethnocentric, narrow, national views, empathetic remembering operates consciously across such lines, not least across the frontiers of a fragmented Europe. But modern memory is and has been constructed far beyond Europe, or even the West. From Japan and South Africa to Argentina and Afghanistan, the narratives of witnesses, stories of the survivors’ testimonies of atrocity gain not only a global recognition, but a cultural and historical coherence in a post-national alternative to war. Faced by continuing militarism and state violence and repression, memory has a role far beyond the personal, and beyond and scholarly narratives. That role is political, to be part of the cultural resistance to denial.

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