Can memory survive the storm?


New Internationalist
Issue 247 - September 1993

The Chinese emperors, Stalin, Hitler: throughout the ages those in power have tried to reshape human memory. David Watson fears that TV and consumer culture are succeeding where others failed...

Most of my life has been spent in the inner city of Detroit, a place both like and unlike many others in the industrialized world. I still live in the neighborhood where I did my growing up, attended school, met and married my wife. Despite the urban desolation, I’m tied to the place; even after long sojourns abroad, I always return to the same few square blocks. Our house looks out on land that was gradually cleared of buildings after the 1967 black rebellion and the city’s economic decline in the 1970s. In the Sixties it had been a thriving community of poor whites and blacks, students and young radicals. I found the local anti-war committee, a friendly poor people’s diner, communes, poor churches, and a sense of community there.

Like so many of the decade’s dreams, the neighborhood was demolished. It left a fascinating miniature urban wilderness of great old trees, wildflowers mixed with perennials where once there had been gardens and a rich bird habitat. Eventually this green place was also flattened and a typically ugly housing development constructed in its place. Recently the builders returned to the section directly across from us. In a few days it was fenced and all the trees were smashed. Expensive condominiums, almost completed, are being leased at rents well beyond the means of most locals. Our view of a park and the sunset is blocked. Someone is getting elegant, sterile housing and someone else is getting rich, but our lives seem incrementally poorer.

Such things happen all the time, happen everywhere. One might wonder what they have to do with history and its abuses. I think that in a small, perhaps obscure way, our experience is like that which many people have had walking down a familiar street and realizing some landmark is missing but not quite remembering what. It is for me emblematic of the disappearance of memory which is occurring relentlessly around the globe. The process may seem anonymous because it is inertial, or because nearly everyone assumes it to be perfectly natural. But history, big and small, is not just disappearing; it is being disappeared just as surely as human beings are ‘disappeared’ by dictatorships.

Of course, history has always been an ambiguous affair – a (consciously and unconsciously) constructed official story employed by powerful men to legitimize their rule ever since the armed Mesopotamian god-kings conquered the wilderness to build their city-states. Since then, history has been a long series of cataclysms. In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin described the ‘angel of history’ being thrown backwards by a storm out of Paradise. At his feet lies ‘one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage’. While the angel would like to ‘make whole what has been smashed’, the storm ‘irresistibly propels him into a future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows ever skyward. The storm is what we call progress.’

Despite its many disasters, there have always been counter-stories to imperial myth, and history has remained contested ground. Individual memory is a knot in the web of collective memory, and this shared history is an immense, diverse psychic commons sustaining our sense of human community, a reservoir where glimpses of freedom, and the remembrance of atrocities and triumphs are all preserved. We need this common historical space to replenish our inner capacity to remain human in the same way that forests and wild places are needed to nourish and renew the land. But just as the world’s forests are being destroyed, so too is memory’s commons.

Empires have always worked to undermine authentic memory – for example, the book burnings by the Ch’in emperors of ancient China, a method still employed in our time. (This strategy was updated in 1970s China under the Maoist regime, when photographs of a line-up of party leaders were retouched to turn purged bureaucrats into shrubs.) Monumentalism is another age-old form of control. One grotesque recent monument was the construction by the Balaguer government in the Dominican Republic of an enormous lighthouse, far from the sea, to honour Columbus and his ‘discovery’ – a project which levelled poor barrios of Santo Domingo and now causes frequent electrical ‘brown-outs’ throughout the city.

Despite their destructiveness, such methods have limited results, to which the patent shabbiness of the Columbus story and the toppling monuments of the Soviet bloc dramatically testify. There are now greater threats to memory, greater weapons in power’s arsenal. The modern transformations in consciousness brought about during the last century by mass communications and consumer society seem to be changing the form memory takes. And history’s form shapes content as surely as it takes particular words or kinds of words to make a certain kind of statement.

This change evokes the legend of the Chinese emperor who decreed for himself the exclusive use of the pronoun ‘I’. The modern media have now donned these imperial robes, speaking while everyone else listens. One can no longer even make a revolution without making sure to seize the television stations (as apparently was the case in Romania), since instead of directly making history, people watch the screen to see what is happening. The contemporary erosion of people’s capacity to think for themselves, and the monopolization of meaning by media, seem to be succeeding at what the legendary emperor could only have imagined.

A new society emerged in Western Europe and North America during the last century as the organic structures of life began to unravel. In the United States, where this development seems most pernicious, the colonization and control of culture was an explicit strategy to obtain labour discipline and mass consumption. As historian Stuart Ewen has pointed out, by the early twentieth century business leaders, coming out of a period of mass labor unrest, recognized the need to manage not only production but consumption as well. A new kind of citizen had to be shaped to respond appropriately to the plethora of industrial products offered by the emergent corporate market system. As one entrepreneur wrote in the 1920s, education must teach ‘the masses not what to think but how to think, and thus... how to behave like human beings in the machine age’.

By the 1950s industrial expansion and economic growth provided the twin pillars of a universal secular religion, and consumerism an unquestioned cultural norm. This consumer ethos (if not necessarily its material benefits) is spreading rapidly to the countries of the post-colonial world and the former Soviet empire. Today the question culture critic Vance Packard asked back in 1950s is increasingly relevant: ‘What is the impact on the human spirit of all these pressures to consume?’

Since then, the impact of television – which has become the key instrument for consumer culture worldwide – has confirmed Packard’s fears. Television flattens, disconnects and renders incoherent experiences and history. Its seemingly meaningful pastiche of images works best to sell commodities – objects devoid of any history. But more importantly, it also affirms the whole universe of commodity consumption as the only life worth living. Wherever the set is turned on, local culture implodes.

Though sold as a tool that could preserve memory, television utterly fragments and colonizes it. What remains is a cult of the perpetual present, in continual giddying motion. The jumbled, packaged events of recent and remote history come to share the relative weightlessness of soap operas and dish detergent. Perspective evaporates. Power no longer needs to shout since, as Mark Crispin Miller once remarked, ‘Big Brother isn’t watching you so much as Big Brother is you, watching’. Historical memory is now becoming what was televised, while that commons of the mind, domesticated and simulated by the media, is receding.

A striking case in point is the way people (especially North Americans) were manipulated into supporting the Gulf War. Someone who has already seen tens of thousands of people ‘killed’ on TV has a difficult time understanding the human suffering caused by the TV-filtered special effects of techno-war. Yet even the war hysteria, which one journalist described as a ‘nightly electronic Nuremberg Rally’, faded with time, as the images crystallized into scraps of last year’s mini-series. When Iraq was more recently attacked and several civilians killed, many passive patriots who had been glued to their sets during the War were now barely aware of it. It was all, as is often said, ‘history’ – which is to say, it no longer existed. Their indifference today is as disturbing as their spasm of enthusiasm was yesterday.

The media-driven market system is doing something to human meaning far more serious than government propaganda or censorship ever could. Just when the peoples of the former colonies (as well as women and other formerly invisible groups) are rediscovering their own stories, long suppressed by official history, modern technique is poised to shape everyone’s story, making them all a fragment in one long photomontage. How will so many different peoples be able to tell their own unique stories when TV itself has become the dominant mode of communication and recall? How will memory express diverse modes of being when work, buying and selling are the core of what is rapidly becoming a global monoculture? Will those cultures that aren’t compatible with televised sensibility just disappear altogether, like the trees that once stood across from my window?

The disappearance of languages and cultures is as terrifying a prospect as the current mass extinction of species. At current rates, some 90 per cent of the world’s languages will be moribund in the next century. And without language there can be no memories. Ironically, the greatest threat is to those scattered cultures whose memory precedes official history – the primal and indigenous peoples, some with traditions reaching back to the Pleistocene. The native Hawaiians, for example, have seen their culture wither under the onslaught of progress. Many now speak only the language of their American conquerors, and remembrance has eroded as the places to which words and sensibilities were bound, have come under the bulldozer’s blade. Enormous resorts, shopping malls and golf courses (as well as military bombing ranges) have devoured burial grounds, old fishing villages and sacred sites.

I will give just one devastating example. On the island of Hawaii itself, where the active volcano Kilauea constantly creates new land, is some of the richest lowland tropical rainforest left in the island chain (only about ten per cent survives). Even according to the conqueror’s laws, the forest, called Wao Kele O Puna, was to be held in perpetuity for Hawaiians to practise subsistence activities and to gather ceremonial and medicinal plants, many of which grow there and nowhere else. Yet in the late 1980s the state government of Hawaii traded the 110-square-kilometre forest to corporate developers who hope to drill into it and tap the volcano’s geothermal energy.

To the Hawaiians, however, the volcano is a living being, the goddess Pele. She created and continues to create the islands. Hawaiians have many good reasons to fight geothermal development – its risks, its cost, its violation of native land rights, its inevitable destruction of pristine forest. But the project is above all an assault on the heart of their culture and religion, and thus on a tangible reminder of what it means to be a Hawaiian. As Pualani Kanehele, a respected teacher of the sacred Hawaiian dance, the hula kahiko, argued, to cap Pele’s steam would be ‘putting a cap on the Hawaiian culture... and Hawaii will be dead. Then this may as well be a new California. Because we’ll all be haoles [whites] with the same goals as the haoles: make money.’

Meaning, like ecology, is context: everything is connected to everything else. As strands are pulled from the skein of memory, what it means to be a person within a human community shifts toward some troubling unknown. The experience of the Hawaiians, who have seen their ancestors’ bones turned up by machines so that someone else’s paradise can be fabricated, lends special resonance to Benjamin’s warning that even the dead are not safe when power triumphs.

If, as Czech novelist Milan Kundera has written, ‘the struggle... against power is the struggle against forgetting’, the need to remember must also inevitably confront power. We may come to need truth commissions to recover our shared memory, like those organized to uncover and preserve the lost stories of disappeared persons in Latin America. Taking responsibility for our past might help us uncover the complex weave of histories that now connect us all in our shared suffering and grandeur.

David Watson teaches, writes and survives in inner-city Detroit.

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