The perils of forgetting
Francis O’Gorman talks memory, belonging and the amnesia of the Western mind.
Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia was one of the most unexpectedly urgent books published in 2017. Unexpected not just because its author, Francis O’Gorman, a Professor of English at the University of Edinburgh, was, up until the publication of Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History in 2015, more closely associated with scholarly ventures into the depths of Victorian literature, but also because of the unhurried elegance of its execution. It is a book, as O’Gorman himself told the spiked review, that is concerned with the changing ‘architecture of the Western mind’, and especially our changing relationship to time itself, from the Ancient cultures of memory typical of the Greek city states, in which centuries of epic storytelling remained ever present, to our contemporary culture of futurity, in which the past is all too readily devalued as the domain of, at best, the obsolete, or at worst, of wickedness, bigotry and cruelty.
But urgent it is, because in its spirals of rumination, Forgetfulness penetrates our present moment with startling insight. It appreciates the gains of modernity. But it also grasps the losses, too: the loss of the past as the loss of a sense of the collective; the loss of place; and the loss of the ties that once bound us to the living and to the dead. It is a book, then, very much about the way we live and think now. In lieu of the past, we fetishise and anoint the new with the buzzwords of ‘modernisation’ and ‘innovation’; instead of place, we talk up migration, ‘a metaphorical representation of disappearing familiarities, faltering bonds, and growing blankness without a home’. We value the future, as well we should, but it seems to have come at the cost of any connection to the past.
So the spiked review caught up with O’Gorman to discuss this remarkable little book, and the issues it raises.
spiked review: Why was the Ancient polis so central to a classical culture of memory?
Francis O’Gorman: The earliest human communities, of which we have minimal records, grounded themselves on, and identified themselves with, the family, both living and dead. It meant that they had a responsibility to continue to please and not to anger their ancestors. That’s a hypothetical idea about the earliest human communities, but I think it’s a plausible one.
The story then runs that the notion of the family, living and dead, continues to be the basic unit of human communities as those communities expand. And by the time of the extremely well-documented poleis of the Ancient Mediterranean, you’re still really working with the same understanding of where responsibility, duty and so on are to be found. So the polis is the city as identity. You belong to the family of the city, with its gods and ancestral memories, its own rites and traditions. So it is a culture, like that of the family, in which the past is thought of as constitutive of the present.
review: So it’s as a citizen, of say the Athenian polis, that one feels part of a whole, not just in terms of a space or a territory, but in terms of time, too?
O’Gorman: That’s right. And I think it helps us to understand how terrifying the notion of exile was for the Ancient world. It really was a fate worse than death; it was a living death. It was to be cast out of the city which had given the citizen identity. It wasn’t just to be rootless and homeless; it was to be identity-less – it was to be denied access to the structures of both the city and of thought itself, which gave one a reason to live.
review: The advent of Christianity plays a key role in Forgetfulness. You argue that it introduces a new concept of futurity, and therefore of time. It allows people to think not so much of the place in which they live, rich in established ways of doing things, but in terms, crucially, of ‘the kingdom to come’. As you put it, ‘Expectation and anticipation assumed the mental space previously occupied by the duties of remembering’. But I just wonder if you are being fair to Christianity? Doesn’t it also have a strong sense of the past, of (trans)historical sources of authority and so on?
O’Gorman: No, I’m not being fair to Christianity, and I’m actually a Christian. I regret that I didn’t manage that section better. I have been assumed to be critical of Christianity, and also to minimise Christianity’s own dependence on historical resources, and on its preservation of the past. I do say that in one paragraph, but I should have spent more time pointing out that the whole inheritance, the whole Jewish inheritance, of the established scriptures, is obviously vital. Then there’s the community of saints for particular Christian traditions, the Liturgy and, in particular, the Eucharist – even for the most extreme Protestants, the Holy Communion is an act of memory, a fulfilment of Jesus’s words: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ So I should have spent more time explaining that.
But what I was trying to catch were the big forces that break us from what the Christians would think of as the Pagan world, and its memory culture. And it seems to me that Christianity, and Augustinian Christianity in particular, is a crucial force, because it still uses the notion of the polis – ‘the City of God’ – but it’s a very different polis for Christians than for the Ancients, because God is everywhere. So we’re not dependent on a single place, and we don’t have a hierarchical structure of who is a citizen and who isn’t. Rather, anybody can be a Christian and God is ubiquitous.
review: But wasn’t the Christian still very much at home in the various forms of the Christian community? As you argue, it’s with modernity that you get a far more fully developed sense of homelessness in the strong spiritual sense.
O’Gorman: I completely agree. The one thing that Augustus is proposing about the Christian life is that we are at home everywhere because God is ubiquitous. So, in a way, Augustus is looking back at the old polis and saying it had a very clear sense of home because it was actually a place. And you could be thrown out of it. Whereas the notion of being exiled from God, from the City of God, is impossible.
review: When writing of ‘the compound fracture modernity has wrought on time’, your focus is not on that early moment of modernity – of the Reformation and the Renaissance; it’s on something like a long 19th century, beginning with the French Revolution in 1789. Why, for you, is the French Revolution and its aftermath so central to a changing relationship to time, and, indeed, to the future?
O’Gorman: Now we’re still in the territory of the enormous generalisation – it’s the kind of book it is, I suppose. But it strikes me that within modern European history, it’s really impossible to overlook the significance of the French Revolution for our relationship with time. Up until the moment of the revolution, there persisted a sense of the permanence of the old regime – indeed, not only permanent, but also sanctified by God through the divine right of kings. And so many of the revolutionary ideas prior to the revolution – Thomas Paine’s for instance – are about breaking the idea of a permanent political order ordained by God. Now it seems to me that one of the consequences of the revolution was that it shattered this idea. It convinced people that ordinary human beings can make a radical intervention into what had once been thought to be stable, and overturn it.
And I think that’s a key moment in the modern world’s relationship to time, because, firstly, it shows that things don’t have to continue as they are, and, secondly, that the past was bad, and that progress comes from breaking things.
review: Is this moment crucial because, as you put it, people start to live in the future, and to justify and authorise their actions, not in terms of how things have always been done, but in the name of a future society, of how things will or could be done?
O’Gorman: There is truth in that. I suppose one of the things that the revolution does, at least theoretically, is that it encourages successors to think that if you don’t like it, you yourself can change it. That’s to say that the future is in one’s own hands. This of course is complicated by the actuality of the French Revolution, because in a few years there isn’t a king on the throne, there’s an emperor. So what it ends up producing is a version of exactly what it was trying to get rid of. And after Waterloo, the Bourbons are restored. So it is a frankly complicated and messy legacy that the revolution leaves for the 19th century.
But the straightforward point about the French Revolution, and what it suggests about time, is that it does, at least at one level, suggest that the future is in the hands of ordinary people, that progress comes from breaking with the past. And the development of technology, especially communications technology, during the 19th century, develops this particular legacy of the revolution. It makes us focus on the future, and get excited about what’s next to come.
review: The other force at work here, as Forgetfulness has it, is the industrial revolution and the development of capitalism. You argue that it encourages us always to think in terms of the new, of ‘what’s hot’, and devalue the old, as ‘out-of-date’, ‘behind-the-times’ and so on….
O’Gorman: It is one of the most striking features of contemporary capitalism, both in its commodity form and in its high-finance form. It has both partaken of and helped reinforce the notion that it is to the future that we’re meant to be looking. There are ways in which capitalism has its own sense of the value of the past, what one can do with inherited money, with money that has been made in the past, and so on. But its narratives of growth, of productivity, of seizing opportunity strikes me as part of this complex structure within which we live that tells about our relationship with time and the value of the future.
A friend pointed out that a lot of the book is not really about forgetfulness; it’s about our thinking about what’s to come. My previous book was Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History. And that was about our low-level anxiety about a future that we can’t control. And I think Forgetfulness, although I didn’t quite realise it at the time, develops that idea away from personal worry – ‘did I feed the cat?’ – towards a sort of macro set of speculations about our whole culture’s absorption with a future that we’d like to be able to control but can’t.
review: I wonder if that’s true, though. You’re right of course, that the narrative of modernity, of the Enlightenment and subsequent political movements is driven by sense of our increasing mastery not just of nature, but of the future — our ability to determine our own existences. But do you not think that to a large extent, we’ve been increasingly successful in doing precisely that?
O’Gorman: I suppose my attention wasn’t focused on whether we were successful in being able to manage the future. I’m more interested in the psychic consequences of feeling so strongly that what is of central importance, both at home and at work, is future management. I’m interested primarily in the effects of that state of mind, regardless of whether it produces successes, on our relationship to the past, understood in the most general sense, but also in the most specific sense of what the past bequeathes to us, both in terms of the cultural achievements and the deeds of the past – if we could spare them some time, rather than fretting about what’s to come.
review: At points in Forgetfulness, it can seem to be very much against the trajectory of modernity, against our living in and towards the future. But given you’re clearly not anti-modern in any reactionary sense, is it fair to say that what’s really of more importance is the extent to which we devalue the past, rather than overvalue the future?
O’Gorman: Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s why it’s called Forgetfulness, if you see what I mean. So although my friend was right to see the focus on our concern with what is to come, I think fundamentally it is about, as I phrase it, ‘our unmooring from history’, and what that might do to us.
review: Forgetfulness then moves towards the contemporary moment. And in looking at the contemporary drivers behind our cultural amnesia, you focus, in one regard, on the role of academia, the one-time ascendancy of post-structuralism and, in another, on the turning away from history of our cultural elites. Why do you think there has been that turn away from the valuing of the past among those whom one might have expected to be concerned with preserving it?
O’Gorman: I don’t really know one end of a film from another, but the one that comes to mind in relation to the second part of the book where I explore the contemporary moment is The Matrix. I’m interested in plotting the extraordinarily complex network, or matrix, of cultural, material, political and technological forces that are helping to detach us from history, or to aid the etiolation, the shrivelling up, of our sense of history’s importance.
So, in relation to post-structuralism, I was looking at one particular facet of of the modern world, and how it, too, is contributing to this extremely worked-through and thorough reorientation of our minds towards the privileging of the future. And I asked myself why it was that those who one might have thought had a great deal of interest in the value of the past were devaluing it – what was in play in there? Why were those whom one might think of as the custodians of the past actively contributing to the minimisation of its importance, and to its instrumentalisation? This is a subject for several books in its own right, and I just skirt across it, if I’m honest. But I think the legacy of post-structuralism, which is still alive and well in its most weakened, simplified form, remains a real nuisance – that whole notion, at least as it is received by many students, that historical artefacts mean simply what you want them to mean, that there’s no possibility of any rigorous inquiry into what the past looked like.
And, although this doesn’t really make me any friends, I also think the almost complete triumph of identity politics over the study of the past has also reduced it to little more than a subject for rebuke. Studying the past becomes the study of what went wrong for a particular group, and any approach that fails to reprimand past deeds and cultural products is seen as a form of bigoted conservatism. I think that has helped impede the development of an approach to the past in terms of things we might want to cherish, enjoy and preserve.
review: Yes, that was very striking in Forgetfulness — I almost got the sense that in post-structuralism the de-authorisation of the past, the stripping of the past, of historical artefacts, of authority, merely gained its most striking intellectual formulation. And it was writ large in some of the key essays of Roland Barthes (‘The death of the author’), and Michel Foucault, (‘What is an author?’). What they seem to be suggesting is that historical, in this case textual, artefacts no longer have any inherent authority, and are therefore ripe for you to read into them what you would like to, and certainly with the advent of identity politics, that has tended to be your own contemporary political concerns about the exclusion or oppression of this or that identity group…
O’Gorman: That’s exactly what I mean. Theodore Dalrymple was kind enough to write a bit of blurb for the book, and it’s always interesting to see what other people find interesting about what you’ve written, and what he’d picked up was that I was arguing for a ‘less self-interested historiography’. I didn’t put it as well as that myself, but I think he was right. On today’s campuses, we seem to be increasingly involved with academics and students who, as it were, are in thrall to the capitalist discourse of satisfaction, enshrined in the National Student Survey. It has affected what students and academics expect and want back from the study of the past – they want a kind of immediate satisfaction of something they’re looking for. So if this novel or that event isn’t relevant to this or that particular form of identity politics, then it’s not deemed interesting. The past is being treated in a very narcissistic way, where one wants only to find a picture of oneself and one’s own interests. That’s a really limiting approach. It’s only about meanings that can very quickly be seen to be to relevant to the current moment.
review: Related to this, you write that the past is increasingly being treated as a site of trauma, rather than potential gain. Do you think the past, seen as repository of bigotry and so on, is being used morally, to affirm the present?
O’Gorman: This takes us into tricky territory, doesn’t it? My next book attempts to answer it – it’s called The Limits to Liberalism, and it’s about the deep penetration of what is now known as liberalism, rooted in consumer capitalism and identity politics, and its almost complete domination of schools and university campuses, especially in the arts and humanities. I think that one of the most obvious consequences is the pursuit of the past as something filled with bigoted, self-interested people who were oppressors of multitudes of different kinds. It is not that this story is false; it’s that it’s not the only story. I think that trying to break away and ask some questions about whether that is entirely true is almost impossible now, certainly in liberal British education.
Let me put this another way. You used the word trauma, which invokes the psychoanalytical model of the past as a site of trauma. That has sunk itself very deeply into mainstream educational thinking. Those academic disciplines that are particularly interested in the past as a site of trauma tend to be very successful — they’re expanding; they’re getting the grants, as it were. And one of the things the idea of trauma does, and why it is so attractive in understanding our relationship to the past, is it tells us that things make sense, things have causes, that we have something to blame for how we are that wasn’t us. That there was something wrong in the past that we can’t escape from, or have to spend a great deal of time, both personally and politically trying to break away form. It is an incredibly attractive narrative of cause and effect that can point the blame at X, saying that it was the cause of this unhappiness or this cultural conflict.
While there might be some truth in that idea, it does seem to me to be a lazy way of thinking about the complexities and messiness of human life. The rise of trauma studies, as it were, has a streak in it of being satisfied that we can find out what went wrong, and point to what it was. But for me, human existence is far more contingent, far more difficult, far more unhappier and far less cause-and-effect. You can’t simply point at something you can blame for how things are.
review: What do you make of the attempts to pull down statues of personages with what are now deemed dubious records?
O’Gorman: I think it’s almost embarrassing. I noticed a new movement wanting to tear down statues of Gladstone. This represents an intolerance of the past, a desire for the past to be rewritten to conform with contemporary values, or at least the values of a certain group of people. It is the same structure of thought that is operative in totalitarian states — a desire to create a much easier relationship with the past, to eradicate that which those in power do not like. I find that both embarrassing and really quite scary.
review: What relationship with the past would you like to promote?
O’Gorman: My project as it were is to ask us to question a bit more what we think the past is, what of value it might convey to us. Or as Raymond Geuss might say, philosophical thinking is really about changing the subject – not merely asking a different question about the same subject, but changing the field. And I was hoping to start a discussion in a quite radical way about changing the way we think about the past and thinking about it in a much more open-minded way.
The last chapter of Forgetfulness doesn’t come to any conclusions, because that’s not what I was trying to do. It wonders what living without history, without any sense of cultural inheritance, will do for cultures in an age of mass migration and global corporates, turning all our city centres into the same place. Do we know what living without a sense of history giving us home, without even a dim echo of the Ancient world’s regard for the polis, will do to us? Do we really know what impact that will have? I leave that question hanging at the end of the book. It’s not something that too many liberals want to ask. And that has left the debate open to the far right, who give the crudest and most unpleasant of answers.
Indeed, I hugely regret the way in which the liberal agenda, which I value highly and has much to admire in it, has made a certain set of questions absolutely unposable, to the extent that the extreme liberals suggest that there is no such thing as national belonging, that nations are merely an imaginative idea, located only within one’s mind, and, as such, are changeable and have no real meaning for human beings. It’s not permissible within the liberal community to talk about nationhood, because you’ll be immediately dismissed as some sort of Ukipper. You can’t ask on campus whether unchecked, open-border migration is an unalloyed good, because you’ll be immediately dismissed as a crypto-fascist. I deeply regret the closing down of any possible thoughtful, humane debate around these sorts of topics, which are crucial. And as a consequence the only place where these questions are asked is within, say, Front National, or that group Donald Trump was retweeting, Britain First – and these really are scary groups. But because liberals don’t address the topics that bother those groups, then the field is open for the far right to exploit.
Francis O’Gorman is Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia is published by Bloomsbury Academic. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).