by EILEEN JOY
His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
--James Joyce, "The Dead"
How uncanny it is that I, now a scholar in Egypt nearing middle age, clearly remember myself as a young brown-haired child surrounded by pets and relatives now deceased, in an Iowa town I rarely visit, in a house reduced to ashes years ago. How much more disturbing to think that someday, this child-adult body will be placed in a grave or a crypt, consumed in a furnace, or devoured by fish or wild animals as a handful of survivors weep over my fate and sift through the remnants of what I did and did not mean to them. Indeed, the melancholic wonders of space and time might spark an entire philosophy. They are are the clearest, most basic prod to philosophical reflection that we have.
--Graham Harman, "Space, Time, and Essence: An Object-Oriented Approach"
As someone who works in the field of medieval literature, I supposedly think about the dead all of the time, and about history, which is a kind of dead letter office, a labyrinth of catacombs, a funerary empire. And I suppose, to a great extent, much of my work has been preoccupied with trying to think through some sort of ethical relation to the dead--to their singular persons, and how, cadging from the political philosopher George Kateb, they have touched reality and become real, and how their understanding of the world is indispensable to the world’s completeness, while at the same time, no full reckoning of this state of affairs is ever really possible: there is always something in excess of the remains we possess, including everything, maybe, that the dead meant to say, but didn't (because they forgot or weren't allowed to, because the time was never right and the means insufficient to their desire to speak, because their ends were more sudden and more violent than they anticipated and the afterworld doesn't allow outgoing calls, because they're liars--even to themselves, and so on). Our writings on the dead form what Michel de Certeau called a heterology--a writing on, or "science" of, the Other that “fashions out of language the forever-remnant trace of a beginning that is as impossible to recover as to forget” (see my more elaborated thinking on these ideas in published writings HERE and HERE).
For all of our talk here and in other places, and also within some of our favorite books within the field of medieval studies, can the past ever really be touched, or is it only touched upon, which is to say, lightly pressed (in its more abstract conceptual forms) under the questions of particular present moments (posed to whatever remains: books, bones, musical scores, graffiti, stones, bricks and mortar, metal clasps, fossils, what have you), but never really encountered, never really felt, or seen? I mean--maybe the past is truly, really gone, and by "past" here, I mean the totality of everything felt, thought, and experienced by whatever (human or otherwise) was there to experience it as it happened. And what remains are mainly inert pieces of things (textual, metal, stony, glass, and otherwise) that, although sometimes able to be pieced together and even "voiced" to form certain "wholes" (think: dinosaur bones or the various manuscripts forming a particular "tree" of the genealogy of a narrative or the buried foundations and pot shards of an ancient city or one of Hildegard of Bingen's hymns sung by a modern voice: when re-activated, as it were, the past feels presently emergent)--nevertheless, these don't really give us anything except a bigger pile of retrieved, if even reconstructed, rubble, similar to the sky-high mountain of wreckage faced by Walter Benjamin's angel of history who would like to awaken the dead and piece together what has been smashed, yet the storm of Progress hurls him into a future he can never see because his back is turned.
Because of this, even though I have often espoused here on this blog and elsewhere the hope that a presentist-minded medieval studies could go a long way toward playing an interventionist role in what we call "current affairs" (such as the war on terrorism, anti-immigration policies, matters of sovereignty and biopolitics, religious fundamentalisms, the marriage debate, gender/sexuality politics, other issues of social justice, debates over various processes of so-called secularizations and post-secularizations, the post/human, and the like), the fact of the matter is, most days I naturally recognize that everything has already happened (even in the present) before we can catch up to it (the damages, in other words, are always already done when we arrive and we are the accountants of these damages--to "historicize" means to draw the chalk outlines and perform the autopsies and maybe wring one's hands a little in the general direction of a present, ongoing "event"). Going back to Benjamin, if the practice of history, at least, and thankfully, is no longer only a "tool of the ruling classes," nor does it any longer only record the spoils of victors (and barbarous victors at that), leaving aside and covering over the "anonymous toils" of everyone else--nevertheless, these victors manage to march on ahead of us and history dwells, always, in the more mystical realm of the "wayward and flickering existence" of the "vast hosts of the dead." The question then might be whether the job was to put these souls to rest or to let them wander, letting them trouble everything.
When I was working on my dissertation, I did a lot of reading in contemporary historiography on memory and traumatic history, and this involved, especially, reading a lot of contemporary scholarship on Holocaust historiography and on what is known, in Germany, as the Historians' Debate. My own special interest in this had to do with the representation in art (literature, painting, film) of traumatic history and of all of the ways in which history, memory, and art are always in excess of each other, with art (for me, anyway) retaining a certain privilege as a kind of enchanted realm within which history and memory, if never reconciled, can at least be ameliorated, or "worked through," at their most incommensurate points and zones of contact. Where history and memory falter, art steps in as a kind of alternate temporal zone within which history still feels palpable and real (maybe even gets a "second life"), even when it is completely fictionalized. I read a lot of Dominick LaCapra, who has made a career of plumbing this subject, especially as regards the representations of the Holocaust in the fine arts. Because Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary, Shoah, 25 years after its initial release, is being re-screened at the Lincoln Center in New York City this month, I've been thinking a lot about how much LaCapra really did not not like this film at all, and how I really disagree with him about it. In my dissertation, I wrote,
For LaCapra, certain psychoanalytic concepts offer important avenues for relating memory to history after limit-events, such as the Holocaust [so called because the Holocaust was unique “in a specific, nonnumerical, and noninvidous sense. In it an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression was crossed”]. Following Freud, he points to melancholia and mourning as necessary stages in coming to grips with an event such as the Holocaust, for both victims and perpetrators, as well as for those in the present wishing to adequately “remember” the event and those who were lost in it. LaCapra writes that “Melancholia may be necessary to register loss, including its lasting wounds . . . . [and] mourning . . . may counteract the melancholic-manic cycle . . . and enable a dissolution or at least a loosening of the narcissistic identification that is prominent in melancholy.” LaCapra opposes Freud’s “acting out,” in which the subject is caught in the grip of the mechanisms of a continual repetition of the past, to “working through,” in which the repetition is modified to offer “a measure of critical purchase . . . that would permit desirable change.” LaCapra does not believe that the past can be so completely “worked through” that it completely loses its grip upon the present, because that would imply a kind of eventual obliviousness to the past that could also be detrimental. Ultimately, history and memory must exist in a supplementary relationship “that is a basis for a mutually questioning interaction or open dialectical exchange that never attains totalization or full closure.”For myself, I'm not sure how it could be otherwise, by which I mean, I'm not sure how history (our accounting of it) could be anything other than this endless suspension between "acting out" and "working through," and I admire how Lanzmann, in a sense, rejected the idea that the history of the Holocaust could be understood somehow (that it could be subject, in other words, to a rational scheme of accounting). Instead, he opted for the representation of the re-witnessing (and perhaps some sort of re-living) of the event, by victims, perpetrators, and bystanders, as well as of his own witnessing of this re-witnessing (Lanzmann is very present as interlocutor in the interviews). Since so many material remains (corpses, camp structures, documents) really do disappear over time, as so many of Lanzmann's tracking shots of the empty and bucolic Polish landscapes make clear, we can see that the nonhuman world tends toward blankness, toward green fields (or dead lunar landscapes), toward oblivion. LaCapra did not approve, partly because he would never leave history entirely up to its so-called human witnesses, whose memories are not completely reliable, and while LaCapra supports the necessity of affective or "empathetic unsettlement" that occurs as a byproduct of our viewing of a film like Lanzmann's Shoah, he is wary of the excesses of indulging in what might be called post-traumatic symptoms. Ultimately, all history is "traumatic" in some fashion, and we are all "survivors," as it were, all "haunted" by the ghosts of history, and LaCapra has some hope that a responsible historiography would put into productive relation "truth claims" + empathetic understanding + "performative, dialogical uses of language." Ergo, both positivism and constructivism in some sort of dialogical relation is necessary for ethically responsible historiography (and theory, of course--for LaCapra himself, psychoanalysis is an especially important theoretical tool). My summary of LaCapra's position here is overly simplistic, but hopefully not obtuse. (If interested in his more nuanced positions, see especially his books Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma, History and Memory After Auschwitz, and Writing History, Writing Trauma.)
LaCapra views art as having a “special responsibility” to history, especially the history of traumatic events, and he is wary of the artist who wishes to bring about an incarnation or compulsive “acting out” of the past in his work, as the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann claimed for his nine-and-one-half-hour oral history of the Polish death camps*, Shoah, which he asserted was not a documentary, but was rather, “a fiction of the real.” Furthermore, Lanzmann stated in an interview, “Memory is weak. The film is an abolition of all distance between past and present.” Lanzmann eschewed historical chronology and archival footage in his film, and in his interviews with survivors and perpetrators mixed in with silent tracking shots of blank pastoral landscapes in present-day Poland, he aimed instead for an atmosphere of “hallucinatory intemporality,” because he believed that “the worst crime, simultaneously moral and artistic, that can be committed . . . is to consider [the Holocaust] . . . as past.” Lanzmann wanted to produce what he called “an originary event,” in which he, as a participant, could undergo a certain kind of suffering, “permitting, perhaps, the spectator as well to pass through a sort of suffering.” According to LaCapra, Lanzmann indulges too often in a positive transferential identification with his subjects and his film, therefore, is a work of “endless lamentation or grieving that is tensely suspended between acting out a traumatic past and attempting to work through it.”
*A better phrase than "Polish death camps" would be "Nazi death camps in occupied Poland." The above paragraphs are cited from my PhD dissertation, published in Nov. 2001.
I wonder if we can ever really get beyond "testimony," though, or should want to. More and more, as I get older, I see what inveterate illusionists we all are, sometimes for the good, sometimes not. I've been thinking about this a lot these past two weeks since the second of my two Irish aunts, Maureen, died two weeks ago, in the same month and at the same age that my older aunt Joan died two years ago. In short, they were my favorite relatives, and as my parents traveled extensively (and alone together), when I was growing up, Joan and Maureen's two households (just outside Dublin), with an extended family comprising grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, beloved Jack Russell terriers, and the elderly boarders in Joan's guest-house, became my second (and I think my favorite) family. The 1960s and 1970s were a magical zone in Ireland at that time, in the sense that my aunts shoved my brother, sister, cousins, and I out the door in the early morning and told us to re-appear at just three times: 1:00 for dinner, 6:00 for tea (dinner leftovers), and 10:00 for bedtime. Other than that, we were free to explore the coastline, the mountains, and the parks, which we did, with unsupervised exuberance and the occasional forays into juvenile delinquency (riding the double-decker buses without paying was one of our specialties as was sneaking through others' backyards and stealing apples from private orchards). We were completely safe and unfettered, and frankly, free. Mealtimes were pure entertainment as my older relatives argued politics vehemently and told old stories on each other and neighbors and laughed non-stop at personal foibles and embarrassments from the past. Unlike my mother, Joan and Maureen were superb cooks, and Joan even had two extra freezers, one of which was just for storing all of the extra scones and cakes and ice cream. My grandparents were kind and solicitous and doled out candy regularly and we were allowed to stay up late and watch Hitchcock films with the boarders in the guest lounge. Joan's husband, my uncle Bob, who died in his early 40s from a rare blood disease, took my sister and I for long walks on the pier and bought us ice creams. I could go on and on, but I think personal histories such as this are mainly interesting to those of us who lived them, or think we did. Suffice to say, I have only happy memories about my times spent in Ireland, and I think my mother's family is largely responsible for my general optimism about everything. There are no painful memories for me of the times I spent with my mother's family, and I can't imagine a better childhood than the one I had, both in Ireland and in the States. My parents never raised their voices, they let us do whatever we wanted, they encouraged our every wish, and they seemed, to me as I was growing up, so glamorous and so cosmopolitan. I idolized my parents, and to a certain extent, I still do.
But memory is tricky, too. As you get older, your parents and other relatives reveal things to you that you weren't supposed to know, and didn't, when you were younger--sometimes very painful things. My own personal childhood memories don't completely line up with the way my older relatives remember things from that time. And bad things do happen to all of us, but you tend to either forget them completely or never forget them in ways that are self-destructive (or something in between). I won't mention anything specific here so as not to malign those dead and still alive, but nothing is really ever what we think it is--I sometimes wonder if our memories simply serve the hard-wired outlook we were born with. We have certain predispositions and everything we "see" or "remember" simply falls in line with those predispositions. I suppose that one important aspect of a responsible historiography would be in illuminating the structures of our illusive predispositions (whether we are "nations": ideology/founding myths, "groups": social beliefs/mentalities/prejudices, or "persons": psychology). I suppose this is what we call, post-Benjamin and his blown-backward angel, postmodern historiography. But I don't see how even postmodern historiographical methods (whatever they might be) could ever get "outside" of testimony, or to be more blunt, outside of human witnessing, whether supposedly lucid, illusive, mediated, or something more triangulated. Even "logic" or "reason" is still human logic and human reason and participates in the belief (I think likely, false) that one can "see" anything clearly, at all, ever, outside of one's own hyper-fictionalized modes of thought (and coping mechanisms). We can't live outside of illusion. We can't see ourselves, much less anything else, that clearly. And I also think a good life is one partly predicated on reminding oneself constantly of this fact and never clinging too tightly to the idea that you remember how anything happened at all. Otherwise, nothing unexpected can ever happen, which is to say, life cannot "happen."
How would I write the history of my aunt Maureen, who unlike the parents she tended in her home until they died there, spent eight years after her stroke in a lonely hospital bed with her language skills mangled beyond repair, her mobility non-existent, and her visitors: few to none, and not often? Although I have been in Dublin several times over the past few years, I never once visited her there. Why? Did I mean to neglect her--this woman who, every time I arrived in Don Laoghaire as a child announced to me that in honor of my visit she had made me, not one, but two apple pies, with the apples sliced as thin as paper, just the way I liked? And who had been saving up Crunchie candy bars in the cupboard, just for me? And who could never finish a story because she would always make herself laugh so much in anticipation of the punch-line that she just never arrived at it? Was I afraid to see her like that in a hospital, and so I purposefully avoided making the visit? I'm afraid it likely wasn't even that conscious of a decision, and that, both unwittingly and with some dim awareness of my lapse as a niece, or as a decent human being, I let eight whole years go by and never once visited, and now she's dead, and her weight upon this earth, like our own, in Joyce's words, "is dissolving and dwindling." How do you tell the history of those eight years, in that room, and why might it matter? How do you tell the history, or make a catalog, of everything we neglect and forget to do, and of the ways in which those who seem so important to us in the past (grandparents and aunts and uncles, but also ex-partners, old friends, etc.) fade away and become blank to us as time goes by? Tombstones, especially the expensive ones, seem reassuring because they supposedly last so long and outstrip human memory, which honestly, I really believe is pretty short, and maybe for good reasons. Otherwise, our obligations to others would overwhelm us and the sadness of past tribulations would never end. But even tombstones are ultimately doomed. There is no "forever" to this world.
But . . . isn't this maudlin, and also narcissistic? By which I mean, even when we talk about "long" views of history, ones that take into account marine ecology as well as political regimes and the weather, aren't we still writing these accounts for human reasons and for human ends, and really, for this thing we call "human understanding"? Of course, we live these days in a sort of heyday of post/human "human sciences" scholarship, comprising, in philosophy, "speculative realism" (Graham Harman) as well as "eliminative nihilism" (Ray Brassier) and "speculative materialism" (Quentin Meillassoux), in political science, the "political ecology of things" (Jane Bennett), in literary and related aesthetic studies, eco-materialism (Timothy Morton) and critical animal studies (Cary Wolfe and too many other persons to mention) and cyber-digital studies (Katherine Hayles, Lev Manovich, and others too numerous to mention) and object-oriented studies (Bill Brown, Barbara Johnson, Julian Yates, etc.), in sociological theory and new media studies, actor-network theory and networkologies (Bruno Latour, Eugene Thacker, and others too numerous to mention), and in philosophy of science and cognitive studies, well, good god, really too many to mention. And if you spend any time at all with microbiologists who study viruses and bacteria, then you already know that humans and other "species" are so vastly outnumbered by our microbial partners that you have to pause and wonder if we were "invented," or "evolved," as "hosts" for these infinitely more intelligent and durable organisms. They might even be "in charge"--seriously. This is just my way of saying that we have a lot of scholarship out there now, in the humanities and the sciences, that has displaced the human as the center of meaning-making and also, as the center of history. And yet, even thinking beyond, or past, the human requires a peculiarly human ability to speculate, which is to say, to think creatively with each other, however provisionally, and without much hope that we necessarily last into the future or were ever as important as we once thought. But what this also means (in my mind), is nothing else is central, either, and everything, even for that, is real and matters, somehow, in some way, even illusions. And here I would agree with Julian Yates that we should work to "maintain the productivity of error, dissonance, opacity and also the state of nervous, attentuated being that a melancholy 'post-human' produces in and for the 'human'."
Graham Harman has written that, "Reality does not matter: mountains are no more objects than hallucinated mountains." Further, he writes that what ultimately constitutes an object is that "something is or seems to be one thing"; moreover, an object is "no seamless fusion" between itself and all of its components, features and appearances, but rather, is fundamentally "torn between itself and its accidents, relations, and qualities." Another way of putting this would be to say that the "tensions" between everything that exists (rocks and lizards and clouds and chalk as well as persons) and how everything is composed and appears and is put into relation with everything else is what makes anything, including the world, possible at all. Following Harman's lead, an ethical historiography today would be one that mapped the rifts, forks, and tensions between every object that exists, including personal hallucinations, and these objects' allure: Harman's term for the distance between objects and the qualities that stream out of them, constituting the "sensual" objects with which we engage. Because of the allure of everything, objects are brought into relation with each other and with us, and thereby, everything literally happens. Psychology would no longer be limited to human minds but would be something that literally happens on the "molten core" inside of objects which are themselves inside of and constellated with other objects, including us. In this sense, psychology has to be writ and mapped larger and across vast networks of objects. And history, then, would be an account of how everything ultimately recedes from our grasp in a kind of infinite regress while at the same time, sensual objects pile up all around us, all writ under the larger sign of imminent mortality. Which is what living my life actually feels like every day, and somehow, that doesn't seem like such a bad thing, after all.