Damnatio Memoriae: Against the Eraser of Collective Historical Reality

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”  – George Orwell

“…scientists view narrative statements as ‘belonging to a different mentality: savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward, alienated, composed of opinions, customs, authority, prejudice, ignorance, ideology. Narratives are fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children’” – Jean Lyotard

The movement towards a post-historical era in which we remove from the gown of history all the girdles and gnarled knots that upset anyone is a movement towards falsification, historical illiteracy but also towards a kind of ideological-historical totalitarianism, as Orwell wrote through Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four although he does not know “with any certainty that this was 1984,” that “those who control the past, control the present and those that control the present control the future.” While 1984 is a novel about many things it is largely about the techniques and procedures of a totalitarian regime. One technique brilliantly examined explores how regimes attempt to fully control the historical narrative, they do so by taking symbols, signs, events and people and assign to them a fixed meaning of their choosing or simply erase them from the record altogether, ‘The Civil War then becomes primarily and absolutely about slavery,’ which only occurred late in the proceedings when Lincoln delivered his Emancipation Proclamation. This revisionist tendency often means aligning the ‘varieties of history’ into a congestible orthodox ‘whig narrative’ which betrays the knotted contours of historical fashioning. To superimpose a singular reading according to the whig narrative means to treat all historical events through “a theory of history that sees the slow and gradual march of progress in a free society as the dominant force not only in Anglo-American history but in the wider world as well.” Thus, the American Civil War’s dominant theme becomes “muh freedom vs muh slavery” in the popular imagination and in the ordering of the historical record. Herein the ideas of the post-modernists about the death of grand narratives is proven to be both naive and premature. However, one could make allowance for the illiteracy of the grand narrative itself; functioning nearly subconsciously in the manner of pure ideology, thereby producing ahistorical subjects who nevertheless are conditioned on the a priori assumptions of the whig narrative. Oswald Spengler, that metaphysician of the historical process, gives an excellent summation of the two positions an individual can take in regards to what Hegel famously referred to as the ‘slaughterbench’: “History is that from which (man’s) imagination seeks comprehension of the living existence of the world in relation to his own life, which he thereby invests with a deeper reality.” Thus, Spengler goes on to conclude in his opening general remarks about history that there are two possible ways of regarding the world. The first is through the historical lens, the other is as a being outside of history, untouched by its many complexes a post-historical being, Spengler writes: “But it makes a great difference whether anyone lives under the constant impression that his life is an element in a far wider life-course that goes on for hundreds and thousands of years, or conceives of himself as something rounded off and self-contained.”

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The post-historical subject -“rounded off and self-contained”

This post-historical, “rounded off and self-contained” phenomenological-existential approach to history somewhat unconsciously conditioned by the whig narrative despite the individual’s historical illiteracy; is furnished by the panem et circenses of the ceaseless avaricious activity of capitalism, itself purporting its own pseudo-histories; sports history, music history, and the miscellaneous histories of numerous sub-cultural groups – ersatz “last men” derivatives of the Real.   

The process of damnatio memoriae, that is erasing the memory of someone or something that has fallen out of favour of the ruling regime from the historical record involves the iconoclastic destruction of the contentious thing itself. Hence Isis destroying Ancient sites such as Palmyra simply because they predate or offer an ‘outside’ of the parameters of Allah’s inception is no different from the progressives removing Confederate statutes simply because they predate or ‘exist outside’ the parameters of contemporary political correctness.’ Both are attempts to wipe the historical record clean of heterodoxical elements from the prevailing ideological bent in their respective spheres of influence. No different from the Israeli occupation destroying monuments, town, signposts; any vestiges of Palestinian existence, even going so far as to uproot thousand year old olive trees – what greater metaphor could there be for forceful deracination by an enemy regime?  

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The struggle of the Palestinians is the selfsame struggle we Europeans face – Yankee, Confederate, Canadian, Italian or Brit; we are being racially eroded in our own lands by a regime that denies the reality of its policies while simultaneously labelling resistance as “terrorism” under a narrative of whig progress (“love”). While no friend of mine, we should heed the warning of Edward Said, “Perhaps the greatest battle Palestinians have waged as a people has been over the right to a remembered presence, and with that presence, the right to possess and reclaim a collective historical reality.”

A united front of European Nationalists protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue at Charlotteville, while shouting, “You will not replace us!” and even more accurately “Jews will not replace us,” cannot but issue some parallel to those Palestinians who struggle against the “Zionist agenda and to erase all traces of Palestinian presence from space and time.

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Throughout Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston Smith is grappling with his memory to recall the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” which refers to the bells of several “erased” churches of the City of London which itself has now been renamed Airstrip One by the Party. Throughout the novel this leitmotif of his memory connected to monuments of a shared ‘collective historical reality’ is under assault by the totalitarian dictates of the Party, which seeks to destroy any heterodox elements within its sphere of influence (Oceania) from diverging from its ideology – either past, present or future. When Winston Smith is being questioned by O’Brien, “… does the past exist concretely, in space? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects where the past is still happening?” In this case no because the Party has removed the Churches, the inquisition goes further:

“In records. It is written down.”

“In records. And – ?”

“In the mind. In human memories.”

“In memory. Very well, then. We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not?”

Memory and identity are intricately connected and the surest way to preserve both for us European idolaters is through idols – monuments. As Milan Kundera wrote, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” That is what we Europeans face.

Although all signs and symbols, including the confederate flag, including Robert E Lee are polysemous and deictic; that is to say that they contain multiple meanings and can be interpreted with corresponding emotions by different people in different ways, according to different contexts – they carry with them historical significance. Totalitarian regimes, however, attempt to fix meaning according to their own understanding of what the thing represents.  

I recall wasting some breath discussing the importance of the Confederate flag with a liberal history graduate during the hysteria to remove it from the sight of offended parties; my interlocker retorted that I was ‘living in the past’ and that ‘we must think about today.’ I found such statements almost ironic coming from someone who makes a point of studying the past, but it bespoke of the modern fetishism with the intensity of the present and the moment, of ‘living for today’ with throwing off the shackles of tradition and history and ‘being here now’ as Ram Das put it – the problem with this is that we are a product of historical evolution, not just our own personal ones but our collective histories as extended personal genealogies; as groups, as tribes as civilizational-racial blocs and only lastly and most removed from the self; as humanity. Cireco’s quote needs be remembered: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

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Winston Smith, working for the Ministry of Truth, understood the power of the historical record in allowing people’s unique and rooted identities which is the basis of collective political action. Winston Smith acted, like Orwell himself, in the capacity of a kind of journalist-historian who revises and creates histories and narratives – destroying the collective historical reality of a people to render them pliable and manipulable atomistic members of an impersonal leviathan. As all people who dabble in the annals of the historical record know: there is no fixed consensus.

Populism in America, for example, has generally held two distinct and contradictory perspectives. The revisionist historical perspective on American populism, was begun by Jewish historian Richard Hofstadter, in The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R., Hofstadter holds that “American Populism was narrow and provincial, deeply nostalgic, for a permanently lost past, and racist and bigoted in its response to the ethnically diverse flow of immigration into the United States.”

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Richard Hofstadter

Hofstadter was revising the “Almost unanimous in their sympathetic portrayal of the movement, they saw it was a lineal descendant of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democracy.”  While, historians such as John D. Hick and Roscoe C. Martian, viewed populism as “a movement of mass, popular resistance to the worst features of American capitalism and to the rampant corruption and dishonesty in American politics.” Following in response to Hofstadter’s revisionism of this view, was a school of counter-revisionism led by Norman Pollack and so the contention over history is always a matter of perspective and often of agenda and ruling ideology. Similarly following the Civil War there were two primary schools of thought, the William Dunning School and that of the Revisionists, many of whom were black historians. Of course once the Confederate flag is suspect, what of Jefferson and Jackson?  As the two foremost Presidents who battled the centralizing process of the Federal Banking system, the system which would eventuate in the Federal Reserve and the infinite debt-ceiling of a crumbling empire. Both Jefferson and Jackson after all have shady historical records thus they too should be removed from the historical record – regulated to the ‘memory hole.’ Jefferson’s debates against Alexander Hamilton over the creation of the America’s first central bank were legendary, while Jackson’s fight against the banksters was heroic. The campaign to remove Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill, most notably under the “Women on the 20s campaign” could have him replaced by a cohort of female progressives such as Margaret Sanger or Rosa Parks. President Trump’s concession to the Charlottesville protester’s right to fight against the removal of “what is to them a very, very important statue” and furthermore asking if George Washington or Thomas Jefferson iconoclasm and damnatio memoriae were next was the proudest moment of his entire Presidency thus far. President Trump displayed the kind of sympathetic identification with marginal narratives and people in this instance that one wonders if his pre-election anti-interventionist rhetoric amounts to the recognition that ‘one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.’ While the (((MSM))) pretends to make Trump’s insightful and balanced comments into a false equivalence; ‘Robert E Lee is not the same as Jefferson or Washington,’ however, the de facto reality of the progressive Left already targeting Jefferson as a symbol of white supremacy, and the ongoing agenda to erase the past based on retroactively moralization is pushing a never-ending iconoclasm mostly upon European achievement: Aboriginals in Australia protest the removal of Captain James Cook statues, the Guardian pines for the removal of Admiral Horatio Nelson, Leftists take it upon themselves to destroy the oldest Christopher Columbus statue in America, Ontario teachers push to rename John A Macdonald schools, and when Ghana will remove statue of Ghandi over his racist views – the progressives wolfs begin to eat their own.

I imagine Southerners who, after the War and Reconstruction, and now the removal of their symbols, are not unlike Winston Smith, who wandering around what used to be the city of London, cannot remember the nursery rhyme about the churches. The monuments have all been removed, as the people of London have been replaced, as London does not exist only Airstrip One exists – likewise the South does not exist only America, while race does not exist, only humanity – and other such totalitarianisms:

Winston Smith: “Does Big Brother exist?”

O’Brien: “Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.”

Winston Smith: “Does he exist in the same way that I exist?”

O’Brien: “You do not exist.”