Monday, September 27, 2010

Memory Engineering

It is an Orwellian world in which one must go to great, and potentially hazardous lengths, to debate the semantics of a noun like "history;"  but this seems to be the world of Ukraine, at least according to Timothy Snyder's post to NYRBlog on the Web site for The New York Review of Books.  The post was ostensibly about the arrest of Ruslan Zabiliyi, a young historian serving as director of a museum in Lviv (known as Lwów in Polish and Lemberg in German).  The museum was used by the Soviets as a prison during the Second World War and was "reconstituted" as a museum concerned with the occupation of Ukraine by both the Nazis and the Soviets.  When Viktor Yanukovych (Yanukhovych) became President, his Security Service (SB) shut down the museum and had Zabiliyi arrested.  The party that had successfully opposed Yanukovych in previous elections saw Ukraine as a future member of the European Community, while Yanukovych was more interested in better relations with Russia.  Such relations would not be furthered by exhibitions about the atrocities of Stalinism and Ukrainian resistance.  Snyder summarized the reaction of the new administration to the museum as follows:
On September 13 and 14, SB agents searched the offices of the museum’s research staff, confiscating two laptops containing archival documents for a planned exhibition on Ukrainian resistance to Soviet rule; authority over the museum has been transferred to the Institute of National Memory, which is now directed by a communist.
It is the very idea of an "Institute of National Memory" that resonates so well with the vision of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.  History has been denied the status of an innocuous academic discipline, whose practitioners can participate in the free exchange and discussion of papers and books.  These documents are so arcane that they conform nicely to Anna Russell's characterization of the work of a "great expert, primarily for the edification of other great experts."  In Ukraine, however, such practitioners are no longer an "effete elite;"  they are a threat to public consciousness in general and the concept of a "national memory" in particular.

I am reminded of what happened when HBO bankrolled Robert Wuhl to take standup comedy into a university classroom.  The result was a pair of lectures delivered to history majors based on the premise that the study of American history is the study of "the stories that made up America... and the stories that America simply made up."  This is not as outrageous as it sounds.  Because there cannot be history without interpretation, history is less a matter of trying to "reproduce" the past (which must always be a futile goal) and more one of "imitating" it.  This is Aristotle's sense of the word "imitation," with the implication the memory may be served by a rendering that is not a clinically perfect reproduction;  and, if there is not a story at our disposal that facilitates our understanding of some episode from our past, then there is nothing wrong with making up a story to serve that purpose.

Wuhl, however, was talking about "National Memory" as a process of fabrication, often involving Pooh-Bah's (as in Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado) "corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."  The Institute of National Memory, on the other hand, seems more occupied with maintaining memory through a process of judicious erasure, rather than the addition of such corroborative detail.  In the antinomic world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, not only is slavery freedom but also forgetting is memory.  Philosophically, Orwell wanted to warn us how easily his fictitious world could become our own;  and, when one considers the extent to which our prevailing consciousness industry gains strength through distraction, it is well to remember that such distraction well serves goals of "imposed forgetting."  We do not need to worry about whether we are headed for our own Institute of National Memory, because we have become a culture that no longer needs such institutionalized enforcement!

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