This Back Page is somewhat unusual in that it consists of reflections about forgetting and memory based on a text of Friedrich Nietzche’s. We are trying so hard, through the work of archiving, to re-member cultures and histories that have been deliberately erased by colonialism and whiteness. In this context does Nietzche’s contention about the necessity of forgetting make any sense? Or can we use Nietzsche’s insight fruitfully? In the multiplicity of answers to this question we hope that herri can contribute, in Heidi Grunebaum’s words “a way perhaps to trouble the monumentalisation of memory, on the one hand, and the recovery/inclusion mode of memory claims on the other, both of which seem to normalise the temporal and geographical assumptions of the nation-state and its subjects”. This Back Page provocation will hopefully “open an itinerary into thinking about ‘history for life’ and for living, an affirmation of paradox and contingency, of the messiness of time and politics, something needed now more than ever”.Aryan Kaganof and Heidi Grunebaum
“It is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget or, expressed in more scholarly fashion, the capacity to feel unhistorically during its duration. He who cannot sink down on the threshold of the moment and forget all the past, who cannot stand balanced like a goddess of victory without growing dizzy and afraid, will never know what happiness is – worse, he will never do anything to make others happy. Imagine the extremest possible example of a man who did not possess the power of forgetting at all and who was thus condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming: such a man would no longer believe in his own being, would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flowing asunder in moving points and would lose himself in the stream of becoming: like a true pupil of Heraclitus, he would in the end hardly dare to raise his finger. Forgetting is essential to action of any kind, just as not only light but darkness too is essential for the life of everything organic. A man who wanted to feel historically through and through would be like one forcibly deprived of sleep, or an animal that had to live only by rumination and ever repeated rumination. Thus: it is possible to live almost without memory, and to live happily moreover, as the animal demonstrates, but it is altogether impossible to live at all without forgetting. Or, to express my theme even more simply: there is a degree of sleeplessness, of rumination, of the historical sense, which is harmful and ultimately fatal to the living thing, whether this living thing be a man or a people or a culture.”
On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, 1874
Heidegger gave a series of seminars in 1938-9 on Nietzsche’s second Untimely Meditation (On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life) .
“In forgetting what is forgotten has gone, has gone as well in its having been forgotten. But this means the forgetting is also forgotten. This most characteristic aspect of forgetting, that not only what is forgotten but also the having-forgotten are involved in the state of forgetting, we name the vortex-character of forgetting. It is with respect to this characteristic of forgetting that we say that the human being stands in the state of forgetting. But he stands in it not because he can forget, but rather forgetting as the falling away of both what is forgotten and the forgetting is possible only on the basis of forgottenness [Vergessenheit], in which the human being must always and already stand if it is to be able to forget.”
Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Second Untimely Meditation, 1939
“My spaces are fragile: time is going to wear them away, to destroy them. Nothing will any longer resemble what was, my memories will betray me, oblivion will infiltrate my memory, I shall look at a few old yellowing photographs with broken edges without recognizing them.”
Species of Spaces, 1974
blood fills my inkwell, i scribble my testimony on my present hammer-and-anvilled flesh. for in the beginning of this story’s writing was a lie. a propagandist’s ploy to force this time on an ignorant sheet. spilling bitter and black rumours malicious in their claim to being truthful on your coffee table.
still you tell me this is not a story since stories need lines and threads. blood is a thread. the kind that writes this thing you’re now reading.
what’s this that you shouldn’t tell me what to write yet i must bow down in the manner of its writing?
blood feeding flowers that shoot out of assault rifles of a lie fortified time. beauty amid gore. rosebandages on gorgewound. birth in the time of genocide. love in the time of hate. growth amid ruin.
the making is the breaking.
making A NOTE to those contemplating their own BIRTH:
crippled, demented, all cells dustclogged. for centuries abandoned to man, animal, element come what may in heat be. all reserves pulled out & aimed direct-point at the uncertain future’s mind, the beast of the past…question of it only leaves aftertaste of impotence.
madness eats into the present, is a contagious disease, leaves dead the flesh of flesh/what matters. curious cats get blood-wetted by the rodent running the alleyways. the past is back hitting & hurting me between the eyes. blind groping for support systems within my imagination i come across my head decapitated.
my fate is stamped across the power-house of flesh-nailed bones ground to powder. blood in the cask of all hopes given up
it’s my future i saw cemented down on the deathstreet pavement as homicide drove by
in a custom-made limousine waving to the PEOPLE’S POWER-fed malnourished
by the roadside smiling…
Sunday September 19, 2021
I suspect papa Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o might hear little horror bells ringing in what is posited by Nietzsche and Heidegger both. Ngũgĩ, in this Louisiana Channel interview, says ‘memory is what makes us who we are’.
He wants to remember, long and hard, because, he says, one the first acts committed by the protagonists of colonialism was to seek to wipe the memory of the colonised clean and in its place, to insert the memory of the coloniser.
This sets up an origin story that perennially traumatises (and damages) the antagonist.
Interestingly, in these quotes (admittedly, I haven’t read the full texts where they originate from) both Nietzche and Heidegger privilege what history teaches us was a key objective for other protagonists in founding what has become the USA – happiness.
Myself, I rather more resonate with what Perec has writ – to me, this speaks of the contingency, precarity, instability of memory. this, for me, is more scary because I sense it as more true.
Monday 20 September 2021
Poor Friedrich. So close to defining the importance of forgetting. And then missing the point when it comes to his personal life. The philosopher does not drink, is afraid of a good meal, of sex, of women, of their ‘underbelly,’ which he despises. He wants to be ‘victorious’ over memory instead of losing himself in those acts he fears. The taste of food, the rush caused by drinking or taking drugs, the feel of making love – it cannot be kept, recorded, preserved, it can hardly be told. Forgetting everything else while doing it is the essence of these pleasures, not something the human character wills into being whilst partaking in them. The philosopher comes close when he states that all lust wants eternity. Close, but no cigar. We don’t want to be eternal. Heaven? A drag. We want to be very, very temporary, and then repeat our pleasures endlessly, until the end of time.
H.M. van den Brink
A triple jump into the heart of darkness
“I have forgotten my umbrella!”. This simple note of Nietzsche urged Jacques Derrida to write Spurs. Nietzsche’s Styles. Is it just a note on the table of someone forgetting something? Or is an umbrella, that can be opened and closed, unfolded and folded, offering shelter against brutal forces of nature, a metaphor for history? We have to forget in order to be as happy as a ruminating cow, living (in) the present, as Nietzsche argues in Untimely Meditations? Is this a psychological or a biological observation? Let’s visualize Zarathustra, climbing the mountain with the dwarf on his shoulder, reaching the gateway on which is written ‘The Moment’. We can trace some mystical overtones in Nietzsche’s plea to be unhistorical. In the tradition of western mystics, like Meister Eckhart, the now-here is a no-where. Time and space dissolves. The linear sequence of time is cancelled. Eternity becoming punctual. In Zen traditions the moment of satori as sudden enlightenment is an actively forgetting the ego in applying strictly designed meditation techniques. Forgetting as a disciplined bodily performance. There are of course other, less esoteric variations: religious ecstasy, spiritual flow, therapeutic mindfulness. But Zarathustra’s nunc stans – thanks to Schopenhauer – standing at the ‘untimely’ gate, prompts the dwarf to murmur contemptuously: “Everything straight lies, …All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle.”
There is a lot of forgetting going on recently, especially in politics. “I really can’t remember ….”, “I haven’t the slightest memory of ….”. We all know, that this ‘forgetting’ is first and foremost a rhetorical move that serves a political strategy of masking flaws, failures or downright fraud. Modern nation-states, with their specific pasts of economic exploitation, colonial oppression, civil resistance, revolution, systematic liberation and emancipation, have always reflected upon themselves by mirroring their present state in a heroic past anticipating an even more heroic future. This progressive-linear focus of enlightened politics reaches its zenith in Hegel’s dialectical explanation of World Spirit as the history of a world. For Hegel the violent flaws in our collective history of progressive rationality are just a ‘ruse of reason’. Marx showed that the ruse of reason is downright profitable forgetfulness.
Although modern politics saw the light of day during his lifetime, Nietzsche did not attack the hypocritical forgetfulness of politicians. Nietzsche’s ‘untimeliness’ not only states that his time – the second half of the 19th century – is out of joint, his radical critique also aims at the mental states of the ‘last men’: cynicism and nihilism, triggered by an overdose of history. Both mental attitudes amplify resentment and resignation as affects of an outworn Christian culture. Modern man has become historical to the bone, be it in an antiquarian or monumental sense, respectively conservative honoring and actively striving. Modern man is resentfully possessed by the past (lost origin) and, as a consequence, by his future (utopia). This is the ‘hypertrophied vice’ that Nietzsche criticizes. Yet, a third sensibility offers some philosophical comfort: critical history.
If it is neither a psychological nor a political statement, how do we evaluate Nietzsche’s plea to forget as an antidote to neurotic historical awareness that suffocates vitality? We all know that his work is a barrel of contradictions. From the very same text from which this conceptual chunk was ripped, we can easily extract contradictory conclusions. And in the books that were written after 1878, historical awareness is revalued as an unprecedented methodology: a genealogy. Not as a conventional, bifurcating web of patriarchal blood lineage, but as a cartography of vital forces that ‘use’ morality as a cover up. Genealogy is a deconstructive feedback loop ‘beyond good and evil’, rewriting history from the perspective of a will to power. Using history in this a-moral sense is obviously no ‘disadvantage’. In the final analysis, for Nietzsche it is all a matter of proportion: “the unhistorical and the historical are necessary in equal measure for the health of an individual, of a people and of a culture”.
Nietzsche, Heidegger, Perec, a triple jump, the arche of which spans our modern human condition. It starts with a bold Nietzschean hop, followed by a huge Heideggerian jump step, as a result of which Perec is forced to leap into the heart of darkness where self-consciousness hampers, memory slowly fades away and a sense of identity finally dissolves. I remember my dad in the nursing home, unable to formulate any coherent answer because by the time he made his mind up, he had already forgotten the question. Perec’s literary description suggests this medical diagnosis: progressive dementia. The philosophical statements of both Nietzsche and Heidegger however address an ontological sphere: Dionysian vital forces, yet always already designed by Apollonian forms, as he explained two years earlier in The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. In an affirmative turn, Nietzsche counters the urge of modern man to resign with a plea for vitalizing design.
Heidegger lifts Nietzsche’s hop, stressing the vortex-character of forgetting, not unlike the maelstrom that drags Poe’s sailor down. In not resisting he will slip out of it. In this way, Heidegger states, man has to forget even the process of forgetting. I can image Nietzsche’s historical man, drowning in ‘becoming’. Rendering stored input nonstop stymies all action. It does not allow you to take a position. Indeed, consciously forgetting something is hard, if not impossible. It is a paradoxical mindfuck, consciously trying to ban every thought from your mind. Thinking not to think. Striving to quit your ego. Every conscious effort to forget reinforces the memory of what needs to be forgotten. Let’s flip over Nietzsche’s image of the man that could not forget anything as a result of which he could no longer ‘identify’ his sensory input and eventually himself. What happens when you forget the forgetting? In what kind of state is Heidegger’s ‘vortex-forgetter’? The most generous exemplification is an enlightened being – Nietzsche’s ‘happy’ animal? – compassionately accepting everyone and everything as who and what it is, right here and now. No second thoughts. A kind of Boddhisatva. Agency here is not an autonomous individual, rational self-consciousness or – as philosophers have it – subjectivity. The latter is precisely the result of exclusive forgetting. The ‘agency’ of this enlightened being is beyond suffering, not because he has forgotten his or her pains, but because the precondition of suffering has been deleted: the striving and desiring ego.
Let’s try to actualize Nietzsche’s untimely focus. Our time is out of joint too. Modern historical awareness has been problematized and deconstructed. Enlightenment needs a second chance, as Adorno and Horkheimer already suggested.
I can’t yet grasp the importance of ‘woke’ but once it steps out of the old modernist oppositional logic, accepting the real differences without universalizing and essentializing these, it could be of use for the revitalization of our planetary existence. To play with Latour’s last book title: Where does the triple jump – overarching the human condition – land? In our desperate times: the 21st century that has been labelled recently the Anthropocene. Is this an inhuman, a posthuman or a transhuman condition? Or should we cancel the qualification ‘human’ and shift in an affirmative sense to our ‘anthropocene condition’? Not anthropocentric, since this is still a mode of the human condition. What’s new (kainos) for man (anthropos) in times of ecopanic? Are we able to shift from resign to design, from ego to eco, turning our back on Zarathustra and giving the dwarf the floor:
“Everything straight lies, …All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle.”
Aesthetic value emanates from the struggle between texts: in the reader, in language, in the classroom, in arguments within a society. Aesthetic value rises out of memory, and so (as Nietzsche saw) out of pain, the pain of surrendering easier pleasures in favour of much more difficult ones … successful literary works are achieved anxieties, not releases from anxieties.
I, too, am in search of the debris of history.
we are not merely afraid of our memories of that unspeakable time
we are afraid of memory itself
memory is disruptive
memory does not fit the paradigm we are supposed to be living
memory reminds us not only that it was not always like this but, more disturbingly,
it is not like this now
are our memories of the truth?
but our memories are of a different order of the real.
this is a problem.
for the real to be real it has to be unchanging. constant. the always real.
but we have lived through an engineered re-construction of reality itself.
we remember a different reality.
this is disturbing.
if that reality could be engineered into this one, then perhaps, inevitably,
this one can be engineered into the next one.
but then all of these states, these conditions, are merely temporary constructs,
none of which can be defined as real.
memory usurps reality from the now.
are memories of a prior state of the real themselves real, located as they are now, in the newly constructed real of the present?
put another way, when we remember we are remembering now, bringing into the present a previous real, framing the previous real with the current real.
the now is inherently very tense.
these reals are at odds with each other.
an honest memory will set off tensions, it is unavoidably so.
an easy life is a life without memories.
but how to forget?
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