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Public Forgetting

The Rhetoric and Politics of Beginning Again

Bradford Vivian

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ISBN: 978-0-271-03666-3

216 pages
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2010

Public Forgetting

The Rhetoric and Politics of Beginning Again

Bradford Vivian

Public Forgetting offers readers a new conceptual approach, analytical vocabulary, and evaluative framework with which to recast forgetting in [a] more favorable light. . . . [The book] ably tackles more than two millennia of bias against forgetting. This study of a neglected and constitutive dimension of memory suggests new directions for research in the interdisciplinary field of memory studies. The signal contribution of Public Forgetting is its reminder of the intimate relationship of remembrance and forgetting. Appeals to remember are simultaneously, implicitly or explicitly, appeals to forget (and vice versa). By inviting readers to adopt this more complex appreciation of their interplay, Vivian sets a new critical standard for future scholarship in the field.”

 

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Winner of the 2011 James A. Winans-Herbert A. Wichelns Memorial Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Rhetoric and Public Address award as sponsored by the National Communications Association.

Forgetting is usually juxtaposed with memory as its opposite in a negative way: it is seen as the loss of the ability to remember, or, ironically, as the inevitable process of distortion or dissolution that accompanies attempts to commemorate the past. The civic emphasis on the crucial importance of preserving lessons from the past to prevent us from repeating mistakes that led to violence and injustice, invoked most poignantly in the call of “Never again” from Holocaust survivors, tends to promote a view of forgetting as verging on sin or irresponsibility. In this book, Bradford Vivian hopes to put a much more positive spin on forgetting by elucidating its constitutive role in the formation and transformation of public memory. Using examples ranging from classical rhetoric to contemporary crises like 9/11, Public Forgetting demonstrates how, contrary to conventional wisdom, communities may adopt idioms of forgetting in order to create new and beneficial standards of public judgment concerning the lessons and responsibilities of their shared past.
Public Forgetting offers readers a new conceptual approach, analytical vocabulary, and evaluative framework with which to recast forgetting in [a] more favorable light. . . . [The book] ably tackles more than two millennia of bias against forgetting. This study of a neglected and constitutive dimension of memory suggests new directions for research in the interdisciplinary field of memory studies. The signal contribution of Public Forgetting is its reminder of the intimate relationship of remembrance and forgetting. Appeals to remember are simultaneously, implicitly or explicitly, appeals to forget (and vice versa). By inviting readers to adopt this more complex appreciation of their interplay, Vivian sets a new critical standard for future scholarship in the field.”
“Vivian’s first two chapters fill a gaping hole in contemporary theories of public memory and as such should be required reading in all graduate seminars on the subject. The concluding chapter, furthermore, is highly valuable as a theoretical guide to discerning the possibilities and limits of forgetting as a rhetorical strategy. . . . Vivian’s study provides an original and well-argued scholarly challenge to both academic and public understandings of memory as a cultural master term. As such, it is likely to provoke a new line of thinking on the virtues of public forgetting and engender many more theoretically and critically sophisticated accounts of it.”
“Vivian’s attention to the historical understandings of the relations of memory and forgetting ground his study while his astute textual readings of instances of public forgetting offer nuanced and textured elaborations of his theoretical concerns.”
“In his sustained meditation on forgetting, Bradford Vivian makes a singular and extremely valuable contribution to the field of memory studies. He substantially advances the theoretical discussion of memory and forgetting with his extended critiques (rhetorical analyses, really) of both ancient and recent formulations of collective public memory and forgetting. The conclusion is almost poetic in its lightness of touch. It pulls all the strands of the book into a single compelling case for forgetting as part of memory.”
“Bradford Vivian’s Public Forgetting: The Rhetoric and Politics of Beginning Again is a critical and provocative contribution to rhetorical inquiry, communication studies, and memory studies. Considering the ever-expanding inquiry into the nature of memory across various disciplines and areas of study, Vivian presents a challenge to memory studies by centering forgetting as a co-constitutive factor in the act of remembering a communal and public past. . . . Offering an engaging and complex discussion about the relationship between memory and forgetting, as well as a convincing presentation of historical and contemporary examples of forgetting the past, Public Forgetting will be valuable to scholars studying memory, rhetoric, and history—especially scholars interested in exploring rhetorics of difference.”

Bradford Vivian is Associate Professor of Communication and Rhetorical Studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University.

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction

Part 1. Forgetting in Public Life: An Idiomatic History of the Present

1. The Two Rivers, Past and Present

2. Forgetting Without Oblivion

Part 2. Public Forgetting: Alternate Histories, New Heuristics

3. Hallowed Ground, Hollow Memory: Rhetorical Form and Commemorative Politics on September 11, 2002

4. Historical Forgetting: John W. Draper and the Rhetorical Dimensions of History

5. Cultural Forgetting: The “Timeless Now” of Nomadic Memories

6. Moral and Political Forgetting: Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural

Conclusion

Notes

References

Index

Introduction

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies . . .

And on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”

Memory is unavoidably, and sometimes maddeningly, inconstant. It sustains a sense of the past in bewilderingly protean ways. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” commemorates the ruins of a once-grandiose edifice of memory—a colossus intended to so impressively amplify the fame of Ramses the Great that his renown would stand undiminished against the erosions of time. The massive idol promised to immortalize its subject in such grandeur that even those in future epochs who laughably considered themselves mighty would revere the monarch as “king of kings” and “despair” at the insignificance of their own trifling feats compared to his everlasting prestige.

The statue’s memorial purpose was so great, however, that its obvious failure to achieve that purpose appears greater still. The inscription meant to permanently commemorate the king’s reputation, to command the homage of travelers dwarfed by his monumental figure, now memorializes little more than rubble—heaps of crumbling stone sinking into the “boundless and bare,” “lone and level” sands of “an antique land.” The words etched into the statue’s pedestal gesture, at best, to the inevitable withering of such a vainglorious effort at commemoration, to the vast absence that now envelops an originally towering effort to render the monarch’s eminence enduringly present. The very monument dedicated to the king’s undying memory has come to symbolize, and moreover enact, the epically prolonged death of memory as such.

Shelley’s elegy to this bowed and decaying likeness reproduces poetic conventions used to dramatize the allegedly inherent vulnerability of memory to the rapaciousness of forgetting since antiquity. Numerous reflections on memory throughout the history of Western art, poetry, literature, philosophy, and religion emphasize the inescapable devastations of forgetting. “Men’s Workes have an age like themselves,” Thomas Browne wrote, “and though they out-live their Authors, yet they have a stint and period to their duration” (1963, pt. 1, sec. 23, 1:35). Grand works of memory reserved for elevated pursuits—allowing the voices of noble and heroic figures from former times to guide us perpetually—succumb time and again to a darker fate in which the forces of forgetting inexorably deplete their power to maintain a living past. The pattern is cruelly irreversible and ominously predictable. Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets lavishly illustrate this pattern according to the “pervasive, all-embracing theme of ‘Devouring Time’—a theme which inspired much of the greatest poetry and prose of the English Renaissance” (D. Bush 1969, 1451). The Rape of Lucrece catalogues the many corrosive effects of time, which relegate even the grandest mementos of a glorious past to “oblivion” (a standard literary term for forgetting):

To ruinate proud buildings with thy hours,

And smear with dust their glitt’ring golden tow’rs;

‘To fill with wormholes stately monuments,

To feed oblivion with the decay of things,

To blot old books and alter their contents,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

To spoil antiquities of hammered steel

And turn the giddy round of Fortune’s wheel.

(1969, ll. 944–52)

Modern poets likewise lament the inevitable destruction of the past at the metaphorical hands of time. W. H. Auden muses,

At any given instant

All solids dissolve, no wheels revolve,

And facts have no endurance—

And who knows if it is by design or pure inadvertence

That the Present destroys its inherited self-importance?

(1945, 430)

“Father Time,” in David Lowenthal’s description, traditionally was an agent of forgetting; this allegorical figure “came to symbolize decay and dissolution, his scythe, hour-glass, and crutches linking old age with poverty and decrepitude. . . . Time was a procurer of death who lurked among barren trees and ruinous buildings, waiting to devour his own children” (1985, 131). Forgetting, in this tradition, manifests the omnipresent corrosions of time, whereas memory offers precious recompense for its slow but pitiless ruination. If time is the dreaded agent of physical decay, then forgetting is its treacherous accomplice, which undermines all pretenses to perpetuity in human endeavor.

Such metaphorical threads persist in myriad depictions of the relationship between memory and forgetting—from mythology to philosophy, from theology to art, from literature to politics, and more. Memory is associated not merely with life but with individuals’ and communities’ assured transcendence of life, with their desires for lasting fame, even immortality. The goal that Herodotus sets for his Histories—ensuring “that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds . . . may not be without their glory” (2003, 3)—is a classic case in point. Forgetting is associated with the death of such remembrance and the “glory” it merits, with the slow but inevitable decay of all connection to a noble past, with the transposition of its familiar remainders into unidentifiable remains, even loss of such connection altogether. Milan Kundera’s likening of “forgetting, which never stops enlarging its enormous cemetery,” to a grave in which “lie buried values that have been underestimated, unrecognized, or forgotten” (2007, 17) intones an age-old association of forgetting with mortality and the tragic demise of human achievement. Forgetting, in these figurations, is not merely the opposite of memory; it parasitically haunts the act of recollection, thriving by virtue of a stealthy but lethal attachment to its host. Forgetting is memory’s unshakable other, a ghostly counterpart shadowing luminous representations of former experiences.

Late twentieth-century investigations of social, collective, or public memory recast this historically irreconcilable relationship between memory and forgetting in characteristically modern fashion. Much of the diverse scholarship grouped under the heading of modern memory studies reflects preoccupations with archiving, documenting, or otherwise preserving traces of an ostensibly organic past threatened by the allegedly increasing fragmentation of post–World War II culture. Beyond academic studies of public memory, moreover, individual and communal imperatives to remember—to recollect, recover, and preserve—offer hope of achieving some personal or collective continuity and stability in these times of social, economic, and political dislocation. The postwar epoch, whose effects continue to shape contemporary public life, has been typified by massive postindustrial economic transformations, the dramatically shifting valences of postcolonial and post–Cold War geopolitical arrangements, and the widespread dismantling of previous social, economic, and political orders. Such developments have understandably inspired diverse and passionate attempts to recover some sense of abiding communal history and heritage, as well as multifaceted scholarly efforts to document them, in the midst of local, national, and global upheavals.

Ours is an age in which archival documentation, revivals of communal heritage, and commitments to preserve memory at all costs consequently hold widespread cultural priority. A variety of scholars have documented the fact that many supposedly age-old traditions are in fact comparatively recent inventions; that the preservation of cultural heritage is a patently modern social, economic, and political preoccupation; and that, for better or worse, the increasingly large museum-going public (beyond academic or financial elites) embraces that preoccupation, sometimes as a somber activity and sometimes as escapist entertainment and consumerism. Andreas Huyssen accordingly proposes that “we seem to suffer from a hypertrophy of memory,” that “the obsession with memory itself [is] a significant symptom of our cultural present” (2003, 3), while Jacques Derrida might suggest that this obsession is symptomatic of the “archive fever” (1998, 12) to which we have succumbed.

Remembering as a collective means of preservation currently holds acute moral significance as well. Generational memories of heinous twentieth-century totalitarian regimes (from Nazi Germany to Stalinist Russia, from Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution to Pinochet’s reign of torture, from the Khmer Rouge to South African apartheid, and many more) have inspired awareness in Western liberal democracies of how illegitimate governments can violently impose historical revisionism on subjugated populations in order to concentrate their power and justify widespread suspensions of human rights or even genocide. Documentation of such events has impressed upon modern pluralist societies the need to preserve memory as a way of preserving the cultural lifeblood of oppressed peoples. Struggles for national sovereignty in former colonial states have likewise inspired myriad attempts to reinstate a once-repressed cultural past as the symbolic foundation of newly won sociopolitical identities. The result, Huyssen observes, “has been the emergence of memory as a key cultural and political concern in Western societies” (2003, 11), consistently yoked to universal ideals of democracy, human rights, and social justice. Civic discourse concerning popular folklore, communal tradition, and public history in the aftermath of such episodes often treats distorted recollections and outright forgetting as anathema to maintaining healthy collective memory and the forms of public identity it promotes. George Santayana’s now-familiar adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (1906, 284), expresses the quintessential logic underlying imperatives for documentation, archiving, and preservation that shape the most ambitious memorial projects in modern times.

The laudable preservationist ethic that motivates contemporary efforts to cultivate rich cultural memory duplicates premodern trepidations over forgetting and the wreckage of memory it leaves in its wake. Forgetting, in academic as well as popular usage, continues to signify a loss, absence, or lack—not simply of memory but of live connections with a tangible past. Forgetting is acutely meaningful in both scholarly and public circles as the ontological opposite of memory, as a hindrance to mature understanding and full experience of a nourishing past. Paul Connerton speaks of a “commonly held if not universal” assumption “that remembering and commemoration is usually a virtue and that forgetting is necessarily a failing” (2008, 59). Ours is a culture that typically treats memory as a rich and vibrant means of preserving the past and forgetting as a form of commemorative passivity or neglect, a symptom of the undesirable dissolution of communal heritage or historical wisdom. In the late twentieth century, forgetting was most evidently associated with death, and memory with life, in the wake of unprecedented genocidal atrocities. The association was further buttressed by a growing awareness that the threatened traditions and memories of oppressed peoples contained precious relics of lives and histories otherwise eradicated by persecution in its many modern forms. Even today, in still other contexts, civic leaders routinely implore the public to “never forget” the example of those who perished in wartime or in national tragedy, as in World War II or on September 11, 2001.

The welter of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century scholarship on memory understandably reflects the manifold priority that remembrance, conceived as an antidote to forgetting, has acquired in recent decades. Such scholarship has attained prominence by grappling with questions of historical discontinuity and communal fragmentation at a time when forgetting is viewed by every significant measure—cultural, political, moral, and technological—as a chief contributing factor of such ills. None of the preceding commentary, however, is meant to contend that modern memory scholars, as a result of these historical and cultural influences, shelter a naïve, unexamined faith in the organic fullness of all memory or an unflagging presumption that commemorative practices effectively preserve transparent connections with an unaltered past. Interdisciplinary literature comprising the field of modern memory studies demonstrates, to its credit, profound sensitivities to the instability, transience, and fragility of collective remembrance and communal tradition.

Regardless of such admirable sensitivities, however, studies in this vein collectively exhibit ambivalent attitudes toward the many ways in which instances of forgetting can play a positive, formative role in works of public memory. Despite a sophisticated awareness of the fact that public memories are selectively mediated, beyond a recognition of their inherent susceptibility to transmutation (the constant effects of forgetting, in part or full), contemporary treatments of such memory assign little, if any, positive value to the operations of forgetting as a significant factor in their formation and perdurance. Intentional or unintentional episodes of distortion, excision, or loss in regard to the past understandably signify not only commemorative but ethical failings when imperatives to archive, document, and preserve hold the moral high ground.

The scenes of public forgetting examined in this book suggest an understanding of and analytic vocabulary for evaluating, the material nature and effects of forgetting that is fundamentally different from its most enduring representations in both classical and modern lore. Shelley’s classically inspired rendering of Ozymandias’s forgotten and piteously corroding monument symbolizes a qualitatively different kind of forgetting than, for instance, the publicly orchestrated toppling of a monument to Napoleon during the 1871 Paris Commune, an “act of anti-commemoration” intended, in Matt Matsuda’s elegant treatment, “to proclaim a new euphoric order, shattering bronze and stone to rupture time and history” (1996, 21, 20–21). The idea that acts of organized state forgetting are synonymous with modern programs of atrocity or genocide, the Holocaust being the ultimate and omnipresent example thereof, is undermined by the iconoclastic procedures of state forgetting undertaken after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, when dozens of monuments to Lenin were removed from their places of pride in Moscow, leaving only naked plinths: “Far from erasing the memory of the communist regime,” Adrian Forty writes, the bare pedestals “became memorable in a way that they had never been when topped by statues” (1999, 10). Connerton economically pinpoints the crucial insight here: “Forgetting is not a unitary phenomenon” (2008, 59). The practices of forgetting that this book analyzes provide novel exposure to its manifestations and effects in public life by presupposing a definition of forgetting categorically distinct from far more familiar scenes of historical decay or genocidal destruction.

That said, a small cluster of recent studies have begun to revisit the topic of forgetting and explore the possibility that it can be a worthy alternative to memory in addressing either personal or collective dilemmas of the past. This book seeks to extend such emerging reassessments of forgetting on two fronts. First, sporadic affirmative treatments of forgetting remain essentially conceptual or theoretical in nature. It is one thing to accept the broad philosophical argument that forgetting can be a commendable response to the remembered past, including incidents of violence, injustice, or even atrocity that populate it; it is another to examine in detail how particular social agents argue for and enact such forgetting, and how one may evaluate its effects in concrete historical, cultural, or moral circumstances. For this reason, the majority of the book focuses narrowly on the rhetoric and politics of forgetting as a public practice—as a symbolic resource of public speech and action—instead of addressing it as a comparatively abstract ontological phenomenon or as an individual cognitive event. Second, a significant portion of late scholarly interest in forgetting seeks to revitalize premodern, though little-remembered, literary and philosophical terminologies according to which forgetting was once held in higher esteem. But the constitutive tropes and cultural symbolism of these antique, albeit approving, attitudes toward forgetting (such as willed amnesia or oblivion) endow forgetting with limited, potentially outmoded, value and utility in the context of modern public culture. Thus, the central purposes of this study are to provide: (1) an updated conceptual framework devoted to analyzing forgetting as an organized public practice; and (2) a series of case studies that reveal, by implementing that framework, how one may argue for and enact such forgetting in the political and moral languages of public life.

In structural terms, the book pursues these central purposes by demonstrating a deep terminological contrast. This study contends that examining traditional idioms of forgetting, with particular emphasis on the negative significance they assign to it, is a necessary first step in determining how one may adopt different idioms of forgetting that reveal (in counterintuitive ways) their vitality to particular cultures of memory and forms of public deliberation. The structure of the book mirrors this contention. Part 1 shows how our modern cultural resources for speaking of forgetting descend from consistently negative accounts of its legendary destructiveness in order to clear a conceptual space for identifying alternate heuristics with which to describe and assess its relative value in public culture. Part 2 offers close examinations of specific social, political, or ethical benefits that forgetting may contribute to communal affairs, thereby displaying in significant detail the sometimes great differences between the merits of forgetting as an organized public practice or mode of collective judgment and the bad reputation that both traditional and modern tropes of forgetting assign to it. Hence, the book’s unfolding parts performatively mimic its basic thesis regarding the productive (rather than destructive) interplay of memory and forgetting: Part 1 recollects dominant tropes and figures of forgetting as a prelude to inaugurating, in Part 2, a constellation of new tropes and figures, new idioms of forgetting in public culture.

By virtue of this structure, the book proposes an alternate public conception of forgetting and, with it, an alternate apprehension of its value in shaping civic senses of time, history, and memory as resources of political and moral judgment. Nonetheless, the following claim cannot be overstated: the interpretation of forgetting that this study advances in no way contradicts the irreproachable conviction to preserve memory as a way of preserving one’s cultural heritage under threat of persecution and violence. Barbie Zelizer’s splendid work on photojournalism and Holocaust memory, Remembering to Forget, is instructive in this respect. “Paradoxically,” she argues, our socially acquired tendency to interpret “events as wide-ranging as contemporary barbarism, AIDS, urban poverty, and political suppression” with “Holocaust photos [has] helped us remember the Holocaust so as to forget contemporary atrocity” (1998, 13). Arguing against Zelizer’s main contention—that we are obligated to remember past atrocities in reflective and constructive ways because the consequences of forgetting them are too appalling to tolerate—would be wholly foreign to the aims of this book.

The assumption, however, that an affirmative approach to forgetting is incompatible with such convictions and obligations rests on shaky logical premises. On close inspection, the apparent moral truth of Santayana’s oft-cited maxim (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) collapses in reductio ad absurdum. “Too often,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. quips, “it is those who can remember the past who are condemned to repeat it” (1966, 91). Elie Wiesel, Avishai Margalit, and Miroslav Volf all acknowledge, contrary to conventional wisdom, that harboring recollections of torture and other injustices can incite desires for violent revenge among formerly victimized peoples. Former Serbian president Slobodan Miloševic<acute accent over c>’s now-infamous speech on June 28, 1989, commemorating the six hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo exemplifies vividly the ways in which detailed collective remembrance can inflame rather than pacify ethnic hatreds. Even those who bear witness to such remembered hatreds, however, may represent uncertain bulwarks against their recurrence: “The thought that there is no consigning of deeds to a historical past,” W. James Booth writes, “to the closure of ‘what happened, happened,’ but only a testifying to them, a making present of them, seems to make the witness into the ‘gravedigger’ of the present” (2006, 147). Forgetting, in logical terms, no more guarantees the repetition of past injustices than memory ensures their prevention.

Forgetting is admittedly a tragic force when it simply destroys symbolic affiliations with the past, whether by design or disregard, without imagining more conducive symbolic comportments between present and former times. This book nevertheless argues that in healthier forms forgetting can be used productively to maintain, replenish, or inaugurate vital cultures of memory writ large. In what circumstances, then, can one differentiate between productive and destructive manifestations of forgetting in public affairs? The book as a whole attempts to answer that question by examining rhetorical practices in which various agents somehow argue for and enact public forgetting.

The nature and effects of such practices contradict the notion that remembering and forgetting are categorical opposites. The analyses to come perceive memory and forgetting in a relationship of often reciprocal influence, or mutual creativity, in contrast to classical as well as modern renderings of their alleged incompatibility, which time and again emphasize the withering of living memory in the deathly embrace of forgetting. Contrary to these long-standing figurations, the case studies featured in this book identify ways in which forgetting is desirable to, even necessary for, maintaining cultures of memory that serve the needs of the present as much as they conform to the shape of the past, that nourish immediate social, political, and moral interests as much as they proclaim fidelity with former times, places, and events.

Strategically excising aspects of the collectively remembered past may prove essential to adapting collective remembrances in light of emerging social, political, and ethical dilemmas. Instances of ritualized forgetting may prove salutary when one community seeks to symbolically interrupt historically accumulated antagonisms with another community (an official gesture of forgiving and forgetting); when memories of violence and injustice breed only desires for revenge and undermine efforts at political reconciliation; when previously cherished traditions or institutions become outmoded and stifle effective-decision making in response to new and unforeseen events; or as a means of advancing a clear agenda for institutional reform when the seemingly intractable dilemmas of the past inspire only confusion, apathy, and resentment. Many have lamented, for example, that violence among Israelis and Palestinians (or between warring religious traditions throughout the Middle East, for that matter) might be quelled if memories on both sides didn’t run as deep as their hatreds. But this is only one, especially vivid example of various ways in which public arguments to communally forget could produce socially, politically, and ethically attractive outcomes.

The present study treats memory and forgetting, contrary to popular usage, not as dialectical opposites but as densely interwoven dimensions of larger symbolic or discursive processes. By virtue of such processes, we construct, amend, and even revise altogether our public perceptions of the past, including our collective interpretations of its lessons, in response to the culture and politics of the day. The claim that public bodies require healthy measures of forgetting and remembering in order to nurture efficacious symbolic bonds with their shared past is not paradoxical. Forgetting can be a necessary spur to remembrance, provoking us to recognize the inherent selectivity of normative public memories and imagine anew, with each passing generation, what our objects of memory should be, whereas collective remembrance can become so inflexibly doctrinaire in form and content that it amounts to a grossly simplified projection of former events, and thus an unintended instance of forgetting the past in its truer heterogeneity. The activity of remembering can unwittingly induce forms of forgetting, and forgetting can be an instrument of remembering. These premises comport with a basic sense of remember, defined as an act of mnemonic reconstruction—of recalling, yes, but differently with each act of recollection.

Rejecting the presumption that memory and forgetting are somehow antithetical, however, does not warrant the conclusion that memory and forgetting are therefore essentially one and the same. We depend on memory for our individual and collective sense of identity, meaning, and purpose. The idea that we know who we are now because we know who we have been is commonplace. We assign significance to past, present, and future (or anticipated) events according to such subjective, temporally ordered experience.

But ordinary human experience attests that forgetting is also necessary for individual as well as communal well-being. Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Funes, His Memory” tells the tale of a man afflicted with an insatiable, unedited memory that he himself likens to “a garbage heap” (1998, 135). Funes cannot take pleasure from present experiences because his memory is burdened with infinitesimal details of every past event. Borges’s fable corresponds to some people’s cognitive reality. Patients diagnosed with various cognitive disorders exhibit extraordinary powers of memory in their immediate and exacting recall of everything from musical scores to weather forecasts; but often they cannot function, mentally or physically, as self-sufficient individuals. Douwie Draaisma relates the representative case of Jacques Inaudi, a calculating prodigy who possessed “astonishing” powers of mental recall and was examined separately by Paul Broca and Jean-Martin Charcot as part of their pioneering nineteenth-century brain research. Draaisma reports that “the main striking feature” of these examinations was Inaudi’s “general ignorance and exceptional forgetfulness in practical matters,” leading to a “placid, rather indolent” personality (2000, 130). In such cases, dramatically amplified faculties of memory suggest an imbalance in cognitive processes or personal abilities rather than a desirable enhancement of one’s general capacities. One can possess too much memory and its content can be too vivid; one’s capacity to preserve impressions of the past without exception can be a symptom of a disordered self, in both the temporal and psychological senses of the term. The fictional Funes and his real-life counterparts suggest analogous lessons concerning memory and forgetting in public life. In the parallel context of communal recollection, the ceremonial heralding of a new era or administration—the inauguration of new collective beginnings—is as crucial to a polity’s sense of order and identity as its nurturance of ostensibly unbroken and comprehensive relations with the past.

Selves and publics alike require for their healthy functioning the ability to alternately enshrine or redact dimensions of their past—to call on memory and forgetting as distinct phenomena with apparently countervailing effects. Yet, in another sense, memory and forgetting are inescapably intimate. Personal as well as communal remembrance of the past a priori requires conscious or unconscious decisions concerning which of its surviving impressions should lie fallow, and why (regardless of individual or communal needs to treat memory and forgetting as epistemologically distinct phenomena). Such judgments suggest, by the same token, the operation of either conscious or unconscious reasons for remembering particular things in particular ways, for awarding some recollections privileged cognitive or communal attention to the diminishment of others.

We remember because we forget, and we forget in order to remember. Hence the paramount tension investigated across the following chapters: remembering and forgetting, in the context of public affairs, are not opposites; but neither, in postmodern fashion, should we presume them to be fictional versions of one another, or interchangeable social constructions differentiated only by arbitrary linguistic labels. Doing so would obfuscate our understanding of the critically distinctive function that each performs as a symbolic resource with which groups and individuals order and assign meaning to their existence. For this reason, the case studies that comprise the second part of this book examine the social, political, or ethical advantages of forgetting (or in one case, the dangers of a doctrinaire faith in memory) in places where we might least expect to find them: in grand civic commemoration, in modern historiography, in the formation of elaborate cultural folklore, and in some of the most cherished rhetorical artifacts of U.S. public memory and political statecraft.

The following inquiry into the rhetoric of public forgetting accordingly contributes to public memory studies in two ways. First, it explains how idioms of forgetting—something typically characterized as a hindrance (if not an outright harm) to the cultivation of fruitful remembrance—constitute occasionally necessary, even indispensable, aspects of those cultures of memory from which public institutions derive their purpose and authority. As such, this inquiry transmutes the dialectical opposition in which memory and forgetting are often cast in order to account for their dynamic interplay as formative ingredients of ongoing public speech, political action, and communal judgment. Second, such inquiry provides grounds for distinguishing between commendable and condemnable forms of public forgetting. (It also suggests, by the same token, secondary principles for distinguishing advantageous from disadvantageous modes of collective remembrance.)

This book makes such contributions by adopting a rhetorical methodology. The premise that social, collective, or public memory is communicative, discursive, or symbolic in nature is endemic to modern memory studies. Communal memory is the product of ongoing social or political debate over the contested meaning of the past. Maurice Halbwachs’s landmark sociological approach to the connection between individual and collective memory remains normative in this respect, for he insisted that personal memory depends on socially engendered “frames of collective memory,” language foremost among them (1992, 39). Even individual memory, in other words, is collectively shaped and expressed. John Bodnar’s definition of public memory provides an apposite summation of such orthodoxy in its reigning form: “Public memory is produced from a political discussion that involves not so much specific economic or moral problems but rather fundamental issues about the entire existence of a society: its organization, structure of power, and the very meaning of its past and present” (1992, 14). Public memory “takes the form of an ideological system,” Bodnar observes, “with special language, beliefs, symbols, and stories,” all of which serve “to mediate competing interpretations” of the past “and privilege some explanations over others” (14). By this account, “public memory” is the result of a perpetual rhetorical process with which communities deliberate over how best to interpret the past as a resource for understanding and making decisions in the present. Deliberating parties thus craft in language as well as other symbolic or expressive forms a version of former persons and events appealing to public constituencies in light of present-day civic norms, interests, and controversies.

The logic of such definitional statements warrants the complementary assumption that public forgetting is an equally rhetorical phenomenon. Acts of public forgetting likewise culminate patterns of collective deliberation or contestation over the meaning and value of the past as it concerns immediate social or political interests. The crucial difference, however, is that such patterns of public dialogue, debate, and advocacy end in collective ratifications to discontinue or reject customary forms of remembrance instead of public proclamations to honor and sustain them. Speech, language, and symbolism devoted to this purpose stand apart from innumerable minor differences in popular or institutional recollection that comprise the quotidian substratum of public memory. Lowenthal makes this point in characteristically suggestive fashion: “Collective oblivion . . . is mainly deliberate, purposeful and regulated. Therein lies the art of forgetting—art as opposed to ailment, choice rather than compulsion or obligation. The art is a high and delicate enterprise, demanding astute judgment about what to keep and what to let go, to salvage or to shred and shelve, to memorialize or anathematize” (1999, xi). For this reason, the case studies featured in the second part of this book attend closely to the rhetorical techniques, the “art” of which Lowenthal speaks, embodied in particular forms and expressions of public forgetting. In order to distinguish constructive from destructive forms of such forgetting—in order to delineate their remarkably varied social, political, and ethical entailments—one must scrutinize in depth the artful language and strategic justifications that allow them to achieve public legitimacy.

Two final caveats, briefly stated, follow from this methodological orientation. The first is that this book avoids the temptation to apply the term forgetting in a solipsistic manner. Public forgetting operates in a categorically different way than vain and arbitrary alterations of the past, as Nietzsche describes them, which simply tidy up its uglier moments: “‘I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride—and remains adamant. At last—memory yields” (1990, 68). Chapter 2 establishes a relatively high conceptual standard that a rhetorical act of commemorative restructuring and transformation must meet in order to qualify as an example of public forgetting. Public forgetting arises from uncommonly pivotal moments in the evolution of communal time, history, and memory, during which either a single agent or a collective body initiates such forgetting according to a double movement: in this movement, advocates simultaneously articulate a rationale for interrupting, or even ending altogether, prevailing paradigms of memory and coin a novel public idiom with which the community’s relation to its past, present, and future would be configured anew, or at least in profoundly altered ways. Forgetting, by this calculus, is set apart from ordinary and often unnoticed patterns of selective interpretation or partial recollection that weave the quieter, commonplace fabric of public memory.

Second, this methodology presupposes that public forgetting, like public memory, is irreducibly contingent in nature. Aristotle defines rhetoric as the art of understanding how to speak persuasively based on the contingencies of one public situation versus another; even if one sought to persuade different audiences about the same subject matter, those different bodies of listeners might expect to hear markedly different treatments of it. A similar logic holds true concerning the ethics and politics of public memory. Because publics remember only in a metaphorical sense—through competing narratives, speech acts, and symbols—communal memories of past events assume strikingly different forms based on the needs and interests of a given collective dilemma or controversy. By extension, the same must be said of public forgetting: it gains currency within public speech, language, or symbolism as a situational response to contingent needs and interests, as a medium of judgment with respect to the perceived sense and value of the past. (“Forgetting,” as Connerton says, “is not a unitary phenomenon” [2008, 59].) The chapters to come are not intended to yield categorical formulas for predicting what forms public forgetting can and should take in any and all circumstances (even the most meticulous comparative study of public memory in its conventional forms could not accomplish that task). The following chapters instead scrutinize essential rather than exhaustive instances of public forgetting that amply prove its strategic virtue to representative cultures of memory and the modes of public judgment they support.

To that end, the case studies in Part 2 of this book share the common purpose of analyzing rhetorical enactments of public forgetting in especially vivid idioms of collective life, ethics, and decision-making. The analyses scrutinize specific forms of forgetting not as stylistic practices unto themselves but as substantive resources of public judgment. The case studies in question thereby reveal the rhetorical work of forgetting not in arbitrary times and places but at the heart of collective practices commonly studied throughout public memory literature for the critical roles they play in allowing communities to derive important social, political, or ethical lessons from the past—namely, in national commemoration, in public history, in cultural folklore, and in the moral and political uses of memory in times of national crisis. The case studies are additionally balanced in their recognition that public forgetting, as a contingent rhetorical phenomenon, can originate in the voice of one or many, and can be a resource of the powerful and powerless alike.

But Part 1 of this book, as previously mentioned, accomplishes a necessary preliminary task. If we are to document various social, political, or ethical contributions of forgetting in public culture, then we will require conceptual resources for assessing its nature and effects that differ from those supplied by orthodox idioms of remembrance, which define memory as a public imperative and forgetting as a community’s tragic failure to heed it. Huyssen and others posit that contemporary Western culture is relatively unique in the aim and extent of its characteristic “obsession” with memory; but the standard tropes and figures for memory and forgetting that express this obsession bear an ancient lineage. When individuals and communities today advocate for the virtues of memory as a safeguard against the vices of forgetting, they do so in terminologies distilled from a vintage store of theological, philosophical, and literary tropes or figures. Identifying the limitations of such conventional tropes and figures is a valuable first step toward adopting a set of heuristics with which to evaluate the comparatively positive nature and effects of forgetting in crucibles of public judgment. The chapters in Part 1 comprise, in this respect, an idiomatic history of the present as it concerns the conventional meaning and value assigned to forgetting in public life. What social, intellectual, and moral traditions have made it seem so imperative for us to think and speak of forgetting in such stridently negative ways—always as oblivion, liquidation, or amnesia, as the tragic loss, absence, or lack of memory? How might we learn to think and speak of it anew as a substantive resource of public judgment regarding communal lessons of the past?

Introduction

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies . . .

And on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”

Memory is unavoidably, and sometimes maddeningly, inconstant. It sustains a sense of the past in bewilderingly protean ways. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” commemorates the ruins of a once-grandiose edifice of memory—a colossus intended to so impressively amplify the fame of Ramses the Great that his renown would stand undiminished against the erosions of time. The massive idol promised to immortalize its subject in such grandeur that even those in future epochs who laughably considered themselves mighty would revere the monarch as “king of kings” and “despair” at the insignificance of their own trifling feats compared to his everlasting prestige.

The statue’s memorial purpose was so great, however, that its obvious failure to achieve that purpose appears greater still. The inscription meant to permanently commemorate the king’s reputation, to command the homage of travelers dwarfed by his monumental figure, now memorializes little more than rubble—heaps of crumbling stone sinking into the “boundless and bare,” “lone and level” sands of “an antique land.” The words etched into the statue’s pedestal gesture, at best, to the inevitable withering of such a vainglorious effort at commemoration, to the vast absence that now envelops an originally towering effort to render the monarch’s eminence enduringly present. The very monument dedicated to the king’s undying memory has come to symbolize, and moreover enact, the epically prolonged death of memory as such.

Shelley’s elegy to this bowed and decaying likeness reproduces poetic conventions used to dramatize the allegedly inherent vulnerability of memory to the rapaciousness of forgetting since antiquity. Numerous reflections on memory throughout the history of Western art, poetry, literature, philosophy, and religion emphasize the inescapable devastations of forgetting. “Men’s Workes have an age like themselves,” Thomas Browne wrote, “and though they out-live their Authors, yet they have a stint and period to their duration” (1963, pt. 1, sec. 23, 1:35). Grand works of memory reserved for elevated pursuits—allowing the voices of noble and heroic figures from former times to guide us perpetually—succumb time and again to a darker fate in which the forces of forgetting inexorably deplete their power to maintain a living past. The pattern is cruelly irreversible and ominously predictable. Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets lavishly illustrate this pattern according to the “pervasive, all-embracing theme of ‘Devouring Time’—a theme which inspired much of the greatest poetry and prose of the English Renaissance” (D. Bush 1969, 1451). The Rape of Lucrece catalogues the many corrosive effects of time, which relegate even the grandest mementos of a glorious past to “oblivion” (a standard literary term for forgetting):

To ruinate proud buildings with thy hours,

And smear with dust their glitt’ring golden tow’rs;

‘To fill with wormholes stately monuments,

To feed oblivion with the decay of things,

To blot old books and alter their contents,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

To spoil antiquities of hammered steel

And turn the giddy round of Fortune’s wheel.

(1969, ll. 944–52)

Modern poets likewise lament the inevitable destruction of the past at the metaphorical hands of time. W. H. Auden muses,

At any given instant

All solids dissolve, no wheels revolve,

And facts have no endurance—

And who knows if it is by design or pure inadvertence

That the Present destroys its inherited self-importance?

(1945, 430)

“Father Time,” in David Lowenthal’s description, traditionally was an agent of forgetting; this allegorical figure “came to symbolize decay and dissolution, his scythe, hour-glass, and crutches linking old age with poverty and decrepitude. . . . Time was a procurer of death who lurked among barren trees and ruinous buildings, waiting to devour his own children” (1985, 131). Forgetting, in this tradition, manifests the omnipresent corrosions of time, whereas memory offers precious recompense for its slow but pitiless ruination. If time is the dreaded agent of physical decay, then forgetting is its treacherous accomplice, which undermines all pretenses to perpetuity in human endeavor.

Such metaphorical threads persist in myriad depictions of the relationship between memory and forgetting—from mythology to philosophy, from theology to art, from literature to politics, and more. Memory is associated not merely with life but with individuals’ and communities’ assured transcendence of life, with their desires for lasting fame, even immortality. The goal that Herodotus sets for his Histories—ensuring “that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds . . . may not be without their glory” (2003, 3)—is a classic case in point. Forgetting is associated with the death of such remembrance and the “glory” it merits, with the slow but inevitable decay of all connection to a noble past, with the transposition of its familiar remainders into unidentifiable remains, even loss of such connection altogether. Milan Kundera’s likening of “forgetting, which never stops enlarging its enormous cemetery,” to a grave in which “lie buried values that have been underestimated, unrecognized, or forgotten” (2007, 17) intones an age-old association of forgetting with mortality and the tragic demise of human achievement. Forgetting, in these figurations, is not merely the opposite of memory; it parasitically haunts the act of recollection, thriving by virtue of a stealthy but lethal attachment to its host. Forgetting is memory’s unshakable other, a ghostly counterpart shadowing luminous representations of former experiences.

Late twentieth-century investigations of social, collective, or public memory recast this historically irreconcilable relationship between memory and forgetting in characteristically modern fashion. Much of the diverse scholarship grouped under the heading of modern memory studies reflects preoccupations with archiving, documenting, or otherwise preserving traces of an ostensibly organic past threatened by the allegedly increasing fragmentation of post–World War II culture. Beyond academic studies of public memory, moreover, individual and communal imperatives to remember—to recollect, recover, and preserve—offer hope of achieving some personal or collective continuity and stability in these times of social, economic, and political dislocation. The postwar epoch, whose effects continue to shape contemporary public life, has been typified by massive postindustrial economic transformations, the dramatically shifting valences of postcolonial and post–Cold War geopolitical arrangements, and the widespread dismantling of previous social, economic, and political orders. Such developments have understandably inspired diverse and passionate attempts to recover some sense of abiding communal history and heritage, as well as multifaceted scholarly efforts to document them, in the midst of local, national, and global upheavals.

Ours is an age in which archival documentation, revivals of communal heritage, and commitments to preserve memory at all costs consequently hold widespread cultural priority. A variety of scholars have documented the fact that many supposedly age-old traditions are in fact comparatively recent inventions; that the preservation of cultural heritage is a patently modern social, economic, and political preoccupation; and that, for better or worse, the increasingly large museum-going public (beyond academic or financial elites) embraces that preoccupation, sometimes as a somber activity and sometimes as escapist entertainment and consumerism. Andreas Huyssen accordingly proposes that “we seem to suffer from a hypertrophy of memory,” that “the obsession with memory itself [is] a significant symptom of our cultural present” (2003, 3), while Jacques Derrida might suggest that this obsession is symptomatic of the “archive fever” (1998, 12) to which we have succumbed.

Remembering as a collective means of preservation currently holds acute moral significance as well. Generational memories of heinous twentieth-century totalitarian regimes (from Nazi Germany to Stalinist Russia, from Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution to Pinochet’s reign of torture, from the Khmer Rouge to South African apartheid, and many more) have inspired awareness in Western liberal democracies of how illegitimate governments can violently impose historical revisionism on subjugated populations in order to concentrate their power and justify widespread suspensions of human rights or even genocide. Documentation of such events has impressed upon modern pluralist societies the need to preserve memory as a way of preserving the cultural lifeblood of oppressed peoples. Struggles for national sovereignty in former colonial states have likewise inspired myriad attempts to reinstate a once-repressed cultural past as the symbolic foundation of newly won sociopolitical identities. The result, Huyssen observes, “has been the emergence of memory as a key cultural and political concern in Western societies” (2003, 11), consistently yoked to universal ideals of democracy, human rights, and social justice. Civic discourse concerning popular folklore, communal tradition, and public history in the aftermath of such episodes often treats distorted recollections and outright forgetting as anathema to maintaining healthy collective memory and the forms of public identity it promotes. George Santayana’s now-familiar adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (1906, 284), expresses the quintessential logic underlying imperatives for documentation, archiving, and preservation that shape the most ambitious memorial projects in modern times.

The laudable preservationist ethic that motivates contemporary efforts to cultivate rich cultural memory duplicates premodern trepidations over forgetting and the wreckage of memory it leaves in its wake. Forgetting, in academic as well as popular usage, continues to signify a loss, absence, or lack—not simply of memory but of live connections with a tangible past. Forgetting is acutely meaningful in both scholarly and public circles as the ontological opposite of memory, as a hindrance to mature understanding and full experience of a nourishing past. Paul Connerton speaks of a “commonly held if not universal” assumption “that remembering and commemoration is usually a virtue and that forgetting is necessarily a failing” (2008, 59). Ours is a culture that typically treats memory as a rich and vibrant means of preserving the past and forgetting as a form of commemorative passivity or neglect, a symptom of the undesirable dissolution of communal heritage or historical wisdom. In the late twentieth century, forgetting was most evidently associated with death, and memory with life, in the wake of unprecedented genocidal atrocities. The association was further buttressed by a growing awareness that the threatened traditions and memories of oppressed peoples contained precious relics of lives and histories otherwise eradicated by persecution in its many modern forms. Even today, in still other contexts, civic leaders routinely implore the public to “never forget” the example of those who perished in wartime or in national tragedy, as in World War II or on September 11, 2001.

The welter of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century scholarship on memory understandably reflects the manifold priority that remembrance, conceived as an antidote to forgetting, has acquired in recent decades. Such scholarship has attained prominence by grappling with questions of historical discontinuity and communal fragmentation at a time when forgetting is viewed by every significant measure—cultural, political, moral, and technological—as a chief contributing factor of such ills. None of the preceding commentary, however, is meant to contend that modern memory scholars, as a result of these historical and cultural influences, shelter a naïve, unexamined faith in the organic fullness of all memory or an unflagging presumption that commemorative practices effectively preserve transparent connections with an unaltered past. Interdisciplinary literature comprising the field of modern memory studies demonstrates, to its credit, profound sensitivities to the instability, transience, and fragility of collective remembrance and communal tradition.

Regardless of such admirable sensitivities, however, studies in this vein collectively exhibit ambivalent attitudes toward the many ways in which instances of forgetting can play a positive, formative role in works of public memory. Despite a sophisticated awareness of the fact that public memories are selectively mediated, beyond a recognition of their inherent susceptibility to transmutation (the constant effects of forgetting, in part or full), contemporary treatments of such memory assign little, if any, positive value to the operations of forgetting as a significant factor in their formation and perdurance. Intentional or unintentional episodes of distortion, excision, or loss in regard to the past understandably signify not only commemorative but ethical failings when imperatives to archive, document, and preserve hold the moral high ground.

The scenes of public forgetting examined in this book suggest an understanding of and analytic vocabulary for evaluating, the material nature and effects of forgetting that is fundamentally different from its most enduring representations in both classical and modern lore. Shelley’s classically inspired rendering of Ozymandias’s forgotten and piteously corroding monument symbolizes a qualitatively different kind of forgetting than, for instance, the publicly orchestrated toppling of a monument to Napoleon during the 1871 Paris Commune, an “act of anti-commemoration” intended, in Matt Matsuda’s elegant treatment, “to proclaim a new euphoric order, shattering bronze and stone to rupture time and history” (1996, 21, 20–21). The idea that acts of organized state forgetting are synonymous with modern programs of atrocity or genocide, the Holocaust being the ultimate and omnipresent example thereof, is undermined by the iconoclastic procedures of state forgetting undertaken after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, when dozens of monuments to Lenin were removed from their places of pride in Moscow, leaving only naked plinths: “Far from erasing the memory of the communist regime,” Adrian Forty writes, the bare pedestals “became memorable in a way that they had never been when topped by statues” (1999, 10). Connerton economically pinpoints the crucial insight here: “Forgetting is not a unitary phenomenon” (2008, 59). The practices of forgetting that this book analyzes provide novel exposure to its manifestations and effects in public life by presupposing a definition of forgetting categorically distinct from far more familiar scenes of historical decay or genocidal destruction.

That said, a small cluster of recent studies have begun to revisit the topic of forgetting and explore the possibility that it can be a worthy alternative to memory in addressing either personal or collective dilemmas of the past. This book seeks to extend such emerging reassessments of forgetting on two fronts. First, sporadic affirmative treatments of forgetting remain essentially conceptual or theoretical in nature. It is one thing to accept the broad philosophical argument that forgetting can be a commendable response to the remembered past, including incidents of violence, injustice, or even atrocity that populate it; it is another to examine in detail how particular social agents argue for and enact such forgetting, and how one may evaluate its effects in concrete historical, cultural, or moral circumstances. For this reason, the majority of the book focuses narrowly on the rhetoric and politics of forgetting as a public practice—as a symbolic resource of public speech and action—instead of addressing it as a comparatively abstract ontological phenomenon or as an individual cognitive event. Second, a significant portion of late scholarly interest in forgetting seeks to revitalize premodern, though little-remembered, literary and philosophical terminologies according to which forgetting was once held in higher esteem. But the constitutive tropes and cultural symbolism of these antique, albeit approving, attitudes toward forgetting (such as willed amnesia or oblivion) endow forgetting with limited, potentially outmoded, value and utility in the context of modern public culture. Thus, the central purposes of this study are to provide: (1) an updated conceptual framework devoted to analyzing forgetting as an organized public practice; and (2) a series of case studies that reveal, by implementing that framework, how one may argue for and enact such forgetting in the political and moral languages of public life.

In structural terms, the book pursues these central purposes by demonstrating a deep terminological contrast. This study contends that examining traditional idioms of forgetting, with particular emphasis on the negative significance they assign to it, is a necessary first step in determining how one may adopt different idioms of forgetting that reveal (in counterintuitive ways) their vitality to particular cultures of memory and forms of public deliberation. The structure of the book mirrors this contention. Part 1 shows how our modern cultural resources for speaking of forgetting descend from consistently negative accounts of its legendary destructiveness in order to clear a conceptual space for identifying alternate heuristics with which to describe and assess its relative value in public culture. Part 2 offers close examinations of specific social, political, or ethical benefits that forgetting may contribute to communal affairs, thereby displaying in significant detail the sometimes great differences between the merits of forgetting as an organized public practice or mode of collective judgment and the bad reputation that both traditional and modern tropes of forgetting assign to it. Hence, the book’s unfolding parts performatively mimic its basic thesis regarding the productive (rather than destructive) interplay of memory and forgetting: Part 1 recollects dominant tropes and figures of forgetting as a prelude to inaugurating, in Part 2, a constellation of new tropes and figures, new idioms of forgetting in public culture.

By virtue of this structure, the book proposes an alternate public conception of forgetting and, with it, an alternate apprehension of its value in shaping civic senses of time, history, and memory as resources of political and moral judgment. Nonetheless, the following claim cannot be overstated: the interpretation of forgetting that this study advances in no way contradicts the irreproachable conviction to preserve memory as a way of preserving one’s cultural heritage under threat of persecution and violence. Barbie Zelizer’s splendid work on photojournalism and Holocaust memory, Remembering to Forget, is instructive in this respect. “Paradoxically,” she argues, our socially acquired tendency to interpret “events as wide-ranging as contemporary barbarism, AIDS, urban poverty, and political suppression” with “Holocaust photos [has] helped us remember the Holocaust so as to forget contemporary atrocity” (1998, 13). Arguing against Zelizer’s main contention—that we are obligated to remember past atrocities in reflective and constructive ways because the consequences of forgetting them are too appalling to tolerate—would be wholly foreign to the aims of this book.

The assumption, however, that an affirmative approach to forgetting is incompatible with such convictions and obligations rests on shaky logical premises. On close inspection, the apparent moral truth of Santayana’s oft-cited maxim (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) collapses in reductio ad absurdum. “Too often,” Arthur Schlesinger Jr. quips, “it is those who can remember the past who are condemned to repeat it” (1966, 91). Elie Wiesel, Avishai Margalit, and Miroslav Volf all acknowledge, contrary to conventional wisdom, that harboring recollections of torture and other injustices can incite desires for violent revenge among formerly victimized peoples. Former Serbian president Slobodan Miloševic<acute accent over c>’s now-infamous speech on June 28, 1989, commemorating the six hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo exemplifies vividly the ways in which detailed collective remembrance can inflame rather than pacify ethnic hatreds. Even those who bear witness to such remembered hatreds, however, may represent uncertain bulwarks against their recurrence: “The thought that there is no consigning of deeds to a historical past,” W. James Booth writes, “to the closure of ‘what happened, happened,’ but only a testifying to them, a making present of them, seems to make the witness into the ‘gravedigger’ of the present” (2006, 147). Forgetting, in logical terms, no more guarantees the repetition of past injustices than memory ensures their prevention.

Forgetting is admittedly a tragic force when it simply destroys symbolic affiliations with the past, whether by design or disregard, without imagining more conducive symbolic comportments between present and former times. This book nevertheless argues that in healthier forms forgetting can be used productively to maintain, replenish, or inaugurate vital cultures of memory writ large. In what circumstances, then, can one differentiate between productive and destructive manifestations of forgetting in public affairs? The book as a whole attempts to answer that question by examining rhetorical practices in which various agents somehow argue for and enact public forgetting.

The nature and effects of such practices contradict the notion that remembering and forgetting are categorical opposites. The analyses to come perceive memory and forgetting in a relationship of often reciprocal influence, or mutual creativity, in contrast to classical as well as modern renderings of their alleged incompatibility, which time and again emphasize the withering of living memory in the deathly embrace of forgetting. Contrary to these long-standing figurations, the case studies featured in this book identify ways in which forgetting is desirable to, even necessary for, maintaining cultures of memory that serve the needs of the present as much as they conform to the shape of the past, that nourish immediate social, political, and moral interests as much as they proclaim fidelity with former times, places, and events.

Strategically excising aspects of the collectively remembered past may prove essential to adapting collective remembrances in light of emerging social, political, and ethical dilemmas. Instances of ritualized forgetting may prove salutary when one community seeks to symbolically interrupt historically accumulated antagonisms with another community (an official gesture of forgiving and forgetting); when memories of violence and injustice breed only desires for revenge and undermine efforts at political reconciliation; when previously cherished traditions or institutions become outmoded and stifle effective-decision making in response to new and unforeseen events; or as a means of advancing a clear agenda for institutional reform when the seemingly intractable dilemmas of the past inspire only confusion, apathy, and resentment. Many have lamented, for example, that violence among Israelis and Palestinians (or between warring religious traditions throughout the Middle East, for that matter) might be quelled if memories on both sides didn’t run as deep as their hatreds. But this is only one, especially vivid example of various ways in which public arguments to communally forget could produce socially, politically, and ethically attractive outcomes.

The present study treats memory and forgetting, contrary to popular usage, not as dialectical opposites but as densely interwoven dimensions of larger symbolic or discursive processes. By virtue of such processes, we construct, amend, and even revise altogether our public perceptions of the past, including our collective interpretations of its lessons, in response to the culture and politics of the day. The claim that public bodies require healthy measures of forgetting and remembering in order to nurture efficacious symbolic bonds with their shared past is not paradoxical. Forgetting can be a necessary spur to remembrance, provoking us to recognize the inherent selectivity of normative public memories and imagine anew, with each passing generation, what our objects of memory should be, whereas collective remembrance can become so inflexibly doctrinaire in form and content that it amounts to a grossly simplified projection of former events, and thus an unintended instance of forgetting the past in its truer heterogeneity. The activity of remembering can unwittingly induce forms of forgetting, and forgetting can be an instrument of remembering. These premises comport with a basic sense of remember, defined as an act of mnemonic reconstruction—of recalling, yes, but differently with each act of recollection.

Rejecting the presumption that memory and forgetting are somehow antithetical, however, does not warrant the conclusion that memory and forgetting are therefore essentially one and the same. We depend on memory for our individual and collective sense of identity, meaning, and purpose. The idea that we know who we are now because we know who we have been is commonplace. We assign significance to past, present, and future (or anticipated) events according to such subjective, temporally ordered experience.

But ordinary human experience attests that forgetting is also necessary for individual as well as communal well-being. Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Funes, His Memory” tells the tale of a man afflicted with an insatiable, unedited memory that he himself likens to “a garbage heap” (1998, 135). Funes cannot take pleasure from present experiences because his memory is burdened with infinitesimal details of every past event. Borges’s fable corresponds to some people’s cognitive reality. Patients diagnosed with various cognitive disorders exhibit extraordinary powers of memory in their immediate and exacting recall of everything from musical scores to weather forecasts; but often they cannot function, mentally or physically, as self-sufficient individuals. Douwie Draaisma relates the representative case of Jacques Inaudi, a calculating prodigy who possessed “astonishing” powers of mental recall and was examined separately by Paul Broca and Jean-Martin Charcot as part of their pioneering nineteenth-century brain research. Draaisma reports that “the main striking feature” of these examinations was Inaudi’s “general ignorance and exceptional forgetfulness in practical matters,” leading to a “placid, rather indolent” personality (2000, 130). In such cases, dramatically amplified faculties of memory suggest an imbalance in cognitive processes or personal abilities rather than a desirable enhancement of one’s general capacities. One can possess too much memory and its content can be too vivid; one’s capacity to preserve impressions of the past without exception can be a symptom of a disordered self, in both the temporal and psychological senses of the term. The fictional Funes and his real-life counterparts suggest analogous lessons concerning memory and forgetting in public life. In the parallel context of communal recollection, the ceremonial heralding of a new era or administration—the inauguration of new collective beginnings—is as crucial to a polity’s sense of order and identity as its nurturance of ostensibly unbroken and comprehensive relations with the past.

Selves and publics alike require for their healthy functioning the ability to alternately enshrine or redact dimensions of their past—to call on memory and forgetting as distinct phenomena with apparently countervailing effects. Yet, in another sense, memory and forgetting are inescapably intimate. Personal as well as communal remembrance of the past a priori requires conscious or unconscious decisions concerning which of its surviving impressions should lie fallow, and why (regardless of individual or communal needs to treat memory and forgetting as epistemologically distinct phenomena). Such judgments suggest, by the same token, the operation of either conscious or unconscious reasons for remembering particular things in particular ways, for awarding some recollections privileged cognitive or communal attention to the diminishment of others.

We remember because we forget, and we forget in order to remember. Hence the paramount tension investigated across the following chapters: remembering and forgetting, in the context of public affairs, are not opposites; but neither, in postmodern fashion, should we presume them to be fictional versions of one another, or interchangeable social constructions differentiated only by arbitrary linguistic labels. Doing so would obfuscate our understanding of the critically distinctive function that each performs as a symbolic resource with which groups and individuals order and assign meaning to their existence. For this reason, the case studies that comprise the second part of this book examine the social, political, or ethical advantages of forgetting (or in one case, the dangers of a doctrinaire faith in memory) in places where we might least expect to find them: in grand civic commemoration, in modern historiography, in the formation of elaborate cultural folklore, and in some of the most cherished rhetorical artifacts of U.S. public memory and political statecraft.

The following inquiry into the rhetoric of public forgetting accordingly contributes to public memory studies in two ways. First, it explains how idioms of forgetting—something typically characterized as a hindrance (if not an outright harm) to the cultivation of fruitful remembrance—constitute occasionally necessary, even indispensable, aspects of those cultures of memory from which public institutions derive their purpose and authority. As such, this inquiry transmutes the dialectical opposition in which memory and forgetting are often cast in order to account for their dynamic interplay as formative ingredients of ongoing public speech, political action, and communal judgment. Second, such inquiry provides grounds for distinguishing between commendable and condemnable forms of public forgetting. (It also suggests, by the same token, secondary principles for distinguishing advantageous from disadvantageous modes of collective remembrance.)

This book makes such contributions by adopting a rhetorical methodology. The premise that social, collective, or public memory is communicative, discursive, or symbolic in nature is endemic to modern memory studies. Communal memory is the product of ongoing social or political debate over the contested meaning of the past. Maurice Halbwachs’s landmark sociological approach to the connection between individual and collective memory remains normative in this respect, for he insisted that personal memory depends on socially engendered “frames of collective memory,” language foremost among them (1992, 39). Even individual memory, in other words, is collectively shaped and expressed. John Bodnar’s definition of public memory provides an apposite summation of such orthodoxy in its reigning form: “Public memory is produced from a political discussion that involves not so much specific economic or moral problems but rather fundamental issues about the entire existence of a society: its organization, structure of power, and the very meaning of its past and present” (1992, 14). Public memory “takes the form of an ideological system,” Bodnar observes, “with special language, beliefs, symbols, and stories,” all of which serve “to mediate competing interpretations” of the past “and privilege some explanations over others” (14). By this account, “public memory” is the result of a perpetual rhetorical process with which communities deliberate over how best to interpret the past as a resource for understanding and making decisions in the present. Deliberating parties thus craft in language as well as other symbolic or expressive forms a version of former persons and events appealing to public constituencies in light of present-day civic norms, interests, and controversies.

The logic of such definitional statements warrants the complementary assumption that public forgetting is an equally rhetorical phenomenon. Acts of public forgetting likewise culminate patterns of collective deliberation or contestation over the meaning and value of the past as it concerns immediate social or political interests. The crucial difference, however, is that such patterns of public dialogue, debate, and advocacy end in collective ratifications to discontinue or reject customary forms of remembrance instead of public proclamations to honor and sustain them. Speech, language, and symbolism devoted to this purpose stand apart from innumerable minor differences in popular or institutional recollection that comprise the quotidian substratum of public memory. Lowenthal makes this point in characteristically suggestive fashion: “Collective oblivion . . . is mainly deliberate, purposeful and regulated. Therein lies the art of forgetting—art as opposed to ailment, choice rather than compulsion or obligation. The art is a high and delicate enterprise, demanding astute judgment about what to keep and what to let go, to salvage or to shred and shelve, to memorialize or anathematize” (1999, xi). For this reason, the case studies featured in the second part of this book attend closely to the rhetorical techniques, the “art” of which Lowenthal speaks, embodied in particular forms and expressions of public forgetting. In order to distinguish constructive from destructive forms of such forgetting—in order to delineate their remarkably varied social, political, and ethical entailments—one must scrutinize in depth the artful language and strategic justifications that allow them to achieve public legitimacy.

Two final caveats, briefly stated, follow from this methodological orientation. The first is that this book avoids the temptation to apply the term forgetting in a solipsistic manner. Public forgetting operates in a categorically different way than vain and arbitrary alterations of the past, as Nietzsche describes them, which simply tidy up its uglier moments: “‘I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride—and remains adamant. At last—memory yields” (1990, 68). Chapter 2 establishes a relatively high conceptual standard that a rhetorical act of commemorative restructuring and transformation must meet in order to qualify as an example of public forgetting. Public forgetting arises from uncommonly pivotal moments in the evolution of communal time, history, and memory, during which either a single agent or a collective body initiates such forgetting according to a double movement: in this movement, advocates simultaneously articulate a rationale for interrupting, or even ending altogether, prevailing paradigms of memory and coin a novel public idiom with which the community’s relation to its past, present, and future would be configured anew, or at least in profoundly altered ways. Forgetting, by this calculus, is set apart from ordinary and often unnoticed patterns of selective interpretation or partial recollection that weave the quieter, commonplace fabric of public memory.

Second, this methodology presupposes that public forgetting, like public memory, is irreducibly contingent in nature. Aristotle defines rhetoric as the art of understanding how to speak persuasively based on the contingencies of one public situation versus another; even if one sought to persuade different audiences about the same subject matter, those different bodies of listeners might expect to hear markedly different treatments of it. A similar logic holds true concerning the ethics and politics of public memory. Because publics remember only in a metaphorical sense—through competing narratives, speech acts, and symbols—communal memories of past events assume strikingly different forms based on the needs and interests of a given collective dilemma or controversy. By extension, the same must be said of public forgetting: it gains currency within public speech, language, or symbolism as a situational response to contingent needs and interests, as a medium of judgment with respect to the perceived sense and value of the past. (“Forgetting,” as Connerton says, “is not a unitary phenomenon” [2008, 59].) The chapters to come are not intended to yield categorical formulas for predicting what forms public forgetting can and should take in any and all circumstances (even the most meticulous comparative study of public memory in its conventional forms could not accomplish that task). The following chapters instead scrutinize essential rather than exhaustive instances of public forgetting that amply prove its strategic virtue to representative cultures of memory and the modes of public judgment they support.

To that end, the case studies in Part 2 of this book share the common purpose of analyzing rhetorical enactments of public forgetting in especially vivid idioms of collective life, ethics, and decision-making. The analyses scrutinize specific forms of forgetting not as stylistic practices unto themselves but as substantive resources of public judgment. The case studies in question thereby reveal the rhetorical work of forgetting not in arbitrary times and places but at the heart of collective practices commonly studied throughout public memory literature for the critical roles they play in allowing communities to derive important social, political, or ethical lessons from the past—namely, in national commemoration, in public history, in cultural folklore, and in the moral and political uses of memory in times of national crisis. The case studies are additionally balanced in their recognition that public forgetting, as a contingent rhetorical phenomenon, can originate in the voice of one or many, and can be a resource of the powerful and powerless alike.

But Part 1 of this book, as previously mentioned, accomplishes a necessary preliminary task. If we are to document various social, political, or ethical contributions of forgetting in public culture, then we will require conceptual resources for assessing its nature and effects that differ from those supplied by orthodox idioms of remembrance, which define memory as a public imperative and forgetting as a community’s tragic failure to heed it. Huyssen and others posit that contemporary Western culture is relatively unique in the aim and extent of its characteristic “obsession” with memory; but the standard tropes and figures for memory and forgetting that express this obsession bear an ancient lineage. When individuals and communities today advocate for the virtues of memory as a safeguard against the vices of forgetting, they do so in terminologies distilled from a vintage store of theological, philosophical, and literary tropes or figures. Identifying the limitations of such conventional tropes and figures is a valuable first step toward adopting a set of heuristics with which to evaluate the comparatively positive nature and effects of forgetting in crucibles of public judgment. The chapters in Part 1 comprise, in this respect, an idiomatic history of the present as it concerns the conventional meaning and value assigned to forgetting in public life. What social, intellectual, and moral traditions have made it seem so imperative for us to think and speak of forgetting in such stridently negative ways—always as oblivion, liquidation, or amnesia, as the tragic loss, absence, or lack of memory? How might we learn to think and speak of it anew as a substantive resource of public judgment regarding communal lessons of the past?

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