The Touch of the Past

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My project, Denk Ich an Sonneberg, introduced me to various theories related to memory, among them were Ethical Remembrance and Post-Memory. Roger Frie’s book, Not in My Family: German memory and responsibility after the holocaust and Marianne Hirsch’s book Family Frames: photography narrative and postmemory explore these topics respectively.

As I continue to explore the broader subject of remembrance, I came across Roger Simon’s book The Touch of the Past: remembrance, learning and ethics. Simon asks “…how and why a social, and often conflictual, practice of remembrance might be central to establishing the conditions necessary for democratic life[?]”(p3). A connection between democracy and remembrance? What is it?

The departure point for Simon’s line of reasoning is that remembrance enables us to bring past learnings into the present. In a process that is continuous and on-going, learnings accumulated over the eons form our culture, a framework of practices, common understandings, our norms, our sense of right and wrong, our perceptions of truth and facts. The framework that we use to negotiate our daily lives within our community that enables the formation of strong social groups. Referring to Zygmunt Bauman, Simon notes social solidarity is a necessary condition to build the “trust, self-confidence, and courage without which the exercise of freedom and willingness to experiment are unthinkable.” (p.5)

Simon then positions these two characteristics as necessary conditions for “…a democratic public life [that] requires explicit activity that subjects existing practices to continual critique and the conflictual work of repair, renewal, and invention of desirable social institutions.” That is, our practices, and institutions need to be continually and continuously tested and this can be accomplished only when we share those norms that promote a stable enough society to weather the challenges of critique. The crucible of this testing is a “public sphere within which the substance of the social is debated and negotiated.”

The “public sphere” is not a single location, such as parliament. It includes other sites of discussion, including our various levels of government, lobbyists, newspapers, individuals, each stating their own perspective in their own voice resulting in the assembly of a wide range of opinions and information “… the substance of ‘the public sphere’ is not to be limited to a discussion of institutions, sites, and spaces, but must include an inquiry into what situated practices will support listening, learning, conversation, and debate capable of reassessing the political, cultural and moral dimensions of the organization of social life.” (p.7)

Yet, having a public sphere is insufficient; there needs to be the impetus to act. Derrida’s concept of the “arrivant”, that moment in history when the time is right, the conditions have been met to have a serious debate, that “… existing institutions and forms of authority are put into question through critical judgement and a commitment to linking social responsibility and social transformation.”(p.8) Here I am reminded of Thomas Kuhn’s premise, stated in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that theories are continuously tested through experimentation that either support, or not, the outcomes predicted by a theory. At some point a critical mass of failures is reached and the theory needs to be re-evaluated, or in the case of public institutions, policies and processes that need to be revisited.

This is where I stopped and reflected on the disruptive forces emerging in many places around the world, such as those responding to impacts of globalization. Thinking of Trump specifically, Simon’s argument brings purpose to his actions, and a framework to distinguish those that are constructive from those that are not, and why. While Trump is testing and pushing our institutions to address current issues in different, non-traditional ways, he is failing to do so through an inclusive “public sphere” either by exercising powers directly where he can, or by sewing division developing mistrust that poisons the environment for debate and negotiations as necessary conditions for democracy.

In the black and white world of extreme right and left postions, the former would give him a pass for the good he is doing, the latter a fail for the bad. There is no middle ground, no room for discussion, no room for compromise. The time has come, the impetus to act is here, but the “public sphere” is stifled.

The question for the longer term is how will these practices be remembered and thus used by future generations.


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