Thursday, May 22, 2014

French Revolution Jokes

Just revising the French Revolution with my class this morning and we decided to make up some French Revolution jokes. Here is the best of the bunch. (Imagine what the worst are like!)

What did Robespierre’s mistress say to him on their first night together?
“Disrobe Pierre.”

Who was the heaviest revolutionary?

Why were the Jacobins so ambitious?
They wanted to get a head.

Which Declaration was a bitterist one to swallow?
The Pill-nitz Declaration!

What was the weather like during the French Revolution?
Storm and Terrorble Reign

When does March come after September?
During the Women’s March on Versailles.

What was the most popular game during the revolution?

Which revolutionary was a real nuisance?
Tom Paine

Who was the most popular general among the working class?
General Maximum

During which oath did the participants make an awful racket?
The Tennis Court Oath

Which club formed the loudest group of revolutionaries?
The Giron-dins

Why was one revolutionary club never serious?
Because they were always Feuillants around.

Which writer was always depressed?
Marquis de Sade

Friday, April 18, 2014

Article in Spanish

Professor Anaclet Pons of the University of Valencia in Spain has translated my recent article on the history of decolonization in the Dutch East Indies, which first appeared at University of Exeter's Centre for Imperial and Global History. You can read the post in Spanish here.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Imperial Past Returns to Haunt the Netherlands

In July 2012 a Dutch national newspaper, de Volkskrant, published two photos on its front page showing Dutch soldiers brutally shooting dead unarmed victims in a mass grave. The images were shocking to a nation that prides itself as being upright and humanitarian.  Never mind that the photos were nearly 70 years old. Found in a rubbish tip, they were, in fact, the first ever photos to be published of Dutch soldiers killing Indonesians during a war of decolonization that is still euphemistically referred to as “Police Actions.”  

To read the rest of my article click here to visit the Centre for Imperial and Global History at the University of Exeter.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Sri Lankan War Crimes

This month the United Nations Human Rights Council is meeting in Geneva. One of the items on the agenda is the investigation of possible war crimes carried out by Sri Lankan authorities against the civilian Tamil population in 2009.  The government of Sri Lanka has so far refused to allow an independent investigation to take place. Some of my students made this short video, which they've sent to the UN, asking for an impartial investigation into possible war crimes to be carried out.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Ranjan Ghosh - A Lover's Quarrel with the Past: Romance, Representation, Reading.

The International Institute for Asian Studies has just this week published my review of Ranjan Ghosh's A Lover's Quarrel with the Past: Romance, Representation, Reading. It is an intriguing, provocative and sometimes irritating work, written in dissent and flavoured with indignation, analyzing how myth-makers have come to dominate Hindu collective memory. You can read my review right here.

I hope you enjoy it.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Nietzsche on Forgetting the Past

It seems that we are moving to a time when it may become quite an uncontroversial assertion to claim that there is no point in remembering the past, after all, a quick Google search is far more efficient. It could be argued even that forgetting the past completely is a healthier option than remembering – less conflict based on unforgotten slights. 
In his brilliant essay from 1874, Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben, Nietzsche seemed to make this very assertion, claiming that “it is possible to live with almost no memories, even to live happily as the animal shows: but without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all”.[1] But Nietzsche’s was not a plea for amnesia; rather he claimed that a happy life, one that involves health, strength and fruitfulness, can only be lived within a horizon that one draws around oneself.[2] The antidote he recommended in order to combat the overdose of the historical that he saw dominating his own time, was to have the strength “to forget and enclose oneself in a limited horizon (…) and guide the eye away from becoming and toward that which gives existence an eternal and stable character, toward art and religion”.[3] But he saw his own age as being dominated by a particular type of history which, for want of a better description, we can call “scientific, objective history”: the type of history that had the pretension that it could reveal “wie est eigentlich gewesen ist”. “History”, he wrote, “conceived as pure science and become sovereign, would constitute a kind of closing out of the accounts of life for mankind”, adding: “with a certain excess of history life crumbles and degenerates, and finally because of this degeneration, history itself degenerates as well.”[4] So, it was the type of academic history being practiced in the universities of 19th century Germany by the likes of von Ranke, that Nietzsche was opposed to, because it literally stifled and killed any life-giving impulse. As Gadamer summarises it: “Nietzsche’s view that historical study is deleterious to life is not, in fact, directed against historical consciousness as such, but against the self-alienation it undergoes when it regards the method of modern historical sciences as its own true nature.”[5]

But Nietzsche understood that to demand of humans that they should never practice history and never attempt to remember would be asking the impossible. On the contrary, “only through the power to use the past for life and to refashion what happened in history, does man become man”.[6] He enumerates cases in which history can be useful (though each one also carries dangers): firstly by presenting monumental examples of greatness from the past; secondly by offering contentment and pleasure though approaching the past with reverence; thirdly by using history in a critical manner to shatter and destroy by the roots something that endangers life.[7] One of the fallacies of the scientific approach to history, according to Nietzsche, the approach that makes the false claim to objectivity (which is no more than a superstition),[8] is that it leads the historian to make generalizations and that these are based on perceived laws.[9] But, while laws can be found in true sciences, “so far as there are laws in history, laws are worth nothing and history is worth nothing”.[10] There are no absolutes and no certainties in Nietzsche’s view of the world,[11] except, perhaps, that there are no absolutes.

It seems to Nietzsche that the aim of objective, scientific history is to rob living things of the mysterious atmosphere that encircles them,[12] what Benjamin later referred to as the “decline of the aura.”[13]  But Nietzsche does see a purpose and a value in the historian’s craft, which is “to describe with insight what is known, perhaps a common theme, an everyday melody, to elevate it, raise to a contemporary symbol and so let a whole world of depth of meaning, power and beauty be guessed in it”.[14]

In his essay on Nietzsche’s views of practicing history, Michel Foucault pointed out that what Nietzsche ultimately objected to in the academic, objective, historical practice of the 19th century, was its pretention to have gained a “suprahistorical perspective” lending its judgments “an apocalyptic objectivity” whereby historical development is seen “as a teleological movement”.[15] Foucault agrees with Nietzsche, that the historian has created a charade in which he “effaces his proper individuality”, is “forced to silence his preferences” and “blur his own perspectives and replace it with the fiction of a universal geometry, to mimic death in order to enter the kingdom of the dead, to adopt a faceless anonymity”.[16] To counteract this, Nietzsche does not reject history, but instead “Nietzsche’s version of historical sense is explicit in its perspective and acknowledges its system of injustice (…) It is not given to a discreet effacement before the objects it observes”.[17] We are reminded on E. H. Carr’s famous dictum, that we should “study the historian before you begin to study the facts”,[18] though we could just as easily throw that on its head and say “study the facts in order to get to know the historian”.

In his afterword to a Dutch translation of Nietzsche, Frank Ankersmit agrees that Nietzsche never planned to condemn the study of history wholeheartedly, and therefore embrace absolute forgetfulness. He summarises Nietzsche’s view succinctly: “The work of the historian is not copying or reproducing, passively being pulled along by the past, but an active, artistic act of creation”.[19]  Ankersmit rightfully concludes that Nietzsche’s most significant insight is that the historical profession in the Germany of his age had contributed to a split between the external and internal parts of the individual personality. The “civilized” person was all inner personality, filled with historical knowledge. Nietzsche solution proposed, either a withdrawal into forgetfulness, or the development of a historical sense as outlined by Foucault above. Ankersmit calls this a historical practice that leads to “self-knowledge”.[20] The lesson that he takes from Nietzsche’s critical approach to historical practice is: “those parts of our self and of our past that we have not yet processed (…) form our deepest and most mysterious inner being (…) The core of our personality is not the known, but in fact the disturbingly strange, the unprocessed. What is strange is not repulsed or driven to the outer regions of our personality, but forces its way into the deepest part of our self. This explains why historical knowledge – that is to say, knowledge that appears to us initially as strange but is nevertheless experienced as being a part of our personal and collective identity – is so crucial for our self-insight and for a harmonious culture”.[21] For this reason, I believe, Nietzsche would have been appalled by a modern society that left unprocessed a significant part of their history, that when faced with an episode deemed disturbingly strange or alien, choose unremembering rather than self-knowledge.

The Czech novelist, Milan Kundera, played with issues of remembering and forgetting in his novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The book is a discursive, yet deeply perceptive analysis of life in a totalitarian state, based on Kundera’s own experiences. The real enemy of totalitarianism, we learn, is memory. When the Russians installed a new president, President Husak, after their invasion of 1968, Kundera tells us that one of the first things Husak did was dismiss one hundred and forty-five historians from their posts. Kundera quotes one of these historians as saying to him: ”The first step in liquidating a people (…) is to erase its memory”.[22] Later Kundera quotes President Husak, “the president of forgetting”, as he is addressing an assembly of children: “’Children, never look back,’ he cried, and what he meant was that we must never allow the future to collapse under the burden of memory”.[23] In a conversation about the book that he had with American novelist Philip Roth (included as an afterword in the English translation), Kundera explained: “The basic event of the book is the story of totalitarianism, which deprives people of memory and thus retools them into a nation of children.”[24] If the end point of totalitarianism is to reduce a nation to the level of children, and the tool to be used in order to achieve this is the erasure of memory by means of depriving them of their historical collective memory, then the situation of a nation that unremembers its own past must be that of children.

[1] Friedrich Nietzche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980) p. 10
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., p. 62
[4] Ibid., p. 14
[5] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, (London and New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) p. 316
[6] Nietzsche, p. 11
[7] Ibid. pp. 14-16, 19-21, 21-22
[8] Ibid., p. 35
[9] Ibid., p. 36
[10] Ibid., p. 55
[11] Michel Foucault, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" The Foucault Reader. Edited by Paul Rainbow. (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1984) p. 87
[12] Ibid., p. 40
[13] Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” in: Illuminations. ( London: Pimlico Press, 1999) p. 184
[14] Nietzsche, p. 36
[15] Foucault, pp. 86-88
[16] Ibid., p. 91
[17] Ibid., p. 90
[18] E. H. Carr, What is History?
[19] Frank Ankersmit, “Nawoord” in: Friedrich Nietzsche, Over nut en nadeel van geschiedenis voor het leven: tweede traktaat tegen de keer. (Groningen: Historische Uitgeverij Groningen, 1983), p. 150
[20] Ibid. , p. 164
[21] Ibid. , p. 161
[22] Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Translated by Michael Henry Heim. (Harmonsworth: Penguin Books, 1983) p. 159
[23] Ibid., p. 187
[24] Ibid., p. 235

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Amputated Memories

Places bear traces of memory for those who inhabit them. In the absence of place, these memories remain beyond recollection.  Aleida Assmann [Cultural Memory and Western Civilization, Cambridge University Press, 2011] writes: “Even if places themselves have no innate faculty of memory, they are of prime importance for the construction of cultural memory. Not only do they stabilize and authenticate the latter by giving it a concrete setting, but they also embody continuity”.  Removed from places that could stabilize their collective memory, the exiled, the trafficked, the economic migrants and entire groups fleeing from conflict, face a discontinuity that is difficult to bridge. Their new homes, their new streets and cities are not conducive to remembering. At the most, descendants of uprooted communities create substitute spaces - places of commemoration. But commemoration replaces what is being remembered, it marks the end of continuity.  Commemoration marks absence.

Anthroplogist Paul Connerton [ How Modernity Forgets, Cambridge University Press, 2009] brilliantly argues that “the locus [of memory] is more important than the memorial.”  The memorial is a deliberate work, born out of a fear of forgetting.  It calls out for attention to its explicit message. A simple, inattentive glance at a memorial is not enough. Otherwise, as Connerton, summarizing Robert Musil, says: “nothing is more invisible than a memorial”.  Likewise, memorials conceal as well as trigger memory, especially war memorials which “conceal the past as much as they cause us to remember it.”  This is because of the partiality of their representation of the past. After all, “their image is designed specifically to deny acts of violence and aggression. They conceal the way they died: the blood, the bits of body flying through the air, the stinking corpses lying unburied for months, all are omitted.” 

Connerton argues that, on the other hand, the house and the city street both provide powerful loci of memory.  The house is a “memory device” or an “aide-memoire”, a medium of representation and, as such, can be read effectively as a mnemonic system.”  The house, or home, is a mnemonic structure that has a certain taken-for-grantedness until a house-moving or, worse, a fire or war deprives one of one’s house. Even the furnishings within the home “remind us of the shared history and the body” , while on a larger scale the city street forms, over time, “a web of contacts and memories that eventually lead to a web of public trust.”

My father's chair
Allow me two personal examples. Firstly: at the age of 18 I left the house that I had lived in since shortly after birth. At the same time I left my family, my city and my country, never to return for any extended period of time. Over the decades that passed I have infrequently returned. At each visit I am confronted by an old armchair in the kitchen, made by my father with his own hands. When I sit on this armchair, even now, despite its imperfections and discomfort (or perhaps because of these) I am transported back to the times when, as a teenager, I sat there with Misty, my cat, on my lap and rooted behind a cushion and under a cushion to find the lose pages of newspapers that my father had stuck here. This memory comes to me with immediate force, like a Proustian involuntary memory, and it brings to me the almost physical presence of my father, who died nearly thirty years ago in that very room. Such is the power of the house and its furnishings as a locus of memory. Walter Benjamin [Illuminations, Random House, 20111] would describe the room as having an aura – “If we designate as aura the associations which, at home in the memoire involuntaire, tend to cluster around the object of a perception”.  In this particular case, the aura is made stronger because my father made the old armchair (it is why it is so uncomfortable!) and it therefore bears what Benjamin calls “traces”.

Secondly: aged 18, I worked for some time in southern France, together with labourers who were Irish, Arab, Chinese and Latin American.  Months later I moved to Paris. One day I was approaching a green newspaper kiosk on Boulevard Saint Michel, at the point where the broad avenue crests the hill at the large intersection outside the Jardin de Luxembourg, when I happened to run into a Venezuelan who I had worked with down south. We stopped and chatted amicably for ten minutes of so. Now, whenever I am in Paris, which is at least once a year, and I happen to walk by this intersection (the Luxembourg Gardens are obviously still there, the cafes and shops have perhaps changed, but the intersection seems to be as it was then, even the green newspaper kiosk still remains) I recall running into my Venezuelan acquaintance. Most importantly, the memory is almost physical – I can almost feel what I felt then, aged 18 – and it invariably stimulates scores of other memories of happy encounters I had on the streets of Paris during the late 1970s.

These two examples demonstrate the remarkable importance of the role of place in personal memory. Memory is not simply triggered by place, it is triggered by place because that which is remembered happened in place, was emplaced. We say that events take place. In fact events take place in place. The event takes place within a topography that is sensed, that has become meaningful and that is appropriated by ones identity – not only the event has been lived but the place too has been lived.

Therefore, to lose the place can be catastrophic, for one’s memory and one’s self-identity. To be unable to return, as is the case often with political refugees, can provoke profound sadness. Connerton formulates this well: “As I know my way around the limbs of my body, as a pianist knows her way around her piano, as I know my way around my own house, so I know my way around the paths, landmarks and districts of my city” and to lose one’s way around one’s limbs “is tearfully distressing, an aching catastrophe” but so too, to lose one’s way around one’s house or city “would be a defamiliariztion that would shake my very being.”

How greater the catastrophe therefore, for memory, when an entire social or ethnic group, through forced trans-location, lose their houses and their cities, the primary loci of their memories, and instead, find themselves transported to a new, alien world that knows nothing of their former homes and towns and, furthermore, demonstrates only a profound disinterest in their past, their experiences and their memories. Such people's  memories have been amputated.