Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Collective forgetting

In a comment on this earlier post, 'bro' suggested adding a sentence to McCain's line that Americans make history: "And then we run screaming out of the room, get trashed, go to sleep, and wake up with no memory of what happened."

This was meant humorously, of course, but it points to a non-humorous issue, namely the function of collective forgetting, which is perhaps best understood not as literally blotting out certain painful parts of a national past but as agreeing to "bracket" them. More than a century ago, the historian Ernest Renan, in his lecture "What Is a Nation?," observed that "the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things...." More recently, Anthony Marx has put it this way: "Nations drink at the fountain of Lethe, clearing their memories, before their rebirth in the Hades of modernity." (Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism [2003], pp.29-30)


Anonymous said...

Renan was writing in the aftermath of the German annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. The population as I understand it were German-speaking but wanted to be a part of France. Renan's seminal piece, when put in this context, takes on added significance. For, while he was indeed arguing for the (recent and) constructed nature of the nation, his argument was nationalist - he seems to be saying,let us forget those troubling and troublesome aspects of our past. And his idea of the nation as a daily plebiscite seems to me a way a suggestion of how to move forward as a nation.
Benedict Anderson, however, gives a slightly different inflection to Renan's forgetting/remembering 'dialectic' in the closing pages of the revised version of Imagined Communities. There, he emphasizes Renan's comments as part of his critique of the constructed character of the nation, and its dangerous ability to demand/command death from its subjects, while being silent on the fact that Renan himself was deploying his arguments in the service of France. I am not sure if Anderson is largely responsible for this reading of Renan as a critique of nationalism, or if it reflects the growing skepticism towards nationalism in contemporary times. (I am not advocating nationalism/patriotism - far from it). I wonder how it is that in international relations (LFC, I am not taking a swipe at you - this is about how Renan gets quoted and cited in academic texts), Renan appears as both a critique of the objectivity of the nation, and of the ideology and practice of nationalism. I agree with the former, but not the latter. To adopt a social constructionist perspective on the nation, is not to automatically be critical of nationalism.

LFC said...

You raise an interesting question: How is it that Renan (sometimes) gets cited in IR as a critic of nationalism, when in fact he wasn't?

Here's my (intemperate) guess: it happens b/c some IR people have read their Foucault and Agamben (and even, i suppose, their Benedict Anderson), but they don't know enough about history (and historiography), so they don't know that Renan, like virtually every other major late-nineteenth c. French historian (i wd think), was a nationalist.

Thanks for raising this and also for the last point in your comment, which is of course entirely correct.
Btw you might want to look at (if you haven't already) David Laitin's 'Nations, States and Violence'(2007). He uses Renan's daily plebiscite quote as an epigraph for one chapter. I have it out of the library but am not going to read it right now so maybe i'd better return it. :)

bro said...

And see Nietzsche on the importance of individual forgetting. Sorry I don't have the citation!