Absent memories.

Author:van Vree, Frank

"The map of an Irish hell" lamented The Irish Times on May 21st 2009, referring to the report of an official commission, led by the high court judge Sean Ryan and installed by the Irish government, to inquire child abuse from 1936 onwards. "It is a land of pain and shame, of savage cruelty and callous indifference." (1) Rape, sexual molestation, beatings and humiliation were "endemic" in Irish Catholic church-run orphanages and other institutions, according to the 2,600-page final report. It was published after nine years of investigations and drew on testimony from thousands of former inmates and officials from more than 250 church-run institutions. The commission concluded that Catholic priests and nuns had terrorized thousands of boys and girls for decades and that government inspectors had failed to stop the physical and psychological terror. (2)

The outcome of the Irish investigations--and these of similar agencies in other countries, such as the John Jay Report in the U.S. (2004) and the Report of the Deetman Commission in The Netherlands (2011)--poses serious questions with regard to the functioning of "social memory" and "social forgetting." Considering the scale and the enormity of the abusive practices one may wonder why memories of these did not come to light before. Was it the power of the Church that prevented victims to speak, as one may conclude from the words of the abbot of Glenstal Abbey? The Church, according to the leader of the Benedictine Community in the county of Limerick, "made this island into a concentration camp where they could control everything (...) and the control was really all about sex." (3) The Church appeared to have the spiritual power to actually silence individual memories.

To explain the massive silence that reigned so long, others pointed to the traumatic nature of sexual abuse, whether occurred within a church institution, a family or another more or less closed community. Analogously to the symptoms individuals may develop after being exposed to traumatic experience, public silence with regard to the widespread abuse should be interpreted as "social amnesia," caused by a collective trauma.

Both explanations of the thorough obmutescence with regard to the psychological and physical terror exerted by priests and nuns, for many long decades, in Ireland as well as in other countries--a case to which I will return later--seamlessly fit into what may be designated as the dominant paradigms of social silence or forgetfulness: the paradigm of hegemonic memory and the paradigm of traumatic memory. The issue at stake here is whether or not these paradigms suffice to understand these and other phenomena related to social forgetting.

Paradigms of "social forgetting"

To address the latter question, it is necessary to get a better grip upon the concepts and patterns that underlie these phenomena--and this is what this contribution is about. Its form is not that of a closing argument, but an exploration into the nature of "social memory" and "social forgetting." Such an explorative work should not be considered to be a redundant exercise, since there are reasons to be worried, or even annoyed, about the way various concepts and patterns regarding memory are currently being deployed. Along with the growing popularity of memory studies with scholars and students, the number of studies lacking originality and quality has also been rising, based upon research that suffers from a certain degree of repetition as well as empirical weakness, losing itself into a kind of self-referring theoretical exercises, or a rather naive, oral history based storytelling. Both remembering and forgetting are conceived and applied in an almost mechanistic way, as an explanans instead of an explanandum. However, to get a better understanding of complex processes and multifaceted phenomena like "social memory" and "social forgetting," a far more nuanced approach is needed, questioning established ideas and arguments, and, if necessary, uprooting them.

Looking back into the history of memory studies it appears that most authors dealing with social forgetting, silencing and amnesia focus on what may be called "distortions of memory," cases in which forgetfulness is dysfunctional, contrary to what is perceived as the "natural process of forgetting." After all, forgetting is a fully natural or even necessary phenomenon, for the individual as well as for society, as Marc Auge (1998, 7) argues. Even our autobiographical memory is, as psychologist and historian Douwe Draaisma puts it in his fascinating book Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past, a diary and a book of forgetting in one, governed by its own enigmatic laws (Draaisma 2004, 1). But in the case of distortions of memory, "forgetting" may turn into "all the types of amnesia with which clinical literature abounds," as Paul Ricoeur argues: "It is against this forgetting that we conduct the work of memory (oeuvre de memoire) in order to slow down its course, even to hold it at bay" (Ricoeur 2004, 426-427).

Such notions of "distortion" and "dysfunctionality" of forgetting appeared tailored for use within the social and historical domain. Two, only partly related lines of thinking, appeared to be predominant, lines to which I already referred to as paradigms. The first--and oldest--of these has been identified as the paradigm of hegemonic memory, the second as the paradigm of traumatic memory. The first line, that of hegemonic memory, found its most rude and cynical expression in George Orwell's novel 1984, which basically centers around the politics of history as a way of controlling the present through the past. The Ministry of Truth, where the book's hero, Winston Smith, works, is first and for all rewriting history, having people and events disappearing into "memory holes." Thus conceived "social forgetting" belongs to the realm of politics and power relations, being a dominant discourse, produced by deliberate repression and other forms of hegemony.

Memory, as a product of the politics of memory, serves ideological needs, to start with national unity, as expressed, for example, by Ernest Renan in his seminal essay Qu'est-ce qu'une nation--What Is a Nation?, published in 1882. "Forgetting," according to the French philosopher and writer,

is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation. (...) The essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common and also that they have forgotten many things, adding, a bit further, that

every French citizen has to have forgotten the massacre of Saint Barthelemy, or the massacres that took place in the Midi in the thirteenth century. The notion of a national forgetting in Renan's essay, however, is rather problematic, as Benedict Anderson has pointed out in his famous work Imagined Communities. Zeroing in on the original French phrase, that the French citizen "doit avoir oublie", meaning: that he or she "has to have forgotten" ancient tragedies--instead of just "has to forget" them--Anderson argues that forgetting is conceived by Renan as a prime contemporary civic duty (Anderson, 1991, 200). Renan's readers were being told that they should have already forgotten, what Renan's own words assumed that they naturally still remembered. Anderson accounts for this paradox by arguing that the citizens of modern nations must undergo "a deep reshaping of the imagination", a process over which the state itself has barely any substantial control (ibid, 201). This reshaping requires a forgetting in order to reconfigure the bloody events of the past, such as civil war and all kinds of bitter disputes and internal conflicts, thus contributing to the conception of the nation as an extended family, according to Anderson.

Along these and similar lines, "social forgetting" has been conceived as belonging to the realm of politics and power relations, as a result of deliberate repression or less visible mechanisms of political and cultural hegemony. This may be the reason why, as...

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