Erasures

13 10 2008

          Norman Klein’s The History of Forgetting offers some interesting and challenging ways to think about how history is made, forgotten, and remade. One phenomenon to consider is “distraction,” in which a false memory is actively allowed to replace an actual one in plain view, so that the false view revises (and revisions) the memory.

          I have seen this in my family. My mother and her sisters will recall certain childhood memories and different versions. As they talk (and sometime argue) over the event, they start revising it until they all have similar accounts, none of which matches the earlier version but one which allows a sense of peace and unity in their relationship. This makes me wonder how much of my family history I can trust, especially since they were the only one with access to the information. The original memory is erased, or maybe layered, under a new one.

          Especially intriguing to my project is his notion of how “popular memory makes for a very uneasy form of research. . . . What else can a history of collective memory be but a rigorous diary about unreliable documents?” (7-8). His discussion of how the past is “reinscribed and relocated” raises issues of how this is done through film. I suggest that most of us get our “facts” about history and other cultures through film. Thus, we know about the Holocaust and Hitler through cinematic representations, both fictional and documentary. I think I know something about Maori culture by watching Whale Rider, and something about Victorian times by reading and watching Dickens. If we as a culture view these things, then do they become our collective memory? Does film thus erase even as it reveals? Is this a different type of “social imaginary,” but one that also “contains an evacuation” (10)? Are we always doomed to repeat the past if it is always erased?

          Klein’s theory would suggest this, for if “the best way to lie is with the truth” (12), then film is at once the best liar and the best truth-teller. Whale Rider, for example, shows the Maori culture as one in trouble—the younger generation is forgetting its past and therefore is unable to live in the present. Only by embracing parts of the present—allowing a woman to become the next chief—will they survive. We view a film like this and root for the changes even though we get little understanding of the rich Maori culture or why the traditions were so patriarchal. We thus become culprits in changing the way we view the culture—as one that needs to change to fit our modern views—and we erase some of the elements that may have made it valuable in the first place. The film becomes our memory, for when I think of New Zealand and the Maori culture, I think of this film and its powerful images (Pai crying during her concert, her calling the whales, her sacrifice, etc.). The film is the only memory I have, for I have never even been to NZ, and it becomes my paradigm. Thus, erasure and construction occur at the same time, and my knowledge of this does not diminish the film’s power to implant these ideas.

          Political movements succeed to the extent they can erase and construct memories. Even when we remember a specific event—such as 9/11—we constantly reinterpret it in light of our culture’s understanding of the event. Large numbers even seek to erase 9/11 by blaming our government and denying that the planes did the damage. The moon landings have had similar conspiracy theories: Did we really see Neal Armstrong take that small step? Countries such as English that have forced subjects such as the Irish and Welsh to actively forget their languages engage in such erasure. Religions do the same. I remember seeing a Muslim cleric telling a reporter that the Jews have never had a presence on the Temple Mount; in the background, trucks could be seen carting away the archeological evidence of the Jewish history there. Erasure. Distraction. Identity. Fiction.

 

          Klein has given me some things to mull over. I am not sure if I agree with all of his points, but he does offer some useful terms and a framework for understanding that culture may be as much about what is not remembered as what is.

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