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The Amnesia of the Modern: Arendt on the Role of Memory in the Constitution of the Political

In this paper I argue that the nature of modern social consciousness must be understood as a type of collective amnesia, a condition that undermines the very purpose and possibility of the public sphere as Arendt knows it.By amnesia I understand the condition of a failure in memory, and I will argue that this is due, paradoxically, to having too much of it.

As Arendt notes in The Human Condition, the most fragile of human behaviors – word and deed – both depend on and are a condition for the political arena.The polis serves as the space of memory, an arena that records the activities of the great and transforms the mortal actor into the immortal deed[1].

What differentiates the modern from the ancient understanding of this arena, however, is precisely what undermines its capacity to serve this role in the modern age.Modernity’s ability to record all events – a revolution in memory due to technological outsourcing[2] – has removed from this ‘remembering’ its evaluative quality.Because the Greeks understood action to be the exceptional mode in which those worthy of immortality achieved it through Mnemosyne’s protective embrace, it was fundamentally normative.“The subject matter of history is…the extraordinary”[3].Those who were remembered were those worthy of remembrance.

The condition of modernity, on the contrary, does not understand action primarily in terms of its inherent excellence – its “emerging, shining quality” (Arendt 1968, 47) – but in terms of technological processes we unleash on nature.Thus the spontaneity and unpredictability characteristic of action – and not its excellence – become the defining feature.This shift is due in large measure to scientific objectivity’s emphasis on impartiality and non-discrimination.The abstention from normative assessment is also a feature of modernity’s move to Christianity and its emphasis on the immortality of all mortals – thereby transferring the normative moment to one after life.As Arendt notes, this simply exacerbated the change instigated by Plato, in which one’s desire for immortality could be guaranteed not by greatness but by offspring[4].The modern condition ofwork is also characterized by a failure of the evaluative dimension of memory; no longer does fabrication occur as a reification of the remembrance of thought.Rather, contemporary 'workers' need not even be aware of - let alone hold in memory - the essential character of that toward which they are working.

Process has taken over, transforming the durability of work into the flux of action.It does so byseparating the act from the individuals who give it meaning through excellence – as well as the witnessing presence of those who evaluate its excellence and shape their community around its exemplarity.To understand great words and deeds as "possessing an enduring quality of their own because they create their own remembrance" (Arendt 1958, 208) is to be in community of witnesses who grant these words and deeds their enduring quality by giving them a place in the selective archives of art and history – an honor bestowed that unifies the community around the norms that these words and deeds instantiate.The normative implications of this shift to process is of course evident in Totalitarianism[5] – and we can note Eichmann’s disturbing lack of memory in this regard[6].It is my contention, however, that more recent distortions of remembrance must also be analyzed.

Though the public realm may once have been understood as a kind of "organized remembrance" (Arendt 1958, 198), then, this function has in large measure been lost.Modernity appears to suffer from too much and too little memory – recording all in the undifferentiated greyness of scientific objectivity, we forget nothing, but neither do we build community around a shared commitment to a normative sense of what is worthremembering[7].

The consequences of this shift have not resulted in the absence of the capacity for action, however; on the contrary, with this emphasis on process action “seems to have become the center of all other human activities” (1968, 63).This paper will demonstrate the manner in which this is to be understood, arguing that over-development in this area – and corresponding neglect of others – has resulted in the perversion of action.By decoupling the normative dimension of action from its spontaneity and unpredictability, modernity threatens to destroy action’s capacity for revealing human individuality and establishing the ‘between’ of political relationships in a condition of plurality.The loss of the normative dimension of memory can only be understood as a loss of the capacity for genuinely political action.



[1] “Action, in so far as it engages in founding and preserving political bodies, creates the condition for remembrance, that is, for history”Hannah Arendt.The Human Condition.Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958. pg. 8-9.

[2] See “Memory,” National Geographic Magazine, November 2007

[3] Hannah Arendt “The Concept of History,” Between Past and Future.New York: Penguin Books, 1968.

[4] Charles Taylor notes these changes in Sources of the Self (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1992). The beginning of the modern era is characterized, he argues, by the “affirmation of ordinary life…the life of production and family” (13). Nothing represents our era so much as ‘reality’ TV – in which mediocrity has taken the place once reserved for excellence.

[5] Arendt makes note of the threat memory poses to totalitarianism – and thus the need to eradicate it:“as for the gift of memory so dangerous to totalitarian rule, foreign observers feel that ‘if it is true that elephants never forget, Russians seem to us to be the very opposite of elephants…’” and in the face of a police map of all human relations “not even memory would stand in the way of the totalitarian claim to domination” The Origins of Totalitarianism.New York: Harcourt Inc., 1994.Pg. 434.

[6] See, for example, Hannah Arendt.Eichmann in Jerusalem.New York: Penguin Group, 2006.“Eichmann’s memory, jumping with great ease over the years…was certainly not controlled by chronological order, but it was not simply erratic.It was like a storehouse, filled with human-interest stories of the worst type” (81).What he remembered, notes Arendt, are events like bowling - not mass deportations.

[7] As Nietzsche notes in “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” forgetting too is essential for meaningful action, because “a living thing can be healthy, strong and fruitful only when bounded by a horizon…cheerfulness, the good conscience, the joyful deed, confidence in the future – all of them depend, in the case of the individual as of a nation, on the existence of a line dividing the bright and discernible form the unilluminable and dark; on one’s being just as able to forget at the right time as to remember at the right time” (Untimely Meditations.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. pp. 59-123, p.63).Jorge Luis Borges’ story, “Funes, the Memorious,” make this point clear: without selective remembering – which means selective forgetting, life becomes meaningless.

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