Blesok no. 87, November-December, 2012
A Post-Modern Approach: Literature and Memoirs as Memory and Archive
Almost a hundred and seventy years ago, the “dialectical lyricist”, Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855), speaking of his own time in the preface to his work “Fear and Trembling” (1843), pointed out: “Not just in commerce but in the world of ideas too our age is putting on a veritable clearance sale. Everything can be had so dirt cheap that one begins to wonder whether in the end anyone will want to make a bid.” (Kierkegaard, 1985: 41)
Contrary to Kierkegaard's fear of the possible lack of offers in the sphere of ideas, the entire 20th century has been filled with an enormous number of both theoretical and practical offers at the philosophical and ideological level! One of the main offers of this kind, manifested in the last four decades, is the Post-Modernism which I refer to in my presentation in the context of Literature, Memoirs, Memory, Archive and History.
However, if we give in to history non-philosophically, which is even more valid for the still lasting phenomena with which we are contemporaries, then there is a strong possibility that great troubles will overtake us. For, as Karl Löwith says: “If the history of time can teach us anything, then it is clear that it is not something which a person can stick to or to which one can orient oneself. To try to orientate oneself to history is the same as for the shipwrecked to try to hold on the waves.” (Löwith, 1980: 52)
Nevertheless, since the post-modernist way of thinking has abandoned the discourse of Modernism – that is to say the theme which was introduced by Hegel as a self-critical confirmation of Modernism and which, according to Habarmas, at the same time “set the rules according to which this topic could be varied – the dialectics of Enlightenment” (Habarmas, 1985: 65) – it has consequently also abandoned the constitutive relation between history and mind. Post-Modernism claims that Modernism ended because in its essence it was a project which could not be realised, and because it rested on the belief in what has frequently been called the “great meta-narratives", which is only another term for the “Great Stories” that have dominated the Western culture and civilisation for millennia. These great stories appear in history in different fashions and under different names. Let me state, together with Dick Habdige, a number of these: “divine revelation, the unfolding Word, the shadowing of History by the Logos, the Enlightenment project, the belief in Progress, the belief in Reason, the belief in Science, modernisation, development, salvation, redemption, the perfectibility of man, the transcendence of history through divine intervention, the transcendence of history through the class struggle, Utopia, subtitled the End of History…” (Habdige, 1993: 79)
"Anti-aesthetics” can also be one of the determinations of Post-Modernism because with the rejection of the “meta-narratives” (e.g. Hegelianism, Marxism, etc.) the possibility that the discourses be based on any traditional philosophical meaning is excluded, as has been done by Jean-François Lyotard. But what in this case will the basis of the discourses be? They will probably be based on narratives and, if we have understood Lyotard well, the narratives seem to mean any chain of events. The value of the narrative lies in the fact that it is self-justifiable and self-affirmative: “it establishes itself in the pragmatism of its own transmission” (Lyotard, 1984: 27), it simply is, and does not need to be confirmed by any “meta-narrative” (either ideological or religious). Lyotard is more interested in the use or misuse of the narrative than he is in its meaning and thus he approaches Wittgenstein's determinations from his “Philosophical Investigations” that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” (Wittgenstein, 1953: § 43)
If Post-Modernism is anything at all, it is, above all, a climax of the disbelief in “coherence and continuity” (Habdige, 1993: 80), a loss of totality as a therapeutic measure or, expressed in the spirit of Walter Benjamin: the one-way street of totality is dominated by the entity because, as Lyotard points out: “we have paid dearly for the nostalgia for totality and the entity, the reconciliation of the idea and the sensitivity” and, therefore, let us declare “war on totality, point out the unpredictable, activate the differences, and save the name's honour.” (Lyotard, 1990: 30-31)
In the meantime, the question of what will happen to the literature which bears, willy-nilly, its post-modernist aura, remains open. I will end first part of my approach, in the post-modernist spirit, with a famous, but essentially unknown, quotation in dialogue form:
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that's all.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, ch. 6 (Carroll, 2008 )
It is common knowledge that memory falls within the immediate purview of psychology. And if we consult the classic Concise Dictionary of Psychological and Psychoanalytical Terms by English & English, we will learn that “memory” is defined as follows: 1. A general function of animating and reanimating past experience, with more or less determined insight that presents experience as a kind of animation. 2. The scope of things a person can remember: storage and memory. 3 Every past experience that we can remember. (English & English, 1958)
It is clear that this kind of definition explains memory at the individual psychological level, rather than focusing on the aspect of memory that we are interested in, memory as a metaphor of history, nature, culture or truth. In the phrase “A post-modern approach: literature and memoirs as memory and archive” we insist on this metaphorical reading of memory.
But, we may say that memory (as it was defined by English & English), among other things, is both “storage” and “memory”, and it is precisely this aspect of memory that confirms the metaphor of “literature and memoirs as memory and archive”.
Jacques Derrida discusses this same subject in his work Mal d’Archive (1995) – in English translation as Archive Fever (1996). In this book, in a purely etymological and archeological attempt to reconstruct the word “archive”, Derrida interestingly concludes that “the meaning of ‘archive’, its basic meaning, comes from the Greek word arkheion: a house, a dwelling place, an address, a residence of the Supreme Judge, the archontes, the one who rules” (Derrida, 1996: 1) Derrida furthermore emphasizes that it was only the archontes who had the right to form or execute the law, and, as acknowledged authorities, their home, their house, was the place where the official documents were kept. The archontes were the guardians of the documents and they had the right to “interpret the archives”. This explains the relationship between archives and power (something very familiar to historians even today – the inaccessibility of many archives throughout the world!). But Derrida also underscores “domicile in the house arrest” in which a structured space is built, a privileged “topology … where law and the individual are entwined in privilege”, thus creating a blend of the “topological” and the “nomological”, of space and law, of base and authority. Derrida creates a new word – “topo-nomology” in order to define this “archontic principle of the archive, which is at the same time a principle of consignation, of gathering together” (Derrida, 1996: 3).
If we leave aside the political connotations of this interpretation of archive that Derrida produces, which is derived from the relationship “power-knowledge” elaborated by Michel Foucault directly in conversations (Foucault, 1980) and look more closely at the topological principle of archive, i.e. the archive as home, we realize the similarity to determining language and literature as “home/house of the self” (Heidegger). In a wider sense, both the archive and literature remain a “home”, as many historians would confirm, feeling at home in the archive: “The historian enters the archives to be at home and to be lonely at the same time” (Steedman, 1998: 70), as do many writers and readers who find their most wonderful home in writing and reading. Allow me to mention just one quartet of writers and philosophers whose names begin with B: Borges, Benjamin, Barthes, Brodsky. All of them regard language, literature, and philosophy as their real home, their archive, where they can dwell both alone and in the company of stories and myths. That kind of archive “seduces” and partly “intoxicates”, even today, when we live in a time when “the centre is lost” and a time of “radical postmodern skepticism”. This is especially emphasized by Harriet Bradley – obviously under the influence of Proust and Milton – when she says that in the archive “there is belief (or an illusion) that all time lost can become time regained” (Bradley, 1999: 119).
And what is literature, and memoirs also, if not an attempt to remember the lost in order to find it again? What is literature if not archive, but one which is not archontic, not related to low, neither ruling nor arcane (secretive), but public and libertarian archive, available to anyone who can read and wants to read.
The archive is a storage for many meanings, just as literature is a storage for many signs and meanings. It is up to us how well we study these meanings. Because in this post-historical time every writer and every reader is both an archive keeper and a hermeneutician of the reality presented in literature.
Bradley, H. (1999) “The Seductions of the Archive: Voices Lost and Found”, History of the Human Sciences, 12(2): 107-122.
Carroll, L. (2008 ) Through the Looking Glass, ch. 6
Derrida, J. (1996) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
English, H.B., English, A.C. (1958) A Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychological and Psychoanalytical Terms, New York, London, Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., Ltd.
Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972-1977, (ed.) C.Gordon, New York: Pantheon Books.
Habarmas, J. (1985) Der Philosophische Diskurs der Moderne, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Habdige, D.(1993) “A Report on The Western Front: Postmodernism and The ‘Politics’ of Style”, in Cultural Reproduction, (ed.) Chris Jenks, London: Routledge, pp. 69-103.
Kierkegaard, S. (1985 ) Fear and Trembling, translated by A.Hannay, London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Löwith, K. (1980) “Uvod”, u: Hegelovska ljevica, Sarajevo: Veselin Masleša.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1990) Postmoderna protumačena djeci, Zagreb: August Cesarec.
Steedman, C. (1998) “The Space of Memory: in an Archive”, History of the Human Sciences, 11(4): 65-83.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.