Terry Eagleton on Waking the Dead

Speaking of Walter Benjamin, the eminent Terry Eagleton has an article in New Statesman entitled “Waking the Dead” about Benjamin and history.

What Benjamin meant was that how we act in the present can change the meaning of the past. The past may not literally exist (any more than the future does), but it lives on in its consequences, which are a vital part of it… In one sense, we know more about the French Revolution or the Stalinist reign of terror than those who were involved in them, because we know what they led to. With the privilege of hindsight, we can inscribe these events in a broader narrative, making more sense of them than Robespierre or Trotsky were ever able to do. The price of this superior knowledge is impotence. There is no way we can use this knowledge to undo past catastrophes. We are like men and women frantically waving at history from a long way off, powerless to intervene in its crises and convulsions.

I’ve been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan (highly rec’d, btw) and he has a passage on the “narrative fallacy” that dovetails nicely with this Eagleton paragraph. Taleb is making a different point, but he also emphasizes our continual re-interpretation of the past and our ability to re-make history.

Conventional wisdom holds that memory is like a serial recording device like a computer diskette. In reality, memory is dynamic — not static — like a paper on which new texts (or versions of the same text) will be continuously recorded, thanks to the power of posterior information… Memory is more of a self-serving dynamic revision machine: you remember the last time you remembered the event and, without realizing it, change the story at every subsequent remembrance. So we pull memories along causative lines, revising them involuntarily and unconsciously. We continuously renarrate past events in the light of what appears to make what we think of as logical sense after these events occur.

The question, of course, is who controls the remembering. Which memorymakers control how we “continuously renarrate past events?” Lastly, I should point out that my one gripe with the Eagleton piece is that he/Benjamin call this remembering and reinterpretation “nostalgia.”

For this unorthodox leftist [Benjamin], astonishingly, there could even be something revolutionary about nostalgia. Today, nostalgia is almost as unacceptable as racism. Our politicians speak of drawing a line under the past and turning our back on ancient quarrels. In this way, we can leap forward into a scrubbed, blank, amnesiac future. If Benjamin rejected this kind of philistinism, it was because he was aware that the past holds vital resources for the renewal of the present.

Whereas I’d argue that this is not nostalgia at all. What they’re calling for is closer to Nietzsche/Foucault’s archaeology & genealogy, which is pretty far from revolutionary nostalgia. For it is really nostalgia that wants “a scrubbed, blank, amnesiac future” that is cleansed of all the soiled bits of history. It is nostalgia that ignores the specters still haunting us. If we’re looking for “vital resources for the renewal of the present” then we’d do well to steer clear of nostalgic histories.

Lastly, if you read yesterday’s post you’ll know why I was amused that Eagleton wrote, “What happens, happens.” Like yesterday, we close out today with que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *