Cultural memory is a concept – albeit in vogue always in periods of amnesia – that is deeply intertwined with identity. The link between the two is something as simple as what Agnes Heller observed in 2001: “Without shared cultural memory there is no identity”.
She says elsewhere in “Cultural Memory, Identity and Civil Society”: “Cultural memory is rather embodied in objectivations which store meanings in a concentrated manner, meanings shared by a group of people who take them for granted.”
Heller makes the argument that civil society has no cultural memory. The explanation is plausible and clear: Civil society is a heterogeneous mosaic of sometimes conflicting cultural memories and activities or institutions that are in no need of cultural memory.
Civil society – unlike the old community – can smoothly operate through clashes of interest and cooperation limited to short term future and without utopia. The question of identity then is nowhere raised with more rigor than when the cultural memory is challenged.
The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) remains a textbook case of this challenge. My contention is that the preoccupation with the actual content of the Lebanese identity arose only when the shared cultural memory – once taken for the granted – was eroded through the war.
Of course many would challenge this view arguing that the ground was fertile for the war since the 1860’s under Ottoman rule and that only intensified in the years leading into the war. But in the realm of history, as moderns know well, theory is but a realm of consolations.
Every postwar society is faced with the enormous challenge of re-writing its own history and this is particularly difficult in the case of civil wars in which different cultural memories, often hostile to teach other share a legacy that came to them without a testament.
Over twenty years after the end of the Lebanese Civil War – in which neighboring countries, Western powers and Israel were at some point involved – the actual challenge of the memory in general remains a tense battleground of ideological and political conflict.
It is precisely this challenge that the interactive exhibition “Another Memory” has come to tackle: An open archive of Lebanese memory throughout the war years that aimed to confront the public with narratives about the war other than their own.
A number of key dates of the civil war were selected and front pages of the newspapers An-Nahar and As-Safir reprinted and juxtaposed in large displays. The public was encouraged to interact with the exhibit by adding their own footnotes to the articles in post-it notes.
An interesting article published in NOW Lebanon has pointed out how the exhibit – organized by Lebanon’s Tajaddod (Democratic Renewal Movement) Youth in partnership with Danish Rakidal Ungden (Social Liberal Youth) – has gone where few others have:
While plenty of noise is made by Lebanese civil society groups and NGOs about the need for national post-civil war reconciliation, the issue is rarely tackled in concrete initiatives by political parties themselves.
Derrida’s argument on forgiveness is that in the “globalized” market of human suffering that emerged after the horrors of the world wars, it is institutions and governments who are asking for forgiveness.
In this sense the spectacle of forgiveness is nothing but a simulacrum and he brings up the example of a South African woman whose husband had been imprisoned and tortured, who, before the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, said: “A commission or a government cannot forgive. Perhaps only I could do it. But I am not ready to forgive.”
Derrida and Arendt agree that forgiveness has the power to interrupt the flow of events and to create new beginnings – a paradox of cultural memory: how to begin anew with and in spite of the past?
But they differ in that what for Derrida is an essentially divine gesture, for Arendt remains a purely human experience.
Yet to forgive the unforgivable (and here we are dealing with war crimes and crimes against humanity) it seems, is something that remains outside the limits of the law, and this is what the poet W.H. Auden articulates in a letter to Arendt: “The law cannot forgive, for the law has not been wronged; only broken; only persons can be wronged. The law can pardon, but it can only pardon what it has the power to punish”.
Arendt replies to Auden saying that he’s right (and she was wrong) in that punishment is only an alternative to judicial pardon, but that accordingly, not everything is punishable. Derrida stays here at the level of forgiveness merely in the service of noble or spiritual ends.
Hannah Arendt goes further to establish a critical difference between forgiveness and reconciliation: In her journal entries from June 1950 – at a time when she was probably still working on “The Origins of Totalitarianism” – she writes that “forgiveness and revenge are a unity of opposites that correspond to each other”.
According to her, forgiving takes place only among those who are “infinitely unequal” and that the mere act of forgiveness actually destroys the human relationship:
“Forgiveness, or what is normally understood as such, is in reality only an apparent success; in it one takes a higher ground and the other demands something that men cannot grant each other… Reconciliation instead has its origin in being averted with the mission that has been given to us.”
Reconciliation – beyond forgiveness and judicial pardon – isn’t based on the understanding that I could have done this as well, a quintessentially religious mistrust of human nature, but on the acute realization that “this should have never happened”.
Forgiveness breaks the relationship in its adamant refusal to share the burden for what has happened and rather prefers to “look the other way”. Arendt better articulated this several years later:
This vicarious responsibility for things we have not done, this taking upon ourselves the consequences for things we are entirely innocent of, is the price we pay for the fact that we live our lives not by ourselves but among our fellow men, and that the faculty of action, which, after all, is the political faculty per excellence, can be actualized only in one of the many and manifold forms of human community.
What “Another Memory” tried to do – even though it was open only from May 12th to 14th and with a rather limited attendance – was to open the vaults of memory not in order to sit in judgment but the afford the possibility of the antinomies in cultural memories; those probably are not to be overcome but rather accepted and understood. It is a facing up and resisting of reality.
Its enormous success in rehabilitating the public sphere isn’t necessarily something quantitative but the sheer quality of opening a space in which the past isn’t closed off – as the many postwar courts and tribunals often assume in many countries the world over.
It was a space of hope without promise since promises can only be delivered between one man and another; the living proof of what Lebanese painter Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui remarked to me in a conversation:
For me the Middle East is life: Vibrant and pulsating, stupid and loving, cunning and wise, kind and cruel, simple and mysterious. A place where cold mathematics could be proved wrong, a place where God and the Gods have chosen to appear. Life has the power to overcome when coupled with love.
(*) Hannah Arendt’s “Denktagebuch” is not translated into English. Excerpts above I translated from the original German. Any mistakes in the translation are entirely my own. For an essay on Arendt's idea of reconciliation as opposed to revenge and forgiveness, click here.