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Evgeny Blinov. Were we born to embody our forefathers’ wounds?

Evgeny Blinov (b. 1979). Graduated from Philosophical faculty of Russian State University of Humanities (Moscow), MA (Erasmus Mundus Europhilosophie), Candidate of Philosophical Sciences (Institute of Philosophy, Russian Academy of Sciences), PhD University of Toulouse 2 (France). Professor of the Department of History and World Politics, Tyumen State University. His interests include Western philosophy XVIII century, history of political thought, language policy, social anthropology and contemporary French Philosophy.

He is the author of the book “By Pen and Bayonet: Introduction into Revolutionary Policy of Language” (Moscow: HSE, 2022).  Email: e.n.blinov@utmn.ru

 

 

Sergei Ehrlich’s bold and thought-provoking essay aims to provide nothing less than a new discourse on the methods used in memory studies. This field of research is multidisciplinary by definition, and the author doesn’t hesitate to cross the borders of various disciplines, far from limiting himself by historical, sociological, or psychological narratives. The latter term is one of his favorite methodological tools for his critical tasks and a positive program that is supposed to be the prolegomena to the “the New Golden Age” of humanity. If I understand his intentions correctly, he intends to create a new global community liberated from the bonds of national narratives and heroic myths of the bloody past. The main objects of his criticism are two fundamental approaches used by both professional historians and representatives of any given memory community. In the narrow professional sense, he is defying the spatial turn in the memory studies proclaimed in 1980’s by renowned French historian Pierre Nora (Nora 1989). In the broader sense, Ehrlich aims to deconstruct the “heroic myths” of the long memory of a nation. To those two fundamental tasks, we can add his admonishment of abusing the postmodernist focus on the traumatic events often seen as a universal remedy for conflicting and strictly national heroic mythology. Ehrlich champions time over space and globality over locality. These methodological choices are happily married to his political project, which he proudly designates as “utopian” (Ehrlich 2023, 57).


Far from being a specialist in memory studies, the author of these lines is not in the position to evaluate or criticize Ehrlich’s historiographical generalizations or his analysis of current or forthcoming trends in this domain. Although the interdisciplinary and, more broadly, ideological appeal of his work inspired me to make some critical comments on this impressive piece of research.


Considering myself a historian of thought or, in more foucauldian terms, specialist in the history of “systems of thought”[1], I agree with Ehrlich’s idea that memory studies are interconnected in a myriad of ways with group identities and all the possible “behavior patterns” associated with them. Variously shaped and selected collective memories are always used as a reason for what we say, feel, or do as members of a social or political community. Furthermore, the author’s theory seems to be quite consistent as a system of explanation, although I am not totally convinced by some of its core arguments.


First, I’d question his rather metaphysical argument that “There is no lieu de mémoire without its own narrative unfolded in time. Time is primary in relation to space” (Ehrlich 2023, 16). Even without diving deep into philosophical discussion about the primacy of time over space, one could ask how something like “primal time” (if we do not consider it in religious terms) could exits for an “honest historian”. Historians deal with the history of a particular region, institution, domain, or concept that cannot be excluded from its locality. What is supposed to be a “historical fact” cannot be identified as such without its material dimension. In this case, I will refer to Bruno Latour’s conception; the “production of facts” that is, to me, as valid in historical science as it is in physics or chemistry (Latour 2004, 117). A historical text can be referred to as a trustful source only if it is associated with a material medium such as the oldest possible manuscript and later compared to the various archeological data that could require all sorts of material analysis (from the visual comparison to the radionuclide or genetic tests). So, we can produce something called “historical facts” or, at least, a plausible hypothesis about them, only after putting them to the test in our laboratory. While in the case of the “raw materials” that could later become “historical facts,” they are first and foremost spatial and material phenomena, and only after professional processing become “temporal” in the strict sense. An artefact like an ancient helmet found during an excavation can be classified only according to provenance at first. I.e., it is primarily a spatial object, and the task of a historian is to put it on a chronological line after the long and detailed process of attribution. Even if we can use some narrative sources to localize a historical place, like Schliemann used Iliad to find Troya, we can do so only if we consider this source as an authentic Greek literary text and not an invention of a Greek nationalist living in the XIX-th century. In its turn, the authenticity of the text could only be attested to through the material analysis and so forth. Space first, time second. Otherwise, we will be doomed to tailor our task to the ready answer. Manipulation like this is very typical in many national narratives.


Another Ehrlich maxim states that “the Earth of lieux de mémoire circulates around the sun of narration, but not vice versa. Therefore, the narrative approach should play the leading role in memory studies” (Ehrlich 2023, 16). This argument seems to contain a reference to the idea of a certain “helix of history”, which, I hope, didn’t refer to the One-and-Only-Objective-Universal-Narrative but something like a continuum of various narratives. Although even those narratives could only be distinguished if localized, not to mention that the very idea of big narrative is a product of Western European and more particular XX-th century French thought (Lyotard 1984) as the idea of “objective history” was largely a product of XIX-th century German thought. In this sense, I found the author’s appeal to “look at the world from the entire humankind perspective” rather confusing and contradictory (Ehrlich 2023, 13). As Marx and Engels put it in their early chef d’oeuvre, German Ideology criticizing Feurebach idealistic “man” instead of “real historical man.” “`Man` is really `the German` (Marx, Engels 1976, 39 ). The “entire humankind‘s” point of view is not a “point of view from nowhere,” its’s the point of view of Western Europe.


According to Ehrlich, the “anti-spatial turn” in memory studies will allow him not only to get rid of the tenets of narrow nationalistic narratives and adopt “humankind’s perspective,” but also to dive deep into the depts of the human soul. It’s no wonder that he salutes the psychological aspect of the narrative turn associated with the works of James Wertsch, psychologist by his primary background. Ehrlich believes that the psychologism of the narrative turn in memory studies could provide us with new tools for the “molecular” analysis of the human behavior. Here, he intrudes into a completely new domain, proposing his own anthropological perspective on the general evolution of human society. Ehrlich’s humans are gregarious and political animals with historically determined patterns of behavior that could become an object of scientific analysis. These patterns are organized around temporal structures called “subsystems,” where memory belongs to the past, “identity” to the present, and imagination to the future. Memory is not simply “remembered”, but lived through, it’s very essence is performative, and the process of the collective mnemonic experience could be studied through the different “narratives”. The narratives for Ehrlich and for Wertsch are collective phenomena, or more precisely, in a narrative one could find “essential temporal interplay of its collective and individual forms” (Ehrlich 2023, 14). It’s important to note that Ehrlich goes beyond flat “psychological” conceptions that oppose individual and collective memories, although he clearly formulates his distaste for the “identities” produced by national states. For him, there are no “wrong” collective memories imposed to the individuals, although narratives themselves could be wrong or right from the point of view of a professional historian. He mentions Orlando Figes’ research on the case of memory aberration, when many Gulag prisoners discovered that, after reading Solzhenitsyn’ s magnum opus, their own “confused and non-organized” memories were somehow “erased” by the writer’s coherent and organized narratives and became more vivid than their actual memories (Figes 2007, 636). I suggest that this curious phenomenon deserved much better attention but, unfortunately, it’s only briefly mentioned in a footnote. Otherwise, it would be interesting to observe the implementation of this theory to something like “false memories” in the vein of the classical Marxist notion of false consciousness (that should be based on the “false” or rather “confused” memories turned into the behavioral patterns by the means of ideology).


The pivotal role of narratives turns them into the bricks on which our social world is composed as they permanently shape group identities. The collective is constantly changing itself (i.e. its views on the past, present and plans for the future) through the various narratives. In this sense, the author’s ambitions are well beyond the reflection on the collective memory and its complex relationship with what he calls “professional history”. From this perspective, narratives are not only histories of the plural voices that could merge into a common “mnemonic community,” but a part of the fundamental structure that Foucault called the “historical ontology of ourselves” (Foucault 1984). The very tissue of this ontology is woven from the narratives presented through something like an autonomous and self-moving spindle. Narrative naturans, narrative naturata.


This sort of “hyper-narrativism” leads the author to the criticism of the heroical myth and the ideology of self-sacrifice, tied with the ideology of the national state and apparently considered as the main reason for the wars that struck Europe in the XX-th century. Ehrlich was referring to the famous pamphlet of the interwar period: Julien Bendas’ Betrayal Of The Clerks (Benda 2011), in which he blamed the European intellectuals on both sides of the front line for betraying the universalists’ ideals of Enlightenment and falling into nationalist rage during World War 1. The very fact that many of those societies were already democratic at the time encouraged the warmongers who instrumentalized or created the narratives of a unified nation. Here, Ehrlich seems to accept Michael Mann’s arguments from the Dark Side of Democracy (Mann, 2005), about the belliсouse nature of democratic societies and severely criticizes the renaissance of the archaic “same blood” ideology. That becomes far more powerful as it is provided with the modern instruments of mobilization and mind control, which while belonging to the same “memory community” appears to be one of the most efficient.


I have to admit that I do not agree with Ehrlich’s central opposition on the ideas of “national” memory and universal values. This opposition was believed to be crucial in the particular periods of European history. It had its moment of glory in the early interwar period, as attested to by the popularity of Bendas’ book, and was reestablished in the early nineties as part of the globalist ideology of the “end of history” (Fukuyama 1992), and similar theories. Although, from a larger historical perspective, universalism was the essential part of nationalist big narratives. In his scrupulous study of the genesis of French nationalism in the XVIII-th century, David Avram Bell analyzed numerous intersections between nationalist and universalist narratives (Bell 2001). Even in the age of Pax America, French intellectuals were constantly referring to the idea of France as a “Universal Nation” (Latour 2004).  The nationalist narratives contemporary to the French revolutionary project pretended to be universalist in one way or another as is attested to by the original project, American Empire, as “City upon the Hill” (Anderson 2006) or German nationalism that was opposed to its French adversary. Even secondary nationalism, fashioned upon French, German, or American models constantly justify themselves with various references to the universalist arguments. These newer nationalistic perspectives are often confused with their old-fashioned nationalist narratives that treacherously resemble that of WWII, a period which they tend to present as a part of European civilization as opposed to the various incidences of “barbarism” and “totalitarianism.”


There is no need to argue that the clash between two “universalists” perspectives as in the Cold War era could be much more dangerous than a war between some nation states for a disputed territory. Not to mention the fact that universalist perspective doesn’t exclude the support of the local nationalism for a “higher” purpose: Soviet project was branded by Stalin as “national in form, proletarian in content” and was seen externally as a true “Empire of Nations”, to put it in Francine Hirsch’s terms (Hirsch 2004). The ongoing European project was equally built upon the explicit or implicit support of the Eastern European nationalism, even if it was perceived by some as a temporary instrument necessary for their later reintegration into the “European family”. In one way or another, modern nationalism referred to the universalists arguments and reshaped the collective memory by the standards of what they believed to be “objective history”. It is so much easier to be a nationalist proud of your history when your own nation is supposed to be on “the right side” of its general course and progress. Or, at least, of what one believes to be progressive and right. French and Germans (at least their elites), were no less convinced that they represent an authentic comprehension of universal values than Catholics and Protestants centuries ago and did their best to persuade their fellow-citizens that they were fighting on the right side of history by joining the “union sacrée” or defending Kultur (Hanna 1996, 129).


I was even less convinced by the author’s surprisingly optimistic final part that dissents with the generally pessimistic description of the dominance of national narratives throughout his essay. His proposal to elaborate some sort of “global memory” was supposed to replace various national memory narratives with their heroic mythology does not represent something new from the point of narrative construction. He states that “The first step to solve the problems that the nation-state and capitalism are incapable of solving is to imagine post-state and post-capitalist forms of memory and identity, which would correspond to our global epoch of information civilization” (Ehrlich 2023, 41). But is there something new about the idea of global memory?


If we take the classical account of the mnemonic aspect of national genealogies suggested by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities, it does not seem to be very different from the old good “scientific nationalism” that was trying to expulse the ghosts of the ancient hostilities by introducing what he called “Reassuring Fratricide” (Anderson 2006, 199-200). According to Anderson, this concept helped to reshape the local memories by presenting the bloody conflicts of the past as “family feud”: “We become aware of a systematic historiographical campaign deployed by the state mainly through the it’s school systems, to ‘remind’ every young Frenchwoman and Frenchman of a series of antique slaughters which are now inscribed as ‘family history.’ Needing to ‘have already forgotten’ tragedies of which one needs unceasingly to be ‘reminded’ turns out to be a characteristic device in the later construction of national genealogies” (Anderson 2006, 201). The national genealogies, which were intended to create a nation as a unified mnemonic community, already had complex and hybrid systems using sophisticated narrative techniques that allowed members of hostile local communities to transform into “Frenchmen”, “Italians”, “Germans” et cit. From the point of view of a new European mnemonic community, Germans, French, or Italians were becoming the equivalent to the “Parisians”, “Gascons” or “Basque”, or even Catholics and Protestants from the earlier stages of global development. Germans and Frenchmen “should have forgotten” the fratricidal wars of the past to protect the beautiful European “garden” from the intrusion of the barbarians living in their Jungle.


Moreover, all the references to the “same blood” ideology should be placed among many narrative techniques used by nation builders. Although the old metaphor of “genetic memory” could be reevaluated with the progress of paleogenetic history, this possibility does not seem to interest the author, who focused on the “narrative turn”. We could suppose that, in the near future, one could evaluate the perceptibility of the individuals or groups for the particular narratives based on their genetic heredity, as we have growing evidence that PTSD could be inherited (Nievergelt et al. 2018). In this case, we could guess that, if a large percentage of the population of the former Soviet Union are descendants of the WWII soldiers who survived after heavy wounds and thus inherited the PTSD, they could be much more perceptible to the certain forms of heroical narratives. Often used sarcastically, the post-Soviet slogan “The grandfathers fought” could be possibly seen in a completely new light with the future research on genetic memory, considered in the most literal sense of the term. Going back to the metaphors, I would like to quote Gilles Deleuze’s favorite poem, which was written by Joë Busquet, a half-paralyzed WWI veteran: “My wound existed before me, I was born to embody it” (Deleuze, 1990, 143). We were born to embody our ancestors’ wounds, both literally and figuratively. However, the way we deal with these wounds may vary.


My last objection concerns Ehrlich’s rather implicit idea that the “behavioral patterns” produced by various mnemonic communities should be considered as the products of some sort of cynical manipulation performed by the creators of national narratives. Although French Jacobines or Russian Bolsheviks were certainly working on a new version of collective memory that could replace ancient “prejudices”, they never imagined creating them ex nihilo: on the contrary, they should have been based on what they believed to be real sufferings and the urgent need of the people. French historian of political thought Pierre Rosanvallon pointed out that the Rousseauoist revolutionary paradigm presupposed something like a “sentimental contract” in addition to strictly rational “social contract” (Rosanvallon 2004, 41). Even if the revolutions, including the revolutions in memory, are usually led “from above” they cannot succeed without massive popular support, and when the “revolutionary situation” emerges, it’s often hard to tell who is leading whom. For instance, Staline and everyone else in his place, had previously refused to become the new Russian emperor, but the “lieu de memoire” gradually transformed him into one. Like Sergei Eisenstein’, Ivan the Terrible swore to rule not only on the land controlled by the “Great Duchy of Moscow”, but also to rule equally on “maritime lands that belonged to our forefathers”[2]. He recognized the importance of the mission to unify lost Russian lands. If we take apart the divine mission or Marxist ideas of historical progress, there will be nothing left aside from a gravitation of collective memories. Nation or empire builders are much more of the prisoners of collective memories than creators and cynical manipulators of the masses. As the wise an ancient quote goes, “ducunt volentem fata, nolentum trahunt”– “Fate leads but the unwilling drags along” (Seneca 1925, 228-229).


I believe that we can trace these transformations, which often take grotesque and monstrous forms, to previous periods and observe how they grew out of the various traumatic memories. I found the term “patriotism of despair”, introduced by anthropologist Sergey Alex Oushakine, very elucidating. He researched this term in the Barnaul region in the 1990s and 2000s and came to the following conclusions: “New forms of social kinship emerged through a vocabulary of shared pain: the memory of blood and the memory of suffering seemed to merge in these forms of connectedness. It was this `patriotism of despair` that brought the country, the nation, and the traumatic experience together. A wounded attachment, the patriotism of despair deflected rather than healed pain. It was a promise of a community bound by the solidarity of grief. A community of loss, no doubt, but a community, nonetheless” (Oushakine 2009, 262). For this very reason I found it more probable that a “sentimental contract” based on this sort of shared memory is much more powerful than any official “narrative” in which the governmental manipulators tried to combine elements that can hardy fit together. The despair intensified by shared memory will always produce “patterns of behavior” that will terrify political technologists, professional historians, and the Holy Vatican. To paraphrase Nietzsche, any global memory is only a thin apple peel over a glowing collective memory brazed by shared pain.

 

P.S.: While working on this essay, I made a discovery about my family history on the archival site Podvig Naroda (https://podvignaroda.ru/?#tab=navHome).


Apart from the entry concerning my grandfather, the medal for courage achieved during the battle that took place on 12 January 1943, I suddenly discovered another entry in the “Irretrievable losses” section. A long list of the soldiers killed in the same battle included my grandfather’s data, his hometown Gzhatsk, the year of his birth, and his elder sister’s address in Moscow. Fortunately, it was a common mistake, as he had been heavily wounded and spent many months in the hospital. In some alternative world my father was never born and in the real world my aunt received a death notification stating that her brother died a heroic death on 12 January 1943 and was buried in the common grave on the board of Chernaya Rechka, in the outskirts of city of Leningrad. Their birthplace was a village near the small town of Gzhatsk in the Smolensk region, where Yuri Gagarin was born, 18 years after my grandfather. Gzhatsk was renamed Gagarin after his premature death but for me Gagarin’s exploit could hardly be separated from what one may call “Soviet Heroic myth”. No matter how huge this leap was for humanity and the professed “global memory”, the fact is that the falling of a small soldier from the town of Gagarin has existential value for me. And this sort of the document will always be more powerful and mind shaking than any history lesson “from the point of view of humanity”. By this I don’t mean my strictly subjective perspective or the existential fear of being never born, but the common value of the shared memories which have pivotal value for the whole “mnemonic community”. It’s no wonder that all the attempts to replace them with some sort of “nobody’s memory” are considered as an existential threat. Whether we wish it or not, we will certainly find ways to deal with this threat. As a poet put it, “Across the peaks of ages, over the heads of governments and poets”

 

Literature

 

Anderson, Benedict. (2006) Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London; New York: Verso.


Benda, Julien. (2011) The Treason of the Intellectuals. Translated by R. Aldington. New Brunswick; London: Transaction Publishers.


Bell, David A. (2001). The Cult of Nation in France. Inventing Nationalism. 1680-1800. Cambridge, Mas.: Harvard University Press.

 

Deleuze, Gilles. (1990).  The Logic of Sense. New York: Columbia University Press.


Ehrlich, Sergey (2023). Memory, Identity, and Imagination. The Structure of Behaviour from the Perspective of

Memory Studies

 

Figes, Orlando. (2007). The whisperers: private life in Stalin's Russia. London: Allen Lane.


Foucault, Michel (1984) What is Enlightenment? In Paul Rabinow(ed)  .T h e Foucault Rader , New York ,Pantheon Books , pp . 32-50.


Fukuyama, Francis (1992) The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press


Hanna, Martha (1996). The Mobilization of Intellect. French Scholars and Writers during the Great War. Cambridge, Mas.: Harvard University Press.

 

Latour, Bruno. (2004) Politics of Nature. Cambridge, Mas.: Harvard University Press.

 

Lyotard, François. (1984) The Postmodern Condition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

 

Nievergelt Caroline M. et al. (2018) Genomic Approaches to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: the Psychiatric Genomic Consortium Initiative. Biol Psychiatry. 2018 May 15;83(10):831-839


[1] The original French name of the chair founded and held by Michel Foucault in College de France was “Histoire des Systems de Pensée”.


[2] About the explanations that Staline gave to Eisenstein see Neuberger 2019.

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