BURYING THE DEAD, CREATING THE PAST1

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  • 1

    This essay is based on a lecture given at the II Congreso Internacional de Filosofía de la Historia, Reescrituras de la memoria social in Buenos aires, October 2006. research was funded by the Netherlands Organization of Scientific research.

ABSTRACT

Professional historians tend to be ambivalent about one of the prime historical phenomena of our time: the desire to commemorate. The amount of attention given to memory (collective or not) and trauma bears witness to the fact that historians really do want to give in to that desire; the fact that they treat these subjects in a rather “positivist” way suggests that they regard it as a bit improper to do so wholeheartedly. As a result commemoration is all over the place but is never taken as seriously as it should be. This essay argues that effective commemoration should start with a question Giambattista Vico might have asked: “who are we that this could have happened?” Posing this question means relinquishing the identity-enhancing, self-celebrating stance from which we tend to commemorate “unimaginable” events. Commemorative self-exploration is a confrontation with what we don't like to be confronted with: the fact that occasionally we behave in utter contradiction to what we regard as our identity. Heterodox, “monstrous,” and therefore Gedächtnisfähig behavior comes in three varieties: things we are proud of, things we are ashamed of, and the sublime “mutations” in which we “commit” history and embark on the unimaginable. Because sublime mutations change consciousness, commemorating them confronts posterity with almost insuperable epistemological difficulties. Commemorating sublime mutations means burying them—not in the sense of “covering” them, but in the sense of “inventing” a way in which they keep on living.

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