Photo Credit: Lim Ghee Yang

We Were Here, Will You Forget Us?

Is it bad to forget culture? Is there a point to endlessly accumulate or remember cultural information? Is there more to forgetting that we are missing out on? The implications for cultural erasure and forgetting are damning. On an international stage, however, perhaps there could be generative and restorative value in forgetting.

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Echoes off the Halls of Civilisation

Off the halls of civilisation, if you listen carefully, are echoes of people speaking in tongues that you and I cannot understand. Yes, cannot, not do not. The tongues of a time gone by, where the people could speak to the wind, and the wind could respond in kind. Others, of tongues that have been forcefully ripped away from the mouths of entire villages by settler-colonists. They mourn the loss of themselves and those that have come after them.

There is an ache associated with losing the intangible and unknowable. Something, someone, was here. All we can see is the phantasm they have left in their wake. For example, that sombre feeling you get when you scroll through the Wikipedia entry on the list of extinct languages

The question is, is forgetting culture bad? Is there a point to endlessly accumulating (or remembering) cultural information?

I will be looking at this issue from a general and macro point-of-view, discussing reasons against and for forgetting.

Ritual as Rebellion

Robert Lindneux’s 1942 painting of the “Trail of Tears”, signifying the forced movement of indigenous American tribes under 7th US President Andrew Jackson’s Administration. These displacements happened between 1830-1850, causing the deaths of thousands. | Photo Credit: Robert Lindneux

The Native Americans who were forcibly assimilated with their colonists would beg to differ with the opinion that the accumulation of culture is not important. After the relations between the newly independent nation and their ex-colonists normalised, American Founding Father George Washington constructed a plan to “civilise” the different tribes. What came after was the forced removal from lands, not holding up deals in land purchases, forced re-education and forbidding the use of native languages, and separation of children from their families.

The traumatic erasure of culture in such a manner leaves a bad taste in the mouths of a people, especially if their ancestral homeland was practically stolen from them. Place and language are two pillars that, if crumbled, bring the culture down along with it. It is no wonder the people who still remember cling on to their traditions harder than ever.

Remembering in the form of ritual allows a people to rebel against modernity and the accelerating forces that have erased their heritage. From their perspective, our ancestors reach into the future and tap on our shoulders, in the hopes that we turn around and grab on to them.

By reasoning that rituals have a different relationship with time, Han Byung-Chul, a philosopher and cultural theorist, explains this rebellion. They follow their own rules, pulsing differently than wider modernity. The total acceleration of information, communication, and production is impeded by the ritual. Should we not hold on to their outstretched hand, we might lose sight of our past.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Middle) and his fellow commissioners. | Photo Credit: Philip Littleton/AFP/Getty Images

In Judith Lütge Coullie’s writings on collective memory, she expressed that remembering the trauma inflicted during Apartheid on native South Africans allows for the people to “rise above the traumatic past and an uncertain present”. How? By remembering, victims of Apartheid were able to stand in front of a committee to tell stories of their family, friends, and themselves – of how they suffered just because of their skin colour. Perpetrators of violence detailed their crimes and were (controversially) granted full amnesty. And yet, despite a lack of retributive justice, remembering was an act of reconciliation, for both the victims and perpetrators alike.

Destruction as Creation as Destruction as Creation

French philosopher and historian Ernest Renan thought that although a key idea in nationhood is “that all individuals have many things in common”, the nation must also forget parts of its history, forming a certain collective memory: “Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of the nation”. To him, people are as connected to each other as they are by the things they have been coerced or chosen to forget.

Expanding on this sentiment, Lewis Hyde, a writer on memory looked to the Balkans where, for a long time, Muslim Bosniaks, Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Roman Catholic Croats coexisted peacefully. The collapse of Soviet Communism in the late 1980s meant that a vacuum was left in the wake of the disintegration of a belief system. The Serbian leaders, driven by opportunism, bigotry, and nationalist fervour, began to commit genocide against their Bosniak neighbours.

President Slobodan Milošević, addressing a million-strong crowd, making a speech that opened up old wounds. | Photo Credit: Imre Szabo

Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, who looked over the country from their existence as a Soviet satellite state to a post-Soviet republic, leveraged these winds. He invoked an ancient memory: Summer, 1389, Field of Blackbirds, Kosovo. The Christian Serbs, led by feudal lord Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic, were subdued by an army of Muslim Turks. For the next 400 years, the Ottoman Empire ruled over the land. In 1989, on the 600th anniversary of Kosovo’s fall, Milošević delivered an impassioned speech to a million Serbs. He spoke of heroism, dignity, and justice, all on the very field on which glory was lost.

American historian Henry Adams once called politics “the systematic organisation of hatreds“. Nazi “Crown Jurist” Carl Schmitt’s Concept of the Political revolved around this idea. To Schmitt, political association meant the absolute willingness to fight together with and die for your own – the absolute willingness to kill an Other simply because they are not of your group. Milošević, General Ratko Mladić, and many others have repeatedly fanned these winds. For 8,000 perished Bosniak men and boys, it would have been better if the Serbs had not reaccumulated that part of their culture. Had they forgotten certain portions of their past, perhaps the Balkan region might not have been so splintered.

In a similar vein, as political scientist Benedict Anderson pointed out, the American Declaration of Independence makes no reference to Christopher Columbus, Roanoke, or the Pilgrim Fathers. Hence, there was a “blasting open of the continuum of history”. In forgetting, a new nation was born.

Digital Accumulation

Fast forward to the 21st century where the secure transport of light makes information and its transfer more pervasive than ever. What does accumulation mean? 

Christine Abbt, a political philosopher, posits that digital forgetting is an integral part of remembering. Digital remembering involves knowing what pieces of information to even forget. In the age of information overload, to remember too much could be to forget as the information we retain might not be relevant to the situation we remember something for. It is a matter of focus. Although it might be true that people in the past who have had access to such information would have gone through the same issue of not being able to focus, the sheer number of people who have been elevated to that level of information force-feeding is unprecedented.

We no longer only perform daily rituals of remembering. Now, we also perform daily rituals of forgetting. This happens when we do our duty of overloading ourselves with excess information for no particular reason whatsoever. This glut of information overloads our brains, causing us to forget arbitrary information.

Instead of just “storing and calling up data”, to remember is to forget. Think: A tap flowing into a full container of water — the new is indistinguishable from the old. Although it does go without saying that this is not the only form of forgetting-remembering, it has gained prominence in the times we live in.

Is forgetting bad?

Because culture is constantly changing arbitrarily anyway, its loss is not inherently bad. We should not mourn it. Culture loss just is. Let us look at the phenomena of culture through Hegelian dialectics — wait, don’t run away. This is simple, I promise.

Hegel’s concept of dialectic was used as a guide for his logic, theory of knowledge, and metaphysics. It explained how things came to be and how they did not. Put simply (although Hegel had never used these exact terms), the dialectic is conceived in three stages: One, the thesis. Two, the antithesis. Three, the synthesis.

The dialectical process. | Photo Credit: Lim Ghee Yang

First, exists the thesis. Upon the introduction of the antithesis, what Hegel referred to as “sublation” occurs: simultaneous destruction and creation. Then, the thesis and antithesis in their pure forms are no more, and their synthesis appears. It retains elements of both theses and signals the existence of something new altogether.

The fact of the matter is that forgetting-remembering are two sides of the same coin.

Remembering to Forget

Let’s recap. The question at hand: Is cultural forgetting bad? My first point is yes, because remembering can be an act against arbitrary state power. My second point is no, because forgetting can be integral to peace in the modern nation-state.

My concluding point is that this is a loaded question. It assumes that a culture and its people are not already constantly forgetting itself. To think of culture as a monolith is misleading. People contain multitudes and are changing all the time. Within what we see as unitary entities, exist fractures that cannot be reconciled. Clans have blood feuds that go back generations, mountains have divided and isolated tribes, and symbolic exchange has been stunted by differences in language. Cultural forgetting is an apolitical, atemporal force of history.

On the international stage, forgetting is an important tool in cooperation among nations. Call it wishful thinking, but for me, the way forward is to forget. At the very least, selectively forget. I am afraid that if we do not, we will be weighed down, unable to cooperate on existential issues. It does, however, go without saying that this is a generalised statement and does not apply to all situations.

French philosopher Paul Ricoeur argues that we have a duty to both remember and forget. Coullie put it succinctly:

“The duty to remember is a duty to use the past as lessons for future generations; the duty to forget is a duty to go beyond anger and hatred (even though they – along with our fears – may, as Osborne [a playwright] suggests, haunt our dreams).”

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