Sunday, June 10, 2007


When we remember, we do not recall a scene “as it was at the time.” We filter it through what has happened since. The same applies in reverse. When we look forward, whether with brightness or not, we know our visions will not materialise. They are filtered through what is happening now, and what has preceded it.

Reading the Guardian’s “Retro special” edition a couple of weekends ago, in which each decade from the 1950s to the 1990s was analysed by a person who lived through it, I was struck by the fact that the only article which rang false was the one about the decade I remember : the 90s. I was in the world during the 80s and remember bits, but I have no recollection of how time passed. I see its events only on a timeline. The 50s, 60s, and 70s passed without me ; I simply did not exist.

Yet I could paint a picture of each of these decades, a picture which would be recognisable to all, better than I could of the 90s or the 00s. A large chunk of my record collection predates 1980, the year in which I was born. Of course, I like a lot of music produced since, but honestly, anything produced after 1983ish (i.e. when my memories begin) lacks a certain mystique.

Our history has been posthumously generated, mainly by the culture industry. Some events are remembered, some forgotten. “Every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns,” warns Benjamin, “threatens to disappear irretrievably.” This careful production of history is a subjective process, undertaken by the ruling class and subscribed to by us, its subjects, but it turns into objective reality without anybody noticing.

Walter Benjamin’s description of the dialectic between past and present – “every epoch dreams its successor” – recalls Borges’ contention that Kafka created his own predecessors. But Borges’ seems the more satisfying. Theodor Adorno suggested to Benjamin that his statement implied three fallacies : that the epoch contains a collective conscious (in much the same way that some neurologists believe our consciousness emerges from neural processes) ; that it directly and diachronically relates to a Utopian future ; and that there can be a precisely delineated notion of “the epoch”. There is nothing of the social movement implicit in a dialectical view of history, no indication of shifting sands within socio-economic relations. In fact, it suggests that the thing which drives us from one epoch to the next is merely time.

Borges’s formula is better because it reverses the commonly held notion that, temporally, events and processes are created by their precedents, and suggests that it is precedents which are created by the present. We all know what we mean by “the 50s” or “the 60s,” even those of us who weren’t there to see them, because we have created them. This reversal corrects the second of Benjamin’s fallacies.

As for the first, we must distinguish between a collective consciousness and any notion of unity or (worse) solidarity. The former is a cover, reared by the ruling class, for the latter, which it wishes to divide. Unity is not a given, but can be achieved only through struggle. We could go further and say that the spoils won by the victors in the class struggle is the struggle itself. The dissipation of the working class as a unified group is one of the great victories of recent capitalism. Once, the notion of “collective consciousness” was class-driven : it was the proletarian revolutionary consciousness. Now, it is a blanket, thrown over each and every one of us while we sleep.


Benjamin became transfixed by Paul Klee’s 1920 painting Angelus Novus. It represented for him the angel of history, watching the past, trying to resurrect it, but propelled forward on a storm blowing from Paradise. “This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

We should like to do the same with our life stories. Pick out the good ones and discard the bad. Change the way we treated this person, or got treated by by that person. Turn pertinent details of a story into its main plot. Resurrect stories, re-build them, destroy them again. But we cannot, for we, like the angel, are pushed into the never-receding future, whether we want to or not.


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