Notes on September 11
Kim Benston

Memory, Unit 1: Summary of 1st Discussion; Questions for Discussion #2

Why do we remember the past and not the future?
--Stephen Hawking

In reviewing my notes from our conversation, I found three themes that can serve as organizing frameworks for openended summation: (1) "history" and "memory" as contrasting (but also overlapping) modes of "truth"; (2) "tradition" as necessity and problem; (3) "reading" as the site of "choice." The following mnemohistorical distortion--for which I indulge no "fantasy of atonement"--outlines our remarks under these rubrics.


Spurred by David's concern that we probe the relation of "history" and "truth" posed by Assmann's effort to disentangle events from their inscription in cultural memory, and guided by Kathleen's parsing of Assmann's distinction between positivistic historicism ('just the facts, Ma'am') and genealogical critique (wherein, as Maris put it, "truth" tropes a "will-to-power"), we began by asking whether "mnemohistory" works properly as a radical perspectivism, utterly displacing any imagined grasp of the past in recognition that every interpretandum is already an interpretation, or as what Foucault terms an "effective" historiography, seeking to account for interpretation's material consequences while resisting any determinist demand for 'empirical' validation (to refigure Paul's Mead-inspired explication of historical experience 'from the standpoint of social behavior,' if it's looked to folks like a duck & sounded to folks like a duck, then even if it's "really" a decoy it's substantially been a duck). But whether he seeks to suspend or supplement normative assumptions about "the truth of the past," Assmann stakes his project on the perception that objects and events ought best be viewed, not in detachment from their social meanings (that fetishization of discrete information by which positivism reveals its secret passion for metaphysics), but in light of the meanings imposed upon them by that relentlessly 'historical' creature, 'man' (cf. The Use and Abuse of History).

By thus forging what Foucault might term an "alienating history" capable of making strange settled stories of the past, Moses the Egyptian arguably enjoins us to risk a genuinely critical grasp of modernity by interrupting forms of memory that assume an easy link between our/western 'origins' and their ghostlier demarcations in the present (specifically, vis. the legacy of monotheism, of which more below). Nevertheless, Assmann's endeavor remains perhaps a bit uneasy asserting itself as an oppositional practice vis. conventional historiography, which he evidently regards more as an alternative than an antagonist to mnemohistory: Nietzsche/Foucault may abet but they do not define the 'dispersive' trajectory of Assmann's defamiliarized account of "Moses"'s production, reception, and dissemination. Doug noted that such anxiety

likewise characterizes Freud's own revision of the Moses myth, though

Moses & Monotheism's exploration of the gap between 'real events' and "the man" whose contours exceed those events' own verifiable limits offers a different calculus of "history" and "truth." Stepping gingerly onto historiography's proving ground, Freud displays considerable concern that the "statue" of his grander reconceptions not wobble on "feet of clay" but rest firmly on the foundation of "scientific" explanation. Not merely at the level of generic ambivalence ("historical novel"), but in the vagaries of its expressive narration (riddled as it is with repetitions, vacillations, revisions) and interpretive blindspots (Mosaic texts are here not so much 'read' as rewritten, their uncanny power not so much experienced as displaced and, possibly, appropriated), Moses & Monotheism becomes itself a "tendentious revision," that mode of motivated "distortion" that, as Tina observed, defined not just Freud's view of biblical representation but indeed Freud's hermeneutic revolution per se. Freud's text is for us exemplary not so much in its argument as in its dividedness, oscillating as it does--in audacious, moving, often disturbing ways--between universalizing pattern (religion's devolution from the primal Father's overthrow and its ever-repeating aftermath) and (semi)contingent detail (the murder of Moses as repressed catalyst of western culture's 'great leap forward'), scientistic aspiration (psychohistoricism as a dispassionate 'analytic' of objectively scrutinized events) and 'subrational' fascination (the persistent eruption of what Tina termed emotive 'intensities' into the text's discourse, especially in the form of magic and matriarchy)* , phylogenic and ontogenic explanations of cultural identity (ancestral inheritance as generalized neurosis arising from collective repression and as discrete choice demarcating one clan's capacity for "higher pursuits" from another's), and Lamarckian and liberal views of self-realization (Judaism as indelible "character" transmitted generationally despite ideological variations, and individual Jews--the first Moses, Paul--as radical innovators in a people's relation to inherited paradigms of belief and praxis). Inevitably, the pursuit of "historical truth" through and within Moses & Monotheism takes many paths, many of which Doug helped us traverse:

From Debra:

1) I was interested in the way these narratives become self-flexive; that is, to the extent that they are themselves histories, they (re)enact their own theoretical suppositions. I'm thinking here particularly of the aphoristic in Benjamin and Nietzsche as determining how and what we remember.

I was troubled by the Assmann in this respect: it seemed to me to erase difference in posing the argument that the particular or essential quality of Jewishness (i.e. monotheism) was, in fact, not Jewish at all but derived from this obscured history, which seems in a curious way to elide the history that it means to confront. And I was reminded of Derrida's "Of Spirit", which has also been seen as problematic in this respect.

2) I am always taken by the "in-betweenness" of Benjamin, that is, his ability to sustain the elliptical, the enigmatic, the mysterious, or what is in some sense the sacral, within a framework of thought that seems of a kind with but demonstrates a certain resistance to Nietzsche and Foucault.

From Maris:

1. On what grounds can the parallelism Freud and Assmann (and to some degree Nietzsche) posit between the individual and the collective be justified?

2. Assmann suggests a tripartite repressed memory that explains anti-Semitism. What are the mechanisms by which such a memory would be transmitted for thousands of years?

3. In suggesting a rationale for anti-Semitism, does Assmann impart a rationality to Anti-Semitism that it doesn't deserve? To what extent can his argument (about exclusivity if not monotheism) be generalized to explain other hatreds?

4. Does history suffer from too much information (Benjamin) or too many facts (Nietzsche), or do these authors possess an unjustified and unjustifiable faith in the "science" of history?

5. Can mnemohistory just be a branch of history (Kathleen's question)?

From Kathleen:

1. About Christian narrative and liturgy: is it something more or something different from, as you put it in your introductory remarks from 8/1, a "revisionary extension" of the Exodus text? (Steve??, Dave??)

2. Does cultural antagonism take the same form in other cultures than those informed by the Biblical text? Is cultural difference especially about what a culture holds most sacred differently negotiated? (Maris??, Michael??)