The Importance of Memory

Friday, 26th June 2009 at 8:00 UTC 1 comment

Being in Berlin, even if only briefly, has reminded me of the importance of ‘Memory’, one of the major Generalised Issues* that the British sadly fail to make enough of a deal about. Its also made me wonder whether all airports should be torn down or not.

I would argue that the Generalised Issues are those concepts which connect the kind of issues most campaigns tackle. They include Memory, Space, Language, Dignity, Liberty to name a few (one day I shall attempt to index them all, for they are fairly finite). They are not the same as ideology, because there is never a hint of exclusivism between them; as such they are inherently more conceptional and only touch “the ground”, i.e. the daily struggles of our lives, through other issues. At some point I shall write something more extensive on what I mean by the Generalised Issues.

A definition of Memory should start out by saying that it is not quite the same as History, in which one is supposed to remain neutral, for like all the Generalised Issues, it is an area of intense struggle, in this case often over whether or not an event is remembered, let alone whether the correct details are committed to textbooks. It is also more about conscious notions of history, what people feel is there history, etc.

Being in Berlin, its interesting to see struggles for Memory all around. I encountered two areas of very intense struggle during my main day of sight seeing: The Berlin Wall and Templehof. I went to Potsdamer Platz and saw the memorials to the wall, along with another memorial marking the location of Europe’s first traffic lights (which were operated by switches controlled by a policeman for the first decade or so). Along the ground is a line of bricks set in the pavement and the road, marking the course of the wall.

The simple exhibition noted at one point that, after the Wall “fell”, there was an initial rush to destroy it for good, such was the animosity towards it. I can certainly understand this, but it would have done History a massive disservice, and destroyed a large amount of important Memory. The strip of no-man’s land has provided a number of building opportunities, and thankfully, in some places, parks. But more importantly, it has been a reminder of what damage Separation (as a political concept and process) can cause.

If I reflected on the horror of this wall, it was mostly the through the lens of my visit 3 years ago to Israel/Palestine and my limited experience at the checkpoints and around Israel’s Separation Barrier, a similarly understated incursion into human freedom and communication.

Later I went to Templehof, site of a very current struggle to save a Memory. Actually, Templehof is notable for several reasons, first of which is that it was the first truly modern airport, in which passengers were mostly isolated from the mechanics of the airport, instead being faced with eateries and shops, and in which planes pulled up close to separate departure gates (though the gangways of modern airports were never added). But far more notably, it was the airport through which the Berlin Airlift took place.

As I visited last night, a vigil to save the airport was underway. Its clear that the people there want the Memory of the airlift to remain vivid in the imagination of the average Berliner. There are other reasons people want to save the airport, some for purely commercial reasons, but it is this reason that I find most curious.

The building is vast, and was designed to resemble something of an Eagle in flight. Hitler wanted it to be a visionary gateway to the capital of the world. What it became was an iconic point in a very different struggle around Totalitarianism, and tied heavily to the other side of the struggle. To erase it from history books would be impossible, but to erase it from the conscious, social memory of the city would be something of a loss.

This perhaps makes me wonder on which side of the struggle for Memory I might find myself if we ever convince the world to shut down air transportation. Will I want to see these monstrosities of global negligence pulled down, a final kick in the teeth on behalf of the billions who by then will be suffering even more dramatic effects of climate change, or kept as a reminder that same thing: that once we sought to travel away from the Earth without consideration for those stuck at ground level. This all confuses me somewhat.

But we must remember that Memory is important. Often in struggles, Memory is what we have afterwards. We should remember the 15th February not out of a self-congratulatory desire to remember a feat of organisation and mobilisation, but as a reminder first that 2 million people took to the streets to oppose a war, but also because  of the negligence of a government that forgot this. If there were mass acts of disobedience in response to the proposal of future wars, we might well want to point back to this memory as the reason people have chosen to act in less passive ways, and not, as would likely be claimed, because these people have no respect for the rule of law.

In Nigeria, Memory is important because without it, we see the all the various militias simply murderous thieves, when in fact many are the logical, if desperately unfortunate, conclusion of a decade of struggles against Shell and other Oil Companies. One area where the struggle for Memory has been quite heavily lost is in the development of Africa. When I grew up, one explanation for poverty in Africa was a lack of resources. The fact is, Africa had so many resources, and it was for this reason that countries with good navies invaded.

So, Memory is vital to our understanding of ourselves, of where we’ve come from, of explaining the logic of certain struggles and in denying the futility of our own actions. And now I’ve written over 1000 words, I’m going to stop.

 

* With thanks to Dr Tadgio Muller for a useful discussion of this, in which he more or less dissuaded me from using the term “Meta-Issue” instead of “Generalised Issue”, and in which he made me try and defend my assertion these issues exist. I think I did a pretty terrible job, but then I’ve been out of formal academia for far too long already.

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Entry filed under: Activism, History, Media, Politics, Travel.

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