"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Against Collective Memory

I'm finishing revisions to a lecture I gave just over a year ago now at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota on salutary oubliance, that is on the uses of forgetting as a deliberate means of advancing Christian unity in certain cases, including the absurdly stalled Byzantine-Oriental Orthodox dialogue.

In doing so, I am returning to works I discovered and noted on here a couple of years ago now, including those of David Rieff (whose fascinating book I discussed in three parts) and Bradford Vivian, one of the earliest authors to raise the question of why we insist on so much remembering when forgetting might be more useful.

We in the East have, as I argued here, far too much history--more than we can bear--on any number of topics, including the Council of Chalcedon, the Crusades, the Council of Florence, and the Union of Brest. The refusal to let go of some of these bogus historical narratives and grievances blocks the way towards any kind of reconciliation and unity--which is the whole point of hanging on to such pathologies in the first place, making them, in the very apt phrase of Vamik Volkan, a "chosen trauma."

Vivian has a new book out, and it is one I think Eastern Christians should pay attention before we continue, too glibly, to mouth that most tiresome of clichés about being condemned to repeat the past if we do not remember and bear witness to its horrors: Commonplace Witnessing: Rhetorical Invention, Historical Remembrance, and Public Culture (Oxford UP, 2017), 248pp.

About Vivian's book we are told:
Commonplace Witnessing examines how citizens, politicians, and civic institutions have adopted idioms of witnessing in recent decades to serve a variety of social, political, and moral ends. The book encourages us to continue expanding and diversifying our normative assumptions about which historical subjects bear witness and how they do so. Commonplace Witnessing presupposes that witnessing in modern public culture is a broad and inclusive rhetorical act; that many different types of historical subjects now think and speak of themselves as witnesses; and that the rhetoric of witnessing can be mundane, formulaic, or popular instead of rare and refined. This study builds upon previous literary, philosophical, psychoanalytic, and theological studies of its subject matter in order to analyze witnessing, instead, as a commonplace form of communication and as a prevalent mode of influence regarding the putative realities and lessons of historical injustice or tragedy. It thus weighs both the uses and disadvantages of witnessing as an ordinary feature of modern public life.

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