On Forgetting

I have a leaky memory, perforated in such a way that I remember idiosyncratic details and forget important ones. For instance, when it comes to Kenyatta’s biography, I remember he was circumcised by missionaries. I could not tell you when he joined KCA or the name of his lawyer during his trial. In Foucault’s History of Sexuality, I remember an anecdote about an “idiot” who engaged in “milking” games with young girls. To remember Foucault’s notion of biopower, I need to return to the text. In some ways, this is unremarkable. I learned to read at a time when “margins” and “idiosyncratic” details had a certain life to them, though it had waned considerably. And my favorite thinkers have an eccentric edge to them—Freud and Lacan are nothing if not attentive to the “edges,” at times frustratingly so.

Biography runs away with me.

I have been thinking about what it means to remember and to forget in an era when the promise “never to forget” seemingly punctuates every event. I think here of the Embassy bombing in Nairobi, the more recent plane accidents being memorialized on kbw, and, of course, on this infamous anniversary, 9/11. With the exception of 9/11, in which memory is engraved on the date, perhaps the most ingenious way to ensure remembering, I cannot tell you when the other events I have mentioned occurred. Not without some judicious online searching.

Does my forgetting exact dates matter? To veer into biography again, I ask this as one who has no clue when his father died. I consider the date meaningless and choose to remember him on his birthday, because it is conveniently a few days before mine, and even then I forget.

Is forgetting an intellectual or emotional process? If not dates, do we mean we will never forget how we felt during a certain moment? If so, isn’t that a little wishful? We begin to forget how we feel about events moments after they happen—feelings are nothing if not temporal. And the persistence of certain feelings, Freud tells us, should be understood as pathological. For that matter, scientists have begun to map the temporality of “falling in love,” attributing feeling to chemicals.

Within political discussions, memory is often invoked in a prophylactic way—we remember so we won’t repeat—and, more recently, as justification for war. Memory takes on a moral imperative and a retaliatory edge. Yet, even my use of memory here is imprecise, and our injunctions “never to forget” often acquire a coherence that bears no relation to the emotions we experienced.

Indeed, if we take the injunction “never to forget” seriously, we invite not order, coherence, or purpose, not recriminations or justifications, but the gamut of reactions that range from the most extreme forms of trauma to apathy and indifference. We come up against the meaningfulness of remembering, in which some of us believe certain historical events still live on in the present while other believe we have moved on.

In the past (a few blog posts ago, that is), I have challenged those who choose not to remember or, more precisely, refuse the imperative to remember events they may not have experienced. But I am nothing if not a learner (typical pattern: refuse, fight, think, attempt some form of compromise). What might be the value of indifference? Or, since I actually do believe indifference is violent, what might be the value of blankness? (Anyone who has tried to explain math to “people like me” understands the term blankness.)

Is there something to learn from forgetting? Perhaps a form of grace, a way of being and continuing in the world, perhaps the value of cultural amnesia.

I have no answers. But in a world where the injunction “do not forget” has become an obligatory way to think about the after-life of events, I am compelled to ask why.