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From “Cat Bask” to “Man on Wire” Politics: On the Paradox of Memory (with Rushkoff, Nietzsche, and Levinas)

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[“May Memories,” October 2020]

Too much memory can be a bad thing. It is in this spirit that Douglas Rushkoff writes of the societal danger of digital media as a problem of too much memory:

Digital media pushes us apart, but it also seems to push us backward. Something about this landscape has encouraged the regressive sentiments of the populist, nationalist, and nativist movements characterizing our time. These sentiments grow in an ecosystem fed by the other main bias of digital media: memory

…everything we do online is stored in memory. Whatever you said or did on your favorite social network or search engine is in an archive, timeline, or server somewhere, waiting to be retrieved by someone, someday. The unchecked exaltation of memory in a digital media environment, combined with a bias toward discrete boundaries, yields the political climate we’re witnessing… [Section 41 from “Team Human” by Douglas Rushkoff]

It is in this spirit too that Nietzsche bemoans the human condition:

‘…that he cannot learn to forget but always remains attached to the past: however far and fast he runs, the chain runs with him. It is astonishing: the moment…returns…as a spectre…Again and again a page loosens in the scroll of time, drops out, and flutters away — and suddenly flutters back again into man’s lap. Then man says ‘I remember’ and envies the animal which immediately forgets…’ (Nietzsche, On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life)

There’s no question that Rushkoff and Nietzsche show us the dangers of too much memory for living.

So what’s the solution? One popular move is to adopt a memory-overcoming approach to the political that strongly encourages us to get over the past:

Let bygones be bygones. Don’t cry over spilled milk. Out with the old in with the new. It’s all water under the bridge. Forgive and forget. In other words: Get over it!

Heck, if we are to go by sheer volume of maxims in the English language for the need to “move it along,” it seems we have struck upon a leading principle (spoken or unspoken) of American political life.

We can call this the “Cat Bask” approach to politics.

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[Image from Pixabay]

Following Nietzsches own frame (“…man says ‘I remember’ and envies the animal which immediately forgets”), Cat Bask politics is about aspiring to model our feline friends who are mostly entirely unphased by yesterday’s goings on (even spilled milk): “Let’s get on with the work of justice starting from…NOW! Let’s not worry too much about past injustices or we’ll never get anywhere!”

We can frame Charles Mills’ critique of Rawlsian liberal politics as precisely a charge of “Cat Bask” politics which trade in too much memory for too much forgetting. Rawls asks us to conduct thought experiments about ideally fair human communities. But he does not instruct us to build into those experiments the bloody ground upon which we stand.

Where Rawls asks us to think justice from an imaginary “original position,” Mills asks us to tarry in politics with our societal past of genocide and slavery. Surely “out with the old, in with the new” or “get over it” is not an appropriate response to the racially unjust pasts upon whose shores we continue to stand.

When it comes to politics, too much memory is a problem. But so is too little.

Which leaves us in a paradoxical bind.

Turns out that politics is a space of paradox. Unless you’re doing it wrong. Or to put it another way, here’s a good rule of thumb in politics: You know you’re doing it wrong when you find your way to easy, neat answers: “Allow the past to consume you!” or “Get over the past!” Both of these are inadequate responses to real human problems. Human politics — and human being — at its best is more like this:

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[Movie poster for “Man on Wire”]

This is the premise for my current project on a Levinasian Politics of Responsibility (and it shares elements in common with Mouffe on the democratic paradox, Connolly on agonistic politics, and Rushkoff’s own emphasis on the value of ambiguity in the human experience).

Levinasian politics is about the uncertainties, risks, and paradoxes of human and inter-human life. It is a politics that invites us to live from and into the pulse of precarity that is our defining strength because it is our defining vulnerability. It is a strength in vulnerability in which we are called upon to feel uncomfortable in the complex chasms between ourselves and our neighbors, between our presents and our pasts, and between our pasts and our futures. It is a call to work to alleviate our neighbors’ suffering even in the absence of easy answers. Always in the absence of easy answers.

And it has everything to do with living from the fact that violence springs from too much memory but also from too little. It is a “Man on Wire” politics. And it calls on us to comport ourselves in a spirit of fragility that’s harder and harder to find in contemporary American politics.

Written by

@sarahpessin | sarahpessin.com | professor of philosophy, University of Denver

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