Having just reread the previous four iterations of this column, I’d like to ask the readers to forgive me for having been so grandiose and sweeping. Particularly since I have no intention of calming down, at least for now. For I hope you’ll agree that columns tend to look pretty lacklustre when they’re punctilious and grounded, as opposed to grandiose and sweeping. In terms of content, the sweeping drift of this column has attempted to trace, through a sweeping variety of examples, how a conversation on institutional memory sooner or later runs up against the equally vexed matter of institutional responsibility. And vice versa and so on. Which is a deeply abstract and indeed pretty lacklustre point to make. And this, for its part, has pushed me to be even more grandiose than usual, in a struggle to keep my readers’ attention.
Maybe I’m spending too much time at the Center for Curatorial Studies, from where I am writing this column, and where we don’t take these things lightly. Questions of whence, where and whither are taken to excruciating lengths, as the history of curating, and the implications of this narrative for institutional accountability in today’s field, is revisited time and again. CCS aside, it’s true that calls for a return to history, even to the canon, have generally been louder of late. Yet on a deep-seated, hard-wired, gut-level plane of thinking and doing, I would say that amnesia remains the working premise par excellence, simply because we really do believe we’ll inevitably be forgotten in turn. A kind of self-fulfilling mise en abîme. Fuck’em before they’re fucking you.
A quick comparative glance at the political arena might be helpful. This is where preoccupations of this kind are rarely a lacklustre, let alone abstract affair. Politics are always, to some degree, a dramatic struggle to foster popular demand for one particular history or other. This is particularly visible when it comes to readings of colonial histories, such as the crypto-biblical subtexts of West Bank settlements, for example. Or when political priorities are translated into government monuments and public facades. When I was studying at the University of Geneva, for example, it had several hundred Greco-Roman columns, and oversized Calvinist statues, and heroic busts of regional founding fathers, complete with stubby swords and terrific wigs. All of which masked the university’s complex, cosmopolitan past, which remained completely unknown to us students.
One can understand why a university wants to look monolithic, especially when it’s as insecure as Geneva, but acknowledging one’s true debts to the institutional past becomes all the more pertinent in the embattled context of public universities today. ‘Monumental struggle’ suddenly takes on a whole new double meaning. How fitting that, etymologically speaking, the Latin ‘monere' means both to remind and to warn, a both descriptive and proactive affair. Ironically, it’s among those Calvinist statues that as a comparative literature student I was introduced to critical theory, a discipline where memory and responsibility are routinely addressed as the grounds enabling the other to unfold respectively. To this end, a wide range of humanities scholars, from deconstructivists to theologians, have adopted an astonishing range of working concepts such as ‘mysterium tremendum’, which, rest assured, I will not even attempt to explicate here.
Colonialism, Euro-chauvinism and mysterium tremendum aside, consider the more banal and humdrum case of Alain Juppé, Prime Minister of France in the mid nineties, who was accused of neglected campaign pledges, and simply stated les promesses n’engagent que ceux qui y tiennent. Roughly: ‘Promises bind only those who cling to them.’ Only a few years later, Juppé was in jail for embezzlement. Which makes him a great case in point for the karmic, ‘cannot-escape-the-past’ view on the politics of memory. The notion that even if you abdicate responsibility towards the ghosts of the past, this will only allow them to screw you over all the more. A bit like Malaria. Or the Republican Party. What makes Juppé a particularly interesting example, however, is that he is now happily back in power, and what exactly this implies will be sweepingly explored in an even more grandiose column in two months’ time.
Tirdad Zolghadr is a writer and curator, who teaches at the Center for Curatorial Studies/Bard College, New York.