On Nietzsche, Rousseau, and the diminishing marginal returns to memory.
Since the Holocaust, we have been told to “Never Forget” more atrocities than anyone can remember. Given that the technologically-aided memory capacity of global society has expanded so dramatically in only the past two decades—hardly a blip in geological time—it may be time to question this moral wisdom increasingly belied by its ubiquity.
At the root of this ethical commonplace is the assumption that the injunction “Never Forget” is logically followed by its declarative counterpart, “Never Again.” In other words, the positive relationship between memory and awareness on the one hand, and social progress on the other, is merely assumed.
A formidable philosophical tradition suggests the opposite may be true, but ultimately it is an empirical question. Luckily for us, as the world now has small armies of knowledge workers maintaining for their audiences perpetual collective awareness of atrocities past, present, and even future, it offers us a kind of natural experiment for observing whether the will to remember is as closely allied with the progress of social justice as many assume.
Is it possible there might exist a threshold of social awareness beyond which a remembering individual’s net contribution to social progress turns negative? And if it is possible that the globally super-charged and market-driven circulation of injustice awareness is pacifying our capacities in still poorly understood ways, then is it possible that today one of the most radically progressive gambits may very well begin with forgetting it all?
The educated cultures of the global North today are possessed by a certain will to remember—as if it is an obvious ethical pre-requisite of fighting for justice to be obsessed with information about injustices. But whence comes this peculiar will, and what exactly is its philosophy? The most charitable case one can make for it is that it is about the importance of awareness in the maintenance of justice. We must always be cultivating the most true, accurate, and balanced picture in our individual and collective minds, a rigorous accounting of all of the good and the bad, but especially the bad, so that fair historical redress may be served and that we may know evil well enough to prevent it from recurring in the future.
This perspective is reasonable enough, but when one watches a large number of individuals share horror after horror, over the course of several years, often about the same topics — is it not fascinating that some people come to specialize in curating particular genres of non-fiction political horror? — it becomes hard to believe that such individuals are operating under the belief that every extra “share” will decrease the probability of stopping the particular horror in which they specialize. It seems more likely that such individuals are simply addicted to the consumption and transmission of information about a particular genre of horror. Of course that is their prerogative, and it is as legitimate and reasonable a technique for coping with our human predicament as any, so I have no interest in shaming or stigmatizing this particular style of living among horrors and evils. I only wish to query when, where, and how anyone ever began to think that frenzied exposure to injustice information might be a method for stopping injustice from occurring in one’s society.
The naïve empirical model in which raising awareness is supposed to lead naturally to a reduction of the Bad Thing in society, was never to my knowledge seriously developed as a thoughtful and serious model of how attitudes and behaviors, let alone social structures, change — as if people first became convinced of this model and then chose to delve obsessively into consuming and sharing horrors. It seems more likely that a segment of the population who, because of their own history and personality, prefer to cope with internet-age info-glut through publicly shaming wrong-doers, happened to connect with an equally large segment of the population whose preferred way of coping is of the masochistic variety. In this positive symbiosis, the culture of hyper-awareness as activism emerges only as a self-flattering and wishfully-thinking motive imputed to what is simply an evolutionarily selected way of surviving—that is, continuing—the particular equilibrium of the social and political status quo.
One good piece of evidence in favor of this interpretation can be found in what economists call “diminishing marginal returns.” One might believe that informing someone of a horror they did not already know about is indeed a useful and mutually empowering, progressive speech act. Maybe even sharing that piece of information a second time might be a useful way to make sure the message was definitely heard by everyone in one’s audience. But it is in the nature of information itself that every time a piece of information is repeated, it contains less and less, well, information. Famously defined by Gregory Bateson as “a difference that makes a difference,” information is information only to the degree that it sparks in a receiver something not already sparked. Beyond a certain point, by definition the circulation of information about horrors cannot be justified by the necessity of spreading awareness simply because every additional share brings diminishing marginal returns to the production of awareness. The degree to which certain people can share certain classes of information so frequently for so long, testifies to how little this phenomenon has to do with information and how much it must have something to do with the compulsion to share.
On closer inspection, then, what appears to be a model of ethical behavior based on a certain assumption about how the world and social progress function, may actually be a contingent configuration of two very particular ways of being ill, which, because of the satisfactions it gives rise to and the scale at which these satisfactions can be generated, is simply given a presumed empirical model naïvely back fit to legitimate and secure these interlocking symptoms. The will to cope and survive is certainly fair enough, the problem is that it begins to teach others, and the next generations, that this is not just a way of coping with the existence of evil and horror within the human condition, but that it is actually a model for ethical and political goodness. This is the arrogant and debilitating collective self-harm that I would like to target in the politics of political information sharing today. This is why, in a certain sense and under certain conditions, it may not only be defensible but ethically courageous and politically progressive to re-learn with a new vengeance the old fine art of forgetting.
It is likely that the will to remember became a feature of modernity in that swirl of eighteenth-century rationalist energies we now call the Enlightenment. But it was probably Rousseau who first laid the basis for a modern opposition to memory as a socially enforced imperative. In eighteenth-century France, the Encyclopédistes were setting out to collect and organize all of the world’s knowledge in their proud belief that the promotion of understanding and rationality was an obvious path to social and political progress. This was also a time when the key sites of cultural and intellectual life were still the famous salons. The salon was all about measured and quick-witted sophistication; participants would memorize cleverly crafted repartee in anticipation of the buzzwords with which they would be confronted. It is hard not to note the equivalents in contemporary culture, where as enlightened netizens we pride ourselves on having all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips.
Similarly today, one can usually predict quite well, simply by Facebook circulation, which world catastrophe one’s dinner party will expect one to know and care about on a particular evening, allowing us to recite lines we have already practiced online. Indeed, it is increasingly clear how much web content comes from a can of memorized repartee assorted and measured to fit the various genres of catastrophe, as if people wake up each day hoping to find the persistence of the horror in which they specialize, given how carefully they have prepared for it to never end. This is especially true and troubling with respect to the rise of paid, career writers whose “beat” is one of our diffuse and deeply ingrained types of socio-political evil, such as patriarchy or white supremacy. We now have relatively large armies of commentators who are in some crucial sense, no matter their most sincere convictions, invested in the persistence of certain deep and difficult social problems. Of course it is not that this army of content-producers caused the problems of their focus, my point is only that the way social problems arrange us psychologically and behaviorally, especially in a market society, may be capable of blocking the dynamics of personal, interpersonal, and ultimately social change for which one may sincerely be fighting.
The incapacity to forget oneself as a socially respectable problem-solver leads one to repress in oneself and others all of the psychological and behavioral needs or desires of the human animal which do not look like the socially-sanctioned appearance of problem-solving. But because deep social problems are almost always systemic—that is, they are usually an inextricable feature of larger patterns which define our most basic sense of what we call reality—whoever commits too completely to performing moral goodness comes to function as a law enforcer of the intellectual and emotional dimensions of the status quo. In his own language, Rousseau made exactly this argument, and it was demonstrated most convincingly in the waves of historical change which would follow his life.
Because he was a provincial from Geneva, Rousseau knew he would never be able to match Diderot or Voltaire in their vain performances of memorized alienation. He admitted he had only “a little memory” (“mon peu de memoire,” he called it). He tried reading selections of the Confessions to Parisian salons but they fell flat, probably because one of his main points was to explore psychological realities repressed and denied by the political ethics of superficial politesse and disingenuous honnête, precisely the ethics of the salon. Instead, Rousseau’s intellectual strategy was to embrace his poor memory and run with it, turning over the tables on his way out, as it were. “A state of reflection is a state contrary to nature, and… a thinking man is a depraved animal,” he would famously write in the Discourse on Inequality. Rousseau was mercilessly castigated and ostracized for such scandalous pronouncements against the march of cultivated rationality; he suffered a kind of social punishment most contemporary intellectuals in the wealthy liberal countries rarely, if ever, risk. But his disregard for what the well-bred were busy remembering was at the core of everything that made his philosophy and life concretely and empirically revolutionary and progressive, as he became an explicit inspiration in the French Revolution and the entire intellectual and ethical tradition we now call Romanticism.
If it was Rousseau who taught modernity the perniciousness of cultivation and the political power of disregard, it was Nietzsche who sketched the most vivid portraits of what might be the polar opposite of the pious memorializer. In contrast to serious and all too human students of history, Nietzsche taught, individuals who act toward important goals with passion and commitment are exceptional primarily in their capacity to somewhat sociopathically ignore whatever would threaten to interrupt their motion forward. In the Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche writes, citing a phrase from Goethe, that the person who acts is, “always without a conscience, so is he also always without knowledge; he forgets most things so as to do one thing, he is unjust towards what lies behind him, and he recognizes the rights only of that which is now to come into being and no other rights whatever.” In this view, living so as to be a good person in good conscience becomes an ethical horror in itself, for it is effectively a willfull commitment to changing nothing plus the dishonesty of retroactively labeling this paralysis a passion for social justice.
But note how this is not to invoke such cynical mantras as “you have to get your hands dirty in order to get things done.” Most people who speak such phrases are in bad faith, disingenuously exploiting the fact that action implies injustice to beautify whatever ethical atrocities they tend to commit. When a politician spends an entire career accepting bargains from devils in order to maintain their own power and deliver crumbs to their constituency, and then they package their moral degeneracy as heroic sacrifice of their privileged idealism, this is not Nietzschean realism. This is a much older lifestyle practice for which we have a different technical term. It is called lying. They are obeying status quo values, entering status quo positions, to receive status quo rewards (denominated in status quo values) through their offer of crumbs to constituents. When they claim to be making the difficult choices required of them, they are merely exploiting a simple fact nobody can ultimately deny and on the basis of which we already forgive our politicians in advance—the idea that effective action requires some injustice—to define their self-interest as a public good.
Memory creates a circuit between possibility and perception; it reduces the infinite possibilities of what a perception might turn out to be, to that which it is most likely to be, based on past experiences. Obviously, this serves a crucially valuable function for the human being, for it reduces the unfathomable complexity of an infinitely rich reality to a simpler, manageable number of possibilities which we are able to learn and conquer. This conquering which memory permits has allowed for the survival of our species, but in an era where now thinking subjects are the ones who are being conquered by economic and political institutions, memory ceases to serve the survival function that was its raison d'être and becomes little more than a sado-masochistic ritual to help pacified populations pass the time. When we consider the basic psychological function of memory but apply it to events over which atomized individuals have no control, hyper-awareness of atrocities can do nothing other than conserve and ultimately enforce them as the most likely of an infinite number of possible, virtual futures. Memory has come to function as a prohibition on the collective creation of futures in which these atrocities will not exist.
It is not a matter of valorizing fantasy over hard-nosed empirical realities, as if we have the right to a greater quotient of delusion simply to make life more tolerable; it is rather that we achieve the most comprehensive faithfulness to empirical reality only through a certain distance from mere facts. The obsession with facts and events over-attunes us to certain empirical data and under-attunes us to other empirical data, namely the equally real facts of our immediately physical, emotional, and psychological lifeworlds. While the overall balance of effects is still debated, it is increasingly well documented that contemporary internet culture has certain deleterious effects on our personal and our social psychologies and behaviors. The point is not to add yet more sweeping assertions about the effects of digital culture on society, it is rather to highlight how, for the netizen passionate about social justice, the actual and currently on-going effect that contemporary hyper-awareness is having on millions of people is, for some reason, not admitted into the orbit of their seemingly passionate concern.
The reason, I hypothesize, is that social justice netizens are exactly those who have most fully forgotten how to forget, for how else could this rather peculiar way of relating to the world become for some an almost full time vocation? An awareness so saturated with facts of horror that it is unable to take flight from the weight of history even enough to feel and observe what is happening to oneself and those in one’s immediate vicinity. Or worse, a heavy awareness so crushing that even when one periodically feels and observes what is happening to one’s own relation to the world, one no longer feels oneself worthy or deserving of becoming more vital and joyous one day in the future. If this sounds harsh, I am able to write it only because I can identify it in myself as much as I observe it others.
I have a friend who spent many weekends last year volunteering at the refugee camp in Calais, making the daylong drive from the south of England. I happen to be in a text-messaging group with this friend and a few others. One Saturday, while my friend was busy trying to save lives, I sent this group a really funny joke. No, really, it was extremely funny. Of course my friend trying to save lives was unable to respond to my frivolous delight. It immediately occurred to me that such a meaningless amusement was criminally childish of me given that I too could have been out trying to save lives with my friend. My weekend was free and I was consciously choosing to idly enjoy it instead of helping to save lives. In some terrible sense, I was choosing to let the refugees suffer. Of course there are plenty of less offensive ways to rephrase this fact, but I am not sure they would be any more honest or politically useful than all the retrospective rationalisations I have already rejected above. If one possesses a paralyzed over-saturation of awareness, as I suspect many of us do, then one would need to forget a certain amount of suffering in order to live a life that might one day become worthy of that suffering. One must pass through to the other side of suffering rather than organize oneself around it simply because one cannot sit still in its proximity. To live up to others' suffering, one must live freely and fearlessly in the first place so as to have something meaningful to expend toward a radically different world to come, but now. I did not believe refugees in Calais needed the presence of my overworked, alienated, exhausted friend to help their prison function somewhat more humanely so much as they need us, and other residents of the wealthy countries, to sincerely become human enough that nobody from our ranks would be capable of the highly refined sociopathy required to repel refugees from a national border at gunpoint.
Again one notes a certain perversity in the distribution of memory and sociopathy. My dear and blessed friend who cannot not try to help the refugees in Calais is incapable of the mild sociopathy of enjoying a relaxing weekend because they are highly faithful to their memories of human suffering; this absorbs their resources for flourishing in their own life and they call it working for justice; with institutional support the border police confer to themselves an extreme sociopathy and an absolute forgetting of suffering, which also destroys their humanity, and they also call it working for justice. What if the real problem here is something so inane that we cannot remember it precisely because the public sphere is so heavy with bad memories that the light ones fear punishment for playing? I have begun to believe that the real, core problem in this example is not the refugee crisis but the fact that my friend and the border police are so willing to work on the damn weekends. My friend should be with me so I do not have to text them poor substitutes for intimacy, so they do not have to feel so anxious about whether their lonely heart is doing enough good for the world, and so that we might one day become so collectively alive and healthy and bonded that we might just start tearing down fences simply because we forgot why they are supposed to be there. And if all the border police cared enough for themselves to take the weekend off, they might just gain some real memories of their own — as if they would pick up the ones dropped by my friend if only my friend could let go of a few. They might remember, for example, that perhaps they always had been planning to quit that job, anyway.