He wondered if he did not want to take possession of what she knew, more by forgetting than by remembering. But forgetting… It was necessary that he, too, enter into forgetting.
Maurice Blanchot, Awaiting Oblivion
Some twenty years ago, I remember taking a night stroll with my favourite uncle, an anarchist ideologue. It was a time of great prosperity; Greece had never felt wealthier. Gone was the civil war, the junta and the early populist socialism. The left-wing terrorists of 17th of December were about to be arrested and brought to justice. My dad’s middle-class colleagues had become big names in the press industry. They’d bought houses, opened boutiques for their provincial wives and placed large photographs of their spoiled brats in shiny golden frames. As we walked home, my uncle suddenly stopped.
“You know what the problem is?” He said. “People have forgotten. They have forgotten everything this country went through.”
Yet today stripped of materialistic barriers, the memory of middle-class Greeks has finally awakened. In the midst of the financial crisis, they suddenly remember the glorious heroes of the Greek revolution, the nationalist government before World War II, the heroic battles against the Italians in the Albanian mountains, the civil war, the military junta and the student insurrection that overthrew it. They remember Aris Velouchiotis, the heroic captain of the guerilla Greek Liberation Army, dictator Papadopoulos and his April 21st regime, Karamanlis and Papandreou (those “great” political men of the post-junta era).
With the media spewing national history around the clock, everyone – from extreme right fascists to the radical left dreamers and even up to the puppet coalition government – is speaking in the name of the dead. Packaging history in portions fit for an empty consciousness, feeding voters with the sweet fruit of recollection; platonic reflexes to the painful stimulus of aporia[i] escaping the fear of an oblivious present by digging up, disjoining, dislocating and disseminating the past.
We never allowed for a present deprived of mnemonic foundations. We took great precautions to relate oblivion to animal life, madness, immorality or even alienation. However, all philosophical legitimizations aside, our inclination to memory seems to be upheld by something as instinctual as what we once named as oblivion. Up to our necks in debt, our tongues coated in spleen: hysterical, suicidal and delusional, we Greeks remember as if we are forgetting.
I remember taking a second glance at my uncle. I saw a petty bourgeois high school teacher with a bad conscience. Absent from all those things he claimed “we” had forgotten, utterly incapable of dealing with the present.
But I have recently heard that we are all Greeks. So we remember Weimar, as we remembered 1789 when watching Tahrir Square from a little live-stream square placed on the square of our laptop screens. The hypocrisy of the évènement being its own announcement, we have materialized the kingdom of forms so cunningly, we can afford the luxury to think that it is still all about us.
What were we re-living through the Occupy Wall Street movement or the Syntagma Square riots? Something reminded us of something else: some place we had not been, of some conjuncture that someone mentioned sometime ago. While Marx spoke of class-consciousness, we strive to retain a Marxist-consciousness of different shapes and sizes. But, in contrast to the essential deprivations of the proletariat class, the class to which all of us belong has things lose: cars, houses, laptops, degrees.
Are we forgetting something? And what are we reconstructing through this inclination to remember events that happened in our absence? What do “we” expect?
They say the economy in the age of finance is all about expectations. What the others expect us to be, what we expect us to be, what we expect the others to be (the whole financial metaphor of inspiring “trust” in international markets). Expectations are debts; we owe their fulfillment. This is why the consequences of an insolvency crisis are never confined to the level of finance. Instead, everything becomes finance. In Greece, everyday is a balance of financial and existential terror. Only this time, the collateral is our own identity.
The battle to be who we are is a genuine Sisyphean task: we fail in order to succeed. Our petty-bourgeois habits seek only economically viable alternatives and this is exactly why our failure is experienced as mere irrationality, as the lack of any alternative. From that point of view, IMF papers can be particularly enlightening:
Whereas foreign lenders are not necessarily blameless, in the first instance it is the debtor country’s past governments and perhaps current government that are responsible. Of course, there often is a huge desire to pin the blame elsewhere. In fact, one of the IMFs primary roles in a crisis is often to serve as a lightning rod for domestic unrest, thereby giving the government cover to implement austerity measures that would, in fact, have been harsher in the IMF’s absence.[ii]
Our failure lacks any symbolic counterpart. Hence, we vote for governments we openly despise; hence, we secretly dress our social democratic alibis in revolutionary bordello shoes.[iii] The Left is still fighting the government and the government still governs. Everything remains marginally the same, at a razor’s edge. Only this time, the collateral is our own identity and we cannot restore it; because in the long run, we are all dead, to quote Keynes’s famous phrase.
Remembering is today’s oblivion. A present-erasing past incessantly evoked in the face of something utterly indifferent to its legacies. Of something that does not speak yet is patiently constructed through the implosive memory shards of history. Comprised of everything we know and of everything we almost are: the present, a face unrecognizable and quickly forgotten.
Here is the beard of Aris Velouchiotis; and the moustache of that dictator Papadopoulos; Karamanlis’ hairy eyebrows and Mitsotakis’s morbid smile; the stripes of King George the 2nd, and Papandreou’s trademark Zhivago sweater. I am sure I can see a piece of my uncle in there, too.
Image by Myrto Stamatelou
[i] The literal meaning of aporia being “the lack of resources.”
[ii] Kenneth Rogoff, “Austerity and the IMF”, The Fifth Annual Richard H. Sabot Lecture, The Center of Global Development, April, 2010.
[iii] I am mostly referring to the Greek radical left party that managed to gain an unforeseen percentage in the June 2012 elections, forming the government’s opposition. One cannot bypass its imploding social democratic undertones, as the prospect of gaining power becomes all the more real…