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The Past as a Territory of a Conflict

1. On the protagonists of the issue.

It is far from obvious or self-evident that some sort of diachronic communities of human beings exist, made up of individuals who share some variant of a common identity thanks to which they would be able to establish a link with each other through history, allowing the present-day individuals to benefit from specific past knowledge. Few things, of course, have been more hotly debated in recent times than the notions of the subject (or subjectivity) and identity (on any scale), although this chapter will not attempt to reconstruct, however briefly, this debate.

Nevertheless, it would be worthwhile to at least comment that the mere existence of this debate seems to indicate something that is not commonplace, and neither the total obsolescence nor the utter futility of such notions has yet been proven. In the same way, it also seems clear that the inherited ways of rehabilitating these notions have led to severe problems in their use. We can extract a provisional and very modest initial conclusion from both findings in order to continue with our approach, namely that the notion of identity (and its subject carrier) that we decide to take on must always be provisional in nature, avoiding any essentialist or non-historical definitions that may impede its revision when necessary.

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Along with this feature, which is really inherent in the historical dimension, we must add another, of extraordinary relevance, to those we have begun to address. Here I am referring to its complex nature. Affirming the complex and procedural nature of such events clearly affects the issue that is our starting point. If, as I have stated on more than one occasion, the principle that governs any identity -I repeat, of any size- is that no one is a single integral piece, from which follows the collective nature that must be attributed to the formation process. What we are, each of us individually as well as the supposed us we belong to, emerges as a result of the efficacy of and interactions between a heterogeneous set of variables.

As a result, no matter how compact, coherent and unchanging a certain configuration of subjectivity may have seemed at a particular point in history, a sufficiently comprehensive diachronic viewpoint leads us to question this fact. Thus, in a not so distant past, there were many discourses (which were even held by the majority in certain fields) that rehabilitated the role of subjectivities of a very specific type. These discourses, which addressed the issue in an extremely concise manner, invoked the dichotomy of victors/vanquished to project such antagonism on the past and created two opposing, antagonistic communities within which the current subjects -through a mechanism of recognition- would glean not only lessons regarding what had occurred, but also the drive to confront the supposed emancipatory virtualities.

Elsewhere[1] I have warned against the mistake which I believe can be brought about by the aforementioned dichotomy, which, after all, creates a formal category at risk of sidestepping the most basic element of the cause in whose name some came to be victorious and others defeated. To take for granted that it is nothing short of an ethical imperative to support  the latter on principle, would lead to the indefensible, and absurd, position of lamenting the defeat of the most despicable causes to have occurred in the past. However, although this is important, focusing our attention here would distract us from what is truly essential. Because in this case we are also faced with a process through which identity is forged. To declare oneself victorious or defeated with regard to a certain cause is another way of arguing that these notions are also the result of a social, political or historical construction.[2]

The same happens with that other, much more current, configuration, which seems to have replaced the dichotomy of victors/vanquished. I refer to the dichotomy of executioners/victims. The philosopher of American History Dominick LaCapra wrote in his book Writing History, Writing Trauma a phrase that would be extremely opportune to recall here: “the category of ‘victim’… is, in various ways, a social, political and ethical category.”[3]  This claim, without distorting the terms too much, could be taken to mean that the condition of victim is always an internal part of the story. This consideration throws a wrench into what discourses like those we’ve mentioned previously aim to address in terms of absolute continuity. As if, according to these discourses, upon learning of the suffering of others, the only appropriate response is a silent moral reverence.[4]

Victims are usually presented, by those who make them the centerpiece of their discourse, as nothing more than victims, living testimonies of pain, injustice or arbitrary acts, outside of any ideological considerations even though, we must note right away, they are actually victims who belong to a cause (hence, in the most extreme cases, we repeat the formula “those who gave their lives for…” fill in the blank as applies[5] ). For this same reason, not all victims are regarded equally: those who suffered in the name of causes that have fallen from grace, which have unanimously come to be considered obsolete, either merit little attention or don’t receive the same treatment. And so, faced with the deserved respect with which the media normally presents survivors of Nazi barbarism, the mocking tone they reserve for the survivors of, say, the siege of Stalingrad, who are shown as ridiculous communist fanatics tied to completely outdated symbolism, liturgy and convictions, is striking.[6] We will return later to this biased depoliticization of the victims.[7]

In order to avoid any potential misunderstandings, a clarification will be all but inevitable. What we have stated so far in no way amounts to a condemnation of all forms of solidarity with the victims or, conversely, is by no means intended as a justification for indifference towards them. Rather it is intended as a modest denunciation of their use for specific ends that are never explicitly expressed publicly. A denunciation that in no way aims to be purely programmatic or declarative, but aspires to show the practical consequences of such behavior (we will cover this matter in the following section). And if the vaguely Freudian commonplace is true, according to which victims of a traumatic event can relate to it either through repetition or through elaboration (the latter being the correct way to overcome the trauma), the strongest evidence of the true intentions of some is represented by what might be called the induced repetitive compulsion in which such repetition would not be the result of the inconceivable enormity of the experience that is impossible to come to terms with, but of the invitation -made to the traumatized party- to become a recognized and unanimously pitied victim.

Consider the case of Marek Edelman, the only one of the five leaders of the Warsaw ghetto who escaped its destruction and who, despite his condition as a survivor, declined to be listed on the roll of victims and, much less, that of martyrs (for he believed only those who died in the Holocaust should be considered as such), deciding to devote himself, after the war, to his profession as a doctor, which earned him the irritated incomprehension of his comrades.[8] Without belittling in the least the fact that he remained silent for more than thirty years because he was convinced that telling his story was futile (no one could ever, in his mind, understand the terrible decisions that that inside were forced to make, such as saving one person at the price of letting another die), the fact is that this was not the only reason for his choice.

The decision to choose anonymity freed those close to him from any sort of tribute, admiration or approval derived from the magnitude of the heroism that he had taken part in. However, we must add, it also freed him from the permanent status of hero/victim unable to overcome (not to mention forget) his trauma because of the requirements of the very same people who had elevated him to that status.

The often hypocritical argument that we must always remember certain events so they won’t be repeated ends up, in a cruel paradox, prohibiting those who suffered these events from achieving peace of mind. The victim that plays this role publicly is compelled to stick to this status at all times, to never forget. They are granted the status of absolute innocence (who could blame one who has known such horror for anything?) in exchange for also taking on that of the total victim, fully and at all times, tied to the experience that so hurt them.[9]

How many newspaper interviews have we read in which a survivor recounts how, decades later, they continue to have daily nightmares, returning to the traumatic event! Here we have the suffering of others transformed into an obscene moral feast, in which, really and truly, that person’s relief is never even considered: they are there to tell us how much they suffered, not to free themselves of such a heavy burden. Or could a victim -without running the risk of being publicly dispossessed of said condition- declare that they sleep soundly or that they have moved on from the experience that brought them so much pain, having managed to once again find happiness?

In such a case, they would become a particular type of useless victim. No longer would they support the operation that, according to Todorov,[10] underlies so many self-serving remembrances. The conviction that the goodness of others’ behavior casts its benefits on those who identify with them would have nothing (and no one) to feed on. And that easy solidarity -one only has to say they are on the victims’ side, as no accreditation of any practical nature is required- would lose the object of its focus. It would be the end of the perfect operation that allows those in solidarity to enjoy the benefits that victims are granted upon being publicly recognized as such -fundamentally, the designated attribution of innocence- without having to endure their hardships -the suffering itself.[11]

Regardless of the self-serving use made of the aforementioned categorical partners (victors/vanquished, executioners/victims), both involve discursive assumptions relevant to the effects we will now discuss. For now, we must say that both sets of terms should not be subjected to the same criticism. For while the victors/vanquished pair -as much as, as we have indicated, tends to be presented independently of the cause either side served, or the fact that victory and defeat may be considered ultimate values, in an attempt to avoid the figure of the combatant- ultimately, it undoubtedly refers to a fight, a confrontation between sectors, whose sign is (or is not) likely to be shown.

On the other hand, what defines the pair executioners/victims is, in substance, pain. The pain that some inflict and others suffer, without reference (in the very concept) to the causal origin of the different attitudes. In that sense, it could be argued that this second conceptual pair is not only, as we already noted, depoliticized,[12] but also, if I may use the term, dis-discourses the behavior and its players. (In fact, some of the terms frequently present in this kind of discourse, for example, ‘pure evil’, seem to suggest the existence of an area which lies beyond the ideas themselves, which would avoid having to account for the cause of the pain[13]).

2. Forgiveness (A necessary parenthesis).

Before continuing this line of argument, we must pause a moment for brief parenthesis to refer to an issue that all too often contaminates and disturbs discussion of these issues. I mean the issue of forgiveness. Unfortunately, the idea of forgiveness has long since been poisoned. Forgiveness, together with promise, is one of the expressions that best defines the human condition.[14] Forgiveness, in its origins, includes a sense of rejecting the misfortune of what happened. When we say ‘let bygones be bygones’ we are not only saying that all we can do about the past is slowly forget what has happened as there is no way it will come back, but also that it is the strongest, firmest, most immutable reality we can conceive of, as expressed in the old popular saying ‘The past is more powerful than God’. So, forgiveness implies rejection, confronting the tyranny of the past, its apparent irreversibility. It’s as if one who forgives says to all the world, “Wait a moment, I still have something to do regarding this issue.”

What the person who forgives has left to do belongs to a specific order. In other words,[15] the gesture of forgiveness expresses the sovereignty of the self, which, in its full autonomy, faces off against another self. In fact, when we begin to practice forgiveness, one of the first things that often surprises us is that others do not understand. “But how could you forgive that?” we often hear. At such moments we begin to see the difference in perspectives: those third parties view reproach from a point of view (i.e. that of a legitimate right we held and are now giving up) that has little or nothing to do with the nature of forgiveness.

Because forgiveness basically means, taking Joseph Butler’s definition,[16] the suppression of resentment. Forgiveness, therefore, does not mean forgetting (as much as we tend to equate the two terms) nor does it mean absolution. The person who is forgiven does not become innocent after receiving this pardon.[17] They may be, if it is in the victim’s hands, exempt from punishment, but this is not necessarily the case.

The person who forgives does not renounce their memory,[18] but their hate[19] (perhaps because, as Arendt pointed out, we can forgive the person but not the deed). It follows that if the power to forgive is connected with some virtue, it is mercy, although it is also closely linked to generosity (which is the virtue of the gift). Neither is innate: both are achieved primarily through knowledge, both of others and of oneself. Both literature and films provide us with numerous examples of the process through which someone, initially convinced of their absolute moral distance from certain, manifestly condemnable behaviors, can, upon closer examination and knowledge of those involved, even become fascinated by that abyss of evil and abjection.

In any case, it would be a contradiction in terms to discuss something like forced forgiveness, or even attaching rules to it. The expression “deserved forgiveness” would be a good example of this misuse of words: the supposedly deserved forgiveness would not really be forgiveness, but justice.[20] If forgiveness is in large part renouncing something to which one is entitled, it can never be framed as an obligation. The problem is that while forgiveness is not subject to rules, it certainly is subject to a lot of pressure. On many occasions we have repeatedly seen the same scene: a representative of the media shoving a microphone in the face of one of the victim’s relatives, still in the presence of their loved one, and asking “Can you forgive the person who did this?”, implicitly painting that person, in the event they dare say no, as bitter or resentful.

In our society, there is, undoubtedly, acceptable forgiveness and unacceptable forgiveness. The victims of terrorism are a case of the former. Certain social and political sectors have, for quite some time, been calling for a magnanimous, generous gesture from these victims as an indispensable means to achieving ultimate reconciliation, a definitive solution to the crisis. Victims of domestic violence would be an example of the latter, as those who have been ordered for years to shut up, endure and forgive, now are driven to exactly the opposite behavior. Through these or other pressures, forgiveness is infiltrated by a logic that, though by no means foreign, is on a different plane: I mean the logic of social functioning.[21]

Forgiveness, in fact, is an essential element of coexistence. On one hand, we all have to forgive and beg for forgiveness in order to live together. If others continued to take into account all of our past misdeeds towards them, we would be condemned to the most absolute solitude. The willingness to forgive is a condition from which the possibility for stronger interpersonal bonds is derived. You must forgive a friend for (almost) anything, for instance, because otherwise, you lose them. Moreover, if one is too demanding, friendship can never even begin to flower. However, on the other hand, on a more general level, there are also some essential forms of forgiveness.

Although the idea of a statute of limitations refers to legal issues rather than forgiveness itself, there is something in its content that could be applied. A statute of limitations is a resource through which society assumes that it cannot keep all pending cases, all the damage is done, all reparations to be made, open indefinitely. No community can carry around this indefinite accumulation of grievances among its members. The group, just as the individual, must shed its own past.[22] At many points in our lives, and in the history of mankind, we have had to wipe the slate clean in order to move forward (though it is not always enough, of course). In that sense, we could well say that forgiveness is like the prohibition of incest: a mechanism to ensure the survival of the group.[23]

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As is clear, all these considerations may be acceptable (or susceptible, at most, to lukewarm theoretical discrepancies) as long as we don’t introduce logic from other planes into the debate and discourse about forgiveness. Or if it is preferable to say the same thing in a more vertical manner: as long as we don’t speak about victims close to us and merely focus on those on a distant plane (preferably that of the Holocaust[24]). When we turn the spotlight on realities closer to us in space and time, the idea of forgiveness we referred to at the beginning of this section is almost inevitably poisoned.

Among other reasons because, unlike the case of Auschwitz, which we reject unanimously,[25] when politics gets involved in these other cases it is often deeply disruptive. No one can claim to be surprised by this last statement; we have spent too much time in various advocatory discussions using the dead as a weapon to hurl at the opposition to replace a genuine position on the subject, choosing the victims that best-fit one’s own cause à la carte.[26] But victims -in this sense, without distinction- are due something that doesn’t belong to the order of politics itself, but to the order of ethics. They are due recognition, compassion, solidarity, and support.

They should be surrounded not by political confrontation but by democratic unity. Because the possibility of true reconciliation, which is always a generous grant from the victims for the common good, lies in their hands. Precisely for this reason, using them as weapons for partisan debate is a way of denying them the inalienable right to forgive or not, to mourn their dead in the way they, and they alone, see fit. Without being exploited in any way (politically, intellectually, academically, or to any other end). It is the least they deserve after so much pain.

3. On knowledge of the issue.

Relieved of the threat of certain misunderstandings (although this does not mean that others are not still within range), we continue our discursive journey. It will be worth drawing attention to the effect of the displacement from one pair (victors/vanquished) to another (executioners/victims) on our representation of the past. A displacement that, setting aside any ideological considerations, but those who participated actively fighting for something on an equal footing with those who suffered without doing anything (for better or for worse).

Those who gave their lives for their ideas and those whose lives were snatched away without ever considering any such thing. This would result in a genuine rewriting of the past brought about by a historical hermeneutical system that suppresses the plurality of historical subjects by attributing victims to the condition of genuine heroes of the past.

It is important to point out that such an interpretation distorts the memory of others by considering, say, the warrior who has chosen to avoid the role of victim assigned to him by his persecutors in that exact way, as a mere victim. Apart from the injustice of treating those persecuted for their political actions, completely ignoring the subject’s life plan, we must add that this hermeneutical system is one that seems to lie at the foundations of the trend, which is of such little use in understanding the past, to classify criminal acts that in no way belong to that category as genocide[27] (for example, the bloody repression carried out against political opponents in so many dictatorships).

In any case, applying categories that in legal discourse play a highly technical and precise instrumental role, as is the case of genocide (although the same could also be said of crimes against humanity,[28] also often used lightly), to areas such as historical knowledge, or even ethics, leads to consequences that are downright misleading. Murderous plans are not necessarily genocide (nor, of course, a crime against humanity[29]). As Enzo Traverso rightly pointed out, we should make the distinction precisely because the aim is not to establish a moral hierarchy among victims (which some seem to actually pursue), but to recognize that the violence suffered by, say, victims of a civil war,[30] exterminated for political reasons, is not the same. The distinction (useless, of course, from the point of view of suffering) is crucial for understanding the past.

This abusive generalization in applying the term genocide (and other similar ones) is, undoubtedly, in no way casual. Look at the value charge it carries, especially when taken out of the context in which it is descriptively appropriate.[31] It is a charge of irrationality, of barbarism, of non-sense in relation to that to which it refers. Or is there any argument that justifies, at least minimally or to a small extent, the mass extermination of human beings, which is commonly accepted as the basic determination of the concept of genocide (although not the most accurate)?

Obviously, the person affected by genocide can only be considered, also by definition, an innocent victim. Such is not the case of the vanquished, a category that automatically forces us to specify the cause they defended, and that led to their defeat, which in turn would threaten to make the initial interpretation open to debate. If, however, we are discussing a victim (and, if it is necessary to drive the point home, we can always add the word “innocent”) there is nothing discuss. Suggesting a debate about this, no matter how respectful, would disqualify anyone who dared raise it.

In any case, the move from one conceptual pair to the other that we have been alluding to also affects the present, regarding which it serves the purpose of proving background information on the phenomenon, so characteristic of our present time and which we began to discuss in the previous chapter, of the alleged end of ideologies. The concept, which, according to the dominant interpretation in recent years, would be rendered obsolete in today’s world, in fact denotes two different realities. On one hand, we use it, in a less rigorous sense, to designate a set of ideals (which is the case when we use terms like “communist ideology”, “liberal ideology”, “anarchist ideology”, etc.).

However, on the other hand, we also use it to describe the mechanism of an organized social hoax, which is the result of the structural opacity of the capitalist mode of production. Nevertheless, the decline of this second use allows for a meta-deception, namely, that of the transparency of our society. With the mechanism of suspicion disengaged -at most superseded by the metaphysics of secrecy, characteristic of conspiratorial conceptions of history[32] – mystifying or even intoxicating discourses are given free rein.

This also affects the discourse of memory in two ways. On one hand, as has been pointed out among others by the Argentine author Hugo Vezzetti,[33] the discourse of memory fills a vacuum left in the wake of the crisis of the utopias, of the great stories (ideological in the sense indicated) of legitimation. With the future blocked off and the present empty of content, political passion would have shifted, accordingly, to the past.[34] Today, in fact, it is the discourses of memory that, almost everywhere, are loaded with greater political intensity, and it is much more likely that citizens would be willing to engage in a heated argument, say, on the Franco regime or the transition than on a different model for the future for our society offered by the different political formations.

But the end of ideology in the second sense -that of the mechanism to conceal the true nature of our reality- has also generated its own effects at the very heart of the discourse about memory. When we take for granted transparency, the immediacy between knowledge and the world, criticism disappears as a tutelary, structuring, shaping element of suspicion. This gives rise, without limitation or intersubjective -not to mention scientific- control, to the testimony [35] presented as a direct route through which to access the authentic, richer truth, beyond the control of restrictive or specialized bodies.[36]

Thus adulteration is perpetuated, presenting as alternative knowledge what is in all reality often nothing but a series of extremely labile and, above all, vulnerable images (we need only consider the evolution, as studied by historians specializing in this period, of the testimony of survivors of the Nazi concentration camps throughout their life: the story of a Jewish Communist deportee is not the same before and after his breakup with the Communist Party; before, in the fifties, he put his political identity first and foremost and, therefore, saw himself as an antifascist deportee, while in the eighties he saw himself above all as an object of persecution on account of his being Jewish[37]).

A similar evolution, of displacement in preference, in the example given in parenthesis, from the condition of vanquished to that of the victim [38] would seem to indicate -in addition to the real weakness of a resource, the testimony, cloaked in the garments of incontestable life experience[39]- what is really at stake in this evocation of the past. Which is not knowledge but recognition. Or in Vezzetti’s own words: “To the extent to which the relationship between social memory with the dimension of identity is recognized, we must admit that their choices depend above all on traits and values that are central to the self-representation of an individual, group or community”.[40]

It has probably always been so and in various accounts of the past that throughout history have been created by individuals, groups or entire communities, we have never stopped seeking out that specific effect of identity, of recognition in the subjects of the past, from whose experience present-day subjects hope to draw lessons and power. In any case, what is new in the current situation is the fact that such expectations, as they are not supervised by anybody of gnosiological control (especially in the historical sciences), can be clearly subject to a particular variant of the aforementioned illusion of transparency.

However, the thesis of the contingent construct nature of any configuration that identity may take on should serve as an antidote to that particular form of self-deception. Because accepting that subjectivity is the result of a process’s efficacy implies, precisely by acknowledging the existence of mediation, the introduction of an overarching reservation with regard to the naïve confidence in our ability to learn from our past.

Roberto Esposito[41] once told me that everything we know about Spartacus has come to us through the stories of his enemies, the Romans, which has not prevented the figure of that rebel slave from becoming a fundamental milestone in the history of a supposed emancipatory tradition. And it should not surprise us that this may have occurred. With its strength, this fact would seem to point to the falsehood of the diachronic community we have been discussing, which, while also constructed, could not call its own any supposed ontological reality above the narratives.

No subjectivity escapes this principle. Not even, as previously noted, that of the victims, however much it is presented as self-evident, unquestionable. The proof is that the same situation may be traumatic to one person and not at all so to another. Or, again taking a formulation from Dominick LaCapra,[42] the fact that one has had a traumatic experience does not mean it was caused by a traumatic event. In light of what we have addressed here, it would not be too bold an argument to say that the status of traumatic experience depends largely on its ability to be presented as part of a narrative that gives it meaning.

In fact, this is what Primo Levi supported when he declared that the main driving force that led him to write his books were the difficulties he encountered in finding someone willing to listen to him. If stories are the fluid that connects individuals, conveying the operation of recognition, forging identity, then an inability to produce or, in the case of Levi, transmit them must necessarily be negative for the subject. Not surprisingly, non-exorcised trauma is referred to as unspeakable, that is, it does not fit into any story one can tell. The unspeakable would thus become part of the paradigm of trauma.

But we must add something more, albeit brief, about the nature of this collective construction, if only to avoid presenting a merely speculative image of the process. We must be aware of the various dangers that threaten our stories about the past. Neither commemorative complacency (expressing ad nauseam an uncritical and mechanical connection with what is remembered) nor victimization (for all the reasons mentioned) allows us to move forward. If it is a question of suspecting, we must do so with any approach, implicitly or explicitly regarded as sacred, that impedes the ability to ask further questions or provide new interpretations of the past that are too disconcerting or frightening.

Perhaps, to this end, concepts such as familiarity or de-familiarization, proposed by Derrida, may be of more use. Whether these or other analogous terms, the function the new alternative formulation must comply with is to reconcile the necessary distance required by all knowledge with the also essential implication that requires the intelligibility of certain specific realities. This allows me to introduce another qualification I consider relevant.

In particular, when we think of extreme events like trauma, we cannot discard the empathic, qualitative or experiential dimension (whichever formula we prefer), because this dimension is constituent of these events. The fact that we have found that sufferers can overcome trauma should in no way be construed as a relativization of the trauma. A trauma that is not horrible, a trauma that doesn’t leave a deep imprint of pain on those who suffered it, is not trauma.

Or, to sum up all these features into one that synthesizes them all: history must be shocking. When it isn’t, we have good grounds to fear that what is causing such an exercise of recalling what happened is not knowledge, but empty recognition in which looking at oneself in the past merely ratifies what was already known beforehand.[43] Such recognition is closer to ignorance than any form, no matter how weak, of understanding of what exists.

Our previous warning regarding the danger of slipping into a naïvely realistic, speculative image of the process will be better understood now after the reference to looking at oneself and recognition. It is important to point out that what was known beforehand in the operation of recognition is the result of a theoretical/ideological construct. A construct that includes more moments than those in which others explicitly make us aware of our identity, tell us how they see us or what they expect of us.[44]

Those other times when our reaction to others helps to strengthen what we believe ourselves to be are also part of that same process. Perhaps the latter are best suited to our focus today. So when we say, following the lead of Ulrich Beck, that fears, uncertainties, and threats are the new mobilizing elements in our society, we are pointing out the extent to which said elements are directly brought about by the power we have to put them to use.

Naturally, the fact that this power uses specific threats in no way means that they are always or completely invented. It would be absurd to deny the existence of economic crises, of religious wars or of global warming. In the same way, so as not to avoid a harsher example, although we could question the way the issue of terrorism is addressed (including, if you will, the name itself), in no case should that questioning reach the extreme of denying the existence of certain (bloody) realities.

But the fact that they are manipulated in order to construct a specific image of ourselves (both at an individual and collective level) can be clearly demonstrated in a simple example. As has been pointed out on more than one occasion, the same reality in which, for example, an affluent society can attract people from depressed areas of the planet can be used as an element of propaganda (think of the famous American dream) or as a political weapon generating social fears (the so-called pull effect).

What is true for the present is also, of course, true for the past: this was precisely the aim of this brief detour through the present. Not just those we supposedly learn from (ours), but also those whose behavior we reject (others) serve to shape our identity, creating both our own selves and us we believe we belong to. But we are speaking, it must be noted, of episodes in a construction process that conceals its nature as such and prefers to present itself as a mere reflex, evidence, simple description and the like in order to better hide its true intentions (if you will allow me this concession to slightly conspiratorial language).

This is directly applicable to what we have been discussing. This insistence on presenting victims as being on the sidelines, be they victims of any struggle, project or combat (either individually or collectively), can employ various strategies but has a sole purpose, which is ultimately de-rationalizing. Because it is ultimately a variant of ignorance which is favored in most interpretations of the aforementioned past and its characters. Anyone who, for example, argues the impossibility of portraying, due to their ineffable nature, episodes such as the genocide of Jews in Europe takes part in this de-rationalizing purpose, which eventually gives these episodes an almost sacred character.

Well, in this regard, it would be useful to at least note that, with the right tools, it is possible to reach a historical understanding of evil (or of any of its particular episodes). As discussed below (although we have already alluded to it), literary tools can help us in this task to the extent that all experience is able to be told, and storytelling shows that the experience never occurs, nor is it transmitted, in a single voice.

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This does not mean, of course, that all stories are good as tools to understand the phenomenon of evil, which is, in the end, the purpose. A good story illuminates dark deeds while stimulating discussion. This virtue is such because it shows the need to structure historical consciousness around a political dimension: the stories would come to represent privileged tools to enhance our societies’ capacity for self-criticism and review, that is to generate in our present-day a debate as to the pathways that would enable us to make our idea of democratic justice a reality. It is obvious that this order of statements, in line with those raised by Habermas in his time,[45] implies the confidence that we can learn from disasters, that is produce truths through a reinterpretation of the past through work in the public sphere by means of narratives.[46]

4. On the future of the issue.

However paradoxical this formulation may seem at first glance, the thing whose future we are pondering is the present. Let’s put it directly and openly: what future does the present have? At the beginning of this section (On the protagonists of the issue) we alluded to the status of any collective and procedural nature of subjectivity. We wondered about this in the context of trying to clear up the nature of the starting point from which we began our inquiry into the past, but the question must seem just as pertinent (or more so) when attempting to resolve the situation in which our current collective imagination includes notions such as present and future.

We have known, at least since Koselleck,[47] of the intimate connection between all these notions. What, in the case we are addressing, is expressed in the idea that the boom of memory we have been experiencing in recent decades is inextricably linked to the profound transformations of our notion of the present. A notion that only with difficulty considers its relations with that which came before as it is unable to rely, as was the case in the past, on tradition. Benjamin called our attention to the fact that one of the defining features of the era that began with the First World War was the decline in reported experience [Erfahrung] and the corresponding increase in life experience [Erlebnis].[48]

Without the former, ephemeral, fleeting, transient experience, typical of mass societies, would have become the cornerstone of our (impossible) representation of what was yet to come. Previous expectations of tying together historical times would become moot -without experience to transmit- in liquid societies dominated by insecurity and lack of references or feelings of belonging. If we add the profound crisis (for many irreversible) of the idea of the future, brought about by the decline of utopias or, if you prefer, by the collapse of emancipating thought, the view of the current state of the present may be considered to be initially drawn.

Within this framework, we also find the equally labile shift in current forms of subjectivity. It is true that today we witness growing demands for subjective uniqueness or autonomy, but the fact remains that, as Deleuze-Guattari among others pointed out, a conservative re-territorialization of desire for commercial benefit is taking place, in such a way that the apparent and emphatic assertion of individualism as an indisputably desirable norm would conceal the operation of reducing said individual to a mere consumer, and their world of objects to logos and brand names. This would lead to a reformulation of the Cartesian cogito in the new terms of “I buy, therefore I am”.

In view of the latter, we have a right to wonder to what extent those demands for subjective uniqueness or autonomy are highly (although not fully, obviously) induced, meaning: To what extent are they the current, always provisional, form of a construct? A construct that, in light of the assumptions about the present we have just drawn in broad strokes, cannot aspire to adorn itself with some of the determinations with which its precursors adorned themselves. It would be difficult in our circumstances to claim any form of unitary, compact, unanimous subjectivity. Those who believe[49] that we are heading towards a nomadic, scattered, fragmented vision that nevertheless is functional, consistent and responsible, mainly because it is embodied and materialized, are probably right (and it is not in vain that this last fact has been given great importance in political/philosophical reflections in recent years: some decades before the widespread use of bio-political discourses, Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception[50] emphasized the importance of corporal facticity, of the carnal a priori, to use his own expression, unavailable and antepredicative, a living body that makes the emergence of meaning and the prior structuring of all experience possible[51]).

If we were not too gripped by the words (or, worse, by the labels), perhaps we should refer to this topic as a postmodern subject, or at least as the only possible subject in a postmodern era. A subject that, given the growing evidence of a post-human universe of ruthless power struggles mediated by technology, maintains its humanist expectations of decency, fairness and dignity. But it has also reached a sufficient level of alertness and consciousness as to not have high hopes about the future of its own expectations.

Of the latter, of our awareness of our own weakness, we have ample evidence. Just think about the different diagnoses that have been presented of our present and the future that awaits us. On one hand, the most highly publicized may have been that presented at the end of the eighties by Francis Fukuyama, a diagnosis that, in light of what has ended up happening, might be worth recovering. As Perry Anderson, in his time, self-critically noted,[52] much of the criticism this Japanese political scientist received was based on a misunderstanding in interpreting his proposal with the wrong key. Fukuyama, after all, did nothing but try to articulate discursively a loose collection of views, which were quite widespread in the early eighties, when the clear crisis of true socialism spread the belief like an oil slick that there was no alternative left to the capitalist model. The approach of the author of The End of History and the Last Man[53] was subject to many objections, but probably his weakest flank was not that on which he was most commonly attacked (as if what he presented as a description of the status quo was intended as a debatable proposal, which could simply be opposed by expressing a contrary preference like “ah, I’m not really a fan of considering history to be over”).

The aspect of his approach, from today’s perspective, that shows itself to be most clearly open to criticism has to do with the statute of his diagnosis. As Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo would soon note, what has come to an end is the idea of the end of history: a diagnosis of the historical is self-contradictory when it presents itself as being above history, setting aside the conviction, which is full of disappointment and defeatism, according to which we will never again be capable of generating a different and better lifestyle, is also the result of concrete, very specific historical circumstances.[54]

But maybe we should reinterpret Fukuyama’s thesis rounded down, so that, instead of affirming the radical impossibility of conceiving of a better organization of the world, it addresses the radical limitations of our perspective. Thus reinterpreted, the advertised end of history would lose its quasi-metaphysical aspiration to become a much more modest perspective that perhaps could be couched in terms like these: “As far as the eye can see, there is no alternative economic model to that of capitalist production and no organization of the political sphere other than liberal democracy.” Two decades after this formulation, immersed in a crisis with incalculable consequences, we are just beginning to glimpse the effects of capitalism being left on its own. Or, which is the same, that for some time now-a time, unfortunately, we are still immersed in, without anyone being able to anticipate how long it will last- Fukuyama has been shown to be right.[55]

But it cannot be said that contrary diagnoses of our present and hypothetical future have shown themselves to be of much greater strength. It seems that emancipatory thought, which acknowledged internally that which it emphatically rejected to the world, which is the failure of the alternative it represented, has reformulated its approach in order to also come to terms with the weakness of its own strengths. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent collapse of all of the so-called “true socialist” governments has led to the eclipse of utopias, the hopes they contained filed under what the aforementioned Koselleck has called the past future.

What we previously began to address in referring to the supposed end of ideology now more clearly shows its importance. The repeated rise of memory is one of, but by no means the only, effect of a slow and painful process of adapting to the new state of affairs. Similar substitutions of ideas for feelings belong in the same family. With the traditional ideological corpuses discredited (which in other times were a certain science of history or the conviction of being on the side of the emancipatory historical subject), which served as a robust endorsement for our actions, certainties have been displaced by convictions, and passions or emotional identifications, which, unable to help us interpret the world, act as a comforting balm for the frustration that this causes us.

Referring to much of the Mexican intelligentsia, Catalan anthropologist Roger Bartra[56] has made some astute observations, which can undoubtedly be extended beyond those borders, and are totally relevant to the discussion at hand. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he has said, this intelligentsia renounced the old dogmas but, instead of contributing new ideas through which to understand the world, they developed a sentimentality, a maze of emotions. If Marxism in its various forms proved useless for understanding the world, their arguments continued, we should resort to love for the injured or dispossessed in order to justify both our ideological shortcomings and lack of truly advanced policies.

Bartra brilliantly called this web of passions and feelings phonology (pobretología), which will remind the unlikely attentive reader of this paper of something we said earlier about à la carte solidarity with victims. In both cases, the underlying reasoning appears to be the same. It is as if the meaning were something like this: since our inherited ways of (making) sense of things have vanished, we urgently need to find new areas whose suffering allows us to re-identify ourselves through the only solidarity available to us today, namely that based on mere emotion, on simple empathy.[57]

Of course the use of memory, although it is immersed in this same process, has its own specific nature. But in any case, this is not reason enough to exclude it from this review. The evocation of the past, although it can so often become the occasion for intense political debate, can in no way be a substitute for this. This is for intrinsic, structural reasons. Some analytical philosophers of action[58] like to distinguish between reasons for acting and motivations. The first give us good arguments to encourage us to act, but don’t drive us to action.

This function corresponds to motives (or motivations), which, as their etymology indicates, have the ability to become a causally effective (and not merely legitimizing) element. Memory, by definition, can, at most, provide a reason to act but never motive, because, after all, where could the past move to? The options offered as possible answers seem clear. From a positive standpoint, the past can move us toward repetition (in the case that the events show some sort of heroic nature) or to culmination (in the case that we evoke unfulfilled promises or frustrated desires). From a negative standpoint, memory moves us to provide the means to never again have an episode, say, of horror or barbarism.

In either case, where memory can have no effect, by its very nature, is in the territory of the new. Think for a moment about the ultimate consequences of this seemingly obvious finding. If the past becomes the last bastion of political passion, but our relationship with it by definition makes a whole order of proposals impossible, the conclusion seems categorical. Perhaps now, in view of the hegemony that the various possibilities mentioned have taken on, the most important fact is not that from the premises presented the most we can hope for is to complete an unfinished, failed past, taking on the dreams the past ours had as our own insurmountable horizon of expectations.

The echo created by all these negative proposals encoded in some variant of never again -or, what is basically the same, do not repeat- in the alleged mobilizing function of memory is much more important. It would be worthwhile to rigorously introduce our suspicion of the extent to which the underlying logic of this argument is, in the truest sense of the word, a conservative view of the status quo.

The evocation of peak moments of horror reached in the past would fulfill, in this hypothesis, an analogous function in the stories of disasters, that is, reconciling us with the present, lucky to be safe from such horror. With the addition that, as they are not fictional disasters or traumas but real ones, the link to such extreme events would be firmly established through a mechanism that in the end is of an emotional nature but which appears in the form of an undeniable ethical imperative (What could be more important to remember than that which caused to much pain?).

This situation seems to be what some want us to head towards. As we no longer have conclusive reasons, they say, in their place let’s put overwhelming pain. It seems that we are beyond the dilemma between the pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will, and that, the latter having failed, we can now only either rely on an updated version of the worse it gets, the better it is (which, when the economic crisis first began, seemed to be expressed in the confidence some had that it would bring about a change in the model of society,[59] which has not been the case) or the invocation, as permanent as it is empty, of the suffering of others. Which, when seen with some verticality, not without harshness, would mean that instead of helping those who are suffering to leave that state, we use them as a living testimony or perhaps better, a living argument when ours fail.

We must think very seriously about the past and present effects that discourses that, behind their deceptive appearance, restore frankly questionable argumentative structures. Auschwitz is probably a paradigm of these effects. Historian Peter Novik[60] has pointed out how much the memory of what happened there has become a true civil religion in the Western world. A religion in which victims have replaced heroes, taking a pre-eminent place. A religion with its commandments (the duty of memory) and sins (oblivion), with its holy days (the commemorations, anniversaries) and its martyrs (those who perished in the Holocaust), with its faith (human rights, democracy), with its holy places (monuments and museums) and priests (tirelessly whipping the depths of evil of the human condition).

A religion that has erased any idea of the future and of projection. But above all, a religion that ends the operation, initiated by conservative thought in the second half of the twentieth century, of emptying the present of all content and liquidating the future, leaving the past as the only reference, the horrified contemplation of which, according to the preachers of this doctrine, we should devote ourselves to exclusively.

Maybe the times we live in don’t really allow us to have high hopes. But for precisely this reason, hope floods our minds with intensity, with a force, even with a drama, that should drive us to commit to the future. Although we know, thanks to the great Angel Gonzalez, that it is called future because it never comes.

[1] Especially in my book On the difficulty of living together, Barcelona, Gedisa, 2007.

[2] Cf. Ana Maria Amar Sanchez, Instructions for defeat. Ethical and political narratives of losers, Barcelona, Anthropos, 2010.

[3] Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, writing trauma, Buenos Aires, New Vision, 2005, p. 98.

[4] To demonstrate the extent to which this is false, vid. Antonio Madrid’s book, The Politics of suffering and justice, Madrid, Trotta, 2010. Similar considerations could be made regarding a concept that often works as a synonym of the latter. I am referring to pain. For a complete overview of the history of the formation and transformation of pain as a scientific object in the West between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, vid. Javier Moscoso’s book, Cultural history of pain, Madrid, Taurus, 2011.

[5] In the article “A trip to Argentina”, published in the newspaper El Pais on December 7, 2010, Tzvetan Todorov wrote, commenting on the institutional catalog for Memorial Park, built along the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires: “In the introduction, the Catalog […] defines the aims of this place: “Only in this way can one really understand the tragedy of men and women and the role each played in history.” But you cannot understand the destiny of these people without knowing what ideals they fought for or the resources they used.

The visitor knows nothing of their life before being detained; they have been reduced to the role of mere passive victims who never had free will nor acted on their own. We are offered the opportunity to compare, not to understand them. However, their tragedy goes beyond defeat and death: they fought for an ideology that, if it had been victorious, would probably have led to just as many, if not more, victims, as their enemies. In any case, most of them were soldiers who knew they were taking on certain risks.”

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[6] Actually, such press coverage is a superficial indicator of an underlying theoretical shift, in which the notion of totalitarianism, at that time relegated to the status of an anachronistic vestige of the Cold War, would have re-emerged as the key with which to interpret a time of wars, dictatorships, destruction, and disaster. The group of regimes, movements and ideologies (heresies and utopias included) that makeup what we usually understand as communism would be rejected en masse, since they would be considered one of the faces of a century of barbarism. Vid. Enzo Traverso, Totalitarianism. History of a debate, Buenos Aires, Eudeba, 2001 and Simone Forti, Totalitarianism, Barcelona, Herder, 2008.

[7] There will be time, then, to examine the legitimizing function certain political discourses (mainly the liberal discourse) have exercised on such a biased memory.

[8] Many years passed before this misunderstanding abated. Proof of this is the fact that the Polish government waited until 1998 to bestow on him its highest honor, the Order of the White Eagle.

[9] To finally symbolically repair the damage, they are compensated as well: “The victims cannot be deprived of the right to be eternally rewarded with the enjoyment of seeing their tormentors suffer forever in eternal fire,” Rafael Sanchez Ferlosio ” No, I was just leaving,” El País, March 28, 2010.

[10] Tzvetan Todorov, Memory of evil, temptation of good, Barcelona, Peninsula, 2002.

[11] Regarding this situation, Dominick LaCapra has written: “One danger of identifying with the victim is that it seems to turn one into a surrogate victim and survivor, hence to justify an approach to life, including politics, that is not justified for someone who has in fact not undergone truly incapacitating experiences in relation to which survival may itself be more than enough” in Writing history, writing trauma, op. cit., pp.145-146.

[12] Of course, if you do not want to engage in blatant contradiction (not only with the points made in this chapter but also with those dealt with in Chapter 4) and slide into statements of an non-historical -and, to the same extent, metaphysical- nature we must recognize that there may be specific circumstances in which the victims’ recourse may perform, beyond the nature of the concept, a political function. This would be the case, to the best of my knowledge, of their recognition in Argentina during the military process, a recognition which allowed them to present the Junta as the great enemy of democracy (which is not true in the case of the Holocaust, in which the executioners are an empty universe to which all are opposed and with whom no one identifies: in fact, the pro-Nazi factions that may exist at present lay no claims to that atrocity but deny it ever happened).

[13] In this regard, the recurring scandal brought about by all those novels and films (think of the uproar that surrounded the controversial film The Night Porter or, more recently, Downfall -in which the great Swiss actor Bruno Ganz played the role of Hitler- that show the alleged human side of great criminals) would, in reality, be a grave error. If we approach it from the opposite direction, it becomes clear instantly: What could be more comforting than to see them as monsters, completely dehumanized beings, that have nothing to do with us? Rooted in the realm of the extraordinary, it would suffice to trust that the atrocities they committed will not be repeated. But if, on the contrary, we present them as normal people, it is impossible not to draw the conclusion that anyone (ourselves included), at any time, could do the same things. This brings us to the true horror, which consists in recognizing that atrocity also dwells in the depths of our own hearts, that nothing inhuman is alien to us.

[14] Vid. Paul Ricoeur, “Epilogue. Difficult forgiveness” in his book Memory, history, forgetting, Madrid, Trotta, 2003, pp.593-657.

[15] Vid. Javier Sádaba, Forgiveness Barcelona, Paidós, 1995.

[16] Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons Preached at Rolls Chapel, in D. White, D. (Ed.) The Works of Bishop Butler, University of Rochester Press, New York, 2006. Sermons 8 and 9 deal with the issue of forgiveness.

[17] “If, by an infallible mechanism, forgiveness would activate the redemption of the guilty person […] there would not be forgiveness,” writes Vladimir Jankélévitch in Forgiveness, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p.111.

[18] Vid. Amelia Valcárcel, Memory and Forgiveness, Barcelona, Herder, 2010.

[19] Vid., as a small selection of some relatively recent titles that have addressed this issue: Aaron T. Beck, Prisoners of hate. The cognitive basis of anger, hostility and violence, New York, HarperCollins, 1999; André Glucksmann, Hate speech, Madrid, Taurus, 2005; or Alice Miller, The origins of hate, Barcelona, Ediciones B, 2000.

[20] Jacques Derrida also has something very similar to say: “Forgiveness is heterogeneous to right” in his Word!, Madrid, Trotta, 2001, p. 101. Meanwhile, Jankélévitch asks “What would a forgiveness that one could demand be, if not a right, pure and simple”, op. cit., ibid.

[21] Vid., among other books that have addressed this aspect of the issue: G. Bilbao et al., Forgiveness in public life, Bilbao, University of Deusto, 1999; A. Chaparro (ed.), Political Culture and Forgiveness, Bogota, Bogota University, 2002, and Sandrine Lefranc, Policies of forgiveness, Madrid, Cátedra/PUV, 2004, each of which looks at a different social reality in this regard. A work of interest in the same vein is that of J.A. Zamora, “Forgiveness and its political dimension,” in E. Madina et al., Forgiveness, political virtue. About Primo Levi, Barcelona, Anthropos, 2008, p.57-80.

[22] Vid. on this topic Nicole Loraux’s The divided city. On Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens, Buenos Aires, Katz, 2008, where the author reflects, based on the oath taken by Athenians after the civil war in 403 BC that “they would not remember past wrongs”, on forgetting as a precondition for reconciliation. Also quite interesting regarding the issues we have been discussing is her text “In Praise of anachronism in history”, included in the volume The Civil War in Athens. Politics in the shadows and utopia, Madrid, Akal, 2008.

[23] Olivier Abel wrote in his compilation Forgiveness. Breaking the debt and oblivion, Madrid, Cátedra, 1992, “in the center of every culture is a specific form of forgiveness, and just to survive they all have had  to invent their own” (p. 13) and towards the end, “forgiveness, which we consider extraordinary, rare, sublime, is often only a requirement of an ordinary and universal survival mechanism of any society” (p.217).

[24] We well understand that there is no reference to any victims that may be considered innocent or unbiased, although stopping now to point out the ideological nature of such alleged mere description or simple reference would hinder the development of our argument. Suffice it to say, in order not to hinder it too much, that the collective memory of the Holocaust in particular is interwoven not only with the testimonies of survivors but also with the images created by the media and art in recent decades, as shown by sociologist and anthropologist Alejandro Baer in his book Holocaust. Memory and representation, Madrid, Losada, 2010.

[25] I referred to this matter in the epigraph entitled “Auschwitz: The Perfect Crime,” in my brief treatise On the difficulty of living together, op. cit., p.81-93.

[26] Ibid, pp. 37-39, where I point out the complementary contradictions of the right and left wings in Spain when talking about the victims, depending on which group is involved. I could supplement what I said there, pointing out that it is particularly striking that the same argument has become twisted as events evolved and the end of terrorist violence has become a possibility: if the victims were ours, it was argued that until they received appropriate compensation for their claims, there could be no real or effective reconciliation or coexistence. If, however, the victims were theirs, the thesis was that they should not be on the forefront of social debate precisely because the priority must be coexistence and reconciliation, and to serve this noble cause the latter class of victims were morally obliged to mute their pain in public.

[27] The definition agreed upon in 1948 in the founding document of the Genocide Convention is: “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such.”

[28] For a more complete look at this category, vid. the book of the renowned Australian criminal lawyer and human rights advocate Geoffrey Robertson Crimes against Humanity, New York, The New Press, 2006, which presents a strong claim for said category under the framework of the current struggle for global justice.

[29] According to the Statute of the International Criminal Court adopted in July 1998, in order for serious inhumane acts to be considered crimes against humanity they must meet two requirements: “crimes committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack directed against any civilian population, and with knowledge of the attack. ”

[30] A civil war, according to the definition presented by Traverso himself, is “an anomic conflict that is not a confrontation between two legitimate opponents (two sovereign states), but two irreconcilable enemies; it is a war without rules that seeks out the destruction of an often dehumanized enemy,” in “Pity for the dead and the interpretation of history”, L ‘Avenç: revista de història i cultura, no. 343, 2009, p.13. This same issue was also addressed in the text On memory and critical use (Barcelona, KRTU, 2008). Additionally, any reader interested in further suggestive reflections on memory by this author can find them in his monograph The past, instructions for use (Madrid, Marcial Pons, 2007).

[31] As is known, the word was coined shortly before the Nuremberg trials by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish scholar who worked for the U.S. State Department, in order to describe the specificity of what the Nazis had done to the Jewish, Gypsy and Slavic populations of the territories it had occupied during World War II. Raphael Lemkin’s story is told in Samantha Powers’ book, A Power from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, New York, Basic Books, 2001.

[32] For an original approach to this subject vid., Under Suspicion, op. cit., especially the second part, entitled “The Economics of suspicion.”

[33] Hugo Vezzetti, Past and Present. War, dictatorship and society in Argentina, Buenos Aires, Siglo XXI de Argentina editores, 2002.

[34] Also from other perspectives -I believe, specifically, gender- some have proposed that we seriously address notions such as political passions and the private public sphere (the latter coined by Laurent Berlant in The Queen of America goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, Durham, Duke University Press, 1997).

[35] This would, in essence, be the thesis defended by Frank Ankersmit: declarations of witnesses should be considered representations and not descriptions. As such, these cannot be evaluated in terms of truth or falsity. As a result, the accounts of witnesses and the investigations of historians should be considered on an equal footing, neither holding gnoseological primacy over the other. Vid. Frank Ankersmit, Historical Representation, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2001.

[36] A conviction Ankersmit himself formulates as follows: “… The testimony is addressed to us, as individuals, moral human beings, and […] effectively prevents us from hiding behind the morally neutral screen of historical objectivism; it suggests, as it were, a direct confrontation with the witness’s expressions; it is a direct line connecting us to the witness’s voice…”, ibid, pg.163

[37] Vid. Enzo Traverso, The past, instructions for use. History, memory, politics, Madrid, Marcial Pons, 2007.

[38] Again it would be worth referring to the specific situation in Argentina, where it could be said that, after Nestor Kirschner came to power, a third movement took place: from victims to -once again- vanquished. In this new phase, there would be a recognition of the status of militants for the former victims, thus re-appropriating their political projects, rereading and reinterpreting them in light of the current situation (and assigning to, say, the rank and file of the old groups the merit of having launched a frontal battle -perhaps misguided but in any case well meaning- against the now rampant neoliberalism).

[39] An appearance that has led to Annette Wieviorka to coin the phrase “the era of the witness” (in her book L’ere du témoin, Paris, Plon, 1998).

[40] Hugo Vezetti, op. cit., pg.192

[41] Specifically, in the course of a doctoral class he directed, in which I participated in Naples at the Instituto Italiano de Scienze Umane in May 2009. I thank the students of that course -and especially Matthias Saidel, with whom I had many stimulating discussions- for their comments and observations.

[42] Dominick LaCapra, History in transit. Experience, identity, critical theory, Buenos Aires, Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2006, p. 156 et seq.

[43] Vid. Michael Oakeshott, “Three Essays On History,” in his On history and other essays, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1983, p. 13, where he states that those who walk through the galleries of history see the past as merely an object of scrutiny: its relics, duly organized and cataloged, are available to all.

[44] Despite its interest, I have not addressed another dimension of the relationship with others that Judith Butler has focused on in some passages of her books, particularly in Chapter 2 of Precarious Life: The power of grief and violence, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2006, and Chapter 1 of Undoing Gender, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2006. Here I’m referring to her idea that we are not only done but also undone by each other.

[45] Specifically, in “Learn from disasters? A retrospective diagnosis of the short twentieth century”, included in J. Habermas, The Postnational Constellation, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2000, p.59-79. This same perspective is taken by Maria Pia Lara in her book, cited above, Narrating evil.

[46] The conviction that novels and stories illustrate more than the irrationality of human behavior also appeared in Judith Shklar’s book, Ordinary Vices, op. cit., p. 229.

[47] Vid. Reinhart Koselleck, For a semantics of historical times, op. cit.

[48] According to Enzo Traverso (On memory and critical use, Barcelona, Generalitat de Catalunya, 2008), Benjamin is thinking of shared knowledge, passed from parents to children, particularly related to trades: how to cultivate the land, or how to manage a family business, for example. This break would have occurred during the Great War, when thousands of men suddenly found themselves in the trenches, often without any training, a clear disruption in everyday life in which memory allowed information to be transmitted from generation to generation.

[49] Like Rosi Braidotti in her book Transpositions, Barcelona, Gedisa, 2009.

[50] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Barcelona, Editorial Altaya, 1999.

[51] With this order of considerations, Merleau-Ponty gathers a tradition beginning with Aristotle and his distinction between diathesis -more or less ephemeral corporal states- and hexis -lasting dispositions- which includes St. Thomas and his distinction between the habitus as a modus operandi and its products such as opus operatum, the work of Pascal and his critique of Cartesian intellectualism, Spinoza and his theory of affects and passion, and reaches authors like Wittgenstein, Ryle, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur and Pierre Bourdieu. I thank Professor Francisco Vazquez for his helpful comments in this regard. Vid. Also from the same author, “From dichotomous sex to chromatic sex. Transgender subjectivity and the limits of constructivism”, Sexuality, Health and Society, Latin American Center for Sexuality and Human Rights, n.1 – 2009 – pp. 63-88, where, by analyzing the so-called “gender identity disorders,” he poses a stimulating interpretation that combines the genealogical approach (historical a priori) and the phenomenological analysis of transgender subjectivity (carnal a priori).

[52] In his book A Zone of Engagement, London & New York, Verso, 1992.

[53] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Barcelona, Planeta.1992.

[54] Vid. Agnes Heller A philosophy of history in fragments, Barcelona, Gedisa, 1999, especially Chapter 1, entitled precisely “Contingency”. In this same regard, Paul Ricoeur has written: “Knowing that the men of the past had expectations -predictions, desires, fears and projects- brings with it the failure of historical determinism, by retrospectively reintroducing contingency in history,” A Reading of Past Times History and Oblivion, Madrid, Ediciones de la Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, 1999, p.50.

[55] It seems that our author has introduced a certain corrective into his own thesis in his article, with subtly self-deprecating title, “The Future of History. Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?” which appeared in the January / February 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs.

[56] Roger Bartra, “Is the left endangered?” Letras Libres, August 2007.

[57] Antonio Muñoz Molina lamented that too often the stories told in films on the Holocaust (although his statements could apply to any other account) constitute “comforting parables of suffering and redemption that seem to try to reflect reality less and less, replacing its horror with uplifting stories that flatter us by arousing noble sentiments in return for a bad time and some tears” (“Interactive Pasts”, El Pais (“Babelia”), October 17, 2009. Vid. in this respect Alvaro Lozano’s book, The Holocaust and mass culture, Barcelona, Melusine, 2010.

[58] I discussed elements of this subject myself in my book Who owns what happened?, Madrid, Taurus, 1995.

[59] Those who harbored such hopes should be reminded, so they don’t give in to the temptation to take the leap towards maximalism lightly again, that it was an unequivocally right-wing politician, who was President of the French Republic when the crisis erupted in 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy, who dared, without compunction, to suggest nothing more and nothing less than the “recasting of capitalism.” Unfortunately, there have been more than enough opportunities to see what this man meant by recasting.

[60] Peter Novick, Jews, Shame or victimhood? The Holocaust in American Life, Madrid, Marcial Pons, 2007.

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The Past as a Territory of a Conflict. (2021, Mar 29). Retrieved December 8, 2022, from