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Another Past is Possible

by Boris Buden

Regardless of what philosophy thinks of it, the tension between fantasy and reality has always been politically productive. We might know very well that what we call reality is in fact discursively constructed, which is why it has also an imaginary quality, or, on the other hand, that our fantasies are not simply unreal either, but when it comes to political struggle, fantasy, however disguised, has always found way to clash with reality.

In developing his psychoanalytic theory also Freud made use of that tension between fantasy and reality. But he did it in a very original way: not only he split reality into what he called material reality on the one side and psychic reality on the other; he also managed to reconnect both in the past.
Concretely, in dealing with the memories of seduction he discovered that they sometimes don’t refer to a real event of sexual abuse but are rather products of fantasy. In short, our memory doesn’t necessarily rely on the so-called traces of real events and facts from the past but has a fundamentally imaginative, fantastic character.

He also found out that fantasies, although they articulate an imaginary world of our desires that in the form wish-fantasy, (Wunschphantasie) seem to be turned to the future as the horizon of their fulfilment, are often, in fact, repetitions and re-workings of infantile scenes. Their prospective character is actually retrospectively structured or to put it simple, they are generated by the past. Moreover, in the guise of the primal fantasies (Urphantasien), like those of seduction, castration, parental intercourse etc., fantasy connects individual memory with its collective meaning. In fact, it is this primal fantasy that makes our memory—even if it doesn’t rely on real events or facts—real nevertheless. The fact that I might have never really experienced a seduction by my mother or the threat of castration by my father, although I clearly remember them, doesn’t make these fantasies less real. Inherited phylogenetically, the primal fantasies will close the gap between fantasy and reality. In short: if a fantasy lacks reality it will retrieve it from the past, or more precisely, from a very remote collective past. So it is memory, or more precisely a collective memory, that makes our fantasies real.

Shortly, the chief international correspondent of BBC-world, Lyse Ducet, wrote in her twitter-column: "our job is to bear witness & give voice—'..struggle of people against power is struggle of memory against forgetting' Graham Usher RIP." It was, in fact, in memoriam for Graham Usher, once the best foreign correspondents of The Nation, where he wrote mostly about the Israel-Palestine conflict. The words Ducet quotes are taken from his book Dispatches From Palestine: since history, he argues, is always written by the winners, the task of journalists is to bear witness of what really happened and so to give voice to the losers. He then himself took quote from Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting— “the struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

At stake is one of the most striking moments in the book, the story of a photograph taken 1948 in which Vladimir Clementis stands next to Klement Gotwald. After he had been was in a show trial sentenced to death and executed in 1952, he was also erased from the photograph.

The moral of the story, of Kundera’s novel and of Graham Usher’s legacy with which Ducet emphatically identifies and which was so clearly brought to the point by the Kundera’s quote is: it is the power—and not the unconscious desires in our fantasies—that separates memory from the reality, and reshapes it according to its will. This is why the task of an emancipatory politics is to reconnect the facts and the memories and to restore the objective reality of the memory. The politics of the people is the politics of the objective truth of the past, while fantasy is sided with the enemy of the people.

This has as also further consequences: the proper realm of emancipatory struggle is now the past. Its proper form is the struggle of memory against forgetting, a struggle for the truth of the past. If people are able to reclaim the past from the power, it will seize the power and secure a better future.

Interestingly, another frequent contributor to The Nation, great Edward Said, a Palestinian, a literary theorist and public intellectual— who praised Graham Usher for doing “the best foreign on-the-spot reporting from Palestine”—had a different meaning on how does one challenge the power. In his famous lecture from 1993: Speaking truth to power, he argued that today’s intellectuals can no longer rely on any consensus or authority when it comes to the question of what or who guarantees the objective truth of our past. He relied on the insight of American historian Peter Novick who already 1988 arrived at the conclusion that the ideal of objectivity, intrinsic to the history as science has never been realized. On the contrary, historiography has gradually evolved into a mass of competing claims and counterclaims without any objective validity. Novick finally concluded that the discipline of history had ceased to exist.

But what, if not historiography, will now provide the truth of the past, without which we cannot challenge the power?  It is memory, argues French historian Pierre Nora. Memory has replaced history in what he calls manufacturing the past. Moreover, memory is for Nora what generally defines the historical condition in which we live today. He even calls this condition the age of commemoration, the age of, as he writes, passionate, almost fetishistic memorialism.

This is, again the chance for fantasy. It can compensate for what historiography in manufacturing the past can no longer provide, a reference to objective reality. One might paraphrase Freud: if memory lacks reality it will retrieve it from fantasy. This is why memory, especially in the form of the so-called memory culture, is charged with such a significant amount of utopian energy. The age of commemoration is post-utopian only in the sense that utopia has now, instead to the future, turned back to the past. We might name this utopia retro-utopia.

The concept is borrowed from Inke Arns who coined the term “retro-utopia” to designate certain tendency in the Slovenian art scene in the nineties. At stake is the interest of artists for technological and scientific utopias of the early tewntith century. Their retro-utopia is no longer interested in utopia’s negative totalitarian past, but focuses on the emancipatory and visionary potentials of utopian thinking like in the myth of space travel. The gaze of the retro-utopians is directed towards the future but takes a detour across the past to reach this future. The past is, therefore, not the final destination. Rather it is still the future. It carries out what Gilles Deleuze in Difference and Repetition calls a substantial repetition, a repetition that produces something new.

This is where we should ask an uncomfortable question: What if fantasy today on its detour to the future got stuck in the past? What if we have found in the past a new “promised land” of our imagination where everything could have been different than it really was?
Finally, the rhetoric character of the question “what if” doesn’t necessarily imply that it is the future where the answer should come from. It could be the past as well.

There is a today a growing genre of the so-called what-if-histories or, as we can also call it, “alternative histories”, a sort of historical fictions, written mostly by professional historians that retell well known historical events asking “what might have been if”—if for instance a decisive battle might have been won by its actual loser (the triumph of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium 31 BC), or if Pontius Pilatus didn’t order Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, that is, what a Christianity without the Crucifixion would look like; or if Great Britain makes peace with Germany in 1940, etc.

Now the past—not the future!—appears charged with contingency, with, to quote Times reviewing one of what-if bestsellers: “counterfactual supposes, would-haves, might-haves, could-haves, possiblys, perhapses, probablys and maybes, in all their dizzying permutations”. The past has become a new promised land of our imagination where everything might have been different than it actually was. Thus, another world is possible. It is only up to our imagination to radically change the past. Is this because there is nothing we can do about our future?

Published May 2015 on the occasion of "Phantasm and Politics #11 – The Responsibilty of Art".