Memory and the Radical Imagination (Against the Grain Interview)

An iconic poster from May '68, Paris
An iconic poster from May ’68, Paris

The wonderful radio program Against the Grain is (re)broadcasting a long interview host C.S. Soong conducted with me last year.  From the description on their website (

Global capitalism, far from being only an economic phenomenon, affects and influences how we think, including what and how we think about the past. Max Haiven reveals how neoliberal-era initiatives frame human cooperation and collective action; he also emphasizes the importance of what he calls “commoning memory.”

You can listen to the interview “live” on KPFA or WBAI, download an MP3 from the website, or subscribe to Against the Grain’s podcast, which I highly recommend as they always feature fascinating and provocative guests and great interviews.

This interview was based on an article I wrote titled “‘Are your children old enough to learn about May ’68?’: Recalling the radical event, refracting utopia and commoning memory” which appeared in 2011 the 78th issue of the journal Cultural Critique (pp. 60-87).  You can download a PDF here.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview:

CS SOONG (Against the Grain) (CSS): Can you describe your investigative project in your article “Are your children old enough to Remember May ’68: Recalling the Radical Event, Refacting Utopia, and Commoning Memory.”?

Max Haiven (MH): I wanted to write a piece to explore the importance of remembering radical events of the past, specifically against our current cultural climate of neoliberalism, which insists that every past events has just lead-up to the present, and that the present is inevitable, and that all the radical idealism of generations gone by was folly, or was just a step towards the perfection we have today.   I wanted to think through how we can re-remember the past and re-remember radical events, especially in the context of the passage of generations.  We’re now more than forty years beyond 1968, and a new generation and a new cycle of struggles has emerged.  How do our new cycles of struggles look back and take inspiration and encouragement from those struggles of the past, from the struggles parents and grandparents and so on?

CSS: Well in this neoliberal era there is history making.  I mean, there are a lot of documentaries on TV about this or that historical event.  There are also a lot of bestselling books on historical topics. Is that propitious?

MH: In one sense it’s good – there’s a greater  plurality of narratives about what happened in the past.  There are literally scores, perhaps I would say hundreds, if not thousands of books on, for instance, the events of 1968.  But there’s a way that most of those books try and tell an authoritative story about what happened and why it happened and what its ramifications where, and what its historical place is.  What I’m trying to do is think about how we can explore history and memory in ways that open onto a radical possibilities, rather than just trying to reduce it down to one meaning.

CSS: Can you talk a little bit more about the current historical periods attempt to, I think what you said was to “use the past to affirm the inevitability of the present?”  In what sense is that happening, and what is the mechanism by which that occurs?

MH: It’s happening through the general neoliberal insistence in what Francis Fukayama called the “end of history” – that now that we have perfectly open free markets we no longer need to compete with one another for our values to come to the fore, that in the free market all of us can pursue our individual wants and needs.  And therefore the past was all just a lead-up to the moment of the super-freedom that we now enjoy.  Under these cultural conditions, the narrative that gets told over and over about past events is that they just led up to the present, and that we have nowhere to go from here, that the radical idealist with the past is just sort of fed into the perfect moment that we have now.  Of course the present is far from perfect, and even people like Fukayama and other neoliberal philosophers sort of admit that things are a lot worse than they thought they were in the early nineties.  Yet increasingly in this cultural climate we get a highly commodified and digestible version of history, which is consumable in popular histories, in the History Channel documentaries that frame  all history in the same way, and that try to explain how events in the past were the product of discrete causes and had discrete effects. They insist that the past is done, and that it doesn’t influence present in any way except to have brought us to this point.

CSS: Could it be said then that the adherents of neoliberalism try to pay as much attention to the ideas and immaterial things as they do to processes of production and material goods?

MH: Do you mean that neoliberalism is as much about culture as it is about economics?

CSS: Exactly.

MH: Yes, absolutely. I think that the neoliberal agenda is about  deregulating trade, empowering corporations and private interests, and diminishing the role of government.   But at the same time neo liberalism gets into our heads and increasingly privatizes our imaginations, so that we can’t imagine collective futures or collective pasts in the same way. Neoliberalism works not just by imposing a system from above on everyone, but by making us think and feel in ways that prohibit us from making common cause and understanding collectivity and cooperation outside of an extremely economic frame.

CSS: one of the thinkers you bring up in your article is John Holloway.  He is a radical thinker and teacher based in Mexico, I believe.  He wrote a much talked about book entitled to Change the World Without Taking Power.  It was published about six or seven years ago.  Now you are interested, for purposes of this article, In Holloway’s interpretation of Karl Marx’s is insights into alienation, correct?

MH: Yes. Holloway believes, as do I, that human life is the product of our social cooperation as people. He calls this our “doing” the things that we “do,” and especially the things that we “do” together.  We are a collaborative and cooperate species,  and we only exist as “humans” per se by cooperated with one another.  Holloway believes that as we “do” things cooperatively as we build things together, as we build community, as we build physical things, the “doing” becomes “done,” it becomes solidified into objects.   And for Holloway capitalism is a particularly virulent way that the “done,” those things that we have created, come to shape our “doing.”  Cooperation ceases to be a process of conscious human cooperation and collaboration.   It becomes the rule of the “dead” over the “living,” the rule of the object over the subject.  For Holloway the rule of the “done” over the “doing” doesn’t just exist in terms of the way we produce something called a “car” and then that car determines how we live together, or how we produce capital or money and then that influences how we act.   That’s one side of it.   But he’s also talking about the way that our thought processes solidify, they go from being a dynamic thing that we share into solidified, hardened ideas, and that in turn influences how we cooperate, how we understand one another, how we build a society.  So for instance, things like identity, hierarchies and structures of power and oppression are all solidifications of thought into durable forms that then proclaim themselves to be biological or necessary or eternal.

So my interest is talking about this in the terms of memory and I contrast the way that we “do” memory when we remember an event as individuals or with, lets say, a group of friends, or we remember through our own lens, and I contrast that to the “done” of what I call, borrowing a language from Walter Benjamin, “historiography”: the sort of narratives that say “history was this way. Your remembrance is a subjective thing, but this is ‘objective’ history” and that’s what I use Holloway’s metaphor of the “done” for.   As if the narrators of this official history are saying history’s “done,” it has no more resonance or meaning in the present, it’s simply something that has hardened or solidified into a rigid narrative, that then all other set of memories just approximate.

CSS: John Holloway also uses the terms “power to” and “power over.” How do they relate to your understanding of doing and his understanding of doing and done?

MH: Holloway wants to highlight our elemental potential as collaborative, cooperate beings, and he calls this “power to”: the power to create, the power to make something together, the power to imagine and to build together in ways that are not hierarchical or not impeded by the values of accumulation of profit.  And he contrasts that with “power over,” which is his more negative understanding of power, which is where one group of people or one person has power over other people’s collaboration or cooperation and turns that into things like labor and exploitation, and eventually turns that into commodities or fixed, “done” objects that can then be exchanged on the market or used to extort more “doing” from others.

CSS:  The “done” has a kind of a seductive power doesn’t it?  I mean we’re attracted to it, in a certain sense?

MH: We are, and we can’t live without it.   As humans we are always collaborating and cooperating, but we collaborate and cooperate to create durable things, whether they’re objects or ideas, and those objects and ideas in turn allow us to live together.  So we can’t do without the hardened products of our sort of liquid social cooperation. The problems begin when we forget that those objects,  the “done,” are the products of our collaboration and cooperation, and we begin to take those finished objects and finished ideas is as if they’re eternal truths or necessary and unchangeable parts of our society. So the “done” is seductive.   The challenge is not so much that we should live the life of total free-for-all where everything is part of an incomprehensible flux, but recognizing that those things that do exist, whether they’re social institutions, whether they’re commodities, whether they’re relationships,  are momentary solidifications of this underlying substance of what Cornelius Castoriadis called the “magma” of the human imagination.

CSS: Now on the question of the status quo of the way things seem to work right now, the political theorists Michael Hart in Antonio Negri, authors of books like Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth, they have used the term “biopolitical production.” What do they mean by it?

MH: They mean a shift that happened within capitalism, and they date it, in fact, to the events of 1968, when capitalism was no longer interested in generating profits simply by creating physical commodities, but by creating the whole way of life. So probably the easiest place to see this is the way that all sorts of forms of labour that we use to reproduce our society got folded into the market in terms of the “service sector.”  So things like child care, things like food production, care for the elderly, all of these ways of producing life itself became commodified, where before they had been left up largely to women and the family.   So they talk about “biopolitical production” as the way that capitalism has increasingly come to influence the way we care for one another, the way that we communicate, and the way the capitalist system in general is more and more dependent on people’s communication, on their relationships, and on the way they imagine themselves.

CSS: I remember Michael Hardt speaking with me about immaterial labor, about labor that has to do more with “affects,” with feelings and emotions, then with physical products.   You bring up the labor of representation. What does that mean?

MH: I want to refocus on the way that we represent the world as a form of labour.  And I wanted to do it because I think that in culture studies, which is my field, there’s been this sense that representation has been set to the side of capitalist production. By representation I mean the whole range of ways that we re-present reality, which could be the language we use to talk about our reality, the artistic ways that we re-present our world to ourselves, or it could mean the forms of democratic representation that we have, or it could mean that the means of representing things like gender or identity to ourselves through the media and everyday “performances” of our identity, our gender and so on.  All of those things are generally taken to be sort of peripheral or incidental whole scheme of how capitalist power, which is supposedly really driven by the “real” labour of making tangible things.    Capitalism invested itself in things like the news and entertainment media in order to represent society to itself in ways that would be friendly to capitalist interests, so it would re-present women in a certain way to keep them subordinate to men in a patriarchal society, and it would represent workers in a certain way to keep everyone happy (or at least quietly unhappy) with their lot in life.   But I think we can also talk about representation as the labour in and  of itself, that we are all, as people, re-presenting ourselves all the time, and re-presenting our world.   We are active agents in how we represent stuff, and  that’s important to the way that capitalism transforms are “doing” into the “done.”

CSS:  The proliferation of information technologies has made a representation, re-presenting things, easier, or at least has made the dissemination of representations easier.  Where do you weigh in on the sense of whether information technology expansion has done more to help that representation in a radical sense, or has increased capital’s ability to integrate all of us into its processes?

MH:  I sort of stand on both sides of the question.   I think, on one hand there’s a whole new plurality of ways that we can re-present ourselves re-present our ideas, and re-present our values and struggles, and importantly represent values that are outside of capitalism’s strict value regime, which is simply accumulation at all costs. And those are very exciting. But in many ways they come at the cost of other forms of community. So increasingly we have the opportunity to go online, to share our ideas, to share our feelings, to share what we value, with other people around the world, at the exact same time as community and community solidarity has been shattered by commodification, gentrification, dislocation and all these other processes that are exacerbated and enabled by the spread of these new communication technologies in the globalization of production and so on.

CSS: Let’s talk about the commons, a concept you apply to memory.  But let’s remind people first what the notion of the commons refers to historically. Can you elaborate where this idea of the commons comes from, what it primarily refers to?

MH:  The original idea of the commons was actually a legal title for property held in common, usually by European peasants and townsfolk.   The idea was that these lands were held by a community and that everyone would share in their use and their maintenance.   Now as the transition happened in Europe from the medieval period into the early capitalist period, those commons were subjected to a process of “enclosure” where landowners bought up the commons or about legal title to them as individuals, and then use them to produce profit. Some of the classic examples are landowners kicking all the peasants off the common grazing land so they could grow commercial flocks of sheep, or leveling common forests so they could use it for timber and later cattle production.   And this process was mirrored both in Europe, where the peasantry was being dispossessed, and in the colonized world, where European colonialism came in and insisted that all of these plurality of ideas of common property that animated many indigenous cultures around the world were wrong and backward, and they needed to be replaced by the idea of private property.  A process that is still on-going. I mean here in Canada there’s an insistence by a colonial government to dispossessed indigenous people of their common land and insist that they be replaced by an idea of individual ownership.  Silvia Federici has written a really amazing book titled Caliban and the Witch about the enclosure of the commons in the transition to capitalism, and importantly she excavates how this enclosure both relied on and produced the disempowerment of women.

CSS: What has to thinker Massimo De Angleis tried to do with this traditional notion of the commons?

MH: De Angeles has really tried to inspire our imaginations with the idea of the commons.  He doesn’t just want us to imagine commons as common land thats shared, he wants us to understand commons as any space we create with other human beings that is not beholden to the values of capital.  So when we get together with a group of friends even for coffee or drinks and we create an atmosphere of conviviality, friendship and love, we are creating a “commons” between us.   Now for De Angeles, who shares a lot of theoretical underpinnings with people like Hardt and Negri and Holloway, the animus of capitalism is to colonize our commons, it’s always trying to find new ways of taking over our common resources. So the shift towards what Hardt and Negri call biopolitical production is, in fact, capitalism trying to gobble up all these other things that we value. So clearly we value our children, and in the past we found ways in our communities to care for  and raise our children, increasingly in this new age of the service sector and biopolitical production, that care and value is expressed in a paid, for-profit childcare centres. And this is of course very much within the scope of the neoliberal agenda, which suggests that everything we value should be put up for exchange in the free market

CSS:  You emphasize that “common” is less a noun or an adjective than a verb.  How so?

MH:  There are spaces that are commons.  I, for instance, live in housing cooperative that is a common resource we share, and we make democratic decisions based on our common needs.  But when we make those decisions, here like any of the set of political collectivities or social collectivities one is a part of, we are in the process of “communing.”  We are always remaking that thing a common resource, we’re not allowing it to become a solidified object that we simply have an alienated relationship to.   We are constantly reminding ourselves through our democratic processes that we are a commons, that this is a common project.  The important thing though is that when we “common” we remind ourselves that we aren’t all just isolated individuals who are “investing” our time in a shared resource, as the more neoliberal understandings would have it.  We are changed by our commons, when we “common” we are not just making something other than ourselves, we are we making ourselves anew together.

CSS: And memory can be a commons, a very important one.

MH: Indeed. And this is one of the things that we’ve forgotten. We tend to think memory is a very unique individual thing that we each have as individual persons.  Or  we tend to think of it as “history,” as a objective set of facts about what happened in the past. But what I’m trying to argue is that memories are commons, they’re things that we create and produce together, when we get together with friends and reminisce, or even when we read a history book and say “I don’t remember it that way.”  There’s a way that we both rely on our memories, like we would rely on a common resource for common thing, and we also contribute to and have responsibility to that commons of memory.  Even when we experience our own memories there’s a collective dimension: we remember or recall a moment of “doing” and it, in turn, inspires our social “doing” in the future.  We are always re-producing the memory of the thing that happened in the past that makes us who we are.  So we are fed by this commons and we tend this commons, as we would, say, a community garden.

CSS: You bring up an essay written by Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish philosopher and critic.  The essay’s titled his “theses on the philosophy of history” and you point specifically to ways Benjamin grasps or understands or interprets establishment history, kind of a mainstream history-making, what about this kind of history-making bothered Benjamin?

MH: Benjamin was a very interesting figure in Marxists letters.   He suffered a tragic fate while fleeing Nazi Germany in the late thirties, and this was his final essay and he’d written a number of different variations on of it over the latter part of his too short life. He was writing against two approaches to history in his day.  One of them was this very oppressive history writing of mainstream philosophers and mainstream historians that insisted that history was the linear chronology of one-way passage of time.  Events happened a certain way and they lead on to other events, and they had a discrete beginning, middle and end, and they had certain causes and they had certain effects, then the next thing happened.

So he was writing against that, but he was also writing against a very pernicious strain within Marxist theory that believed that there was a inherent pattern to history, and that history led from various “primitive” economic societies through to capitalism, and that capitalism, because of these “laws of history” that Marxist theorists had worked out, was going to inevitably lead into the communist society.  Benjamin wanted to revisit this idea because he felt that this had done a great disservice to the radical left in Germany and Europe.  In fact, he at least partially blamed the idea of what he calls “historiography” for the rise of Naziism, because it assured the Left of success when that success was not necessarily going to happen, and it also allowed them to believe that certain economic forces would congeal into communism, rather than what actually happened, which was that they developed into fascism.  He blamed them for fetishizing the working class and the bright future of populist modernity, in ways that were appropriated and mobilized by the Nazis with devastating effect.

So he wrote this essay to try and rethink the politics of history.  Many people have many positions on this this essay, it’s very poetic, it doesn’t necessarily render up its meaning immediately.   But I think that Benjamin came to the position that the past is never “done,” to go back to this language of John Holloway’s.  The past is never just a string of “done” events.  The past is always living in the present, it’s always influencing what we do, and the way we remember the past, or the way we choose remember the past.  It shapes what we think is possible. So if we remember a radical event of the past, like say the Paris Commune of 1871, as an event that had discreet causes and discreet ramifications, then we fail to understand the way that it makes a call to us in the present to take up the utopian dreams that animated that short and tragic radical event and remake something of that in the present.  Benjamin talks at some length about the dead and that the claims that the dead have on the living, and the way that the dreams of our ancestors and predecessors influence what we imagine and what we’re responsible for the present.  And this is very different than the start of the more austere idea of “historiography,” which is that the present doesn’t owe the past anything.

Of course to be fair many many different indigenous civilizations around the world understood this philosophical point way before Walter Benjamin had to rebuild it out of Marxist theory.  The idea that we would be responsible to our ancestors and responsible to generations to come is not a new form of thinking.   But Benjamin brings this idea back into the Western canon.

CSS: Walter Benjamin also had this idea of a “judgment day.” Tell us more about that.

MH: Yeah, Benjamin had a lot of friends who were theologians but Benjamin himself was an atheist, for all intents and purposes (maybe an agnostic, I’m not sure).  His idea of judgement day is that all of these past generations of struggle, whether we go back to the Paris Commune of 1871, or the events of 1968, or even the events of our now evicted Occupy movements,  all of these events dreamed of the day when their quashed hopes and aspirations would be redeemed, when there would be that fabled revolution after which everything was great.   Of course that dream is an impossible dream, a utopian dream.   But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value.   So for Benjamin,  this judgment day continues to be a shared horizon of possibility that we share with struggles of the past. For Benjamin, we can’t let go of that utopian possibility, and we can’t deny the hold that that idea has on us.

CSS: How capable does Benjamin believe we humans are of imagining different worlds, future worlds, better worlds with any kind of specificity?

MH:  This is one of the wonderful things about Benjamin, as well as some of the people the he corresponded with like Theodore Adorno and Earnst Bloche and other members of the Frankfurt School and its periphery.   There’s a wonderful move that he and others make, which is to say we are always dreaming of this future, and yet even our dreams can never fully approximate what we want.  So we can map out as perfect a society as we want.  We can get together around a table with as many people as we like, and dream big about all the things that we would want and we would have.   And yet even that map that we would make of our perfect future would never fully grasp the magnitude of the utopia.  It’s in our imagination, and yet our imaginations cannot fully grasp it.  And for Benjamin, that’s not a failing, that is the constant source of our radicalism.  Even if we created the society of our dreams, our work would never be done.  The common will never be common enough, the utopian will never be utopian enough, the democratic never be democratic enough.  We’ll always have to work to remake and remake society and the common.   In one way, “The Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which is Benjamin’s last essay, is very pessimistic. Yet even while he’s literally watching his entire society collapse into fascism and war around him there’s courage, a radical courage to fail that animates the piece, which is one of things I want to rekindle and pick up on in my work on memory.  Which is to say that when we remember the radical event, we need to be prepared not to be able to remember it in its whole fullness, but we need to still have the courage to try and remember it and to pick up the pieces again and again and again.

CSS: And, of course, there is capitalism, whose imperatives pervade so much of the economy and our social life and our cultural lives.   You write that “key to the elemental process of capitalist commodification for Benjamin as for Marx is precisely the forgetting of the origins of our social world and the things and people that populate it in shared labor.”   So capitalism wants us to try and forget, and what Benjamin and Marx and many other thinkers want us to remember, to recall and to use, correct?

MH: Indeed.   The commodity itself, which is for Marx the fundamental object and icon of capitalism, is, in effect, a shared, common process, a fragment of our doing, whose origins we then “forget.”  We imagine it is “done” and that it exists outside of our social cooperation and our “doing.”  So commodification doesn’t just describe the way something gets subordinated to the logic of the market, and gets bought and sold.  It also describes a process of political forgetting.  Which makes the politics of “remembering” all the more important.

CSS: Well you mention 1968, a hallmark year in radical protest and activism and social movements all around the world. Kristin Ross who teaches comparative literature at New York University wrote a book called May ’68 and its Afterlives in which she recalls the student and worker uprisings in France in May 1968.  Could you first briefly remind us of that tumult and resistance and rebellion?

MH: Yes, certainly.  1968 was a very auspicious year for struggles around the world.  It was one of the years in which anti-colonial struggle came to a head and many, many countries in the global South, and those struggles inspired students in France, who are the first baby boom generation just coming into the university system, coming of age to foment a rebellion against the status quo, which was later joined by workers and there was an amazing confluence of student and worker solidarity.  One which came very close to unseating the populist right-wing De Gaulle government at the time, very close indeed.  May 1968 has been this massive of moment in the history of the left in the west.  There were also of course protests all over the western world, including the Eastern Bloc, and in the United States, Canada, Germany, Italy and elsewhere.  But the thing that marked out these protests in another way was that they were a rejection of the more “scientific” old-school Marxist ideas that history would only be created by a very narrowly defined “working class.”  So the student activists and the unemployed and worker activists in the revolts of ’68 in France and elsewhere insisted that it wasn’t just a struggle for workers’ dignity and workers’ rights, and wasn’t even a struggle necessarily merely to take state power, it was a struggle to transform the way of living completely.  And this led to a whole array of experimentations in different ways of organizing, in different ways of living together, of cooperating.  Also it became a touchstone moment for a whole generation, this baby boom generation, which is a very historically unique demographic, that they would look back on for years and which dramatically influenced the way that they went on to reproduce their worlds and reproduce future generations as well.

CSS:  Kristen Ross’s book about May 68 is about memory, right?  It’s about remembering.  It’s about her talking with people who participated in May ’68 in France and having those people recall to her what happened, and express or relate their memories of the event. What did  people tell Ross about what it was like and what they felt during those heady days?

MH:  It is a really fascinating, brilliant and beautifully done book, because Ross is interested in what she called the “afterlives” of the event.  So she’s not interested, necessarily, in “what happened,” its not a history book in that sense. It’s a book about the uses and the abuses of the memory of the period.  So in the material she looks at, she’s really interested in the way that people use the memory of the event to do certain things in their lives.   So for a lot of long-time activists, the memory of ‘68 and the feelings or “affects” it created has become something that has animated their political activism for years and years since.   Ross has a very nice phrase where she talks about the political imagination becoming the fabric of everyday life in ‘68; that for a moment the sort of architecture of the “done,” the way that the world solidifies into durable institutions and identities, all that seemed to become a little more liquid for a while, and people could imagine a different world and start trying to put that world into practice.  And that had an affective, emotional, psychological, and sociological dimension to it that haunted people.  And the interesting little book is that she talks about people who went on and tried to rekindle that moment for the rest of their lives as radical activists or as academics or as artists.  But she also talks about the people who tried to deny that radical moment and its impact on them by sort of cashing in their radical credentials as activists and moving into the world of mainstream history punditry or politics and saying that May ‘68 was nothing but youthful bourgeois folly, that they learned their lesson, and that now they were ready to participate in that good and just French society.

CSS: So in a sense these people were recalling not utopia, but flashes of it,  something approximate in utopia that they experienced in the streets in 1968 with thousands, millions of other people. When we think about how to communicate this kind of experience we come up with the word, again, “representation” they’re trying to “re-present” what they experienced, how they felt, what happened during those days.  And yet you write that the utopia echoed in these passages in Kisten Ross’s book, is one where there would be no need for representation.  Meaning what?

MH: I don’t want to say that these events themselves were utopias.  They certainly weren’t.  The events of May ’68 in Paris or in Berkeley or in Halifax, were not utopian events, there were horrible things that happened.   People mistreated each other and the systems of power which existed then and still exist today, notably things like patriarchy, like racism, like possessive individualism, they continued to exist within the social movements of 1968, no doubt.  And the social movements themselves were not necessarily particularly well organized, and they, in the end, failed in their stated mission of creating a social revolution.   That said, something within those activist events resonated with something deeper, and it’s that desire which Benjamin talks about, the sort of utopian dream compounded of generations of struggle that is also dreamed by the event.  And it’s not a utopia we could ever put our fingers on.   As I was mentioning earlier, it is a utopia that is beyond our imagination.  Yet it illuminates our auctions, so in the “event,” in that moment in the streets where you feel more alive than you’ve ever felt, when you feel a like a full person and a full subject, and those people who’ve been involved in decent social movements know this feeling, that feeling is… singular.  It is a moment where we dream of a world beyond the need for re-presentation.  This gets a little into some more postmodern philosophical ideas, but it’s a world of pure “presence,” a world where we no longer need to suffer the “latency” or the delay from will to action, where we’re never misunderstood, where the things we desire manifest themselves, where our labour or our cooperation is no longer alienated, where there’s no such thing as the “done,” there’s only pure “doing.”  That’s an impossible world.   We as humans live through and with the “done,” it helps us to “do” in the present.  So this dream exists, but it’s something we can never put our fingers on, and its something that haunts us as a feeling.

So when we try and recall the radical event, when we try and recall what happened in the streets in May 68, when we recall how it felt to be in the square in the moments when the Occupy movement “worked,” or in the moments when the anti-globalization marches “worked,” when we try and recall that feeling we are always missing something. Because we are trying to recall a flash of sheer presence, of sheer “doing,” we are trying to re-present it, we’re trying to make it “done,” we’re trying to create something of it, it always evades us.  We dream of a moment beyond “mediation,” when we’re all connected to each other in a monstrously intimate way.  Because we dream of that moment beyond mediation, no media will suffice for us to represent it to ourselves.  So there’s something that calls us to constantly remember that radical event and the effect it had on us, and the person we imagined we were, and the person we imagined we could be, and the society we imagined we could create.  We’re constantly “called” to recall it, to call it back to us, again and again.  And yet we can never fully recapture that moment.   And there’s a certain tragedy to that, but again it comes back to that courageous will in the face of failure that Benjamin is working through.   Even though we’ll never be able to rekindle exactly that feeling, we still have to try in order to get the past to live again in the present to keep those dreams alive.   Rather than saying “that was then,” that it was just sort of a mass hallucination of freedom, and now we’re all smarter and wiser and can go back to living our normal lives.

CSS: When people look back at a radical event like May ’68 or Occupy, are they even able to recognize the person they were back then?

MH: I argue no, that in those radical events we experience ourselves as something very different than we experience in our regular lives because we are exposed to that sort of harsh light of an unalienated society that just peeks through in those events.   That light  doesn’t characterise those events, because the events, again, are highly problematic for all sorts of reasons.   But that sort of glimmer of utopia peeks through and illuminates us as individuals, as subjects, in ways that are dissonant with the way we usually go about our lives, like a misplayed piano chord, or a grammatically flawed sentence.   In these events we feel ourselves as both the products and producers of the potential to co-create our world, that we are systematically denied under the usual strictures of a capitalist society.  So we have the opportunity to create new institutions, new relationships, new ways of being and feeling and acting.   And when we go back to our regular lives, at out job or our school, with our families with our friends, we’re different people.   So when we look back in the mirror of the event we don’t recognize ourselves in the same way, there’s a shocking dissonance between those images.   I talk about that dissonance as a trauma or wound.  The memory of the event continues to wear away at us.  Or more properly: the sort of individual that our capitalist culture forces us to be to get about the business of our lives is not consonant with the person that we remember being, or the person we thought we might be able to be amidst the radical event.  So after the event we’re sort of haunted, in a way, by the person that we were, by our own radical ghost.

And that leads people to a number of different actions.  For some people it leads to quite intense depression and burnout: when the potential they saw in those moments seems no longer possible it leads to a great deal of angst.   And for others still, it leads them to deny that that person that they were or could have been ever existed, and to rationalise the event within the mainstream historiography that Benjamin talks about, the idea that this was a discrete event, that it happened for these reasons, had these effects,  and no longer has any significance except as history.

CSS: So then if we come full circle, in a sense, what concretely would the project of “commoning memory” involve?  For example, does Kristen Ross’s book fit within or belong to the project of “commoning memory?” in the sense of compiling a bunch of people’s recollections about the streets of ‘68?

MH: I think it does.  I think it’s a great example of commoning memory.   Because the idea behind Ross’s book is not to offer an authoritative history of what happened in 1968 or even to necessarily offer one account of the events that was conscious of its own partiality.  Hers is an attempt to bring together a plurality of voices and show what memory can do.  In this section of the paper I draw on a Canadian education theorist named Roger Simon who talks about building what he calls “transactional spheres of public memory.” And the idea here is that we should work to create spaces where we can remember events and things not just to “get it right,” not just to figure out an authoritative history, although of course we do need to remember that certain events did happen, we don’t want to deny the actual history of injustices or say that somehow everyone’s recollection is equally right and so dilute the memory of the past, especially in circumstances where past forms of oppression and exploitation continue in the present or have present-day ramifications. Simon’s example is testimonials of Inu people in northern Canada who’d been relocated as part of a project of the Canadian government with genocidal ramifications.  People who live in Canada and elsewhere need to admit and acknowledge that this  happened in the past.  It isn’t just someone’s subjective memory – it’s part of who we are, even today.  So when Simon talks with a transactional sphere of public memory he wants us to think about how a space can be created where we don’t just hear “what happened,” but where the hearing of another person’s memory changes our idea of who we are and makes us rethink our whole set of relations.

When I talk about communing memory, I want us to think about how we can imagine remembering not to create a “done” history, remembering as “doing,” as something we “do” together in order to build common sets of references that can allow us to rebuild our world together outside of the sort of given strictures of our capitalist culture.

CSS:  You wrote your article in Cultural Critique before in the Occupy movement emerged.  Since radical things and radical transformations are happening now, as we speak, is it in a sense less important that we try to recall and remember and be inspired by a radical protests that  happened years and decades ago?   In other words what does the  presence, the present-ness of Occupy mean for your emphasis and your thesis about taking the memory of past events and applying them and using them in the present and towards the future?

MH:  Well I’d answer somewhat biographically.  I’m the child of baby boomers who were activists in the late 60s and early 70s (and still are activists), and I grew up in a milieu where that memory was very much living.  So I grew up in a context where remembering past events was important because it allowed us to think about what the political possibilities were in the present.  And I had my own political coming of age during the anti-globalization demonstrations and anti-war demonstrations in early 2000s.   When the Occupy movement emerged I found myself older than a lot of the other participants.  And it led to a number of discussions among my contemporaries, people my age who are activists of my generation, about how, in some ways unprepared we were for the task of handing on radical memory and historical memory to the next generations.   We didn’t feel equipped with the tools in order to express you know our successes and failures, to be able to go to a younger generation and say “listen, we’re really impressed by what you’re doing, we’re inspired, we loved it.  But you know there’s certain knowledge that we need to pass on so you don’t make the same mistakes as we did.”  I think, in fact, that as we enter a moment of an massive global crisis, where the prevailing orthodoxies is the neoliberalism are floundering (see the Introduction), there’s incredible potential  and importance in social movements like the Occupy movement.   But it’s an incredible potential that will need to take stock of what the past has to offer.   It’s always tempting for young people to imagine that what they’re doing is totally new and that past generations failed in their revolutionary or radical mission, who have, in that phrase by Franz Fanon, failed to grasp the revolutionary moment.   We want to believe always, each generation, that we’re doing something completely new. And it comes across in the rhetoric of the Occupy movement that understands the occupations as a revolutionary, or as unprecedented.   Of course it’s precedented.  And, you know, maybe we’ll be revolutionary, but it’s unlikely at this point.  But maybe if we all work together in some way and we can build those historical memories together, and create a common sphere of memory, maybe we can learn and teach ourselves enough lessons that we can build these movements into something sustainable and powerful.