Friday, September 10, 2010

Tricks of memory

You might recall that last year (in fact on this very day), I prodded the standard narrative of the origins of The New School. The image of Founding fathers of a new university for social science should be amended to Founders of a new school for social research. We were a more counter-cultural (and anti-university) institution than we recall, and from the start our leadership included women. You might remember also that this inspired my colleague A to put up pictures of Emily James Putnam and Clara Mayer at the conference inaugurating the new Gender Studies Program. (Their portraits flanked the recent teach-in, too.)

The recovery of the memory of these forgotten women also led A to write a lovely essay reflecting on the difficulties of memory, "Exiles from Utopia: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Making of The Feminist Memoir Project," which will be published next month. A was co-editor of the Feminist Memoir Project in 1999, but much of the essay is about her discovery - after 24 years of work for gender studies in the university - that women had been so important, but their contributions forgotten. Why are some remembered, others not? Can it shed light on the way the women's movement gets forgotten, even by later iterations of it?

What were the motors for forgetting what women do? Feminists seem to start from scratch every other generation, a pattern we could trace in Western history since the story of feminism began in the Enlightenment. (142)

It happens that last year's Orientation speech - the account of our founding fathers, etc., etc., which inspired or provoked me to try to set the record straight - was delivered by B, a psychologist who works on "collective memory," and a friend of A's. She asked B why he thought the school's collective memory had formed the way it did. He has found that some things are "sticky" - they get remembered. Most things aren't. In the case of the history of the women's movement, anti-feminist stereotypes (ugly, bra-burning, man-hating, child-murdering, hairy, lesbians, 152) seem stickier than the movement itself.

[B] suggested to me that the disparity between the memory of the extraordinary social transformations arising from and parallel to the movement and the negative image of the horrible, miserable feminist arises from the movement’s failure to promise happiness, a story with a readable ending. Feminist narratives are internally contradictory, diverse, reactive, unsettling, unclear. Feminists want a different world but have usually distrusted the closure of unity or happy endings. Though vital struggles continue, there is no beloved community once one has left the original commune of the seventies sisterhood. (152)

A considers other ways in which the women's movement has been unsticky - few photos were taken, and in interviews nobody claimed to be a leader.

Women are more forgotten than men, but feminists are suspicious of the ways in which men have achieved stickiness. The male narrative of creation and centrality and glory and autonomy is a story which feminism challenges at its root. Is there another form for remembering? [B] tells me he thinks not, and I see no reason to dispute his conclusions. His research demonstrates that human beings remember badly: they need the help of simplification, the motive of self-serving teleologies, the false unity of sharing a story with the tribe. (153)

This is profound stuff, and troubling. Not just feminism but the ideals The New School set out to promote - social engagement, academic freedom, liberal democracy, etc. - seem to lack the requisite stickiness, too. No wonder we end up with a foundational narrative from the same cookie cutter as more traditional universities: founder heroes (men) whose timeless vision continues to inspire to this day. (One of Emily James Putnam's contributions to the founding institution was to insist that the school offer no tenure, and constantly change its faculty.)

Feminists now living have an understandable attachment to the bodily, animated particulars of their movement experiences. It is bound to be galling to discover that, in the usual course of things, these treasured, specific memories are not only as evanescent as foam but also, on
their way out, subject to a sort of patronizing diminishment reserved for women’s efforts to enter history. There is always the personal question of how to survive being forgotten or aggressively misunder- stood. Inevitably, with longevity or luck, one outlives one’s formative moment. In the case of those who were a part of ecstatic, hopeful, utopian movements, this common tragedy of the mismatch between an individual’s life and the arc of history is likely to be particularly acute. For them, forgetting goes beyond personal loss to the loss of a whole world.
But one step beyond these feelings, that one’s acts and words of protest have been specially chosen for neglect and insult, lies another, more reliable experience feminists share: in modernity, feminism keeps returning. Though obscurity and abuse dog feminism, self-conscious feminist struggles are constantly finding new forms. Even if each return is greeted as if it were for the first time – the New Woman again and again – still, she keeps coming. (155)
It's seems a bitter truth. Some of the most profound changes in history are ushered in by people who are likely to be forgotten - because of the very kinds of change they promote. Of course, this doesn't mean we can't try to find ways to remember them. Reflecting on memory itself, as B and A do, helps too.

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