Last Posts : on the after affects of the archive

This is the text of a talk given to a conference in Belgrade on  ‘Dialoguing between the Posts 2.0’ in June 2019. I am grateful to Spela Zorko and Sanja Petovska for inviting me and for being such convivial hosts.


I  am delighted to have been invited to this conference and to have participated in so many interesting discussions, if only because it has taken me out of my  current discomfort zone which is the madness of Brexit and the fact that our next Prime Minister is likely to be an unreconstructed member of  the political  establishment who still thinks Britain is a providential island surrounded on all sides by a sea of foreign disinformation about its future dealings with the world.  The immediate reason for my being here is that I have just published a little book  looking at the memory  politics of the Left, mainly in a UK  context but which raises a number of issues which I hope are salient to the present discussion.  Archive That Comrade, draws on my own experience as a political and community activist, and more specifically my involvement in the London counter culture of the late 1960’s  and the  mass occupation of public buildings in Central London by young people organised by the street commune movement in 1968/9.  The book was prompted by being asked to donate my collection of political ephemera  from this period to a radical archive, the Mayday Rooms, which was interested in connecting this material to contemporary struggles.  Their practice is to ask donors to present their material at   a special consignment event  in which its significance can be  publicly debated. In my case the discussion focussed on  the more general question of what relevance does the experience of one generation of political activists  have to its  successors, who may be facing  very different circumstances. This issue was highlighted last year with it  being the 50th anniversary of 1968; there were a host of conferences, including one I helped organise,  which tried to examine the legacy of 68  in relation to contemporary social movements and identity politics,  specially  environmentalism, feminism, gay rights,  anti racism, communitarianism and radical urbanism.

A cautionary tale

My interest in  political memoryscapes and how historical generations of activists  are formed and informed by them is partly to do with my day job as an ethnographer. In much of my research over the last 40 years I have been  documenting do- it -yourself archiving practices in working class communities undergoing rapid and often catastrophic change.  My concern  also  predates any personal considerations of what, if anything,  I could relevantly hand on to the young people who are today  leading the fight for social justice, whether around climate change, or the   new illiberalism  which is penetrating ever more deeply into  economic, cultural and political life.   In fact my interest in left memory politics  relates more to 1989  than 1968 and goes back to a visit to a museum in East Berlin in 1980. The museum portended to tell the story of the creation of the German Democratic Republic  as a bulwark of socialism in the front line of the cold war. As you entered the large portico you were confronted with a steam locomotive, resplendent in the colours of the GDR. Children were enjoying  climbing into the  cab and imagining themselves driving it down the tracks. But where did these imaginary tracks lead? If you looked closely at the base of the engine you could read a small plaque which announced that this was one of trains which had hauled bricks to help build the Berlin Wall, constructed entirely with volunteer labour, by workers  who were defending  socialism  against its enemies. A story then of East Berliners enthusiastically volunteering to cut themselves off from their families and friends in the West, and to live in an open prison from which some of them died trying to escape. So here we had an artefact transformed into a protagonist  in a narrative which its presence authorises and which is in fact a piece of state propaganda. The very materiality of the exhibit provides its alibi as a mute witness to the fabrication of a historical untruth. Another way to put this is to say that the archival object is falsified by what  it is made to verify within the archival frame.

About ten years later I revisited Berlin in very different circumstances. The Wall had fallen and the Museum of Hysterical  Materialism, as I nicknamed it, was closed[i]. I had been invited to speak at a conference about racism  organised by the reconstituted Socialist Unity Party which had ruled the old GDR and was now trying to reinvent itself as a social democratic party carrying the banner for the ‘Ossies’ who were finding themselves second-class citizens in the new united Germany. The conference  was attended mainly by party delegates, sad-looking middle-aged men wearing grey or brown raincoats who had been part of the old nomenklatura but now found themselves unemployed. One of them, let me call him Max, who  took me under his wing and whom I got to know quite well, had been a member of the Stasi. He confessed that the worst thing about what had happened was not that he had become a social pariah and an object of general opprobrium but that he had been forced to recognise that  his whole life had been wasted in pursuit of a dream that  turned out to be a nightmare. The opening of the Stasi archives had revealed just how deeply embedded the state surveillance system had been and the large numbers of citizens who had collaborated with it, whether out of fear or a genuine sense of patriotic duty.  Like many of his fellow  militants, Max had been a member of the Kamfgruppen der Arbeiterclasse, the  GDR’s ideological shock troops, and like them he had volunteered  to help build the Wall. To prove his change of heart he offered me a small fragment of brightly graffittoed  stone which he assured me he had personally chipped  out of the Wall. When I got back to my hotel  I compared it with another piece of the Wall embedded in a postcard I had bought and which had been  issued to celebrate  the events of 1989. The stone  was also grafittoed, but  was of a quite different composition. Perhaps it was from a different part of the Wall? Or was it possible that one of  these stones was a fake? After the fall of the Wall tens of thousands of people  went hunting for souvenirs, and a whole export industry grew up around distributing  fragments as holy reliquaries of this historic moment  across the world. Once the remains of the Wall were protected, some East Berliners, desperate to cash in, turned themselves into do-it-yourself archivists and began  to  ‘manufacture’ this little bit of history  in their own back yards.

There are two  conclusions to be drawn from this experience which are the starting points for my approach to memory politics. The first is that that the knowledge power of the archive, once in the hands of the state, is absolute; even if it is not directly employed as an instrument of propaganda, it can be a means of  censorship and occlusion as well  as selective remembrance. Nor  should we overlook the capacity of the State archive to actively conceal, suppress or destroy  material in order to conceal, suppress or abolish the traces of its own criminality.

At the same time the archive  can become an affordance for the most intrusive technologies of  commodification as well as control. Today, with the growing datification of every aspect of our interaction with the State and the market, as citizens and consumers we find that we are unwitting  and often unwilling accomplices in a vast operation to extract, monitor, commodify and archive information about  the most intimate aspects of  our everyday lives; our computers and mobile devices leak geo-located data about our  life style patterns, sexual preferences, social networks and journeys around town, creating an involuntary memoryscape to which we are denied access. If the Benthamite panopticon was the model of surveillance and regulation in early capitalist society, the virtual archive is the model of  the control society of late modernity.

The second point stands against the first; it is that the archival significance of objects cannot be secured by their mode of production or material provenance alone. Under hypnosis a bricklayer can remember and distinguish between every single brick he has laid in the previous week, according to its texture and other features. Even mass produced objects have a singularity of use  not reducible to their social typification so that any attempt to enclose their meaning within a totalising frame of reference is doomed to failure. There is no doubt which of my pieces of the Berlin Wall tells the more interesting story; even if Max’s gift turned out be  fake news and was ‘hand-made’, the narrative  it served to prompt verifies its authenticity for the same reason that makes its provenance unreliable. This uncoupling of provenance and meaning is the challenge of archival  interpretation.  As he said to me, with a slight twinkle in his eye, as he finished the story and pressed the precious stone into my hand, ‘Archive that comrade!’, thus conveniently providing my book with its title[ii].

The thrust of my argument is that the Left needs to create archives that are improvisatory as well as conservationist,  that are revisionary and unsettle  received accounts of the past, including its own past, as well as re-affirming and re-animating   values of human solidarity  that are in danger of being hollowed out or lost. A good deal of Archive that Comrade is spent in elaborating the kinds of archival  practice that can sustain such a project.

It is not a question in my view of post-modernising the archive, so that it become a site where multiple regimes of historical truth can spin around an absent centre, but rather of creating a platform where the dialogic imagination, which is also the sociological imagination can be exercised in respect of the future. You cannot always judge a book by its cover, but in the case of Archive that Comrade the   cover does perhaps convey its essential message.  So we see a dismembered  statue of Stalin,one of thousands that were taken down after the fall of the Soviet Union, being wheeled away on a trolley to an unknown destination. At first look we might be inclined to assume that it is being taken to one of the secret dumping grounds that were created to house the old regime’s  reliquaries,  to prevent them becoming memorabilia or shrines for some residual communist movement.

The fact that the photograph is in black and white seems to date it appropriately. But hang on a minute, what if this is in fact  a contemporary picture that has been photo-shopped to make it look like a historical document, and the statue is being wheeled out to be re-assembled in support of a new Stalin cult amongst a  generation of young Russian nationalists  who have no direct memory of Stalinism, and from who the ruthless dictator of the proletariat has been re-branded as a  wartime hero,  who saved the country from fascism and redeemed  its pride.  Once again meaning cannot be read off from provenance in any direct  way, especially in the case of visual archives where  the images never speak for themselves in a way that textual documents, can appear to do, simply because they are made up of words and imply, however remotely, some kind of voice.

The context of this story appears to be the opposite of the one which has shaped this conference.

My story is about a once divided nation which  is re-unified  but in which the fault lines between communism  and capitalism, between a single party state and a liberal democracy  are reproduced not only in structural inequalities between Ossies and Wessies, but in the fractured memory politics that want to consign one experience to the dustbins of history and the other to its triumphalist  ending with the victory of one system of political economy over the other.

In the case of Yugoslavia  we are dealing with the implosion  of a national communist regime into  its component  ethnicities, and  their re-nationalisation  through the promotion of a populist memory politics, which re-activated  revanchist and irredentist claims over territory,  identity and belonging. The power of the archive was mobilised to refight the battles of World War 2, between fascist collaborators and communist partisans, and to re-open  the wounds of religious conflicts between Christians and Muslims   going back to the days of the Ottoman Empire.

As we know this iteration of what Freud ironically called  ‘ the narcissism of minor differences’  was accompanied by extreme and even genocidal forms of ethnic cleansing, and by numerous war crimes constituting a collective trauma  with whose after- effects, and after affects   hundreds of thousands of people are continuing to have to live in the present era. It is this post traumatic memoryscape, and its representation that I want to look at  because I think it has a direct bearing on the present imagination of the Balkans as a contradictory  pivot in  the reconfiguration of global North/South and East/West relations.


Last past the post

So lets start with this little word ‘post’. Its popularity in contemporary leftist discourse – everything now has this little prefix  attached to it- post modern, post structural, post feminism, post racial, post patriarchal, post Marxism, post capitalism, post colonialism, post humanism- conveys a pervasive sense of old orders ending without any new beginnings  being yet in sight – in other words it is symptomatic of what Gramsci termed an ‘organic crisis’. These usages speak at once to a drive to move on, to go beyond, or to escape from an inherited  past, but they   also point to  a sense of the present conjuncture being haunted and constrained  by  the still active and inescapable  legacies of the past.  So yes we are dealing with the after effects, and after affects of  modernism and capitalism and colonialism and patriarchy just as we are struggling with the  failures of Marxism and  feminism and structuralism and humanism to provide us with the strategies with which to finally comprehend and  dispel the long shadow which these dominant ideological  forces have thrown and continue to throw over the project of human emancipation from    poverty, injustice and war.

I want to stress the link between structural  after effects – for example the way the Communist party nomenklatura reinvent themselves as a nationalist bourgeoisie in the transition  to a so called post socialist order,  and  what I have called the after affects, the structures of feeling  and fantasy,  which are mobilised in this process, and which typically take the form of a collective repression,  (denial or disavowal)  of the original trauma (viz the collapse of communism)  accompanied by the celebration of an idealised vision  of the status quo ante and a nostalgic desire to return to it. Clearly this can occur not just in the individual psyche, but in the collective unconscious of a culture, finding  symptomatic expression in its body politic, and how its history is selectively remembered and forgotten.

Freud used the term nachtraglichkeit ( usually translated as after- blow ) to refer to the way some apparently unrelated event in the present can trigger off  painful long repressed memories related to  a traumatic incident  in the past.  He thought that this could be part of  a therapeutic  process  provided it could be  enacted within the  controlled psychodynamic framework of  an analysis (and the transference process). I want to suggest  that  something similar  can be accomplished in relation to  collective  post- traumatic memory  through particular kinds of   archival projects.

In this regard it is interesting to consider what might happen if we applied the psychoanalytic concept of trauma  to a consideration of the after-affects  of modernity and  socialism. Modernity, at least in one of its definitions is an enduring trauma, a principle of repeated  shock in which everything that is solid melts into (increasingly polluted) air.   Socialism, in its authoritarian statist forms, is also  a generator of collective trauma, both for its opponents, and for those of its supporters who have lived through the   corruption or demise of the ideals of freedom and justice for which it once stood.  In both cases  we are dealing with a body politic subject to post-traumatic stress , in which apparently unrelated events in the  present can trigger deep emotional responses and equally intense  forms of disavowal : a categorical  imperative  to remember the past or to forget it, accompanied by a more or less hysterical denial that there is anything to be remembered or forgotten.   These responses both point to (and also obscure) the fact that both the ‘modernity’ and ‘socialism’ in question can  belong to quite different, and indeed contradictory, historical  projects. In the first case, which we might call proto-modernism, science, technology, and the state are seen as the drivers of social progress,  enlightenment and democracy, sweeping away the  bastions of ancient privilege and ushering in a socialist utopia. In the second case, which we might call retro-modernism,  these same forces are  viewed in a largely negative light, as destroying  the basis of  community and solidarity which once upon a past (or future)  time constitute the infrastructure of a   truly human society . In this perspective post socialism is either conflated with  the condition of post modernity  tout court,  or else comes to signify the indefinite  postponement ( if not outright abandonment) of  the socialist dream, whilst remaining subject to the living nightmare  of its after affects.

A thought experiment

These considerations have a profound bearing on the form and function of archival projects which aim to intervene in the present conjuncture in order to mitigate , or work through and resolve the traumatic impact of the double failure of socialism and modernity. To see how this might work out concretely let us conduct a little thought experiment. Let  us consider how we might organise an archive around the life and work of Ivo Andric, and in particular explore the ground covered in his famous novel The Bridge on the Drina, which helped him win the Nobel Prize for literature  in 1960. You will remember that Andric, a former ambassador  to Germany wrote the novel while under quasi house arrest in Belgrade when the city was under the German occupation; in the book he situates this experience in a history of much longer duration,  in particular the situation of  Bosnia during the Ottoman and then the Austro-Hungarian Empires. The novel ends with an event in which Andric was himself personally involved, as a result suffering his first period of house arrest, namely the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb nationalists in 1914 which of course precipitated the first world war. The novel  thus explores central themes and moments in Balkan history  whose mythographies  were re-activated in the violent ethno-nationalist strife that took place in the 1990’s and whose after affects continue to dominant the contemporary political memoryscape. So perhaps the first reaction might be that to establish such an archive would be a very bad idea, which could only serve to resurrect  these  passions. Better to let the dead bury their dead and move on. On the other hand the bridge which plays such  a central role in the unfolding of Andric’s story – in reality  Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Visegrad- which is now a UN Heritage site, is  a symbolic space of negotiation between  different cultures, Christian and Muslim, Bosnian and Austrian and thus becomes a lens through which alternative and perhaps more hopeful  readings of Balkan history might become possible.

So this might give us a  template for an archive which celebrates a multi-cultural legacy, albeit one destroyed in the ethno-nationalist upsurge that filled the ideological vacuum created by the collapse of the Yugoslave communist regime. However in the aftermath there is today no possibility of creating a unified memoryscape which does not  turn into another  nation -building story  or alternatively  de-contextualise  it as a pan European narrative about modernity. A proto-modernist  strategy  might focus on the moment of building   railway to Sarajevo so that  the  bridge itself  became much  less crucial to the local economy ;  the better off people of Visegrad  began sending  their children  elsewhere for their education, to Sarajevo or Vienna , and they brought back new ideas, about socialism,  democracy and trade unions, which  helped break the stranglehold  of religious orthodoxy and patriarchal  authority in the city, and create  the conditions in which a local multi- culture could flourish.  So an optimistic  story about how modernity in the form of new technology opens up new possibilities of communication.

A retro-modernist strategy  might concentrate on the  Bridge’s  myth of origins : a young boy  is taken away from his mother  as a blood tax imposed by the Ottoman State on the Christian community  and converted to Islam. The boy’s mother, follows behind him to the Drina River, which she cannot cross, while the boy and his abductors take the ferry. The boy takes the name Mehmed. and he rises through the ranks of the Ottoman military until he becomes the Grand Vizier of Visegrad. But he remembers the original  trauma of his separation from his family and community  and  in orders the construction of a bridge across the river to replace the ferry service.  So the myth now becomes re-interpreted  as  a story about the suffering of mothers who lose their children to war, and to ideologies which impose this suffering in the name of national sacrifice, or modernity. The bridge itself becomes a symbol of the determination to remember traumatic events only in order to insure that they do not recur, whether as tragedy or farce.

Whatever option is taken, and at least I hope I  have  convinced you there are real political choices to be made here, they must be over determined by   the position taken over the so called exceptionalism of Yugoslavia. What has happened is that notion of a  progressive exceptionalism vis-a-vis  Stalinism and the Soviet bloc,  Yugoslavia as  communism with a democratic and human face, an experiment in workers control or non alignment,  has been replaced   by a regressive exceptionalism,  a platform for  the expression of atavistic loyalties   based on ancient feuds and ethnic antagonism which had been superseded  in the rest of Europe. Both formulation depend  on Euro-normative definitions of modernity  which are highly problematic. As Balibar put it:

Europeans should not see the Balkan situation  as a monstrosity grafted on to its breast but rather an image and effect of its history. Will Europe undertake to confront and resolve it, or will it continue to treat the problem as an exterior problem  to be overcome by exterior means, including colonisation’.

The problem however in the words of Dubravka Ugresic  is that ‘seen from outside the Balkan peoples resemble demented gravediggers. They seem to stubbornly confirm the dark stereotypes others have of them. Through their activity of digging up and ritually mourning human bones  and burying fresh ones without funeral rites the Balkan people are spinning in a diabolical circle. It is impossible for them, to come to terms with their past, present and future’.    And yet in her novels, most notably in Museum of Unconditional Surrender whose  narrator is  an exile in post 1989,Berlin  and  haunted by images of war-torn Yugoslavia,   she explores with great sensitivity  the after-blows of  trauma and its idioms of political representation or repression;   by interleaving  different genres of story telling she creates a multi- temporal  format which, like the kind of living archive I am arguing for, succeeds in  opening up rather than closing down  democratic debate about the  past, present and future direction of a society.


Another cautionary tale

To end with another story, and perhaps a cautionary tale of what happens in the absence of such a perspective, I want to return to the Berlin wall, or rather another and more recent Berlin Wall. Twenty years after the event  the Goethe Foundation commissioned a German artist to build a small cardboard replica of the Berlin wall in Belgrade’s main square in commemoration of 1989. People were supposed to write graffiti on  the West Berlin side of the wall  and to then tear it down thus supposedly  experiencing  vicariously the original sense of liberation and empowerment felt by Berliners.  Unfortunately nature took a hand in the proceedings and a storm  blew away  the wall before it could be officially demolished. Nothing daunted, the organisers collected the pieces and re-assembled them into  what they described as a Belgrade Museum of the Wall. The museum was opened by the German Ambassador  who, opportunistically enough  talked about ‘the winds of change blowing through Belgrade’. It turns out he was not referring to the British Tory prime minister, Harold Macmillan’s, famous speech in South Africa in 1960 about the rise of African national consciousness  and  anti colonial struggles but to the song written by a rock band in the 1987 which became the unofficial anthem of the  German  re-unification movement.  However the Serbian Young Communist Group  managed to take the wind of change out of the Ambassadors sails by turning up with a large banner which read ‘Your wall fell on the wrong side’.  In other words they acted as if 1989 had never happened, as if the citadels of capitalism had come tumbling down instead of the  walls in which  communism had imprisoned both itself and its subjects,  because in that event , it would be possible to  rewrite history as a counter-factual version of the  Marxist script.   The revisionary strategy I am arguing for is precisely about challenging all such ideological closures.

Raymond Williams who was a prescient and ruthless critic of Leftist orthodoxies and their authoritarian underpinnings  referred to these closures  as ‘robotic thinking’, which he castigated in the following terms:

‘…(it) resembles human thinking in everything but its capacity for experience. If you step into the robot’s world, you get your fuel free, and you can immediately grind into action, on one of the paper fronts, where the air stinks of pride, destruction, malice and exhaustion. The first characteristic of the robots is that the world exists in terms of their own fixed points. Are you a Marxist, a revisionist, a bourgeois reformist? Are you a Communist, a Left radical, a fellow traveller? What answer can we make to that kind of robot questioning? ‘Go away’, I suppose. It seems the only adequate thing to say’.

Alternatively we can demonstrate that there is another way to think and do politics, a more democratic, dialogic and deliberative way. And we can build archival projects which in their form and function demonstrate just that possibility.

[i] See my ‘A  Place Beyond Belief: Hysterical Materialism and the Making of East 20’, in P. Cohen and P. Watt, eds,  London 2012 and the Post Olympic City  (2017).

[ii] Phil Cohen  Archive that Comrade : left legacies and the counter culture of remembrance  (2018)