Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting

The Benedict Option as resistance to the Empire of Amnesia

Two quotes to start us off:

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” — Milan Kundera

“A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.” — Alasdair MacIntyre

On the flight home from Richmond, I read social anthropologist’s Paul Connerton’s 1989 book How Societies Remember, which had been mailed to me by a reader who said I should read it for research on the Benedict Option bookIt is thin but very dense and unsexy, but it hit me with the force of revelation. When I read its final lines as the plane was taxiing to the gate in Baton Rouge, I felt the last conceptual piece fall into place to write this book. Reader, I owe you more than I can say. I am going to try to sum up Connerton’s argument, and relate it briefly to the Benedict Option.

Connerton begins by saying that “our experience of the present very largely depends upon our knowledge of the past,” and that “participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.” Those memories, he contends, “are conveyed and sustained by (more or less) ritual performances.” Finally, he argues that these performances have to be embodied to be effective. Let’s unpack this.

When a new regime or social order takes over, the first thing it does is to find ways to sever the society’s connection to its past. ISIS is now doing that in the areas it controls, by erasing any physical embodiment of the memory of the area’s pre-Islamic past. “The more total the aspirations of the new regime, the more imperiously will it seek to introduce an era of forced forgetting,” says Connerton.

ISIS is an extreme example, of course, but this happens in all societies that are undergoing revolutionary change. The Communist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe tried this too. Echoing Kundera, Connerton says that the “there were people [there] who realised that the struggle of citizens against state power is the struggle of their memory against forced forgetting.”

Connerton discusses three types of memories — personal (something in the past that the individual experienced), cognitive (something in the past that the individual knows from having learned it second hand), and habit-memory, which he defines as “our having the capacity to reproduce a certain performance.” It’s like muscle memory: we may not remember how we learned the thing, but we can recall it when necessary. Reading this, I recalled the experience of Father George Calciu, a Romanian Orthodox priest, who was able to celebrate the Divine Liturgy while in a Communist prison because he had committed it to memory. The liturgy reminded him of who he was and what was true, in a time and place in which the authorities brutally tried to force him to forget. Connerton calls this third kind of remembering “habit-memory.”

When a society really wants to remember something as a society — e.g., mythical, religious, or historic stories that tell a people who they are and what they must do — it invents commemorative ceremonies around those stories. It is not enough to tell a particular story; the story has to be “a cult enacted.” That is, the story must convey a metaphysical truth, and thus has to be granted sacred status as an event that is taken out of the past and in some mystical way re-presented in the present. This is, of course, what the Orthodox Divine Liturgy and the Catholic Mass do. Rites are ways that societies maintain a living connection with their past, and enter mystically into it. Connerton says that “performative utterances are as it were the place in which the community is constituted and recalls to itself the fact of its constitution.”

In simpler language, this means that the words spoken in a rite both bind its participants together and remind the people who they are, as a people. Further, the most effective rituals involve the body. Connerton:

To kneel in subordination is not to state subordination, nor is it just to communicate a message of submission. To kneel in subordination is to display it through the visible, present substance of one’s body. Kneelers identify the disposition of their body with their disposition of subordination. Such performative doings are particularly effective, because unequivocal and materially  substantial , ways of ‘saying’; and the elementariness of the repertoire from which such ‘sayings’ are drawn makes possible at once their performative power and their effectiveness as mnemonic systems.

The most effective rituals do not vary, and are removed in the form of speech and song from everyday life. And:

Finally, ritualised posture, gesture and movement, instead of flexibly combining to impart a variety and ambiguity of information as in what we conventionally describe as everyday situations, is restrictive in pattern, and hence easily predictable and easily repeatable, from one act to the next and from one ritual occasion to the next.

(My margin notes at this point read: “The lack of ritual in most Protestantism and much of modern Catholicism — does it impede our ability to remember?”)

Connerton says that modernity is a condition of deliberate forgetting, of choosing to deny the power of the past to affect our actions in the present, so as to create a new condition of existence marked by the individual’s freedom of choice. Capitalism requires this deliberate forgetting, and facilitates it, and rites we invent in modern times “are palliative measures, façades erected to screen off the full implications of this vast worldwide clearing operation.” Here is the core:

Under the conditions of modernity the celebration of recurrence can never be anything more than a compensatory strategy, because the principle of modernity itself denies the idea of life as a structure of celebrated recurrence. It denies credence to the thought that the life of the individual or a community either can or should derive its value from the acts of consciously performed recall, from the reliving of the prototypical. Although the process of modernisation does indeed generate invented rituals as compensatory devices, the logic of modernisation erodes those conditions which make acts of ritual re-enactment, of recapitulative imitation, imaginatively possible and persuasive. For the essence of modernity is economic development, the vast transformation of society precipitated by the emergence of the capitalist world market. And capital accumulation, the ceaseless expansion of the commodity form through the market, requires the constant revolutionising of production, the ceaseless transformation of the innovative into the obsolescent. The clothes people wear, the machines they operate, the workers who service the machines, the neighborhoods they live in — all are constructed today to be dismantled tomorrow, so that they can be replaced or recycled. Integral to the accumulation of capital is the repeated intentional destruction of the built environment. Integral too is the transformation of all signs of cohesion into rapidly changing fashions of costume, language and practice. This temporality of the market and of the commodities that circulate through it generates an experience of time as quantitative and as flowing in a single direction, an experience in which each moment is different from the other by virtue of coming next, situated in a chronological succession of old and new, earlier and later. The temporality of the market thus denies the possibility that there might co-exist qualitatively distinguishable times, a profane time and a sacred time, neither of which is reducible to the other. The operation of this system brings about a massive withdrawal of credence in the possibility that there might exist forms of life that are exemplary because prototypical. The logic of capital tends to deny the capacity any longer to imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence.

What does this mean? He’s telling us that in modernity, the market is our god. It conditions what we imagine to be possible. We can’t dream that life should be ordered by rituals that bound and define our experience, and link it to the past, to a sacred order. There is no sacred order; there is only the here and now, the tangible. The world exists to be remade to fit our desires. There are no ways of living that we should conform our lives to, no stories that tell us how we should live. When Connerton says that in modernity, and under capitalism, we can hardly “imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence,” he’s saying that we can no longer easily believe that we should live according to set patterns of thought and action because they conform to eternal truths.

It’s like this. On my trip, I had several conversations with conservative church folks in middle to upper middle class social groups. Washington DC and Charlottesville, Virginia, (home of the University of Virginia), are full of such people. My interlocutors told me how hard it is to get many people in their circles to believe in anything prophetic in the Christian way of life that would prevent them and their children from participating fully in the meritocracy. When these are rival goods, mom and dad know which kingdom they serve. A man and a woman ask their pastor to speak to their college-age child, who wants to become a missionary, and ask him to talk her out of it; they want her to be successful, not to throw her life away.

In most cases, I understood my interlocutors to say, these in their social circles are not liberals. Quite the opposite, actually. What they appear to want, though, is a faith that baptizes the American Way of Life. Anything that conflicts with that they resist. Consequently, they cannot see how the American Way of Life, with its relentless valorization of innovation and individualism, annihilates Christianity by assimilating it.

You can have left-wing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and you can have right-wing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but neither one is Christianity. Both are the pseudo-religion of the Rich Young Ruler from the Gospel parable. Every single one of us is subject to this temptation, by virtue of the fact that we are Americans, and we live in modernity.

It occurred to me while reading this that the most dangerous enemy we face is not the State, and what it might yet do to individual Christians and their institutions and businesses. The most lethal foe is the Empire of Amnesia, which induces us at every turn to forget who we are, to forget who God is, and to forget what He wants from us. The Empire of Amnesia does not force us to forget our sacred Story as the Soviet empire did to believers; rather, it entices us to forget so we can set free our passions. So we can have our best life now. So we can be as gods. And as Ross Douthat once wrote, “no conservative dream, in the 400 years from Francis Bacon until now, has proven strong enough to stand in its way.”

This is the mission of the Benedict Option: to turn away from the Empire of Amnesia, to build “new forms of community” that can offer sustained resistance to it, and to give ourselves, our children, and our communities resilience in the face of its power, and ultimately to create, over time, the conditions for the resurrection of Christian civilization.

As historian Robert Louis Wilken has written, the early church, embedded within the Roman Empire, built up its particular culture for the sake of nurturing its inner life. The Church needed material means — art, architecture, language, ritual — to tell the sacred Story to itself. Wilken:

Material culture and with it art, calendar and with it ritual, grammar and with it language, particularly the language of the Bible—these are only three of many examples (monasticism would be another) that could be brought forth to exemplify the thick texture of Christian culture, the fullness of life in the community that is Christ’s form in the world.

Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.

The Benedict Option, as I see it, does not require Christians to leave the world behind and retreat to Anabaptist communes. It will require some Christians to leave their job, or leave the place where they are now living; I think of my Texas friend Robert Hutchins, about whom I wrote in Crunchy Cons, where he told the story of how he quit his high-paying but soul-sucking job at a defense contractor and embraced the life of a farmer, to save both his life and his family’s. The Benedict Option will require Christians who live in the world, and who want to be a “faithful presence” there, to work as never before to nurture their own inner lives, and the inner lives of their communities, for the sake of remembrance. If we do not tell our own Story, we will be colonized by other stories.

Telling our own Story effectively, though, requires far more than reading books, as Wilken avers. This is where the third part of Paul Connerton’s book is so helpful. Note well this passage:

What, then, is being remembered in commemorative ceremonies? Part of the answer is that a community is reminded of its identity as represented by and told in a master narrative. This is a collective variant of what I earlier called personal memory; that is to say a making sense of the past as a kind of collective autobiography, with some explicitly cognitive components. But rituals are not just further instances of humanity’s now much touted propensity to explain the world to itself by telling stories. A ritual is not a journal or a memoir. Its master narrative is more than a story told and reflected on; it is a cult enacted. An image of the past, even in the form of a master narrative, is conveyed and sustained by ritual performances. And this means that what is remembered in commemorative ceremonies is something in addition to a collectively organised variant of personal and cognitive memory. For if the ceremonies are to work for their participants, if they are to be persuasive to them, then those participants must be not simply cognitively competent to execute the performance: they must be habituated to those performances. This habituation is to be found … in the bodily substrate of the performance.

What he means is that to remember who we are, our Story must be ritualized in some public ceremony, or ceremonies. Those rituals must not be simply commemorative; there has to be something more going on — “a cult enacted,” which is to say, an idea taking material form. And it must be not simply something we carry in our heads, but something that is in our bodies. It must be a “habitual memory” — something we carry with us without thinking about it. “In habitual memory the past is, as it were, sedimented into the body,” writes Connerton.

How does this work? Connerton’s explanation is complex, and hard to summarize. The essence of it, however, is that the Word must be made Flesh. We must live out the ideas in the Story so deeply that they become second nature to us — not ideas, but practices. The beginning pianist knows how to read music, but he cannot really play the piano if is conscious that he’s reading the notes. He becomes a pianist when he can play fluidly, without thinking about it. He has become habituated to music.

So it must be with us and our Christianity, especially in this time of mass forgetting. Take a look at this terrific National Review interview with the philosopher and motorcyle maintainer Matthew B. Crawford — who, I should say, is not a Christian — about his new book The World Beyond Your Head. 

According to the prevailing notion, freedom manifests as “preference-satisfying behavior.” About the preferences themselves we are to maintain a principled silence, out of deference to the autonomy of the individual. They are said to express the authentic core of the self, and are for that reason unavailable for rational scrutiny. But this logic would seem to break down when our preferences are the object of massive social engineering, conducted not by government “nudgers” but by those who want to monetize our attention. My point in that passage is that liberal/libertarian agnosticism about the human good disarms the critical faculties we need even just to see certain developments in the culture and economy. Any substantive notion of what a good life requires will be contestable. But such a contest is ruled out if we dogmatically insist that even to raise questions about the good life is to identify oneself as a would-be theocrat. To Capital, our democratic squeamishness – our egalitarian pride in being “nonjudgmental” — smells like opportunity. Commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority, where liberals and libertarians fear to tread. And so we get a massive expansion of an activity — machine gambling — that leaves people compromised and degraded, as well as broke. And by the way, Vegas is no longer controlled by the mob. It’s gone corporate. And this gets back to what I was saying earlier, about how our thinking is captured by obsolete polemics from hundreds of years ago. Subjectivism — the idea that what makes something good is how I feel about it — was pushed most aggressively by Thomas Hobbes, as a remedy for civil and religious war: Everyone should chill the hell out. Live and let live. It made sense at the time. This required discrediting all those who claim to know what is best. But Hobbes went further, denying the very possibility of having a better or worse understanding of such things as virtue and vice. In our time, this same posture of value skepticism lays the public square bare to a culture industry that is not at all shy about sculpting souls – through manufactured experiences, engineered to appeal to our most reliable impulses. That’s how one can achieve economies of scale. The result is a massification of the individual.

It’s a terrific book, and one that argues for approaching knowledge as craft, knowledge as something that you acquire not through cognition but through apprenticing yourself to a practice — and practicing until it becomes what Connerton would call habit-memory. Much of our Christianity in America today is what the sociologist would call “dispositional” (i.e., something that stays inside our heads), but it needs to become habitual if it is going to provide the thick, deep roots needed to embed the Story within us in this time of darkness and forgetting. Jane Jacobs — who was not, to my knowledge, a religious person — said that we are living in a Dark Age, a barbarian time, because we are without roots. “During a Dark Age, the mass amnesia of a survivors becomes permanent and profound,”she writes. “The previous way of life slides into an abyss of forgetfulness, almost as decisively as if it had not existed.”

We cannot resist sliding into the abyss without habitual practices that enact the Story. Intellection — reading, criticism, creating syllogisms in sermons, etc. — is one thing, but it’s not the most important thing. Habitual practices, especially those that involve the body, is. One of the most important gifts the Rule of St. Benedict gives us today is a sense of the importance of order in daily life. Yes, the monks preserved memory by copying books, laboriously. But they also did it by praying liturgically, singing the same songs, saying the same prayers at the same time. You might say it imposed sacred order on their lives, but I would say it rather revealed sacred order, and created the space within the community and the imaginations of its members through which God could manifest himself.

Yes, ritual can become dead. Ritual is not a magic incantation; without an active sacramental imagination, which has been dissipated by modernity (and the recovery of which is an indispensable part of the Ben Op), religious ritual is just so much repetitive mumbo-jumbo. But rituals of the Christian life are not simply what is said and done in church. Rituals of the Christian life are the way we live, enacted narratives that we receive, and accept as sacred, and around which we build our lives.

How do we Christians do this in the 21st century, shoring up the fragments against our ruin? The day may come — will come — when we have to resist the State and its agents, as well as its master, the Market. If we don’t wake up and understand how so many of the ways of approaching the world that we take for granted in modernity blind us to the possibility of experiencing God; and if we don’t form strongholds of resistance and rebellion to the Empire of Amnesia, and sediment them into our bodies, the Empire will conquer and convert us away from Christianity without incident.

Indeed, it already has to a great extent — and we don’t even know it. MacIntyre:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.[Emphasis mine — RD] We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.”

To fight the power requires recovering memory, and battling amnesia. So, again: how might we Christians do this in a secular, post-Christian age? Answering that question will require a book. I’m on it.