On the Politics of Time and Memory

The concepts of time, space, and possibility.

Tengo knew that time could become deformed as it moved forward. Time itself was uniform in composition, but once consumed, it took on a deformed shape. One period of time might be terribly heavy and long, while another could be light and short. Occasionally the order of things would be reversed, and in the worst cases order itself could vanish entirely. Sometimes things that should not be there at all might be added onto time. By adjusting time this way to suit their own purposes, people probably adjusted the meaning of their existences. In other words, by adding such operations to time, they were able–but just barely–to preserve their own sanity. Surely, if a person had to accept the time through which he had just passed uniformly in the given order, his nerves could not bear the strain. Such a life, Tengo felt, would be sheer torture.

That passage, emphasis and all, comes from Jay Rubin’s translation for Knopf of Book 1 in Haruki Murakami’s three-part novel, 1Q84.

When I read it, Murakami’s vision of pliable time reminded me, among other things, of political scientist Marc Beissinger’s use of the term “thickened history” to describe particularly eventful periods of political activity. In a book about the collapse of the Soviet Union that has many lessons for the present, Beissinger writes:

In a period of heightened challenge events can ‘begin to move so fast and old assumptions become so irrelevant that the human mind cannot process all the new information’–a phenomenon I refer to in this book as ‘thickened’ history. By ‘thickened’ history, I mean a period in which the pace of challenging events quickens to the point that it becomes practically impossible to comprehend them and they come to constitute an increasingly significant part of their own causal structure. As one Soviet journalist put it in the fall of 1989, ‘We are living in an extremely condensed historical period. Social processes which earlier required decades now develop in a matter of months.’ This heightened pace of contention affects both governing and governed–the former primarily in the state’s growing incoherence and inability to fashion relevant policies, the latter by introducing an intensified sense of contingency, uncertainty, and influence from the examples of others. What takes place within these ‘thickened’ periods of history has the potential to move history onto tracks otherwise unimaginable, affecting the prisms through which individuals relate to authority, consolidating conviction around new norms, and forcing individuals to make choices about competing categories of identity about which they may previously have given little thought–all within an extremely compressed period of time.

Beissinger tells us that it’s “practically impossible” to comprehend the politics of these thick periods when they’re happening, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out, “This is how the remembering self works: it composes stories and keeps them for future reference.” The stories we construct are inevitably gross simplifications and distortions, but we are innately compelled to build them anyway.

According to Murakami’s character, Tengo, we do this to stay sane. In political discourse, these vignettes often serve an external purpose as well.

Take some of the competing narratives about the recent coup in Mali. Surely the true causes of that event are fantastically complex and unknowable, but that does not prevent us from constructing simple stories to serve other political ends. For some opponents of humanitarian intervention, the coup in Mali was caused by escalation of the Tuareg rebellion, which was caused by the abrupt collapse of Libya, which was caused by NATO’s military action. For some advocates of substantive democracy, the coup in Mali was caused by the government’s inattention to poverty, corruption, and inequality. These two narratives compete to define the meaning of the same events, because that meaning is politically empowering.

The power that comes from the construction of memory was a central theme in one of the works that inspired Murakami’s novel, George Orwell’s 1984. In Orwell’s Oceania, the Ministry of Truth literally rewrites history on the fly to help sustain its authority. The power of “shaping the narrative” is not lost on today’s U.S. government, either, which uses “public diplomacy” to try to influence foreign populations and wages an “info war” on groups it sees as threats.

Sometimes, we even produce power by omitting selected segments of time–in other words, by forgetting. Young Americans horrified by atrocities in contemporary wars may not know of the firebombings of German cities during World War II or the destruction of large swathes of countryside during the Vietnam War. In 1Q84, two women characters discuss the sexual abuse one of them suffered as a child at the hands of two relatives.

“Do you ever see this brother and uncle of yours?”

“Hardly ever after I took a job and left the house. But we are relatives, after all, and we’re in the same profession. Sometimes I can’t avoid seeing them, and when I do I’m all smiles. I don’t do anything to rock the boat. I bet they don’t even remember that something like that ever happened.”

“Don’t remember?”

“Sure, they can forget about it,” Ayumi said. “I never can.”

“Of course not,” Aomame said.

“It’s like some historic massacre.”

“Massacre?”

“The ones who did it can always rationalize their actions and even forget what they did. They can turn away from things they don’t want to see. But the surviving victims can never forget. They can’t turn away. Their memories are passed on from parent to child. That’s what the world is, after all: an endless battle of contrasting memories.”

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