Politics: Book Review
by Francis Raven

SCRIBNER, CHARITY. Requiem for Communism. MIT Press, 2003, 245 pp., $34.95 cloth.

COOMBES, ANNIE E. History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa. Duke University Press, 2004, 366 pp., 11 color + 106 b&w illus., $99.95 cloth, $27.95 paper.

(Note: Requiem for Communism = RFC History After Apartheid = HAA)

Two new books clarify the politics of visual culture and of memory and ultimately come to terms with the possibilities of each other. Charity Scribner’s Requiem for Communism analyzes at the politics of memory in Europe after the fall of communism and Annie Coombes’ examines the politics of visual culture and memory in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Scribner outlines the goals of her book in response to the fall of the Soviet Union, “The aesthetic response to this socialist crisis disclosed cross-cultural bridges that linked the otherwise disparate societies of Eastern and Western Europe. The object here is to illuminate these transcontinental formations in literary and visual culture” (RFC, p. 5). Coombes describes her book’s purpose similarly, as exploring “how various forms of visual and material culture dramatized the tensions involved in such a momentous shift while at the same time contributing to the process of transformation itself” (HAA, p. 1). So, the operative metaphors are bridges, gulfs, and the tensions between the shores. Both writers mine these metaphors delicately and insightfully.

One major difference between their two cases is that within academia (which is presumably the intended audience for both books) there still exist people committed to communism, but none who are committed to apartheid. This difference alters the ways in which visual culture is able to progress after these regimes have fallen. Because of this certain forms of nostalgia and mourning are required of and open to the people of post-communist Europe which are neither available to nor required to citizens of post-Apartheid South Africa. This divergence of circumstances ultimately allows Scribner the ability to say that “although many Europeans considered the project to build a workers’ state to be a failure, that have proceeded to mourn its collapse, nonetheless” (RFC, p. 3). However, this is ultimately a discussion that is outside the scope of this review.

Both books begin with the premise (at times implicit) that we need to remember what has determined our lives. First, there are practical reasons for needing to remember. In each case monuments and other elements of visual culture from the old regimes still exist which need to be remembered in some way; some history and historical significance needs to be assigned to them, just as a practical matter. Second, there are general psychological reasons for needing to remember. There is the “never again” refrain that accompanies the humanitarian impetus for history (“Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”) and which relatively well traveled (and important) territory. But this “never again” is said by the nation or the culture at large and not by the individual. So, third there are individual psychological reasons for remembering the past. These can be broken down into the individual’s need for a consistent life story that is not humiliating and her need to know that her life (even under the past regime) was not wasted.

People have a need to know that after the regimes in which they spent their lives have fallen that their lives were spent productively even though these regimes determined the course of their lives. This is why sites of “much unproductive and demoralizing labor” (HAA, 76) such as the lime quarry at the prison on Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was once locked up) hit one’s sense of justice so very hard. The people who were locked up on Robben Island were not allowed to do productive labor, which means that they were not allowed, at some level, to see their lives under Apartheid as meaningful. Referring to another case that Coombes wrote about in which detainees in a prison camp on the South Lebanese border created miniaturized items, Coombes writes that items that the detainees manufactured were “a means of countering the destructive effects of detention both by marking time (productive time) in a context designed to eradicate it and by witnessing not the terrible conditions under which they were made but their makers’ ability to transcend such conditions against all odds” (HAA, 9). Somehow, humans’ ability to be productive means that it is important for us to remember ourselves as productive which is perhaps equivalent to remembering ourselves as human. As Coombes continues, “the act of making and objects themselves can become an insurance against forgetting and thus against the loss of personhood through reinstating—particularly in the case of whimsical manufactures—the capacity for fantasy” (HAA, 9). Indeed, this fits perfectly with a quotation from Marx that Scribner uses. He wrote that “[b]y producing their means of subsistence, men are indirectly producing their actual material life” (HAA, 164). In one sense, then, it is the act of making that enables us to remember and in turn, this remembering is a form of making.

Coombes and Scribner both take up the necessity and dialectics of remembering, but also dig deeper into the problematics of remembering. These problems include, but are not limited to, not being able to remember because the past was too horrible to remember, because you are not allowed to remember, and because you are being nostalgic. The problem of not being able to remember an event because it is too traumatic is related to the difficulties involved with representing traumatic experiences. This is because remembering involves the ability to represent the past. The problem is usually phrased in terms of the inadequacy of representing certain events (the paradigmatic example is the holocaust) in artworks or memorials. One of the immediate difficulties of representing the holocaust is, as Coombes writes, that the “crime was of such a stupendous proportions that any work of art must be on an appropriate scale” (HAA, 91). Such a scale might prove unfeasible. Indeed, Coombes first talks about this problem in terms of memorials for horrific times (such as, for the Vietnam War and the holocaust), but then she brings it back to the problem of memory, which adds a nice dimension to the text itself.

The next major obstacle to a functioning “working memory” is just plain not being allowed to remember. One of the ways in which people are not allowed to remember is through temporal and spatial disordering of the events to be remembered. Indeed, Scribner uses the example of the factory in the long prose poem Factory Excess by Leslie Kaplan, to illustrate this particular problem of memory. Scribner writes that this poem demonstrates that the “factory invades space and dissolves the limit between inside and outside” (RFC, 70). She writes that for Kaplan, “industrialized labor depletes the worker’s agency, leaving both man and woman in the same position as that conventionally occupied by women” (RFC, 70). The idea is that without agency a person is unable to remember and thus unable to show (through remembrance the discord between the subjective and the objective, between factory and nature.

But, by far, the most interesting problem of memory discussed in both books in the problem of nostalgia in part because the problem of nostalgia is most complicated problem addressed. When first defining it Scribner writes that nostalgia “is the longing for return to an idealized ‘home’ or nostos, from the Greek. As cultural historian Svetlana Boym has demonstrated, outbreaks of nostalgia often follow revolutions, as was the case in France after 1789 and in Eastern Europe two centuries later. The ‘velvet revolution’ that terminated Soviet socialism made the twilight years seem, on the one hand, like ‘a time of stagnation,’ on the other, like a ‘golden age of stability, strength, and ‘normalcy’” (RFC, 64). The major example of nostalgia that Scribner turns to is “ostalgie” which means “nostalgia for the East.” Examples of this “retrograde romance” include how activists in Berlin “organized to save the ‘Little Trafficlight Guy’ who flashed on corners in the former East Zone (and won),” a “new version of the game ‘Memory,’ whose cards pictured products from the ‘people’s own industries,’ and the new show "Die DDR Show," on which guests remember life in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik while aging propaganda videos serve as the means by which scenes from their former life are brought up. It is obvious that nostalgia present a blockade to the sort of actually functioning memory which helps people cope and to move on with their lives. As Scribner writes, “This never-never land of the proletariat was charted on the cognitive map of left intellectuals but existed nowhere in reality” (RFC, 63).

Coombes addresses the problematic of nostalgia through the bulldozed community called District Six and interestingly she argues that there are some positive uses of nostalgia even while arguing strongly against certain forms of it. District Six was a multiethnic port community where 60,000 people were forcibly removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats, and their houses were flattened by bulldozers. The obvious point about District Six and memory is that “there are inevitably problems with any reminiscing that tends toward an idealistic nostalgia, reproducing the experience of living in District Six as an idyllic, harmonious environment immune to political tensions and personal antagonisms”(HAA, 124). But Coombes digs deeper into the very structure of nostalgia.

This is really what differentiates nostalgia from the work of memory: it simplifies the remembered subject to the point where it no longer bears any resemblance to what happened. In the nostalgic view all antagonisms and conflicts of the past are smoothed over to the point that politically thinking about that past is no longer possible. Nostalgia can be seen as the wish for the simple recreation of the past, but remembering the past is not a recreational activity, but is instead, work. As Coombes writes, “Nostalgia has been theorized by some as the search for an ‘impossible object’” (HAA, 124). It is impossible primarily because it is not present for the simple reason that it is remembered. By contrast, the work of memory, takes into account that the remembered object is remembered and is not actually present. But Coombes believes that nostalgia has political uses which might be beneficial. So, even if nostalgia is not equivalent with the desired work of memory maybe it is politically expedient. Coombes writes that “nostalgia for a sense of future—for an experience, however imaginary, of possessing the means of controlling the future—may function as a powerful force for social reconnection” (HAA, 125). There is some question as to whether this still counts as nostalgia or if nostalgia must always take the past as its object, but if it does then Coombes imagines that making people believe romantically or nostalgically in the possibility of their controlling the future (in spite of the fact that they do not have control over the future) can help the bonds of society regenerate through the common purpose that is this future. On the face of it, her analysis seems correct, but I wonder what will happen further down the road for a culture that has taken part in this sort of future nostalgia. It is plausible that it will not be able to see the future that it so eloquently imagined has generated. In fact, the idea of America seems like a future nostalgic concept that has arguably been misused. But Coombes is right in pointing out that sometimes there are political ends that are served perfectly well by nostalgia.

The difficulty in remembering the past does not mitigate in the importance of such a task. Both Scribner and Coombes provide lessons for how memory might positively proceed and both seem to believe that once we know how to proceed with memory we will be able to figure out how visual culture should progress (i.e. which narratives should it assent to, which should it deny) which is the practical matter both books address. For Scribner these lessons culminate in what she calls “the work of memory.”

In order to come to the place where Coombes can come to terms with her own lessons on how memory and visual culture might proceed she outlines two different types of history relevant to her discussion. First she discusses the “important tradition of historical writing from the left that prioritized a ‘history from below,’ as history of ‘the people,’ as a strategy for redressing the absences and structural violences of the official ‘national’ histories circulating under apartheid” (HAA, 10). So far so good, for this is the regular liberal model of how history should be done, a la Howard Zinn. But then she outlines another type of history that The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) seemed to be offering, which was “based on an appeal to individual experience as the foundation of a new national history postapartheid” (HAA, 10). This distinction allows Coombes to arrive at what is perhaps the central question of her book, “how one might embody new national histories in the public sphere that engaged larger structural narratives and material conditions and individual lived experiences without reducing their public expression to either some monolithic representation of ‘the struggle’ or some unlocated and ahistorical notion of individualized experience and that might adequately signal (if not represent) the compromised, complicated texture of living under and fighting against apartheid” (HAA, 10). So, Coombes lessons of memory have to do with a reconciliation of these two nodes, the group and the individual (in his subjectivity).

The lessons that Scribner has concerning memory are similar to Coombes’s. Scribner writes that “A radical gaze backward onto past failures and traumas is not retrograde, but rather promises redemptive hope” (RFC, 123). Along this line she writes that “[a]uthentic memory does not reconstitute a homogenous image of the past. It reawakens antagonisms that thwart the resolution of—and in—any narrative” (RFC, 165). The way in which this radical gaze that reawakens antagonisms is achieved is through the connection between the subjective and the objective, much in the same way that Coombes thought memory could ethically proceed. When Scribner writes about the novelist Christa Wolf she writes that encouragingly that Wolf’s ideal text would weave “together the subjective and the objective” and that “such a text would show a person ‘without distortion but not stripped bare.’ This precarious balance could only be achieved within a collective of readers and writers, for only in this way would a pen follow life’s traces exactly as possible” (RFC, 150). This model of memory privileges the writer as the one who remembers, the one who can show those traces of life without distortion. Scribner believes that writings which “occupy the space between the subjective and the objective” point to an as yet “uncharted public sphere, which lies adjacent to the field of communicative exchange that both union leaders and new media visionaries have envisaged but never fully actualized” (RFC, 163). So, then the question becomes, how can this space be actualized? Scribner suggests that “Acknowledging culture’s attachment to capital opens up two possible routes. Either the left can resign itself to this reality and incorporate as a new melancholy object the stubborn bond between literature, art, and the market. Or, alternatively, writers and artists can activate the collective, cultural forms which would deny that same obstinacy to be uttered as protest” (RFC, 164). Obviously Scribner wants the reader to actualize this second possibility.