The Amnesia of the Modern: Arendt on the Role of Memory in the Constitution of the Political


In this paper I consider the essential role that public memory plays in the establishment and maintenance of the political arena and its space of appearance. Without this space and the shared memory that allows it to appear, Hannah Arendt argues, transience and finitude would consume the excellence of word and deed—just as the "natural ruin of time" consumes its mortal performer. The modern era displays a kind of mnemonic failure, however, a situation arising not only from technological developments that "outsource" memory but from several normative breakdowns that Arendt describes as characteristic of modernity. The consequence is the individual's loss of personal, living access to the community's memories, and the community's own failure to engage in the difficult choice of what counts as worthy of preservation. In failing to ask this question, however, the community abdicates responsibility for establishing the shared norms by which it will govern itself in times of crisis.