- Committing the Future to Memory: History, Experience, Trauma by Sarah Clift
Sarah Clift’s monograph is a complex and thorough examination of human finitude in light of recent work in memory, both literary and traumatic. The book centers on the concept of “experience” as the determining horizon of human existence that imposes limits on our knowledge and understanding, and thus it marks a welcome extension of trauma theory by taking in philosophical works and perspectives. For Clift, it is finitude, rather than any “causality,” that enables us to make sense of history and historical memory. This suggests an intricate interlacing of epistemology, history, and ontology and it is therefore no surprise that Hegel is one of the main sites of Clift’s readings and theorizing. However, Clift does not set herself the task of creating a new “ethics of memory” or a definitive philosophical account of “experience” (7) but rather sets out the case for an increased “vigilance in the difficult task of reading and writing” as this relates to our ways of encountering the past.
The “history” indicated in the title owes its conceptualization to Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin as well as to Hegel. Clift’s interest in Arendt and Benjamin centers on their rejection of history as a linear progression of events in time as well as on their views on the narrative and dialectical complications of history as insolubly linked to our Being. Following the initial chapter on Arendt and Benjamin, she critiques John [End Page 153] Locke’s continued influence on the theory of identity and mind. This constitutes the “experience” part of the analysis indicated in the title. This is then linked with Hegel’s aesthetic theory and his concept of art—or at least the philosophy of art—as a continuation and representation of the essential “spirit” of an age.
Clift shows clearly that both Arendt and Benjamin, in differing ways, formulate their critiques of historical progress in response to the rise of European fascism and the Third Reich. The experience of the Third Reich in particular (the very term implies a false or pseudolinked progression from the Second Reich) revealed to Arendt and Benjamin that history could be reversed or in fact come to a standstill. Citing Roland Barthes as an additional source of theoretical support, Clift suggests that the work of Arendt and Benjamin implies that history is not so much a manifestation of the Hegelian “spirit” but rather has language as its essential substance—a theme to which she returns again in the chapter on John Locke:
The notion that the “real” is a discursive effect allows [us] … to focus instead on how historical narratives … have internal structures and logics, ones for which close analysis provides a means of understanding how the time and historical narrative does not simply mirror “real time” but is, in fact, a product of the text’s narrative structure.(12)
For Clift, then, history exists in two temporal and existential sites: the act of narrating and the essential space or moment in which the events occurred (a matter discussed further in relation to Hegel later in the book). To illustrate the debate over the relationship between memory, history, and human finitude Clift makes reference to Plato and Aristotle—but not directly to the Poetics—and summarizes the two main approaches that our knowledge of history in the West has inherited and in fact continues to promulgate. For Plato, Clift argues, philosophy is not concerned with the actions of “mortals” and by disconnecting philosophical memory from human finitude, memory’s supposed timeless qualities are opened out. For Aristotle, it is through the role of the poet and historian that human finitude is opposed or overcome by “translating” events into language as writing in order that human action can achieve a degree of timelessness. At this point Clift makes a crucial distinction between the two perspectives: Plato is examining a truly “philosophical” version of memory whereas [End Page 154] Aristotle is...