Making The Modern Culture of Amnesia

Francis O'Gorman

Forgetfulness is a book about modern culture and its profound rejection of the past. It traces the emergence in recent history of the idea that what is important in human life and work is what will happen in the future.

Francis O’Gorman shows how capitalism embraced forgetting as a requirement for modern existence and how modern education, as well as life with fast-moving technology, further disconnect us from our pasts. But he also examines the cultural narratives and contemporary preoccupations that are against the grain of our collective amnesia. O’Gorman argues that such narratives, in rich but oblique ways,

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Forgetfulness is a book about modern culture and its profound rejection of the past. It traces the emergence in recent history of the idea that what is important in human life and work is what will happen in the future.

Francis O’Gorman shows how capitalism embraced forgetting as a requirement for modern existence and how modern education, as well as life with fast-moving technology, further disconnect us from our pasts. But he also examines the cultural narratives and contemporary preoccupations that are against the grain of our collective amnesia. O’Gorman argues that such narratives, in rich but oblique ways, indicate our recognition, as well as our guilt, about modernity’s great unmooring from history.

Forgetfulness asks what the absence of history does to our sense of purpose, as well as what belonging both to time and place might mean in cultures without a memory. It is written in praise of the best achievement and deeds of the past, but is also an expression of profound anxiety about what forgetting them is doing to us.

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  • Bloomsbury
  • Hardcover
  • October 2017
  • 196 Pages
  • 9781501324697

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About Francis O'Gorman

Francis O’Gorman, from English, Irish, and Hungarian families, was born in 1967 and educated as C.S. Deneke Organ Scholar of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where he took a double first and a doctorate in English literature. He is the author or editor of 23 books, mostly on English literature, and of essays on literature, music, and the condition of the modern English university. His Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History (Bloomsbury, 2015), described by John Carey as “subtle, exploratory, completely original,” was a Guardian “Book of the Week,” a Sunday Times “Must Read,” and one of Bookbag’s “History Books of the Year, 2015.” For a decade, Francis O’Gorman held a chair in the School of English at the University of Leeds; he is now Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. When not working, he likes playing the organ, walking Arthur’s Seat, or sitting in a bar.


“Crisp and elegant … Cultural memory, [O’Gorman] argues, shapes our sense of time and connectedness to one another on a local and global level. By ‘winding down the portcullis’ on the past, we risk closing our minds.”The Observer

“A book as acutely intelligent and as original as this is a rare gift of fortune. Read it and you will not easily forget what you have learned.”John Gray, New Statesman

“[A]n engaging dissection of an important phenomenon.”Morning Star



“Here is a good deal of room for mistake and prodigality before you come to the edge of ruin.”
Observations on a Late Publication, intituled “The Present State of the Nation” (1769)

How was I going to begin? What was I planning to say?
I can’t remember.
I should have written it down when it first occurred to me.
Oh dear.

* * *

The experience of forgetting is routine. We have a choice of words and phrases for regular, common- or- garden forgetting in English in case we become bored with the familiarity of “I’ve forgotten.” The choice includes: “I can’t recall,” “it’s gone out of my head,” “I’ve lost my train of thought,” “it’s slipped my mind,” “it’s on the tip of my tongue,” “it’ll come back to me,” “it’s gone.”

Ordinary forgetting can be a source of embarrassment and frustration — as well as mystery. I sometimes forget what a student has just said to me in a seminar and I mean, literally, just said to me . I stare blankly for a moment. I feel a  mild physical sense of panic because my response has been taken away.

There are worse torments. Some of those are experienced by people who are about to speak in public — to a business meeting, a lecture room, a live TV or radio audience. The anxiety is that, at some point, there will be nothing more to say because the speaker’s mind will, as we phrase it in another one of those synonymous expressions, have “gone blank.” This is familiar, too. So much so that there is professional advice on YouTube about how to handle temporary loss of words in public: search “Uh oh, I have forgotten what I was going to say.” If the ordinary human brain has an extraordinary capacity to recall, it has also a disturbing capacity to let us down. “Sorry . . . er . . .”

Memory, as a word in English, probably has its roots in the Latin memoria . Th at simply means “mindful” or “remembering.” But the Latin has an uncomfortable Attic shadow just as the triumph of Rome is always conscious of the story of Greece that it replaces. Μ έ ρ μ ε ρ ο ς ( mermeros ), a second declension noun, means “causing anxiety,” “baneful,” “woeful,” “mischievous.” It is the etiolated Athenian sister of Rome’s recollection. Mermeros , for us, is a faint etymological reminder that aspiring to remember can be trouble.

Modern memory science advises its audiences that much of what we remember is, however, predicated on forgetting. We think we are remembering but actually we are selecting. Take the idea of a “first memory.” Sigmund Freud (1856– 1939) alerts his readers to the fact that this “first memory” is likely nothing of the sort — that the brain has stored a huge amount of previous experience but that we have chosen to remember what we name the “first” memory because it encodes an important meaning about our lives.

I remember, in our house in the Shropshire countryside, feeding our domestic chickens with earthworms through wire netting. I was surprised that their beaks didn’t hurt when they accidentally pecked at my fingers. Dimly I didn’t like the fact that I was feeding living creatures to other living creatures. Later, or perhaps before, I remember inadvertently stepping on a grass- snake — it was unharmed — when I thought there was only a roadside verge. I can’t say which of these came first.

I wonder if either reveals anything deep. Certainly, they both clinch — now I think about it — my understanding that other animals share this planet and that I must try not to harm them. I’ve been a vegetarian for more than a quarter of a century. Perhaps these memories capture, too, my fundamental expectation that I am going to be injured or accidentally cause pain; that I am endangered or somehow in the wrong simply for doing what I do. Maybe I recall those hens because they surprised me, against my habitual emotional logic, because they didn’t hurt. It could be that I recollect that snake because, in conformity to my internal logic, I had no intention of causing distress but accidentally did.

“First memories,” as Freud suggests, may involve a good deal of strategic, tactical, or deliberate (if subconscious) forgetting. They are the product, perhaps, of choosing as well as remembering. And they may not be a product of memory at all. It is possible — though I don’t think so — that mine are inventions.

We understand, from contemporary memory science, that recollections change. We know science comprehends that “memory” is not static but dynamic. Modern readers realize, too, as Charles Fernyhough’s Pieces of Light : How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell about Our Pasts (2012) explains, that what an individual believes about an event is mobile. What we think we remember of something is changeful. For such science, the important matter to understand is an altering mental relationship with a fact — or an apparent fact — not the fact itself as a single unmediated and empirically stable occasion.

This book keeps an eye on personal memory in all its chameleon changefulness. But personal histories are not my principal  topic, however much they inform the shape of this investigation.

Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia isn’t primarily about an individual forgetting so much as about groups, communities, and societies failing to remember; about how to relate the quotidian experience of personal memory loss to a wider atmosphere of mental blankness. My primary focus is on collective memories: on how a human being in the liberal West relates to communal rather than private yesterdays, to pasts that are not merely ours but others’.

Forgetfulness does not assume — taking a lesson from modern memory science — that acts of remembering, cultural or personal, are simple. “To remember” is an active verb and so is “to forget.” This book does not, either, propose uncritical or merely sentimental thinking about collective history, or accept as a matter of conviction that “things were always better in the past.” The aim of my book — to summarize roughly — is to explore why we have ceased to consider, save for that which can be turned into a profit or an exam, that the past has much meaning, pleasure, or importance at all. We forget of necessity, through bodily weakness, through the destruction of records, and because of the uncertain meaning of survivals.

Sometimes we try actively: we knowingly choose to forget — and are not wrong to do so. On occasions, we would like to forget, but can’t. Shakespeare’s Juliet wishes earnestly that she could lose from mind the fact that Romeo has been banished after Tybalt’s death. “I would forget it fain,” she says, “But, O, it presses to my memory, | Like damned guilty deeds to sinners’ minds” (Act 3, Sc.2, ll. 109– 11).

That might be Macbeth speaking, too. But it is not personal sorrow only that benefits from a less than perfect memory. Compromise and peace often require, for nations as well as for individuals, an ability to overlook — as David Rieff ’s In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies (2016) most recently describes. “Truth and reconciliation” are not synonyms. Sometimes a nation must forget — or at least officially “move on from” — what another did to it in order to survive. Sometimes an individual must obliterate from his or her mind, or pretend to, what the manager said in the photocopying room in order to keep going.

But my book isn’t a study of that kind of sensible forgetting either. Its first assumption is that there is a relationship between, on the one side, human pleasure, wisdom, identity, and security, and, on the other, what we know of the best and most interesting of the past. And my book’s second assumption is that we have largely failed to remember this. For the contemporary West, what is past, as I contend here, has become like the lost city of Atlantis. We do not know where it is and we are not sure it ever existed. In turn, Forgetfulness is about waves of amnesia that are neither a product of weak memories nor rational decisions to move beyond quarrels but of societal and economic determinations, of commercial choices and secular obligations, of the fixed regimes of acceptable thinking about time in advanced capitalism. Forgetfulness concerns the disappearance of pasts that we have forced on ourselves and on others.

I am looking for where history has gone — and how it has come to disappear. This book narrates a phenomenon, which commences in earnest in the nineteenth century, and explores its implications. This Copernican change is the almost completely successful attempt by modernity— I define what I mean by this in Chapter 2 — to focus human minds on the future, or at least on the “described- as- future.” A result of this orientation to unknown times ahead is an erasure of the past: a more or less successful program to downgrade history and render care about it a sign of weakness, a matter of sentiment or opinion only, a badge that proclaims one’s unfitness for membership of the contemporary world’s advanced, and supposedly advancing, citizenry. There are important precursors to this condition of mind prior to the nineteenth century’s entrancement with tomorrow. But  the real development of our enthrallment with forgetfulness, and the elongated romance with what is to come, properly commences in the period of electricity, telegraphy, and telephones. The twenty- first century is the inheritor of the nineteenth. In the United Kingdom, even the sewers are theirs. And the West also repeats, as it has intensified, that century’s gluey adhesion to what lies ahead.

I describe the emergence of a forgetfulness culture, the state of mind brilliantly upturned by Samuel Beckett in Endgame ( Fin de partie , 1957): “CLOV : Do you believe in the life to come? HAMM: Mine was always that.” But then I wonder what we can do about it. This is a book in defense of active and analytical remembering; in taking the trouble to think about achievement rather than simply about promise. It encourages an intellectual willingness to resist modernity’s dismissal, or mere monetization, of the past and to think independently about what we could gain from memory. Capitalist modernity’s breathless desire is to forget. It is to draw a veil over histories, cultural narratives from the past, artifacts and achievements bequeathed to us by predecessors, and identities shaped by time, in preference for unknown material and ideological prosperities allegedly to come. My book is a meditation on what we have done to foster this dedication to forgetfulness, a set of reflections on our cultural disenfranchisement and its attendant frustrations.

Forgetfulness explores how and why we have come to assume that we must live without (most) histories — histories that are complex and rich, strange and contradictory, vital and difficult, painful as well as instructive, pleasurable as well as sad. It is a book about why we prefer — as Freud made clear — history as trauma rather than as gain. My book examines why the literature, music, and art of the past has become accessible to the young almost entirely as subjects for school or university tests and of little more advanced use, delight, profitable confusion, or sense beyond that. Forgetfulness  explores why thinking seriously about historical achievements has become the domain of a few, about whom modernity is generally suspicious. The loss of history is measured in the anorexic deterioration of Western taste (though I admit that such deterioration has been lamented since anyone had a notion of taste at all) and its understanding of aesthetic and intellectual achievement. But this loss is also measured in the multiple forms of modern rootlessness — in loneliness, dislocation, sorrow, and conceptual as well as sometimes literal homelessness. Faced with forgotten ideas and forgotten people, and urged only to strive for future achievement seemingly promised in a plan, Western modernity is the hectic location of the lost who only imagine they know where they are going. “We have,” as the Australian poet Peter Porter (1929– 2010) expressed it, “our loneliness | And our regret with which to build an eschatology.” We can look to what is to come only from a position of absence and lack.

Forgetfulness assesses the intellectual, cultural, and psychic wounds inflicted by what I claim to be the modern world’s continual winding down of the portcullis on history. The book’s principal intention is to understand how and why this has come about. And my purpose is also, at the level of aesthetics — including writing, the visual arts, and architecture — to document some modest but intellectually consequential resistance to this loss, from the nineteenth century to the present day. The rebels in my book — such rebellion as is possible in the conformist regimes of bureaucratic modernity — include those entranced by forgotten things or at least by the emotional drama of things being forgotten. The rebels here are enthralled by the protests that lie in discerning surviving remains or imagining them. These resistant figures, in different ways, understand and put into language a little of the compound fracture modernity has wrought on our relationship with time.

Modernity’s attachment to an idea of future material and ideological reward comes into sharpest focus with a comparison. So my first chapter opens with an emblem: with a visit to the ruins of ancient Mycenaean civilization that are representative of what I (too) boldly generalize as the “memory cultures” of the ancient Mediterranean. My point is not to hold this discussion up as a comprehensive analysis of a forerunner of ancient Greece. Nor do I crudely raise Mycenae into some kind of ancient ideal to which we should all aspire. But thinking about the principal outlines of Mycenae clarifies, however inexactly, structural differences between there and here, between then and now, which are useful to me. A memory culture’s relationship with time is one in which the past is central: the primary location of meaning and the ground of duty, respect, and law. In the classical conception of the polis — the city as the foundation of citizenship — the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean formalized their understanding of what history meant. And thereby that remote, sunny world codified human identities as defined within, and belonging to, a whole. Analyzing this model of citizenship makes it easy to perceive, and measure, the alternative conceptual architecture of today.

Early Christianity — I take St. Augustine of Hippo (354– 430) as representative — played a role in refocusing minds away from the ancient world’s engagement with the past toward a concentration on a heavenly future. The alteration in the mental direction of Europe, in the West’s relationship with chronology more generally, had commenced. But secular modernity, born of technological, cultural, and economic change in recent times, refocused more thoroughly those minds on a future that was not heavenly but terrestrial. My second chapter, in turn, narrates the rise of this absorption with the future in nineteenth- century intellectual, political, literary, and material history.

The French Revolution, from 1789, is a decisive indication of the political forces that helped mutate modern conceptions of chronology. The events that followed from the storming of the prison of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, luminously, and violently, disclosed how the past, in the form of l’ancien régime , could be dismantled by human intervention. Orientating minds toward what could be altered rather than retained, the implications of the Revolution were expanded by subsequent developments in material history and capitalist practice to which we are now asservi . The symptomatic document of post-Revolutionary Europe’s new relationship with the future is the railway timetable, the text that tells its reader what is (probably) to come. Chapter 2 explores the complex manifestations of the nineteenth century’s enchantment with the next, from the serial publishing of fiction (the novel is the exemplary literary form of the century and intimately related to the age’s reorientation to the pleasures of suspense) to the operation of the stock exchange and the communication systems that followed in the wake of the railways. This chapter also, in the last portion, creates space to examine a cluster of nineteenth- century cultural critics and writers who mourned the passing of the past. These are men and women who offered a sequence of visual practices and created a range of narratives that involved, or fantasized, identities still in touch with history or wanting to be.

Chapter 3 continues my story to the present day by evaluating what can only be called the contemporary West’s intoxication with the promise of the future.  The French Revolution taught its champions the benefits of rejecting the past — as the Cromwellians had earlier in the history of Great Britain, and the Protestants more generally had in continental Europe and North America. But the modern world can think of little else. Continuing with material histories in the first instance, this chapter assesses what the experience of contemporary communication, transport, and urban geography does to our day- to- day understanding of time and memory. The discussion moves, then, to consider other documents and procedures of modern labor, culminating in an investigation of modern business’s passion for what has yet to occur, symptomatically clinched in the employee’s “personal development plan.” This chapter compares modernity’s bewitchment with the next — and the concomitant requirement to forget — with ideas from psychoanalysis, contrasting, for instance, that bewitchment with the most familiar of Western humanity’s narratives of future gain: those of falling in love. The second half of my chapter places more investigative pressure on what modernity actually means by “the future,” suggesting that, despite appearances, the future to which our minds are so comprehensively directed is often chimerical. I survey false futures — including ones that are apparently obtained simply by saying that they have been obtained — and explore how difficult it is to recognize what is actually new without a memory. I note, too, that modernity’s futures are always anyway replaced by new ones as if reaching an end- point is by definition a disappointing experience: plans follow plans. Modernity, I conclude, encourages faith in a prospect of time to come that never comes, or which we cannot recognize when it does.

So where, Chapter 4 inquires, does our conscience go, our ethical assessment of what is happening? Encouraged to privilege the unknown pledge of tomorrow, we are detached from an understanding that yesterday has much worthwhile meaning. “Innovation,” “opportunity,” the “entrepreneur,” and “growth” are the talismanic charms of advanced capitalism’s faith in the next. And they help us neglect the achievements of history with all the consequent implications of that bereavement for complex individual and collective identities sustained through time. But in some highly visible Western narratives, which are of persistent contemporary interest, encrypted ideas about what is happening are, I think, dimly present. Chapter 4 explores, at first, the subtexts of the modern fascination with dementia, stroke recovery, and autism. Here is an Aristotelian fascination of pity and fear. Narratives that arise from these medical topics speak obviously to the commonness of the medical or cognitive conditions they describe. But in different ways these narratives also present coded images not only of individual human beings in difficulty but of Western modernity as a whole in trouble. I examine stroke- recovery narratives, for instance, as oblique tales of how to return to memory. The longing to restore the self by restoring the self ’s past — like the longing for a cure for dementia — figures personal hopes but also cultural desires to be in touch with histories once again. In the modern preoccupation with cognitive disorders, modernity processes a complicated version of itself too: one where there appears to be little comprehension of the past except as something that is a symptom of a problem of knowing. Chapter 4 concludes by musing on what revelation, what self-understanding, is to be disinterred from a number of therapeutic practices in mental health care in addition to those prominent narratives from modern medicine and psychology. My final subject is the commitment of psychoanalysis and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to the past as a scene of misfortune. These are practices that confirm an assumption of the modern world, but they also provide an opportunity, for those able to attend, to hear that assumption articulated.

Chapter 5 thinks not about the cultural conscience but a lack of it. Its subject is what has happened to the past among those who might, on first appearance, have been expected to celebrate its achievements and extend our knowledge of it. The past among the intellectuals and policy advisors who shape educational curricula and assessment regimes appears to have been turned into something merely subjective and amateurish. That is where such pasts are not regarded only as a topic for criticism and reproach. These forces add to the cultural  preference for forgetting by providing those educated within such terms with a set of further apparent reasons to neglect or negate history. I examine two main reasons for this decay in care (though there are many others). The first is the influence of poststructuralism in leaving behind a conviction that the past has no distinctive or definite meaning. The second is the contemporary preference among liberal intellectuals for a new kind of Whig history: one where the past is to be surveyed primarily to expose its failings and a slow struggle through time toward the present’s own values and achievements.

Chapter 5 assesses the unintended but nonetheless real dissolution of a serious care for the achievements of the past or a willingness to extend and celebrate them among current ideas about what intellectual development is supposed to look like. The chapter’s subjects are exam papers, popular conceptions of an education in the arts and humanities, and the difficulties of understanding history in a culture that has privileged immediate gratification and unstrenuous rewards that are, often enough, envisaged as someone else’s responsibility to provide. History’s most stimulating and demanding attainments have only a limited chance of being perceived in a political culture that has made its highest educational ambition “satisfaction.” In analyzing the curious disinclination of the custodians of historical achievements to defend them, the chapter turns to ancient Greece to find a model, in Socrates, of a more questioning approach to the intellectual problems involved in history’s dissolution. Chapter 5 concludes with the robustly interrogative intelligence of the founder of Western ethical philosophy, and misses it.

While discussing the vanishing of histories in systems of Western education, Chapter 5 does not enumerate the exact problems that this causes. My final chapter, however, takes a subset of history in general and asks some questions about a topic fraught with peril that is not only hard to discuss but almost impossible to formulate. The  subject is what the loss of histories might mean for a contemporary understanding of cultural identity and its relation to migration and the challenge of fundamentalism and nationalism. Or, at least, my chapter ruminates on how difficult it is, for a number of reasons, to ask Socratic questions about this topic and how tough, amid the compound discrediting of almost all pasts, it is to assemble the beginnings of answers.

Throughout Forgetfulness , I don’t disguise the difficulty — often the impossibility — of evading modernity’s chosen habits of forgetfulness. Modernity has had enormous success in categorizing objections to its principles in negative terms and in persuading us not to question them. It is also true that potentially rebellious opportunities and practices are often bought up by modernity itself — pour encourager les autres — and reshaped into modernity’s own ways and subsumed into its values. The rebels I find in this book, insofar as I do find them, are, nevertheless, intellectually consequential even if they are also, inevitably, gestural and often open to objection.

Chapter 6 begins with some reflections on contemporary ways in which a response to, or frail rebellion against, modernity’s ways of forgetfulness has been achieved in words. These acts of resistance are, generally, imaginative and sometimes sentimental. They are periodically lacking in intellectual rigor. But what matters first of all in my chapter is not their credibility but their existence: their indication of further, furtive human aspirations to exist in a different relationship with pasts. My topic is initially modernity in conjunction with rural landscapes, which have provided the scene, so to speak, of felt, if sometimes fabricated, connections to distant pasts. Part of my discussion concerns a cadre of “nature writers” (that is not an adequate term but will have to serve for the moment) who read the landscape as if it were a page from an ancient epic. We are back, in the faintest of terms, to Mycenae. The landscapes  in question, in my discussion, are mostly English and occasionally Scottish. But this is not a chapter meant to be exclusive to the countries of the British Union. Surveying some modern writing about the natural world and the scoring of topography by history, I appraise contemporary writers of the countryside — mostly walkers through rural scenes — who have mused on identities through narratives of wild space. I think about how these writers are the faintest, most far- off , inheritors of the old memory cultures of the ancient world.

This topic then prompts me to ask where ideas of the interrelationship between time and place belong amid the modern problem of migration — walking through landscapes of a different kind. The liberal West is bothered about the political implications of its own recent national histories — understandably fearful, in the wake of the Second World War (1939– 45) — that national or even local histories are always potentially or actually national ist . But, at the same time, modernity has ensured we can barely recall most histories anyway. Our tools, I suggest, for thinking harder about the relationship between places, peoples, and histories in the present troubles generated by fundamentalism and antiliberal nationalism — Europe, not least aft er “Brexit,” is at its most unstable since the 1930s — and the problems of migration could hardly be less adequate. To this chapter I add some brief reflections on another challenge to the idea of history and home in relation to specific places , which is the globalization of business and the power of brands to transform cities and towns into more or less exact replicas of each other by ensuring that the same commercial outlets are present across the world. If at one level this multiplication allows us to feel at ease in a plurality of cultures because their high streets look reassuringly the same, it also erodes our sense of urban places as having specific identities, built on and with particular visualities, customs, and pasts.

Forgetfulness is not a formal academic history of the loss of history, or of the history of loss. The book is a composite of historical narration, cultural and literary criticism, opinion, and autobiography. It’s also in part about what I remember — or think I do — because that is my local, private, and inutile form of resistance to a greater expectation that I should really be thinking about tomorrow. My attempt is to catch in words something of the felt experience of a deracinated modernity and to notice the hidden and not-so-hidden recognition of alternatives or, at least, the resistances and regrets. My book is not disposed to be very optimistic. But I don’t think Forgetfulness is ever without a pale Fenland hope that looking backward might give us a way of looking ahead more confidently and with more rootedness, not merely to single places or cultures but to life and history themselves. Forgetfulness is in praise of valuing, or minimally in simply remembering better, what consequence history has bequeathed to us, of deeds and things. This book’s aspiration is Homeric. It is in tribute to keeping in mind the best of pasts — and not getting rid of them.