Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Pink Memory Hole

Orwell's dystopic book 1984 had a memory hole in each office. Changed opinions were sent down it, never to be remembered again. That he put one of those into his book is because the public memory indeed seems to have a built-in memory hole, one which distorts events of the past, sometimes before our own internal memories have had time to falsify them to match.

Recent headlines concerning what Nancy Pelosi knew about torture smell to me a little bit like memory holes. It's not the question of Pelosi's knowledge that has gone down the memory hole, of course, but the central point that torture was something the Bush administration decided to allow and that it was the Bush administration which was in power a few months ago. Pelosi should tell us what she knew and why she acted or didn't act. But focusing on her is akin to focusing on the morals of an eyewitness to a murder while ignoring the murderer.

This process of forgetting is incredibly quick and probably almost totally unintentional. Which makes it most interesting to ask what bits of the history of feminism go down the memory hole. Some of that disappearing must also be unintentional. Some is perfectly intentional. People want to rewrite history all the time, and winners always get the upper hand in that.

I remember reading a book a long time ago about the endeavors of a woman in the 1940s to record the feminism of the early 1900s. She had to climb into dusty attics in university libraries to retrieve the material she needed, and her days were soundless and solitary. To then open one of those books which discussed the suffragettes! The noise and the quarrels and the emotions and the intensity! The facts! And all slumbering in a dusty attic.

Something like that is taking place again. So much of feminist writing I read is ahistorical, based on apparently no knowledge of the arc of feminist history, reinventing the female wheel of life over and over. Are we losing anything by this approach?

I wonder. On the one hand life today is not the exact copy of life a hundred years ago, and the immediacy of our current concerns may be conveyed better with that approach. On the other hand, I tire of the waste that ahistoricity produces, tire of the need to have to go through the same material in a slightly different form, tire of the renewed search for solutions which have already been proposed.

Then there is the lateral memory hole. Information coming from countries outside the United States is very often never even entered into the process which could make it remembered. Aspects of gender relations which are specifically American are deemed universal and written up in that format. This is not something unique to American feminism: Almost all aspects of public debate here do that kind of forgetting. That this ultimately means less information is ignored.