Unremembrance Day; or the new cult of the dead

Otto Dix, In Memory of the Glorious Time, 1924.jpg

Otto Dix, In Memory of the Glorious Time, 1924

Written on Remembrance Day 2018, the centenary of the end of the First World War

In Britain, it seems the cult of the war dead is back and stronger than ever, driven from the top of the culture industry under the guise of an guileless goodness that evacuates the meaning from history and is manifestly a paean to dying for power. Indeed, upon visiting my hometown this afternoon I noticed that the streets were pinned with posters that noted names and other details of those killed in the Great War (1914-18), each poster is specific to the the very street in which it is placed. Like the omnipresence of the poppy on TV screens and the context-free commentary it is an obstacle to remembering. Or rather we are asked to remember that lots of ‘our’ men in uniform died, how sad this was and it should never happen again but not why it happened which might broach the question: should it have happened in the first place? It’s a call to merge with the dead, join up and march into unthinking obedience lest you offend the dead ancestors. In short, from the pools of blood and skin in Flanders fields a primordial politics emerges to stoke a myth more than familiar to the primal horde.

If some experienced the First World War as a kind of fatal blow to a straightforward identification with Western Civilisation for having automatically expunged the irrational element of the human psyche by means of the scientific method it seems that it neither discouraged the radicals from the idea of a march of history or the conservatives from associating death with glory. With respect to the latter, a cult of the dead was built in the imperial pomp of melancholy stone. The function sought is an affect. If one walks along the esplanade at Southsea at dusk to the spotlit naval cenotaph, a stone shaft with a globe on top, one is meant to see national honour and valiant sacrifice rather than empty tombs, barren wombs and an obelisk erected for an ocean of corpses. This is the work of the national myth of ourselves and the others.

Memorisation without history tends to make deaths meaningless because they are decontextualised from wider events. Memorisation without history prepares the ground for more deaths by making the meaning of history mass sacrifice. That the First World War was fought by poor conscripts for a British Empire that held hundreds of millions without rights or freedom is elided for obvious reasons but a national imaginary that invests so heavily in misremembering is surely built upon denying the consequences of a past that many find too painful to repudiate. The wages of this can be seen most clearly in the ideological narrative that spawned Brexit – nostalgia for a past that didn’t exist that only functions as a outlet for the idea that the I/We are the eternal victims of the others.

Every social order spends a great deal of time making sense of death but the particular form this takes is anything but inevitable, just or free from ‘politics’ (in the pejorative sense). Now that the last veterans have died and the movements for social progress that nominally considered themselves against such barbarism, have either faded into irrelevance or are busy defending new barbarisms of their own, the cult of the dead is free to become myth in the proper sense, free of any social anchor that could contradict its self-proclaimed sacrality. Long solemnly installed in avenues, parks and public squares the grey stones filled with ordinary names now can become abstract monuments to a death drive that obliterates the willing over barbed wire and machine gun fire and puts the unwilling or insane before the firing squad, the abyssal meeting with Ur-Mother-Nation is the consolation it offers to all.

In this new age of monsters our fear is that zombie nationalism is not a reversion to jingoism past but a palimpsest stretched to cover newer inchoate politics which are inarticulate precisely because they have not yet taken shape but are propelled by subterranean drivers, the same drivers as Brexit, Trump and post-fascism. This is Mytho-Praxis (1) in mass society, as the human links with the past are broken the significations of the social order can be reorganised for somewhat different purposes. The question that still cannot be answered is why did those 12 million die along that western front because the answer is that is was for nothing at best and for the despicable form of oppression that is colonialism at worst. If mourning on that basis is too difficult then a defence must be created that makes the sacred symbols of the war dead part of a common culture that repudiates that reality.

by Joseph Aylmer


(1) The term is taken from Marshall Sahlins, see Islands of History, The University of Chicago Press.

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