Thursday, April 26, 2012

Historical re-enactment as political forgetting

Yesterday, April 25, was Anzac Day, an Australian and New Zealand national holiday to commemorate war dead. Ideologically it's best compared to the US's Memorial Day, as it arose from a specific conflict (in this case, oddly, a disastrous military blunder in April 1915 that unnecessarily claimed tens of thousands of lives) yet has become generalised as an event of national remembrance in a way that, ironically, Remembrance Day has not.

The motto of Anzac Day is "Lest we forget". It has become a ritual text, almost an incantation, along with the third verse of Robert Lawrence Binyon's poem For The Fallen, which is inscribed on many Australian war memorials:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
But Jeff Sparrow's current essay at Overland begins with a contentious claim: "Anzac Day celebrates forgetting."

For Sparrow, the political context of World War I has been almost entirely forgotten by an Australian population that thinks of war as a specific brand of hellishness utterly removed from everyday life, calling on a form of courage and sacrifice utterly lacking in civil affairs. Hence, it requires a response of horror and attempted empathy, rather than social or political critique.

I really recommend reading Sparrow's article if you've ever felt uneasy about the celebration of nationalist warriors as righteous √úbermenschen. But what struck me as relevant to my project is Sparrow's observation about the increasingly common Australian pilgrimages to the Gallipoli peninsula, the birthplace of the Anzac mentality:
The attendees at the dawn service do not ask themselves why Australians died invading a country thousands of miles away. No, that particular issue’s rendered inherently irrelevant, since the backpackers go there not to think about history but to marvel at the height of the cliffs and the sharpness of the rocks, and to feel an awe at people their own age experiencing horrors that they couldn’t imagine. The question arising from the pilgrimage is thus not ‘why did it happen?’ (a query that leads not only into history but into politics) but rather ‘what did it feel like?’, an aestheticisation of the past that’s explicitly anti-political. [my emphasis]
For me Sparrow isn't really speaking of aestheticising the past, but of phenomenologising it: seeking an understanding of how it felt to live through the past. This is a key aspect of my project, because clothing fit is so clearly about phenomenology – about the experience of wearing clothes, as well as how one looks in those clothes.

However, Sparrow's article has given me pause about whether the desire to empathise with the past is a worryingly anti-political gesture that evacuates the past of its context, filling it instead with today's political imperatives (even if that is, as Sparrow argues in this case, a political imperative to 'forget politics'). We are driven to re-enact things rather than to analyse or question them, because as Sparrow argues, "the question ‘what did it feel like?’ always implies a follow-up: ‘I wonder what it would be like.’"

There are, of course, many military re-enactment groups who gather on weekends to play out famous battles, and medieval or Renaissance groups who compete in mock-tourneys. On a wider level, many people re-enact favourite historical periods in their everyday lives by consuming goods from those periods – as 'commodity nostalgia'.

I've thought a fair bit about nostalgia. In 2010 I wrote an essay on whether there is an ethical dimension to nostalgia, or whether it is always anti-political, or politically conservative.

And in 2009 I wrote an op-ed on Mad Men theme parties as nostalgic events. In it I mentioned an exhibition of Australian modernist design from 1917-1967 that was showing at the time. At a public forum discussing the influence of modernism on design today, industry heavyweight Garry Emery remarked that people today focus on the aesthetics of modernism without considering its political aims (which ranged from utopian to iconoclastic).

I might also highlight the irony of this disconnectedness – that a design philosophy based on functional rather than aesthetic principles has come to be appreciated for its aesthetics alone. But I mention it here as it seems uncannily to foreshadow Sparrow's contention that, viewed retrospectively, aesthetics are anti-political.

My article appeared in the A2 lifestyle section of The Age and isn't archived online; however let me quote:
In a sense, Mad Men parties are a hipper version of those much-maligned historical re-enactment societies. Both create a vision of the past that is self-consciously imaginary and ephemeral. Yet they allow participants to feel a mastery over the past by experiencing – with their eyes, tastebuds, the bodily sensations of unfamiliar clothes and hairstyles – what it might have been like to live it. [again, my emphasis]
I feel anxious now about those words "mastery over the past", because I don't believe it's a good thing to feel that the passage of years allows us to understand history more perfectly than the people of the past understood it at the time.

Who gets to be the expert on, say, corsets? Us, examining them in museums and in old advertisements and magazines, or dressing up in them for special events? Or the women who wore corsets on an everyday basis, the way we wear bras?

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