Cultural memory points the way through the Trumpocalypse



To many in the West, we are living in a time of despair, an era of nihilism and meaninglessness, signified by growing violence, environment degradation and, most importantly, political chaos. This unsettling period is referred to by France's daily newspaper as the 'Trumpocalypse'.

The Tetrapylon, one of the most famous monuments in the ancient city of Palmyra, before it was destroyed by Islamic State group militants.This combination of events, and the sense of hopelessness that accompanies them, can easily be seen as markers of doom, a sign that the era of Western culture is in terminal decline. But it's also possible to interpret them as indicators of the malaise that marks the very peak of life.

In ancient Christianity, the fatigue and inertia that accompanied the middle of the day was known as acedia, or the 'noonday devil'. It described the sense of despair felt by the monks who struggled to devote themselves to lives of prayer and solitude. It was said to strike in the middle of the day — during the hours of heat, when the sun was at its zenith and cast no shadow.

But the term acedia is also appropriate for the present state of the Western world. It captures the pervasive mood in the postmodern, post-truth world, including the mistrust of progress, scepticism about our past, and fear of the future.

In such a world, there is no room for consensus, no faith in the power of humankind to make the world a better place. Instead, the works of humanity — the great discoveries of science and technology — are seen to have ruined the planet and denied hope for future generations.

Nothing survives the attack of this post-truth viewpoint, including history itself, and the value we once ascribed to events and narratives of the past. In Australia, we can see this in bitterly contested attempts to define or celebrate a national identity, and to identify historical moments that are culturally significant.

Attacking the history of a group, or a nation, can have catastrophic consequences. It can erode the very foundations of identity. Recent totalitarian movements understood this well — regimes who wanted to eradicate the past, such as Soviet Russia, Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia and the Taliban's Afghanistan.

The leaders of ISIS know this too — hence, the deliberate destruction of the Roman artefacts in the city of Palmyra, as well as other important cultural sites in Syria. They understand that when you destroy cultural memory, you destroy a people.


"Donald Trump constantly invokes the idealism of a 'once-great' America — but he has no intention of rekindling the true memory of America's founding fathers, that is, to build a nation dedicated to both 'the domain of freedom and the Jeffersonian ideal of public happiness'."


It is heartening to read, then, of the efforts of Italian archaeological experts to restore the shattered statues and funeral busts that were deliberately smashed in Palmyra. A team of dedicated professionals are methodically rebuilding these ancient artefacts using modern tools such as laser scans and 3D printers.

Those involved understand the significance of what they are doing. They are rebuilding the nation of Syria by restoring its memory. As Frances Pinnock, the Anglo-Italian archaeologist who arranged the restoration explains, 'the only hope we have to rebuild Syria is through its culture — that's how Italy did it after the Second World War'.

For the Italian people, recovery from the defeat and the horror of the Second World War depended on a recognition of its proud history — including the tangible symbols that spoke of its worth as a nation, and the rich heritage of its people.

This recognition is very different from a desire to return to the past — the tempting but impossible promise of authoritarian strongmen. Donald Trump constantly invokes the idealism of a 'once-great' America — but he has no intention of rekindling the true memory of America's founding fathers, that is, to build a nation dedicated to both 'the domain of freedom and the Jeffersonian ideal of public happiness'.

Without memory, societies and individuals become stuck in the stasis of the here and now. American political analyst, Fredric Jameson, describes this inertia as a 'crisis in historicity'. When we have no capacity to imagine our past, we have no vision for the future, and we grind to a standstill.

It's true that there is a fictive element in the way history is written, and an imaginative aspect to the way cultural memories are formed. But every society or group of people depends upon this collective imagination — they are the stories and memories that articulate foundational ideas.

Western civilisation is the only culture that denigrates itself so wholly — the only society that refuses to stand by its values, to articulate its greatness. This self-criticism is currently almost entombing the West. But self-criticism is also the flipside to greatness. It is evidence of an openness and a willingness to listen to others.

Western civilisation cannot move out of the 'postmodern impasse' until we acknowledge that the debate and disagreement in our present culture — far from signifying divisiveness and chaos — are the whispered remnants of a great strength. They are reminders of the West's willingness to interact with other cultures, and to endure through the creative mingling of people and ideas.


Brigitte DwyerBrigitte Dwyer is an Adelaide based freelance journalist.

Pictured: The Tetrapylon, one of the most famous monuments in the ancient city of Palmyra, before it was destroyed by Islamic State group militants.



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Existing comments

Although I wouldn't have voted for Trump, for some reason I see his presidency as a positive rather than chaos. His bumbling, inexperienced, brash way of operating makes him totally transparent and that means whenever he makes a crazy statement, the public and the media will make such a loud noise that it's unlikely he'll get away with launching a Third Reich. Love or hate his ideas and policies - but he's not hiding anything, and he engages directly with the public/media. Yes, the immigration ban was a shock - but the sky didn't fall in and nothing catastrophic happened, and country by country bans are nothing new (but usually carried out diplomatically and quietly to avoid the backlash.)
AURELIUS | 24 February 2017

Given Trump's press ban on some outlets to certain briefings in the past couple of days, my previous comment makes me wonder if my "positive spin" is delusional. Oh, well - as the old Nietzsche saying goes - "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger "! Maybe it'll stop the so called leftist media from being so complacent and actually do some real investigative journalism.
AURELIUS | 26 February 2017

Why are the French drawing analogies with American pop culture concepts, ‘Trumpocalypse’, ‘PenelopeGate’, the naming rights of which are, of course, in Anglais? When they sold ‘Louisiana’ (which is very much more than present-day Louisiana State) on April 30, 1803 for about US$250 million in 2016 dollars to a president who dared to be different from the advice he was receiving, our British cousins once removed, the United States, became free to incorporate the rest of the continent and eventually become the single most powerful nation on earth. In doing so, they became the centre of world attention. They also confirmed English, after the decline of the British Empire, as the reserve language of the world, much like the US dollar is the reserve currency of the world. Senses of despair, nihilism and meaninglessness (ie., post-truth) are merely distractions from the diabolic to make us forget the grace galore that heaven has bestowed on Anglo-American culture, of which we are a beneficiary. Trump should declare April 30 a national holiday to remind his fellow citizens of what one man’s farsightedness can achieve in a little over twenty one decades and we should remember that not all cultures are equal.
Roy Chen Yee | 27 February 2017

Surely Brigitte, 'the domain of freedom and the Jeffersonian ideal of public happiness' are scarcely sensible sentiments; certainly not ideals. Apart from their imprecision the means to them are at least unclear and at best self defeating. And they are narcissistic values. When the United States chose the ideal of Little Emile from Rousseau as the model for education they considered that the human being was perfect as it was born and needed just self development. Unfortunately this meant that content in education and serious pondering and consideration came second or not at all. So much for the valuing of the cultures from which they came, or that of the peoples they displaced. Your valuing of cultural heritage is fine, just this example needs a serious rethink. Otherwise you can justify American imperialism and superficiality-which incidentally we thoughtlessly import to Oz.
Michael D. Breen | 02 March 2017

Very interesting take on the decline of Western civilisation, identifiable historically with the decline of all human cultures which achieved the pinnacle of civilisation in their time and place, e.g. Samaria, Greece, Rome. Regarding the American presidency it is probably far too early to judge Trump. He is brash, bullish and ugly but it seems that the establishment is bringing him to heel surprisingly effectively. The Bush and Obama presidencies have much to answer for their contributions to Western decline and perhaps the apocalyptic tag would currently be better applied to them. Perhaps Trump will revert to a historical past and hopefully be successful. After all, is not such a return precisely what the Brexits, Trump voters, Hansonites and many in the Western world are crying out for?
john frawley | 02 March 2017

"When you destroy cultural memory, you destroy a people". Enough said!
Mary Tehan | 02 March 2017


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