The Obliteration of Memories from the Past in the Quest for a Homogenous National Identity
The innate tendency to construct false memories is a normal facet of human nature that operates in an unconscious manner as a result of the influence of external factors such as mass media. This is most relevant in terms of visual images and the affect imagery has on one’s memory. This idea of false memories is referred to as “paramnesia,” in Lauren Berlant’s essay “The Theory of Infantile Citizenship,” and is an essential element in the collective memory of a nation. The use of the term infantile conjures the theory of Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage,” especially in relation to the theme of identity. For Lacan, identification is a process by which a person embodies the attributes of another subject, such as an image, and struggles to recognize and apposite the self to the object.
In “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington,” this assumption or recognition of self through an image transpires in the form of monuments, which are representations of the leaders and individuals that contributed to the creation of the nation and formulate a sense of national pride. For example, the image (in the form of a monument) of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States— who abolished slavery— is a reminder of greatness, yet does not encompass the entirety of his story—this is impossible to accomplish in a single image. The inability for self recognition when viewing an image is completely feasible due to the image existing as a one-dimensional representation, whereas individuals are multi-faceted beings who exist in a world of individuality and collectivity. The infantile citizen views these one-dimensional images from a passive mindset, yet once the faculties of inquiry arise, the façade of the utopian ideology of national patriotism becomes fractured, likely manifesting into cynical adult citizenship, with the prospect of attaining a level of concord in the assumption of the competent citizen.
The infantile citizenship, discussed by Berlant, mirrors the five stages of development in Lacan’s “Mirror Stage,” which first, subsists within the individual being, to an individual in a social context (such as society). During the second phase of development, referred to as the “mirror stage,” the infant observes a cohesive form when viewing his/her reflection. The third stage is one of heightened awareness when the infant realizes that the reflection, though representative of a whole, is fragmented due to the disjunction between the individual and the image. In the fourth stage, the individual is beginning to assume the “I” due to integration in socially elaborated situations (1167). The final stage consists of the conclusion of the mirror-stage, and the transformation from the specular I to the social I (1167). Lacan’s stages of development focus on the manifestation of an individual’s conceptualization of self to a reliance on social contexts to comprehend, and fully formulate, a cohesive understanding of identity.
Berlant’s chapter “deals with a particular conflict about identity” and moves forth in discussing the infantile citizen as being naïve to the nature of politics due to a lack of critical inquiry and blind acceptance, much like the loyalty one would express toward a family member (Berlant 27). This definition of an infantile citizen as “a drooling infant” and “an infant with little flags in his fist,” is in stark contrast with Lacan’s later stages of development that focus on “social determination” (27). A major component of the acquisition of this social determination is the amalgamation of the imaginary identity in the symbolic system of language. This aspect, or stage, is interconnected with Berlant’s conception of the infantile citizen who does not utilize the symbolic nature of language to question the “system,” but, instead, blindly accepts the folkways and mores of society.
However, the difficulty that arises is the state of public hegemony, orchestrated by the media that creates a mode of social membership. Presumably, to question the “powers that be,” is to act outside of the public sphere in which an individual is expected to acclimate to. However, a democracy is intended to encourage and value differing systems of beliefs, but is this a naïve assumption of an archaic term that was constructed by Athens during the 6th Century B.C.E.? According to Meriam-Webster Online Dictionary, Democracy is defined as, “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation” (Democracy). Though the idea of Democracy is an inspirational conception, this system appears to rear in the realm of “fantasy norms of the nation” (27).
Assuming a national identity leads to anxiety over how to mediate between the identity of the naïve infantile citizen and the liberated individual who fights to reside in a democracy. There needs to be a form of mediation in allowing the specular I, and the social I to amalgamate into a unified self representation of both the person and the nation. The problem that arises is the individual’s questioning of what it means to be part of the national identity. “A patriotic view of national identity, which seeks to use identification with the ideal nation to trump or subsume all other notions of personhood, and a view that is frequently considered unpatriotic and victim-obsessed, in which citizenship talk takes as its main subject the unequal material conditions” (27). The ability to assume a national identity occurs when a form of self-recognition occurs between the individual and members of the society who embody their own set of principles. This moment of affirmation alleviates the anxiety previously experienced over the inability to conceptualize the self as a unit within the nation. In doing so, the individual ascends to the next stage—the citizen adults.
In becoming a member of the “citizen adults,” one of the crucial elements in the assumption of this new role is the ability to forget, “or to render as impractical, naïve, or childish their utopian political identifications in order to be politically happy and economically functional” (29). The level of cynicism necessary for the acquisition of this new category of citizenship appear analogous to a demeanor of acceptance. Lacan would regard this modification of the I as a “moment that decisively tips the whole of human knowledge into mediatization through the desire of the other, constitutes its objects in an abstract equivalence by the co-operation of others, and turns the I into the apparatus…the very normalization of this maturation being henceforth dependent, in man, on a cultural mediation” (Lacan 1168). Lacan describes the acclimation to society as being in opposition to the innate, primordial tendencies of man’s inclination to evade the dangers that accompany collective relations. With the assistance of the media, citizen adults are induced into a state of paramnesia, which allows the individual to forget these “dangers” and focus on the positive aspects of the nation. As the individual’s reality becomes one-dimensional (much like the monuments in the capital) the fears dissipate and a state of disassociation transpires.
After WWII, America experienced an unprecedented economic boom that led to a new sense of national identity. Being the sole country to profit from the war, America assisted with the reconstruction of Europe, while aiding U.S. citizens in acquiring goods, jobs, and a newfound national identity based on prosperity. One of the most prolific changes during this time was the power of the media. The media became the basis from which paramnesia could exist. Memories of the realities of a war that left Europe destitute; the atomic bomb annihilate Japan, and the mass genocide of the Jewish people, became faint traces of recollection, overpowered by images of national sovereignty. Icons promote the transformation of “feelings of betrayal into a calm, stabilized, mature or adult subjectivity ready to ‘let the past go’ and, with amnesiac confidence, face the prospects of the present” (33). The media created a nation of mass hegemony in which one’s idealized self was seen on the television screen and in magazines. The ability to forget the atrocities of the past is a defense mechanism that allows for resilience. The problem Berlant explores is when this attempt to facilitate the pain of destruction is not diminished, but fails to exist. “In two minutes of television time and two hours of accelerated real time, then, the national system heals itself, the cesspool is cleaned out, and nature returns ‘home’ to the discourse of national growth” (48). This metaphorical example of the erasure of memories is frightening, yet quite accurate—unlike the condensed, one-dimensional newscast.
The basis of a democracy is to provide the people with supreme power, yet this is eradicated by the “collective identification” that has occurred as a result of the affect of the media. “In this way, for example, patriotism can be equated with proper citizenship. This means that the politically invested overorganizing image is a kind of public paramnesia, a substitution for traumatic loss or unrepresentable contradictions that mark its own contingency or fictiveness while also radiating the authority of insider knowledge” (48). This citation illustrates the way patriotism is formed through the images presented by the media, operating on a basis of partial truths that are to be unchallenged due to the alleged authority of the envoy. When abiding by these principles, one is in the category of infantile citizenship. Whereas explicit discordance with these ideas disseminated through images will place the individual in a category of deviance, unpatriotic, and separate from the collective identity. The resolution to this difficult position is the assumption of the competent citizen. This citizen “knows this about the hypocrisy of nationalist rhetoric, and learns how to read conveniently and flexibly between the lines, thus preserving both utopian national identification and cynical practical citizenship” (48). In doing so, one exists on an individual level, a collective level, an informed level, and a practical level.
The power of media is imposing due to the misconception of this mode of communication operating in a reliable, comprehensive manner. Instead, what transpires is a method of informing citizens how to act in a patriotic manner by completely accepting the information without any form of inquiry, nor contradictory ideas. If this were the case, the affects of paramnesia would lead to a nation that never protested unjust court decisions, never lobbied for rights, or questioned the “system.” Though it is quite easy to fall into the realm of paramnesia due to it being a safe, sheltered place from the atrocities that occur on a daily basis and dismiss questions of national integrity, it is not conducive to individual identity. To maintain true to the specular I, an individual cannot exist in the category of infantile citizenship, yet succumbing completely to the citizen adult, discussed by Berlant, leads to a disconnect of the social I. Therefore, the assumption of the competent citizen is the only role permissible in alleviating anxiety between the differing facets of identity. Though paramnesia will continue, individualistic amnesia will not exist in the face of images when the competent citizen utilizes his/her faculties of knowledge in disseminating the granules of truth amongst the images of falsehoods.
Berlant, Lauren. “The Theory of Infantile Citizenship.” The Queen of America Goes To Washington City. Duke University Press, 1997.
“Democracy.” Meriam-Webster. 1b. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/democracy.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. 1163-69.
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