Fragile identities, fragile memories

It is justice which extracts from traumatizing remembrances their exemplary value, turns memory into a project, and it is this project of justice that gives the form of the future and of imperativeness to the duty of memory

Paul Ricoeur Memory, History, Forgetting 

Some years ago I was asked to prepare one of those profiles of myself that serve to introduce your more elusive character traits to colleagues in the workplace through a series of questions about life outside of work and reflections on work.  After questions like what were my memories of childhood and which movies had changed my life – to which I replied none, but several books had, including A la recherche du temps perdu – I was asked what kind of workplace I wanted to work in.

I replied in an instant, a flash of intuition – “one that respects human frailty.”

No one ever really asked me about this statement of philosophy. I do not know if many read my profile. A few made reference to it in the weeks it was on display as Get to know profile of the employee of the month. But none of the revelations in this profile, hinted though they may have been – my years of drinking, the fragility of my mind, my poetic stirrings, the madness of my family and childhood, not even my declared philosophy of the workplace – none of these hints at the broken shards of my identity ever led to an approach towards greater intimacy.

Still, even though this poem of the everyday dates from ten or so years ago, that orientation still defines who I am at work. We are all frail, and our projects tragically fail many times. Yet still we can move towards a good life, a just life if we live together as neighbours in each other’s frailty.

The French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, once described a little ethics to guide the cohabitation of the divided self in a troubled world . This little ethics, perhaps another way to describe ordinary virtues, was “aiming at a good life lived with and for others in just institutions” (Oneself as Another, 1992: 172)

It is a simple statement, yet an enduring challenge. Its modesty is welcome in these days when identity politics is loud and proud, and forgets that it is both fragile and only ever lived through institutions. Much denounced, treacherous and frail institutions.

How though do we bridge the gaps between our frail identities, our limited capabilities, always melting in the sun like Icarus’ wings, and our hopes for more just institutions? I make my way in one of these institutions, government, and try to live a good life with and for others within it; but is the institution just? And if it is not just, what can I do about it? Poor, limited, frail and incapable me?

Only, I suppose, by practising a little ethics, of small intentions and ordinary virtues, can I bridge the gap between my private dreams of good government and the public poverty of the unjust institutions of government today, with its rampant clientilism and patronage, the competitive control of rival gangs, a surrender to vacuousness, a loss of public spirit and shared high culture, a fragmentation into a thousand hard brittle shards of shrill politicking.

And only by knowing that we are all frail – both self and other, both governed and governing, both oppressed and oppressor, both conqueror and vanquished – can we transcend the murky politics of both populism and identity politics. Only by knowing we are all frail, all past and potential victims at the sacrifice, can we avoid fusing identities with deadly beliefs about history.

Elsewhere, Ricoeur writes:

“A third cause of fragility is the legacy of founding violence. It is a fact that no historic community exists which does not have its origins in war. … The same events, therefore, signify glory for some, but humiliation for others. One side’s rejoicing corresponds to the other’s execration. This is how real and symbolic wounds are stored in the archives of collective memory.” Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting

There is enough war in history; we do not need history wars and culture wars that both consecrate and desecrate public memory. We need rather to practise humility in asserting and nurturing our mercurial identities, while kindly forgiving, if not forgetting, the sins that lie in all of our pasts.

Image Credit: ABC news photo of statue of Captain Cook vandalised after a call by indigenous Australians to remove monuments commemorating the day British settlers and navy arrived in Australia

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