Requiem for Communism, by Charity Scribner

History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa, by Annie B. Coombes

reviewed by
Francis Raven


Charity Scribner's Requiem for Communism analyzes the extremely tricky politics of memory in Europe after the fall of communism while Annie Coombes' History After Apartheid examines the politics of visual culture and memory in post-Apartheid South Africa.  Scribner describes her inquiry into post-Soviet life thus: "The aesthetic response to this socialist crisis disclosed cross-cultural bridges that linked the otherwise disparate societies of Eastern and Western Europe” and her goal “is to illuminate these transcontinental’ formations in literary and visual culture" (RFC, p. 5).  In a similar highly abstract vein Coombes explores "how various forms of visual and material culture dramatized the tensions involved in such a momentous shift while at the same time contributing to the process of transformation itself" (HAA, p. 1).  So, the operative metaphors are bridges, gulfs, and the tensions between the distant shores. Both writers, fortunately, mine these metaphors with delicacy and insight.

One key difference between these two fraught cases is that within academia (presumably the intended audience) there still exist people committed to socialism, but none who are openly committed to apartheid. This difference shapes the ways in which visual cultures changed and developed after both regrettable regimes fell. So certain forms of nostalgia and mourning are required of and available to people of post-communist Europe which are not permitted citizens of post-Apartheid South Africa. This divergence allows Scribner to remark that "although many Europeans considered the project to build a workers' state to be a failure, that have proceeded to mourn its collapse, nonetheless" (RFC, p. 3).

Both books begin with the obvious but often neglected premise that we need to recognize the forces that have largely determined our lives.  First, there are practical reasons for remembering.  Monuments and other elements of visual culture from the old regimes exist, and apt historical significance needs to be assigned to them.  Second, there are vital psychological reasons for needing to remember, such as the "never again" refrain that accompanies the humanitarian impetus for history.  But this "never again" is invoked by collectivities such as the nation or the culture at large and not by the individual.  So, third, there are individual psychological reasons for remembering the past and these can be boiled down to each individual's intrinsic need for a consistent and affirming life story.

People need to know that, after noxious regimes have crumbled, their lives were indeed spent meaningfully.  This is why sites of "unproductive and demoralizing labor" (HAA, 76) such as the lime quarry on Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned) are so awful. The prisoners were not allowed useful labor, as part of a punishment that intentionally denied any scrap of meaning to their lives under Apartheid.  Referring to detainees in a prison camp on the South Lebanese border who fashioned miniaturized artifacts, Coombes observes that these subversive items were "a means of countering the destructive effects of detention both by marking time (productive time) in a context designed to eradicate it and by witnessing not the terrible conditions under which they were made but their makers' ability to transcend such conditions against all odds" (HAA, 9).  

Being human means that it is important to remember ourselves as productive beings who have some choices. Coombes writes, "the act of making and objects themselves can become an insurance against forgetting and thus against the loss of personhood through reinstating- particularly in the case of whimsical manufactures - the capacity for fantasy (HAA, 9).  This insight fits perfectly with Marx who wrote that "[b]y producing their means of subsistence, men are indirectly producing their actual material life" (HAA, 164).  In a very vivid sense, then, the act of making enables us to remember and in turn, this remembering is a
form of making.

Coombes and Scribner both dig a bit deeper into the problematics of remembering.  These problems include not being able to remember because the past was too frightful, because you are not allowed explicitly to remember, and because you are swayed by nostalgia.  Not recalling (or avoiding memory of) an event because it is too traumatic raises the perennial question of difficulties in reliably representing any traumatic experience, as recently seen in the ‘false memory syndrome” controversies.

Remembering involves the often errant ability to represent the past. The core problem is usually phrased in terms of the inadequacy of representing many-layered or ghastly events in art or memorials.  One immediate difficulty of representing the holocaust is that the "crime was of such a stupendous proportions that any work of art must be on an appropriate scale" (HAA, 91). Coombes analyzes memorials of terrible times (such as, for the Vietnam War and the holocaust), but then brings the treatment back to the abiding problem of memory.

Another major obstacle to a valid "working memory" is not being allowed to remember.  One way in which people are not allowed to remember is through temporal and spatial disordering of pertinent events.  To illustrate, Scribner cites the prose poem Factory Excess by Leslie Kaplan.  In this poem the "factory invades space and dissolves the limit between inside and outside" (RFC, 70). For Kaplan "industrialized labor depletes the worker's agency" (RFC, 70) without which a person, thus crippled, is unable to discern through remembrance the discord between the subjective and the objective, between factory and nature.

By far the most interesting issue of memory is the problem of distortive nostalgia. Nostalgia "is the longing for return to an idealized 'home' or nostos (Gr.).  As historian Svetlana Boym noted, outbreaks of nostalgia always follow revolutions, as was the case in France after 1789 and in Eastern Europe two centuries later. The 'velvet revolution' that terminated Soviet-style socialism made its twilight years seem, on one hand, like 'stagnation,' on the other, like a 'golden age of stability, strength, and 'normalcy'" (RFC, 64). Scribner turns to is "ostalgie" which means "nostalgia for the East’ - see, for example, the ambivalent and charming 2003 film ‘Goodbye, Berlin.”

Examples of "retrograde romance," however, include how “activists in Berlin saved the 'Little Traffic light Guy' who flashed on corners in the former East Zone (and won)," a "new version of the game 'Memory,' whose cards depict supposedly treasured products from the 'people's own industries,' and the new "Die DDR Show," on which graying guests fondly remember good old days while mouldering propaganda videos run in the background.  This tinselly form of nostalgia blocks the sort of critical memory which helps people cope intelligently, and to move on, with their lives. Scribner judges, "This never-never land of the proletariat was charted on the cognitive map of left intellectuals but existed nowhere in reality" (RFC, 63).

Yet Coombes argues that there are positive uses of nostalgia.  In South Africa bulldozed District Six was a multiethnic port community where 60,000 people were removed to barren outlying areas aptly known as the Cape Flats.  The point about District Six and memory is that "there are inevitably problems with any reminiscing that tends toward an idealistic nostalgia, reproducing the experience of living in District Six as an idyllic, harmonious environment immune to political tensions and personal antagonisms"(HAA, 124). 

In a purely nostalgic view antagonisms and conflicts are smoothed to the point that critical thinking is no longer possible. But remembering the past is not just a recreational activity, it can be a sort of seditious work too.  As Coombes writes, "Nostalgia has been theorized by some as the search for an 'impossible object'" (HAA, 124) because it is not objectively present.  By contrast, the working out of memory takes into account that the remembered object is remembered and is not present. This form of nostalgia has beneficial political uses since it has ‘a sense of future- for an experience, however imaginary, of possessing the means of controlling the future - may function as a powerful force for social reconnection" (HAA, 125). Coombes contendss that people believing in the possibility of controlling the future (in spite of the fact that they currently do not) can regenerate themselves through a common purpose.  But what will happen down the road for a culture that takes part in this sort of exercise?  In fact, especially these days, the idea of America itself seems a nostalgic concept that has been grossly misused. 

Scribner and Coombes both believe that once we know how to proceed with memory we will be able to figure out how visual culture should progress (i.e. which narratives should it support, which should it deny).  Coombes distinguishes two types of relevant history.  First there is the "tradition of historical writing from the left that prioritized a 'history from below,' as history of 'the people,' as a strategy for redressing the absences and structural violences of the official 'national' histories" (HAA, 10).  This is the Howard Zinn model.  But the other type of history, which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC offered, was "based on an appeal to individual experience as the foundation of a new national history post-apartheid" (HAA, 10).  This version is prey to retrograde purposes.

This distinction brings Coombes to ask "how one might embody new national histories in the public sphere that engaged larger structural narratives and material conditions and individual lived experiences without reducing their
public expression to either some monolithic representation of 'the struggle' or some unlocated and ahistorical notion of individualized experience and that might adequately signal (if not represent) the compromised, complicated texture of living under and fighting against apartheid" (HAA, 10). Coombes seeks a reconciliation of these two nodes.

Scribner similarly writes: "A radical gaze backward . . . promises redemptive hope" (RFC, 123) and that authentic memory “reawakens antagonisms that thwart the resolution of - and in - any narrative" (RFC, 165). This radical gaze is attained through a judicious connecting of subjective with the objective.  About Christa Wolf Scribner writes that that the novelist’s ideal text would show a person 'without distortion but not stripped bare.'  This precarious balance could only be achieved within a collective of readers and writers yet his model privileges the writer as the one who can scribble without distortion.  Scribner believes such writings point to an "uncharted public sphere, which lies adjacent to the field of communicative exchange that both union leaders and new media visionaries have envisaged but never fully actualized" (RFC, 163).  

So the ultimate question is, how can this space be actualized?  Scribner says that "the left can resign itself to … incorporate as a new melancholy object the stubborn bond between literature, art, and the market.  Or writers and artists can activate the collective, cultural forms which would deny that same obstinacy to be uttered as protest" (RFC, 164).  Both volumes contribute to realizing this second possibility.