“Vote Negative to reject the American frontier myth” – our critique serves as a process of counter-memory, a forgetting of the frontier myth in favor of an open investigation of identity itself – this examination reveals identity as contingent and arbitrary, opening up the possibility for genuine freedom
[Michael, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Mississippi State University, Political Genealogy After Foucault: Savage Identities, p. 134-137]
“Whenever man has thought it necessary to create a memory for himself, his effort has been attended with torture, blood, sacrifice,” observes Friedrich Nietzsche. Memory, for Nietzsche, refers to the more or less violent imposition of values that become fixed, obligatory, “unforgettable.” Memory is the first condition for the establishment of conscience, which consists in the recognition of a moral constraint. Through memory we are bound to a set of moral obligations, the “forgetting” of which sanctions a possible punishment. Memory is a form of confinement, a subtle but incarcerating restriction on our freedom – which is not a right, but simply our freedom to be otherwise.
Foucault’s counter-memory is very close to the Nietzschean idea of “active forgetfulness” (aktive Vergesslichkeit). Counter-memory consists of essentially forgetting who we are. It is a forgetfulness of essence, of necessity, of the moral and ontological obligations that bind us to an identity. There is freedom in forgetfulness. Counter-memory holds us at a remove, a distance, from ourselves, not in the tradition sense of self-reflection, but of wrenching the self – this identity – apart, through an incision, a cutting that makes the self stand naked and strange before us across an unbridgeable divide, a gap of difference. Counter-memory dislodges the propriety of our-selves. The self, as a coherent identity, becomes foreign through counter-memory. We cannot remember what it was that compelled us to act, believe, be a given way. Counter-memory dissolves this compulsion, this determination, this subjection. The power of identity is suspended through a forgetfulness of its necessity – a freedom is opened within the space of a difference that no identity can constrain. This difference always plays outside the limits, outside any delimitation of being. Counter-memory thrusts us into this uncharted world, where a memory makes no sense, where play is the order of the day, where lightening and chance disintegrate the heavy and solid, the identical.
Counter-memory bears directly on processes of subjectivation, on the techniques of the self through which we constitute ourselves an identity. “Counter-discourses” anticipate a subjectival freedom of open possibilities by opposing themselves to the discourses of truth through which we recognize ourselves as subjects. These counter-discourses, the discourses of genealogy, lift the burdensome obligation imposed on us by such a recognition. As a forgetfulness of these obligations, counter-memory always takes the form of a transgression. It invites condemnation even as it refuses to be held accountable. Yet there is freedom in this refusal, in this transgression – for those who have the stomach for it. There is always an essential risk involved in refusing, in forgetting, one’s identity.
Counter-memory is not a form of consciousness. It is nothing, really, except the effect of a certain kind of description of ourselves; a description of the historical ontology of ourselves as subjects. This description has been closed off and denied by power/knowledge relations, excluded and made peripheral by certain dominant discourses and entrenched scientific-philosophical enterprises that bind us to a conception of what we are in truth. Counter-memory counters, or suspends, the power of identity through genealogical accounts of its constitution. Genealogy effects “the systematic dissociation of identity” by revealing its radical contingency, its historicality and utter lack of essentiality. The purpose of genealogy, says Foucault, “is not to discover the roots of our identity, but to commit itself to its dissipation.” Genealogical critique is an exposition of our history as subjects that has the effect of dis-posing subjectival constraints by ex-posing the contingency of their imposition. Genealogy turns the firm posture of the self-identical subject into the mere posing of a pretentious display.
Genealogy proceeds through “dissension” and “disparity.” Wherever “the self fabricates a coherent identity,” genealogy puts into play a subversive counter-analysis that “permits the dissociation of the self, its recognition and displacement as an empty synthesis.” Genealogy disturbs, fragments, displaces the unity of subjectivity. It cuts through the oppressive, assimilating density of Truth and discovers in this beguiling haze that subjectivity is nothing more than a colorful mask. Who we are, what we are, is a mask displayed for public viewing and examination, for personal-al subjection and ethical subjugation. Genealogy cuts through this mask, only to make another discovery. Behind it there is no essential identity, no unified spirit or will, no naked subject stripped of its colorful dress. Rather, there is only a matrix of intersecting lines and heterogeneous congruities, an arbitrary and historically contingent complex of discursive and nondiscursive practices. Asserts Foucault, “If the genealogist refuses to extend his faith in metaphysics, if he listens to history, he finds that there is ‘something altogether different’ behind things; not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms.” Contrary to what René Descartes or John Locke would contend, unity (whether of consciousness proper or the continuity of personal experience) is not the essence of subjectivity. Unity is a mask for an interplay of anonymous forces and historical accidents that permits us to identify subjects, to identify ourselves, as specific human beings. Unity – identity – is imposed on subjects as the mask of their fabrication. Subjectivity is the carceral and incarcerating expression of this imposition, of the limitations drawn around us by discourses of truth and practices of individualization; but seen through the “differential knowledge” of genealogy, the identity of subjectivity collapses.
Counter-memory through genealogical critique is a transgression of limits. As such, it opens onto a possibility of freedom. Genealogy permits us “to separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, thinking what we are, do, or think.” In this sense, genealogy gives “new impetus, as far and wide as possible, to the undefined work of freedom.” The freedom offered by counter-memory is a kind of parodic reversal of negative freedom: it is not a freedom from interference, but for it –
for disruption, for displacement, for violating those inviolable spheres of liberty that serve as the limits of our subjection. It is not a freedom for individuality, but from it – a freedom from individualization, from the practices and discourses which bind us to our own identity as individuals. It is not a freedom against the office of government, but against governmentality – against a rationality that imprisons us in the cellular space of our own self-government. At the same time, the freedom of/through counter-memory is a form of mimetic play with the notion of positive freedom whereby citizenship is unwrapped like a cloak from the politicized body.
In simple terms, it can be said that genealogy “enables one to get free of oneself.” That is, by exposing the nonessentiality of the limits imposed on us through the constitution of a self, it opens the possibility of going beyond those limits. This opening is a kind of fracture, at once an open space and a breaking free of the constraining power inherent in identity and identification. In this sense, genealogy opens up “a space of concrete freedom, i.e., of possible transformation.” This notion of fracture allows us to define freedom more precisely, to gauge whether or not a genuine space of freedom has been opened for us. Freedom, concrete freedom, is a space of possible transformation. Unless we are free to transform ourselves, to be other than the identity dictated for us by some extraneous rationality, we have no freedom. Even the most violent forms of resistance against subjection accomplish nothing if they do not gain this freedom, do not open a space of possible transformation – which means nothing more, and nothing less, than the possibility of being otherwise. Something very like this point is made by Dennis Altman with regard to the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the militant Gay Liberation Front that emerged from them in the early 1970s. In one of the seminal texts of what would later become known as Queer Theory, Altman rails against the limited vision of a political movement that sough for gay and lesbian people little more than an expansion of rights and the “liberal tolerance” of the homophile community: “Homosexuals can win acceptance as distinct from tolerance only by a transformation of society, one that is based on a ‘new human’ who is able to accept the multifaceted and varied nature of his or her sexual identity. That such a society can be founded is the gamble upon which gay and women’s liberation are based; like all radical movements they hold to an optimistic view of human nature, above all to its mutability.”
This requirement that we are only genuinely free if we are able to transform ourselves is recalcitrant. It is crucial to understand, however, that what is being required here is not a freedom to transform ourselves in accordance with some global or teleological model of a more “genuine” form of subjectivity. This freedom does not consist (as it does in On Liberty) in replacing one form of subjectivity for another that is supposedly “truer” or more fulfilling to human nature. Not only is this illusory and unobtainable, it would also amount to a cancellation of freedom, a reimposition of subjectival limitations and expectations. Rather, the freedom opened by counter-memory is a freedom of permanent transformation, of always being able to become other than what we are.