Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

The Oppressive Totality of the Past

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

The Oppressive Totality of the Past

Article excerpt


Controlling for insecurities depends on a capacity to make inferences on the basis of experiences about the past, yet the use of knowledge about the past for anticipating and predicting future threats is highly problematic. This article examines the problem of governing individuals on the basis of what is available about their past deeds and social networks in governmental and commercial archives. It highlights the tension between administrative and private narratives about individuals, the former being constructed on the basis of minute details collected and stored about individuals since birth, and the latter referring to the accounts individuals offer of themselves. By applying the notions of ipse and idem identity developed by Paul Ricoeur, the article examines the two-way flow between memory and identity and the consequent concern that administrative narratives are blind to the ethical renewal of individuals, to the capacity of Man to extricate himself from the shackles of his past. To prepare the ground, the article considers some inherent limitations of biopolitics, pointing out that although biopolitics was classically concerned to govern both individual bodies and the body politic, administrative and governmental limitations have led states to govern the "average citizen" rather than individuals in their "individuality."


personal narratives, historical knowledge, administrative narratives, mnemonic technologies

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unrecieemable.

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets


Drew! I haven't seen you since college, twenty years ago! My God, Drew--what are you doing with that gun? I've come to kill you, said Drew, just as you asked me to.

  What the hell are you talking about?
  Don't you remember? You said to me, many times, "If I ever vote
  Republican, then shoot me." Well, I just read you're actually a
  Republican senator. So you see, you must die. (1)

We all feel the absurdity of making someone responsible for what he said twenty years ago. The person of twenty years ago is but a memory of the person today, the two are the same, yet they are not identical. There is a schism between permanence and change, because, while we assume the consistence of the unitary subject through time, at the same time, we also insist on man's freedom to alter his identity. We believe it is legitimate and the most normal of things for someone to alter his opinion and his personality with the passing of time. Also, it is but at the most extreme violation of norms of human conduct where the flow of time--under the influence of amnesty or amnesia--would not alter the rigor of our judgment. In order to resolve the dilemma between permanence and change, Paul Ricoeur suggests turning out attention to narratives. By focusing on narratives, we may avoid the antimony of either asserting a too rigid conception of identity or regarding identity as anything but an illusion. (2)

The problem this article seeks to elucidate is the incommensurable nature of two types of narrative accounts of the individual. The first is what we will call personal narrative, which is the account the individual offers of itself, while the second is what we will call administrative narrative created by governmental apparatuses on the information it gathers in administrative archives.

The documentation of the life of individuals is an essential component of governing modern societies. Social control has always relied on surveillance and the creation of governmental archives. As David Lyon suggested modern societies had a tendency from the start to become surveillance societies. (3) The efficient use of administrative archives was greatly constrained, however, by the limited capacities of bureaucracies to process the information available for them. …

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