The Haunting by the Angel of History

Some things stick with you. I can’t seem to shake it today, even though I want to refuse the stupidity of our political discourse. The media screaming in all our faces, “REMEMBER!” From where does this imperative come from? Why do we have a duty to remember? And perhaps I wouldn’t be so resistant to remembering – so utterly disgusted by all the public forms of remembrance with their attempts to write the deaths of thousands of American as well as the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of non-Americans – perhaps I wouldn’t be resistant if I didn’t feel like part of this imperative is to remember the way they want us to remember. It feels like this 9/11 there has been a reversal of the usual Christmas slogan, “Remember the reason for the season.” In this case we are told only to remember our fear on that day, our horror, our loss. And of course that happened, but there was a reason for it. There was a reason why this happened that none of our leaders and the majority of our citizenship ever came to grips with. I’m not sure we can give that reason a name because we refuse to think it.

I want to shake it, but some things stick with you. I do remember where I was ten years ago. I was 18, the first month into my Freshman year of college. I was in bed, trying to sleep after spending an overnight shift in a boiler room with a horrible stomach ache brought on by some bad chicken from Pick-Me Up Cafe after seeing Pedro the Lion perform at The Metro in Chicago. My shift ended at 8am and I dragged myself into the room I shared with two other 18 year olds. After the first plane hit one of my roommates came and woke me up. Not on purpose, but just because he was that kind of roommate, and I thought he was playing a video game as he loudly yelled “they just fall down!” with the enthusiasm he showed when playing video games. In fact, in the haze of two hours of sleep and feeling sick to my stomach, I thought he was playing a video game. And then I woke up and he and my other roommate and I watched the two second plane hit and then the towers fall on top of themselves.

I wasn’t an idiot. I understood that America had been asking for this for a long time, but I also understood that, like that roommate, as a people we had no idea what was going on. Perhaps this was a video game. Thinking about it now it is too bad such stupidity can’t unite people, since perhaps we shared more in common with the terrorists than either of us had thought before. My mom called me on the phone, because she knew that I was supposed to be on a bus to DC the next week for a WTO protest. She told me, “You know things aren’t going to be normal for awhile. I don’t think you should go.” I didn’t.

What’s truly horrifying is that, as Adam has already said, that day didn’t change anything. Sure, things weren’t “normal”, but they weren’t normal in the worst ways. In my final years of high school I became a bit political radicalized. The radicalisation happened along Christian lines, but it led me to reject capitalism, to reject the coercive elements of State power, war, prisons, the like, and it led me to truly believe that there were more and more people in the world who rejected this order of things. That seemed to me to be normal in the light of Seattle and the crowd I hung out with. It wasn’t though, it was a moment in the history of the American left that collapsed the day the towers did.

This happened when I was 18, when I was in my Introduction to Philosophy course. I remember the day classes resumed, it must have been September 15th, and the professor opened up the class with one of his useless but beautiful prayers, probably something like “Father, teach us to die”, and launched into an impassioned speech. He told us that after what had happened no one would ever be able to ask us why we do what we do anymore. No one would be able to ask us why we study philosophy and theology (the two always implicitly the same in those classes). I was inspired. I wanted him to be right. Ten years later, as I begin to teach my first Introduction to Philosophy course, I don’t think he was.

What has happened over the past ten years? Well, I know what has happened in my life. I’ve read a lot of books to try and understand this world, but always with the fucking trace of this idiocy haunting me. The trace as the appeal to stupidity. Always appealed to in the end to end thinking. To end the discussion. Some things stick with you. And one of those things that I read I can’t shake. For the last ten years what have witnessed but the reality of Benjamin’s passage on the Angel of History. Mute and dumb in the face of a ceaseless piling up of disaster. Human history as an unmitigated disaster is perhaps its own form of anthropomorphic fantasy, but this last decade we’ve done nothing to slow down that destruction. We thought it had come to an end in 2008 but the rot had already set in. There was nothing left to do except pretend there was nothing needing to be done in the first place.

What do I tell my students? Well the reality is I probably won’t tell them anything. I’m their philosophy instructor, not their spiritual guide. But I often wonder how the previous generations can live with themselves and perhaps the reason that 40-50 somethings are now bent on destroying social security in the US is out of an unconscious shame at the world they’ve given to us and to their children. We deserve to die, they say. We deserve to be die alone, with no one caring for us. And you know what? They do. They had the best theories. The best thinkers. The most interesting and potentially liberation forms of technology to play with. And what did they do with it? They capitulated. They became the worst generation. In some ways they are the Angel of History. Thinking it is powerless when in reality it should have never opened its wings in the first place. I’m not really upset with the idiot children who in a moment of idiocy fuelled by a desire to no longer be powerless they murdered 3000 people. And I’m not really upset with the idiot children of our worst generation who in the name of they know not what fight intractable wars against people with far inferior weaponry, inferior education, but much more to lose. I almost can’t blame then. Rather, I want nothing more than for that angel to pass away. To die.

But some things stick with you.

2 thoughts on “The Haunting by the Angel of History

  1. Some guy from NYC bought me a drink tonight just because it was the eleventh of September and I was with American friends. He then had to endure my friend from Kentucky who drives a aircraft carrier’s rant about how Fukushima was far more significant. I just stood there nodding, not particularly agreeing with any of it, and enjoyed my free beer…

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