• Jonathan Carter

Missing Memory: Exploring the Implications of Creating an Ahistorical Presidency


Trump’s inauguration may be best remembered due to debates about attendance. Because I was not able to watch the address live, this is certainly what I remember most about it. However, a few days after the speech, I was walking my dog and listening to the NPR Politics podcast offer its commentary on Donald Trump’s inauguration address. While many things have been said about tone, word choice, and the extremely troubling history of his “America First” slogan, the thing that stood out in the commentary on the podcast was the observation that the address seemed to lack a sense of history (perhaps not surprising when the administration was willing to debate the history of the attendance). Between these audience rants and this claim of an ahistorical event, I’ve decided to dedicate this post to considering the implications of Trump’s dissociation with history.

This lack of history seemed remarkable to the journalists, seemingly defying the norms of the inaugural address. The first inaugural address of President Obama includes repeated references to the legacy of the “founding fathers “and “earlier generations,” placing his administration as a condition of a traditional form of American governance.[1] Ronald Reagan similarly used the major structures – e.g. the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial – of the National Mall to hearken to the great figures he sought to emulate. Conversely, while Trump did open by acknowledging the four-year tradition of ritually performing the peaceful passing of power and offered thanks to the Obama’s, he quickly eradicated any connection to the past. Instead he proclaimed

Today's ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.

With these words – the words that really open the content of his address – he quickly distances himself from the history of traditional transfers of power. The rest of the speech then maintains a future orientation, speaking on his vision for the country rather than the historical traditions he will draw from.

Certainly, the outlining of ambitions and vision is nothing new in an inaugural address. In their landmark study of the genre, Campbell and Jamieson note this is one of the primary functions of the inaugural address.[2] However, what is surprising is that this eradication of history removes one of the other primary functions of the genre, unifying the people through “rehearsing communal values of the past.”[3] Such a break in generic expectations is interesting enough on its own, as it signals a conceptual break with the memories that govern the institution of the presidency.

However, the significance of this move to erase elements of history became all the more salient this past weekend. Specifically, while scrolling through posts of outrage about Trump’s executive order targeting refugees, immigrants, and travelers from seven countries in the Middle East, one article particularly captivated my attention. The link, certainly from a cite dedicated to liberal clickbait, proclaimed that the Whitehouse webpage had deleted the page explaining the judiciary. Wary of sensationalism, I went to the Whitehouse website and (at the time of writing) found that while the homepage has links to the executive and legislative branch under the heading “our government” the judicial branch was conspicuously absent. While the site outlines the history and function of the two Republican-dominated branches (descriptions pulled near verbatim from the Obama administration’s Whitehouse webpage), the judicial is provided no place in the narrative of the form or function of government.[4]

This erasure of the judiciary is troubling as related to accusations of executive agents ignoring judicial efforts to stay the enforcement of the executive order. However, I mobilize these two stories of lost memory together to highlight a larger trend of the nascent Trump Administration: the erasure of history from the rhetorical technologies of governance.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have noted that Bernard Stiegler draws our attention to technologies as our participation in defining their use is central to the development of personal and social identity. A central element to this process is the capacity of technologies to store and share memory. To explore the role memory plays in psychic and social individuation, Stiegler turns to the language of retentions.[5] Stiegler offers three retentions, with each referring to different potential temporal states of memory. A primary retention is that which consciousness holds in the now. It is this very word you are reading, related to but independent of context. A secondary retention is a primary retention held as the memory of experience. It is whatever you hold onto of this blog post. Finally, a tertiary retention is a technical apparatus that stores memories external to the individual. It is the blog, presidential speech, or webpage, that allows the memories of individuals to be shared and synchronized.[6]

This ability of tertiary retentions to synchronize memories across individuals renders that particularly salient to efforts to enact particular modes of control. These shared memories provide the grammar through which any symbolic exchange can occur, and in doing so establish the very conditions under which individuals may emerge from and relate to particular collective identities.[7] The more rigid the tertiary retention, the less room there is for an individual to reshape the memories of social life. And without the capacity to reshape or participate in these memories, the space of the induvial to act is limited. To return to my example of the words in this blog, if I the writer (or you the reader) have no capacity to play with the meanings and memories of these words, we no longer have political agency to reshape the communities they constitute.

Stiegler’s focus on memory tends to focus on the force of synchronizing memories as a mode of homogenizing politics. However, the Trump Administration’s erasure of memories from civic technologies (the genre of the inaugural and the Whitehouse webpage) draws our eyes to the corollary function of that forgetting. Trump is not asking us to share the memories of past administrations or the judiciary differently, rather he is asking us not to remember them at all. Without these memories, we instead are asked to remember Trump’s vision for a (re)newly great America and the branches of government Republicans can actively control. The memories, to borrow from Kenneth Burke, reflect, select, deflect a vision of reality.[8] In deflecting from past historical concepts, only Trump’s vision of America is selected, promoting the reflected ideological commitments.

Yet this strategic forgetting does more than simply remove distractions from efforts to promote a particular ideological commitment. Because tertiary retentions provide the grammar for social interaction – by providing a means for us to share our own secondary retentions – the removal of particular technical elements removes the possibility of those memories from engaging politics. If we were to simply erase the letter x, the word xylophone would cease to be intelligible. Similarly, in removing the historical references that promote unity from the inaugural or the judiciary from the Whitehouse webpage, the Trump Administration is attempting to remove these concepts from the very grammar of politics. Without memories of cross-party unity, and other national values, politics lacks the resources to speak of much beyond Republican authority. Similarly, without the memory of the judiciary, the courts cease to be valued as a balance on the other branches of government.

Certainly, these omissions alone are not enough to actually change the capacity to remember – the internet and other memory technologies make the complete eradication of memories quite difficult. However, the inaugural address is a touchstone that is used to define presidencies, and the Whitehouse website a portal to many citizens’ understandings of government. Meaning these erasures are not only a window into the intent of the Administration and representative of the larger efforts to suppress historical topoi that could challenge the administration, but also, they will deny some the tools that would have been used to access these memories. Therefore, the struggle of politics is fundamentally one of memory, because if we cannot share memories we cannot act on them.

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[1] Certainly, the gendering of the founding members of the united states represents a problematic and limited view of history, it also does place the address as a continuation of the model of the president as a strong father of the nation.

[2] Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Deeds Done in Words: Presidential Rhetoric and the Genres of Governance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 15.

[3] Ibid.

[4] For contrast, the Obama page on the judiciary is archived here. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/1600/judicial-branch.

[5] Bernard Stiegler, Symbolic Misery Volume 1: The Hyper-Industrial Era, (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2014), 52.

[6] While tertiary retentions often exist in the form of media, Stiegler notes that, “Tertiary retention is not mediation because it does not come afterwards: it is not what gives mediated access to the immediate, by that which constitutes its very possibility;” Bernard Stiegler, Symbolic Misery Volume 2: The Katastrophe of the Sensible, (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2015), 114

[7] Bernard Stiegler, “Suffocated Desire, or How the Cultural Industry Destroys the Individual: Contribution to A Theory of Mass Consumption,” Parrhesia, 13 (2011): 57.

[8] Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1966), 45.

Cover image source: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/20/us/politics/trump-inauguration-crowd.html

#BernardStiegler #JonathanCarter #memory

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