Milan Kundera’s oft-quoted line from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” seems especially poignant when accounting for the Trump presidency.
Although one could say our splintered, niche-driven culture and the 24-hour news cycle offend the memory, too, Trump is indubitably the singular head driving our collective amnesia. Abstract notions of vague, cultural alarmism find both their corroboration and embodiment in “The Donald,” a man whose complete seizure of the news cycle and subsequent forfeiture of the lion’s share of truths join to form a culture of instinct and unreason.
The fusillade of untruths stuns our brains to such an extent that we can no longer summon much energy to care. It’s a zero-sum, blanket-statement game: it’s all untrue, so we can ignore it, which allows for the insidious transplantation of an unthinking brain. The slow-moving coup does not necessarily exist in our political reality; it exists in the mutation of our brain chemistry, where we extend and employ from the political to the social, economic and cultural, the unreflective capitulation that comes when we can’t remember. Once we succumb to the shallows of irretrievable memory and operate as instinct, we cede power to those who can game us. The door is not only open but beckoning, with dim light, the dilettante or the charlatan or the demagogue who knows what he’s doing. While instinct proves helpful in some circumstances, it remains necessary to employ our history and our memory to inform the present. That should be obvious, but as Trump replaces our conscious minds with his reptilian impulse, we must work to retain argumentative processes.
So, how to combat the creeping replacement of our nuanced capabilities with a one-dimensional impulse detector? Take up the broader scope, go macro? Perhaps. The beauty of trends is that they have a history, which comes with a certain mass, and necessitates a comfort with density. Those in academia who trace the present back to ancient, modern and postmodern sources retain a sense of historical influence, and draw on history to inform their decisions and work.
You could also delve into a piece of minutiae, which could deliver on a personal level, but once you lift off the grindstone, things may have gone Children of Men on you without your knowledge, because of your unwitting negligence. The problem with minutia becomes the problem of context, that of a deep knowledge embedded so far into the ground as to have other relevant, historical detritus whip past.
I’m honestly not sure what the solution is. Public activism can help, but it always gets trivialized by those in power or corrupted by the emergence of the great Olsteen inside it. The best we can do is remain aware of our mental deprivation and actively pursue smaller projects to keep sharp our sense of nuance and detail, while never drowning in the myopia. The larger narrative, although we can do little to impact it, must also remain interesting and relevant, nuanced and historical. Personal and intellectual mediation may be the only way to combat the promotion of a reflexive and amnesiac culture.
Trump is the flaring sun in a solar system collapsing inward on its memory. Even as his rays nourish the cultural machine day-to-day, know that he is as interesting as a car crash. As Hunter S. Thompson said on being behind the Iron Curtain: it’s “interesting if its temporary, and terrifying if it’s permanent.” Let’s not get to permanence as we slowly lose bits of ourselves in the interesting.