memorate essay

memorate essay

Essay by Victor Gordon for installation of
– April 17, 2015

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Identity is memory — [but] identities forged out of half remembered things or false memories easily commit transgressions

— José Zalaquett

By inverting commemorate into the emphasis in this installation is on offering an alternative perspective; one that addresses the conflict of 1914–1918, particularly as it affected the local community of Orange and districts, its commitment, opposition and losses during the First World War.

Memorializing Anzac has become a non-negotiable social package, a celebration rather than a commemoration, reiterated annually. It is promoted as the central feature of Australian culture and is considered by many to be the foundational cornerstone of our self-belief as a Nation State. “Their Spirit — Our Pride” is the current official 1914–1918 Anzac theme.

Pride (inordinate self esteem), a “deadly sin” in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is a profoundly inappropriate celebratory response to what should always remain a solemn commemoration of Australia’s losses in the First World War. It is the lives of the men from Orange and district, the volunteer soldiers who died on active service during the First World War, whom we are here to remember. Their remains are geographically scattered across war cemeteries in the many overseas theatres where they fought and died.

If we seek to define our individual or community identity in terms of memory, then symbolically bringing them back home is an authentic manner of relocating them in our memory, here, amidst us. And remembering them and their deaths may assist us in re-evaluating our own identity, especially in relation to armed conflict.

By representing, on the one hand, the backdrop of the vast industrial scale of death in the First World War, and on the other focusing on one individual, Ernest Powter from Orange — the youngest to volunteer at 15 and dead by 16 — a somber sense of the futility of war is proffered.

Ernest’s elder brother Claude also served. He not only survived the conflict but was highly decorated, being awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for personal bravery. But forever after, when he contemplated his exalted military status, he may also have reflected on whether the cost of losing his young brother was worth it.

The business of war, after all, is about killing and being killed; and many in Orange were then, and are still now, opposed to it. One mother not only lamented the untimely death of her own child, but was further profoundly grieved at the thought that her son had perhaps killed the son of another mother. Today it is easy to overlook or forget the shared humanity and empathy of a century ago.

Memorial Culture into the Future

Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari espouse a theory of desire which claims that “trauma produces a libidinal charge” which needs to be channelled, and that when a memorial (like Anzac) is created it can either take the form of an authoritarian (governmental) paranoia or become manifest in a more open-ended manner where the individual relates to the trauma in his or her own unique way. The resurgence of patriotic zeal in Anzac Day celebrations successfully diverts us from addressing less appealing elements of nationhood, including our guilt in the displacement and attempted destruction of the first nations of Australia. By institutionalizing specific commemorations, as happens with Anzac Day, governments shape historical memory and “all the messiness of trauma is rendered manageable.” 1

In relation to the Anzac experience in the First World War, individual commemorations invariably take place within a managed framework of ritual celebration that perpetuate a valorization of violence and war. The conscious shift from commemoration to celebration of Anzac has created a distinctive nationalistic culture of trauma, dominated by an unhealthy militarism. This intentionally results in the broader community, inter alia, unquestioningly accepting Australian military expeditions in unnecessary overseas wars.

The philosopher Paul Russell postulated that if “truth is the main (or first) casualty of war, ambiguity is another … one of the legacies of war is a habit of simple distinction, simplification and opposition … which continues to do much of our thinking for us.” While quoting this, Antjie Krog extends it to mean “that in the past we had no choice but to live by simple … guidelines. But we shouldn’t continue being dictated to by oversimplified credos during peace time. We must make space for ambiguity.”2 By not doing this we become complicit in escalating a patriotic militarism. The historian Manning Clark reflected on “Australia’s day of glory [which] made her a prisoner of her past, rather than an architect of a new future for humanity.” 3

This commemoration honours the men and women who went to war, it laments those who were lost, and it questions the place of militarism in contemporary society. Questions of value and valour are not answered. Instead, as an alternate perspective on the First World War it asks that we reflect on how we commemorate, and why we sanitize our past.

“it seems that, once introduced into public life, evil perpetuates itself, whereas good is always difficult, rare, and fragile. And yet possible.” 4

– Tzvetan Tadorov

Victor Gordon, April 2015

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1. Adrian Parr, Deleuze and Memorial Culture, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2008, p6
2. Antjie Krog, The country of My Skull, Vintage, Random House, London, 2008, p150
3. CMH Clarke, A History of Australia, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1981, V:5. p426
4. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fragility of Goodness, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2001, p40

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