November 11, 2011

Remembrance Day with Walter Benjamin and PJ Harvey

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.
~ Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
Leading up to Remembrance Day, I've spent a lot of time with Let England Shake, PJ Harvey's Mercury Prize-winning release from earlier this year. For me, it invites the kind of reflections on memory and history that were made by Walter Benjamin. Such an awareness of historical representation seems all the more necessary on a day when we are constantly met with the imperative to "remember." Much of the media recites this platitude as though the task at hand is self-evident, but I think Harvey's album, like the work of Benjamin, draws such rituals of remembrance into question. Remember how? What's at stake in such practices? How do they help construct and inform our current condition?

The celebrated war photographer Seamus Murphy shot a video for each of the album's twelve tracks. Each one is quite remarkable. I've posted several here, but I'd highly recommend searching out all of them.

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