Collapsing Backwards: Of Forgetfulness in Crisis by Nat Muller

At the same time news trickles in that Warren B. Kanders, the controversial vice chairman of the board of trustees of the Whitney Museum and owner of military supply manufacturer Safariland, has resigned.[1] It makes me wonder if there is a silver lining after all in this context of chronic crisis, be it environmental or political. My unease stems from the seeming contradiction of wanting to think of a future when all signs point towards being catapulted backwards. And then there is the incessant expectation from the progressive left – including the politicised and outraged bit of the art world – to find hope, where I find none. Lebanese artist and theorist Walid Sadek writes of hope that it is ”the surrendering of the political to the technicians of politics […] a replacement of the possibility of radical action in the present with a moral belief in personal betterment as a prerequisite for a deferred and essentially undeserved justice to come.”[2]  In other words, betting on hope prevents us from acting in the present moment because we trick ourselves into hoping tomorrow will be better, even if everything screams that tomorrow will never come. 

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, Ali’s Boat, 2014. Video still. All images courtesy of the artist.

Tomorrow will never come because the conception of a future as a temporality distinctively different from the past has been thwarted. For many of those white, privileged men the future is yesterday. The past has become a treasure trove for nostalgic nationalist fantasies: Make America great again! The beginning of a new golden age for our United Kingdom! We have all heard that tiresome and hollow rhetoric before. But how then to devise a way forward when hurled in an opposite direction; how to insist on political agency and the possibility for resistance, change, and vision when so much is crushed. It all sounds quite defeatist. But perhaps defeat is what should be admitted to, so that we can move onwards rather than falling back on tried and tested formulas that do not register in what is an utterly changed and divided world. In an age of blatant identity politics, could forgetfulness open up avenues of possibility? Forget who we are, forget where we came from, forget our struggles, forget what we share, so that the collective “we” I have been stubbornly using dissolves and something new arises. This smacks of being a utopian and rather unrealistic proposition, and yet in times when truth is stranger than fiction, why not? This then seems to be our predicament: torn between a defeatist reality and a utopian impossibility with no middle ground to tread on. Stuck in a memory for a future that never will come to pass and a palliative band-aid of hope to soothe the worst.

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, Ali’s Boat, 2014. Video still. All images courtesy of the artist.

Forgetfulness sounds whimsical indeed, for should we not learn from history and refrain from making the mistakes of the past. Apparently not. There it is again, that same old, same old, same old refrain of power politics, demagoguery, and fearmongering on endless repeat. Wouldn’t it be great to forget it and get rid of all that pointless atavism? Scholar Lyndsey Moore aptly describes this process of a future that wants to be past and therefore cannot viably move on as dyschronotopic: “the future collapses backward into a nightmarish present reality, rather than functioning as a cautionary horizon.”[3] I would add to this that in the current context, it seems increasingly difficult to detect a horizon at all. However, this might be due to the fact that horizons have usually been defined as symbols of hope, pots of gold at the other end of the rainbow that promise something to look forward to. At this temporal and political juncture, it might be useful to consider horizons as a sharp cliff’s edge; something we are approaching at high speed velocity before we fall into the abyss. Nothing to look forward to at all! 

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, Ali’s Boat, 2014. Video still. All images courtesy of the artist.

This all sounds very dystopic and depressing, I hear you mutter. Guilty as charged! I have never been one for boundless optimism in encroaching darkness and for sugar-coating uncomfortable truths. But if forgetfulness is the way to reinvent ourselves unselfishly and forge alliances free from recrimination then let’s remember one thing, if one thing only: pretending all will be alright will not fly. Downplaying the toxic state of the world, be it politically or environmentally, will not get anyone brownie points. In a way, the doom and gloom should be embraced for what it is, lest we forget what is happening in front of our eyes. Here is a plea to forget what is behind us and lies in front of us and to focus on this very moment, because that may be all we have. Being present, fighting for the present, and insisting on the present with all our might is – for now – the best we can do because it means being alive. Here I am reminded of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982, a visceral and poetic memoir of a single day in Beirut during the devastating Israeli siege of West-Beirut in 1982. This war diary teaches us many lessons, but its most poignant one is that survival happens in the present moment, neither in the past nor in the future. Survival and humanity are crystallised in the author’s mundane desire to make a cup of coffee in the morning in-between the shelling. 

How can I diffuse the aroma of coffee into my cells, while shells from the sea rain down from the sea-facing kitchen, spreading the stink of gunpowder and the taste of nothingness? I measure the period between two shells. One second. One second: shorter than the time between breathing in and breathing out, between two heartbeats. One second is long enough for me to stand before the stove by the glass façade that overlooks the sea. One second is long enough to open the water bottle or pour the water into the coffee pot. One second is not long enough to light a match. But one second is long enough for me to burn. [4]

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, Ali’s Boat, 2014. Video still. All images courtesy of the artist.

Ibrahim Muhawi, Darwish’s translator underlines two important issues in his introduction to the publication. Firstly that “[e]xtraordinary conditions foreground the ordinary, and the heroic consists in living every moment to the full.”[5] Secondly, Darwish’s text admits to fear, a sensibility hitherto absent in Palestinian writing.[6] While not comparing Darwish’s war experience and the Palestinian condition of exile with writing from the safety of Western Europe today, I am saying that we are under an ideological siege and that yes, we should be afraid. However, like Darwish’s attempt to insist on humanity and a sliver of normalcy in the most testing of conditions, so must we insist on humanity and fight the dark clouds of authoritarianism that are gathering on the horizon. If we have to remember in order to forget, then let’s remember that we have been here before and normalising injustice is not normal. 

Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, Ali’s Boat, 2014. Video still. All images courtesy of the artist.

Forgetfulness is a strange and contradictory animal. Absence and loss define forgetfulness, which makes the latter all the more obnoxiously present like an aching phantom limb. Still, to construe an imaginary from this painful wreckage of forgetfulness is probably what any political and artistic project ought to be about. Can we do this? Do we have the tools, language, or actual will readily at our disposal? Or do we need to forget more and harder if we want to try and wrestle the many monsters on our path. Wrestling that is, not slaying.  My optimism has been chucked in the bin and I do not have any illusions about an easy exit from the dark past and even darker future that has come to smother us. Time is not on our side; it has fully abandoned us. There is still so much more forgetting to be done. In a way forgetting is what gets Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, no stranger to dictatorial regimes, out of bed. He speaks of an optimism of the will vis-à-vis a continuous failure to change the world.[7] He remains relentlessly hopeful that he can bring around change, though he is always proven wrong. I would like to make the case that forgetfulness is at play here and that his forgetting of failure is precisely that what pushes him to continue.

In closing I return once again to Walid Sadek and his critique of forward-looking histories. For Sadek remembering is always the dynamic labour of selective forgetting.[8] In other words, only certain aspects of past events are remembered in order to serve specific agendas for the future, others are always forgotten. And so, we must forget all to be in the present. We must find solace in the present, not in the past or the future. I hear no sound because I forgot. I see no colour because I forgot. I feel no anger because I forgot. I adhere to no ideolog, because I forgot. I have no enemies because I forgot. Everything seems possible because I forgot. And you? Will you try to forget everything too?

[1]  Cfr. Robin Pogrebin and Elizabeth A. Harris, “Whitney Trustee Warren Kanders Resigns After Protests Over His Company’s Sale of Tear Gas,” New York Times, 25 July, 2019 [last accessed 25 July 2019]

[2] Walid Sadek, “What Job’s Wife Said,” in This Is the Time. This Is the Record of the Time, ed. Angela Harutyunyan and Nat Muller (Beirut: American University of Beirut Press, 2016), 136.

[3] Lindsey Moore, “‘What Happens after Saying No?’ Egyptian Uprisings and Afterwords in Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue and Omar Robert Hamilton’s The City Always Wins,” CounterText 4, no. 2 (2018): 192–211,

[4] Mahmoud Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 6.

[5] Darwish, v.

[6] Darwish, v.

[7] Dominic Rushe, “Art provocateur Alfredo Jaar: ‘I want to change the world. I fail all the time’,” The Guardian, 1 August, 2019, [last accessed 1 August 2019]

[8] Walid Sadek, “The Ruin to Come,” in The Ruin to Come: Essays from a Protracted War (Pully: Motto Books, 2016), 171–89.