The Power of Memory in Democratic Politics

The Power of Memory in Democratic Politics

P. J. Brendese

Personal eBook

University of Rochester Press



Offers an examination of ancient, modern, and contemporary political theories and practices in order to develop a more expansive way of conceptualizing memory, how political power influences the presence of the past, and memory's ongoing impact on democratic horizons.
George Orwell famously argued that those who control the past control the future, and those who control the present control the past. In this study of the relationship between democracy and memory, P. J. Brendese examines Orwell's insight, revealing how political power affects what is available to be remembered, who is allowed to recall the past, and when and where past events can be commemorated. Engaging a diverse panoply of thinkers that includes Sophocles, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, Brendese considers the role of disavowed memory and the politics of collective memory in democratic processes throughout history. Among the cases treated are democracy in ancient Athens, South Africa's effort to transition from apartheid via its landmark Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Mexico's struggle to fortify democratic accountability after the "dirty war," and the unresolved legacy of slavery in US race relations. The Power of Memory in Democratic Politics draws on these national histories to develop a theory of memory that accounts for the ways the past lives on in unconscious, habituated practices, shaping the possibilities of freedom, action, and political imagination.

P. J. Brendese is assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.


234 pages
9x6 in
Personal eBook, 9781782047322, September 2014
Hardback, 9781580464239, September 2014
Library eBook
University of Rochester Press
BISAC POL010000, POL007000
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Coming to Terms with Memory
The Tragedy of Memory: Antigone, Memory, and the Politics of Possibility
Remembering to Forget: Democratizing Memory, Nietzschean Forgetting, and South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Introducing Segregated Memory and Segregated Democracy in America
Remembering What Others Cannot Be Expected to Forget: James Baldwin and Segregated Memory
Making Silence Speak: Toni Morrison and the Beloved Community of Memory
In Memory of Democratic Time: Specters of Mexico's Past and Democracy's Future
The Future of the Past: Unholy Ghosts and Redemptive Possibilities
Imprisoned by the Past: The Complexion of Mass Incarceration
Selected Bibliography


Brendese's book is distinguished by its engagement with the politics of racial memory in the United States. . . . (It) helps us to see the double import of attending to racial injustice and the legacy of slavery: that is, that it is both important and pressing in its own right, and also that our failure to address the persistence of racial injustice (via segregated memory) undermines any attempt to govern ourselves democratically. For these reasons, Brendese's book deserves to be widely read. THEORY & EVENT

Rather than simply argue that forgetting the past dooms us to repeat it, Brendese presents us with an inspired theory of spectral materialism that goes further, by alerting us to the tragic ways that we abandon our democratic ideals when we willfully forget, even if we do this in the name of democracy itself. CONTEMPORARY POLITICAL THEORY "P.J. Brendese's book brilliantly weaves together theoretical issues with developed empirical cases, and with a very good sense for what is politically important. The chapters on the TRC, on race and memory in America, and on Mexico are all exceptionally illuminating. A remarkable achievement." --W. James Booth, Vanderbilt University

"P.J. Brendese has written an exceptional book on one of the central political questions of our time: the relationship between memory and democracy. The volume brilliantly examines how the past is often denied, reclaimed, and transformed in the political process, deeply influencing political identity. Brendese's analysis is nuanced and learned, illuminating the problems in coming to terms with the buried past. An indispensable book for contemporary political theorists." --Cynthia Halpern, Swarthmore College