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The Moral Demands of MemoryReview - The Moral Demands of Memory
by Jeffrey Blustein
Cambridge University Press, 2008
Review by Sarah Scott
Sep 9th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 37)

Jeffrey Blustein begins his latest work by explaining his personal and philosophic reasons for writing on memory. After the death of his father he became worried about a duty to remember, and noticed that, while much has been written on memory from the point of view of continental philosophy and psychoanalysis, few analytic philosophers have dealt with the topic. This sets the tone for a richly rewarding investigation of the moral demands of memory that weaves concrete, personalizing examples with systematic philosophic analysis. Though Blustein does not presuppose knowledge of technical terms and writes in an accessible manner, this is still an academic book best suited to those with some exposure to philosophic language and concerns. That said, Blustein draws on such a range of literary and philosophic sources - and spends just enough time touching on each one - that both psychoanalysts and continental philosophers will be at home reading his work. The first chapter draws on Nietzsche’s analysis of the various types of relations to the past to articulate a ‘virtue of remembrance,’ in which one remembers neither too much nor too little. Specific instances calling for such a virtue are the focus of the rest of the book, which deals with personal memory, including taking responsibility for one’s past and for who one was, collective memory and its expression in public life, including the need for public recognition of past wrongs, and such phenomena as remembering the dead and bearing witness. One of the best features of the book is the way that it explores the complex relationship between personal and collective memory. Numerous interesting discussions regarding the nature of collective memory, the intersubjective quality of acts of remembrance, and the relationship between history, myth and truth take us beyond purely moral evaluation.

Blustein uses two rubrics to judge moral demands: a consequentialist defense of the state of affairs such acts will lead to, and more interestingly, an expressivist account, where acts are understood to be morally worthy to the extent that they appropriately express fitting values. Blustein argues that our identity is the source of many of our values, and that memory shores up both our identity and the values that stem from it. Though I agree with his assessment, I wish Blustein had spent more time explaining the intrinsic value of expression and the ways in which identity engenders values. As a teacher I can imagine my students raising numerous questions. While most readers easily accept consequentialist arguments, expressivist accounts are less intuitive, and introducing identity as a primary source of values can raise worries for those who do not see how this apparent subjectivism can be reconciled with demands that there be an objective criteria for moral claims. Often Blustein simply proclaims that this is neither the time nor place to make these types of arguments. While this keeps the book moving, it can be frustrating for both those new to the subject matter and philosophically inclined readers used to careful argumentation.

One view that Blustein must defend against is the commonplace notion that moral actions imply an ability to voluntarily carry them out, and that such things as memory and the extent to which we care and value loved ones are beyond our control. While Blustein is sensitive to the ways in which we are determined by social and other factors, he argues not only that we have a certain amount of control over our memory, but that as it is primarily through memory that we preserve and express our values, who and what we value is also subject to our agency. Along these lines Blustein discusses many techniques that are consciously used to protect memory from the passage of time, including rituals, public memorials, the passing on of myths, and the retelling of personal and collective histories. I would have liked to see this section touch on the philosophic and religious literature detailing the moral significance of the ‘arts of memory’ practiced during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but Blustein stays within the confines of modern thought.

In the last two chapters Blustein brings in remembering the dead and witnessing and testifying to past injustice as examples of the ways in which acts of remembrance can fulfill manifold moral demands. In addition to the psychic healing that giving voice to suffering and injustice may bring, publicly narrating events can serve to ward off a desire to forget and repress past deeds. Acts of remembrance preserve and consolidate memory, while the fact that one remembers at all expresses various values. Narrating past injustice, independent of whatever instrumental purposes it may serve, intrinsically works to correct injustice by proclaiming the value of those who suffered, the right of their story to be heard, and their membership within the moral community. Similarly, Blustein identifies three non-consequentialist moral demands that appropriately remembering departed loved ones can fulfill. Through memory we rescue the departed from insignificance, fulfill enduring duties to them, and, assuming that we want to continue being valued and remembered after our death, keep ourselves from violating demands of reciprocity and consistency. By explaining what it means to have a responsibility to someone who is no longer living, and the ways in which the expression of values, attitudes and relationships have moral significance, Blustein expands the range of moral thought.

It is both a virtue and a flaw of this book that each chapter can be read as a stand-alone paper. Though each section gives the reader the framework needed to appreciate it, Blustein is often stuck repeating arguments. Likewise he occasionally asks the reader to follow him in making a philosophic distinction, such as that between ethics and morality, only to proclaim in a later chapter that he is setting aside such terms and viewpoints. These are minor annoyances however, for the range of sources and skillful handling of previously undiscussed topics renders The Moral Demands of Memory a valuable contribution to the field of ethics and memory studies that deserves to be read by a wide audience.

© 2008 Sarah Scott

Sarah Scott is currently writing her dissertation for the New School of Social Research on the dialogic ethics of Martin Buber. As an adjunct she teaches ethics, aesthetics, logic and introductory philosophy courses at Eugene Lang College, Brooklyn College and the College of Staten Island. She may be reached at Scots087@newschool.edu.


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