History is dead

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History is dead


The latest controversy over state-authored history textbooks reminded me of Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher who declared, “God is dead.” I wouldn’t dare to say I understand Nietzsche well, but I want to change the quote to “History is dead.” The living are pathetically fighting over dead history.

In the world with no god, the human has to become “superman.” In “Zarathustra,” Nietzsche said, “Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman - a rope over an abyss. A dangerous across, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and stopping.”

Europe’s acclaimed contemporary sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote in “State of Crisis,” “The stuff of which Nietzsche’s rope is braided is what in its raw state we call ‘history’.” He explained, “It is the act of being entwined that recycles the yarn into a rope that can be fastened, this is precisely what the collective memory is currently doing.” He further argued, “Though the selection of poles to which it should be fastened depends on the rope-makers rather than the yarn they use … With due effort, one can fasten the rope to a wide variety of poles, thereby making of historical memory an ally in converting people to one’s cause - while using self-fulling and self-defeating capacities of prophecies to co-opt people’s action into the service of cause.”

The current situation in Korea is exactly what Bauman is talking about. According to Bauman’s analogy, Korea is standing on the rope of history between the people who wish to write history as they wish and those who want to include only that version in the history textbooks for our children.

At the center of the rope are the people who entwined the yarn, leading the followers. The ruling party unconditionally embraces the will of the president and force and package the party’s position through a belated meeting. The opposition party is partially responsible for the fiasco yet raises the banner of ideological phrases like “Japanese collaborators” and “restoration.” To them, history is a mere tool that can be manipulated to give legitimacy to those in power or wish to seize power.

Walter Benjamin said, “History is always written by the victors, which leaves it open to be manipulated and ordered from the point of view of the observers.”

However, history is dead. In “State of Crisis,” co-author Carlo Bordon wrote that today’s winners are no longer allowed to have history favorable to them. Thanks to the speed of information distribution, everyone knows one another too well. He even said, “History has made the news and so it is more and more immediate, objective, but also short-lived. It is easy to forget and replace with the next piece of news, in a rapid process that loss sight of the whole and therefore offers an image that is still topical, vivid but fragmented, incoherent and contradictory.”

It is an outstanding insight, considering the far-right regime of our neighbor’s attempts to selectively forget the history of sacrificing women in colonies as sex slaves for the invading forces and cover up the history of massacre with money despite numerous records and photographs. Japan’s history and Korea’s history are not much different.

What I mean to say is that we need to be honest. We all know that in the modern and contemporary history of Korea, the contents that the conservatives and the liberals work so hard to highlight are all part of history. There were Japanese collaborators and anti-Japanese fighters. There was growth and dictatorship. The Republic of Korea was established, and so was North Korea. Both the proud and the shameful parts are Korean history. Picking and choosing won’t change history. So history is dead, and it cannot be on anyone’s side.

But the history of the future is alive. And it depends on us how to make history. Nietzsche said, “What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal.” There are so much to do other than manipulating history, and we don’t have time to look back and meddle with it.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 17, Page 26


*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Hoon-beom

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