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Remembering the Future

William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer started it all, launching the cyberpunk generation and introducing the world to cyberspace. The main character of the novel, Case, was the hottest computer cowboy cruising the information superhighway – jacking his consciousness into cyberspace, rustling encoded secrets for anyone with the money to buy his skills. Then he double-crossed the wrong people, who caught up with him in a big way and burned the talent out of his brain, micron by micron. Banished from cyberspace, trapped in the flesh of his physical body, Case courted death in the high-tech underworld. Until a shadowy conspiracy offered him a second chance…

Does Second Life mean a second chance for my own country, Estonia? I don’t think so. For small countries it is crucial to be visible in the everchanging world. Using the words of the American linguist Noam Chomsky we should always be aware that one can’t stand still on a moving train. Therefore I regard Second Life rather as one possibility amongst many others to reach where a small nation usually never gets in our physical world. I would like to see it as a gateway between the past and the future, a possibility by which we can remember the future. How would it be possible?

Historians who are supposed to be specialists in the affairs of the Past, are always being asked to speculate about the Future. Moreover, one is inevitably led into the curious field of „the future in the past”. That is into the everchanging panorama of predictions and analysis which were made in a Present that no longer exists. To review these predictions and analyses can be a humbling experience. One is forcefully reminded of long-forgotten circumstances that clouded, or at least influenced, one’s judgement. And one can occasionally be surprised by the pleasant realisation that on one point or two the prediction was accuarate.

The use of the term „History” in popular parlance means often „dead and gone, irrelevant, passé” as in the classic line from a popular 1980s television series Miami Vice: „Drop that gun or you’re history!”. Knowledge of history has surely always been in the main one of two things. A cultural luxury goods having something of the status of an acquired taste, or else a would-be- instrument for forwarding the interests and assisting in the work of actual or prospective rulers.

In the absence of grand narrative, able to give space and meaning to historical particulars, historical unknowingness becomes something like the normal human position. Historical unknowingness negates history by declaring historical knowledge to be irrelevant to the life of the present and future. To put it another way – it’s easy to imagine that we ought to remember the past. But we do not remember the past. It is the present that we remember. That is we construct or reconstruct it on the basis of certain critical procedures. The relevant motto is: remember the present, think the past and form the future. According to William Gibson: „History can save your ass”.

Speaking about remembering the future one should also ask – who owns history? This question is actually not entirely correct because what is really being asked is – who has the right to control what „we” remember about the past? The demand that the past should be remembered in the right way is an insistent one, and historians are expected to do their part by those who pay them and by those who feel that their own political, social and cultural imperatives are the deserving ones.

We should also acknowledge that in many situations people suffer not from a deficit of history but from too much of it. Most notably the „memory” of allegedly ancient conflicts often feeds into and intensifies violent conflict in the present. When „past” comes up against „past” in such situations, people are all too often stuck in contest of memories, i.e. without issue and that cannot be adjudicated in any clear way. In many cases the contests are unresolvable. One group „remembers” in this way, another in that way. But what is more important is that these contests are, or ought to be, irrelevant to whatever real issues lie at hand. The real issues almost always pertain not to ancestral conflicts, real or imagined, but to differences in the present and in the recent past.

I think that one cannot have a memory of the past without, at the same time, mourning a certain number of illusions, but also of hatred, or of love lost. The idea of loss is important: there are no people in Europe today who cannot complain of having lost something. Let’s say that to mourn is to learn to narrate otherwise. To narrate otherwise what one has done, what one has suffered, what one has gained and what one has lost. The idea of loss is fundamental to life. To live with loss, to mourn someone or something that was lost – this also means forgiving oneself. Reconciliation consists in exchanging roles: each party abandons its claim to be the only one occupying the train. Thus each party must renounce something. This is difficult to implement in the real life but it is of utmost importance in the process of remembering the future.

Every nation has its formative moments, periods when new metamorphoses are launched, when individuals and groups tell new stories about themselves and when new sets of rules emerge through which identities are classified. Concerning Estonian history, one of these formative moments took place between 1918 and 2004 and had the phases of emergence (1918-1939), oblivion (1940-1991) and rebirth (1991-2004). We should take into account that the last phase may not have ended yet.

Hence history has assigned the task of creating and sustaining identities of various kinds, making „us” who we are. Crucial to this task is the related enterprise of commemorating the actions and sufferings of the groups that are thus identified.

In order to find out whether a particular constitutive story is a valid description of us, it must first be tested in interaction with others. Confirmation of stories of the self cannot be given by just anybody, but only by those others whom the self recognizes and respects as being of a kind with itself. To a state the circle of major importance will therefore be made up of other states.

Special attention should be paid to cases when others deny recognition to the self’s constitutive stories. In this case, the stories itself have three options: to accept stories told about it by others, to abandon the stories that are not recognised in favor of others or to stand by the original story and to try to convince the audience that it in fact does apply. Thus, while the first two options mean that we accept the definitions forced upon us by others, the third option means that we force our own definition upon someone else.

Meetings with „the other” have a timely, historical dimension, in as much as the other, because of its associations with death, that ultimate other whose coming is certain, define the future. Until we learn how to recognise ourselves as the Other, we will be in danger and we shall be in need of diplomacy. This is important because the confrontation with others causes fragility in that the other is truly different and this difference is a threat to collective as well as individual identity. Therefore one must know how to tell one’s story as seen by others. This is to say, for me to let myself be narrated by the other.

History’s focus on what is dead and gone not only offers us alternative concepts concerning how we might think and live. It also very often offers a respite from the instant demand that the results of the inquiry into the human world be tailored to the political demands of the moment.

The 21st century world is far more dynamic and fluid than the relatively stable and predictable period of the cold war. Such uncertainty will make the practice of foreign policy more, not less, difficult. The world is being overtaken by a highly complex network of networks, each consisting of interconnected and partially interlocking organisations. This sort of set-up is very different from the old system of rival blocs and alliances where a country had to belong either to one group or the other.

Alliances require predictability – of outlook, obligations and threat. But it is precisely this characteristic that is likely to be in short supply in a world defined by shifting threats, differing perceptions and societies with widely divergent readiness to maintain and use military force.

Perhaps the main source of optimism lies in the existence of the European Union. Unfortunately the most positive aspect of the EU is seldom noticed. It is obscured by the misplaced obsession with purely economic considerations. But it gives a place in the sun to Europe’s smaller and middle-sized nations. There’s a lot to be said about being small. Small countries generally don’t start wars. They usually don’t have the arrogance of larger states. There are also disadvantages. Taking the EU, for instance, will only move forward if there is a strategic coalition of the willing that includes the key big states and at least some small countries. Nothing will happen unless the big countries agree to it. This is a moment of opportunity for any small European country prepared to think big. It is my sincere hope that my own country, Estonia, is ready for that.

Actor John Wayne has written: „There’s a lot of things great about life. But I think tomorrow is the most important thing. Comes in to us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday”. It is easy to remember the past – it has already happened and you cannot change it. We can, however, change the present and the future. In fact, we are living in the days of future’s past – something we call „the present”. We must remember that we have a future and our decisions affect it. Do not forget your past, be aware of the present, but remember the future.

 

Source: The Foreign Ministry of Estonia

About Margus Laidre

Ambasador Estonii w Wielkiej Brytanii.