Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Mai 2006

2.2. Models of Victimization in Contemporary Cultures
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The Trap of Memory: Auto-Orientalism as Victimization

Anca Baicoianu (University of Bucharest, Romania)


In a text repeatedly reshaped over a few years and published in 1995 as Les Abus de la mémoire, Tzvetan Todorov makes a clear distinction between "literal memory" and "exemplary memory". The former preserves the uniqueness of past events at the same time assuring a false continuity between past and present protagonists. But the risks implied by such an attitude come from the impossibility to surpass the initial traumas, hence either the tendency to perpetuate one's victim status, in order to obtain this way, consciously or not, a series of material or symbolic privileges, or a range of revengeful behaviours of different intensity and manifestations.

"Exemplary memory" on the other hand is seen to have a liberating potential, for it allows passing from particular to general, from event to pattern. The double operation involved here consists first of all of the "decontamination" of the emotional load invested in the initial event and then of integrating this event into a complex network of analogies and generalizations that ascribe it as an exemplum and allow its subsequent use in a critical manner, opening a real dialogue between the tamed past and the on-going present.

The aim of this paper is firstly to describe the way in which "literal memory" heavily influences the construction of the Romanian historical and cultural identity as the result of a "subaltern perspective" which not only internalises, but also supplements allegedly "metropolitan" (i.e. Western European) attitudes and perceptions. Secondly, I will take into consideration the different strategies by means of which the process of "auto-orientalism" described above could be constructively interpreted and successfully transgressed.


The Trap of Memory: Auto-Orientalism as Victimization

By choosing to speak before you about the temptation of victimization which seems to be typical of Romanian culture, I find myself confronted with a series of specific challenges deriving both from the very nature of my object of study and from the way it relates to the subject.

The first challenge has to do with the constructed, or more likely mediated, character of my research. What I am busying myself with are not material objects, but a particular mentality - or, more precisely, the Romanian culture’s understanding of itself, its significant others, and the world, as deducible from individual and collective discourses, practices, attitudes and options. And, just as this mentality cannot be seized but somehow obliquely, by considering the various forms of expression it is embedded in, my own interpretation of it is biased by my readings and my own frame of mind.

As a consequence, my relationship with the object reveals itself as a paradoxical one: although I belong to the culture I am describing, and therefore my knowledge of it is to a certain extent the result of direct experience, my account necessarily passes through the double filter of discourse, which causes me to speak about something that is, at the same time, myself and my other.

This situation is reinforced by a temporal disruption which brings to the fore a second challenge raised by a research that concerns itself with historical facts. While tracing back a particular attitude that informs my cultural tradition, I must acknowledge the fact that I can only do that from the vantage point of the present.

We are all familiar with the strenuous methodological efforts that have been deployed in order to reconcile the historian’s present (that is, the present of the historiography) with the past of/in history. Based on this previous knowledge, one can identify two concurrent demands the kind of analysis I am engaging in must meet, in so far as it can be legitimately, although not completely, inscribed within the realm of the history (or, should I say, genealogy) of mentalities.

What is required of any historiography (in however "soft" an understanding of the term) is to make sense of past events - or, in other words, to be a quest for truth under the guise of a coherent narrative. As a function of the privileged term in this working definition, one can distinguish between textual and contextual approaches to history. If the former are present-oriented and subject-based, favouring the narration over the event, the latter insist upon preserving the unique, autonomous quality of the object, and try to keep from imposing on it present categories, modes of thought and organizing principles.

I would like to resist as best as I can being forced into one of these camps. I don’t believe we can equal history (and history writing, respectively) either with a "hard core of facts" surrounded by a "pulp of disreputable interpretation" or with a "hard core of interpretation surrounded by a pulp of disreputable facts", as E.H. Carr puts it. Instead, I would rather think of it as a constant negotiation between event and description, each of them a reality in its own right.

This is why, to reinterpret the Romanian cultural identity as a result of a self-orientalizing perspective does not amount to decontextualizing significant moments and instances and confining them within the boundaries of a continuous, coherent and self-sufficient story. On the contrary, it is more like trying to go beyond the smooth surface of tradition in order to uncover the constitutive tensions and discontinuities underlying it. I understand to benefit from my acknowledged positioning in a present extraneous, but not foreign to the past I am about to reconstruct by making full use of the conceptual tools and means of critical inquiry that would allow me to deal with, to comprehend, and ultimately to avoid perpetrating a certain model of cultural behaviour.

In doing so, I will favour implicitly a technology of memory largely different from the one responsible for the stability of this model. To distinguish between the two, I will refer to Todorov’s discussion of "literal" and "exemplary" memory, respectively . The former preserves the uniqueness of past events while at the same time assuring a false continuity between past and present protagonists. But the risks implied by such an attitude come from the impossibility to surpass the initial traumas, hence either the tendency to perpetuate one's victim status, in order to obtain this way, consciously or not, a series of material or symbolic privileges, or a range of revengeful behaviours of different intensity and manifestations.

"Exemplary memory" on the other hand is seen to have a liberating potential, for it allows passing from particular to general, from event to pattern. The double operation involved here consists first of all of the "decontamination" of the emotional load invested in the initial event, and then of integrating this event into a complex network of analogies and generalizations that ascribe it as an exemplum and allow its subsequent use in a critical manner, opening a real dialogue between the tamed past and the on-going present.

In Todorov's view, once the data concerning the past have been selected, they are to undergo a process of interpretation oriented mainly towards the usefulness of the acquired information for the present and for the future. That the act of "rememoration" implies both selection and evaluation has long since ceased to be subject to serious questioning and one could wonder about the necessity of such a statement. But what Todorov aims at is actually the intentional quality of the whole process, the importance of memories as individual and social shifters, and he does it not from a pragmatist, but rather from a moral position, the ultimate goal of this enterprise being, as he puts it, a search not for the Truth, but for the Good. Taking this distinction into consideration, Todorov defines the task of all those interested in recovering the past as follows: "The work of historians, like all those related to the past, never consists only of establishing facts, but of choosing some of them as more striking and significant than others, of establishing relations between them; or, this work of selection and combination is necessarily oriented not by the search for truth, but for the good" . Such a categorical distinction between truth and good can give birth to many reservations; still, it can be read not only in the imperative terms of the choice between the alethiological and axiological dimensions of the process of "history making", but also from the point of view of the need to negotiate a truth that is not given, but must be constantly rebuilt and reasserted. Of course, this does not require falsifying data from the past; rather, it is a selection of the values it offers, a "reinvention of tradition" from the point of view of current needs: " A construction becomes an accepted and acknowledged truth only as far as it turns to best account the kairos , the right moment, the time of action, the seized occasion, outstanding meeting between the time of the subject and the historical time of society" .

We live now at a time where political and economic reshaping calls for a correspondent redefinition of cultural traditions. And if these are made not only of what we remember about ourselves, but also of the way we choose to remember it, the Romanian culture’s manifest preference for the mode of "literal memory" can be said to have heavily influenced its presentation of itself as a continuum of heroic resistance and lost opportunities.

This preference, and the subsequent sense of victimization it engenders, is in fact meant to conceal a particular way of being in history that I would define as fear of agency. With a few significant exceptions, the Romanians have always been slow at taking their chances, and at the same time resentful of their own inertia. This suspicion towards the making of history, doubled by the eagerness to play a part in the process, triggers one of the constitutive tensions within the Romanian cultural identity.

These contradictory impulses result into prolonging a pre-modern understanding of history as fatum. To keep on repeating that "it is not history who submits to the will of men, but the men who submit to the will of history" is in fact trying to provide a philosophical justification for a general lack of affirmative action, and a discursive strategy devised in order to avoid taking full responsibility for one’s political as well as cultural options. Or, to put it more cynically, looking at history as something that is bestowed upon you saves you the trouble of trying to change it.

This voluntary stepping out of one’s own history has the advantage, if advantage there is, to interpret the unwanted consequences of personal or collective decisions as historical mistreatments. But one of its most pernicious side-effects is to bring about a worldview informed by a self-imposed subaltern perspective.

Before getting to briefly unfold it, I need to point out that the particular understanding of history on which it is based was in fact perfectly legitimate at a certain moment in time, within the medieval conceptual framework. It is not my intention to challenge it on that ground, or to deny its relevance as an adequate representation of a world painstakingly aware of its own insecurity and transience. What I am criticizing instead is its gradual turning into a mere effet de discours which, when artificially perpetuated by constant reassertion under the guise of a universal truth, ultimately blurs the reality it is meant to represent. My aim is, therefore, to sidestep the "prison-house of language" (Jameson) or "the endless mill of speech" (Foucault) which capitalizes on the victim status at the cost of a departure from reality.

This reality bears the imprint of a particular space and temporality, and it reveals a particular way of experiencing them. A space of "in-between peripherality" (Totosy), a border ground at the confines of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, a temporality disrupted by the constant prospect of backwardness shape the distinct profile of a culture defining itself in relationship with its multiple others.

As a consequence, the complementary topoi of isolation (Romanians are a Latin island in a Slavic sea, Romanians are the safe-keepers of the Byzantine legacy threatened by the influence of both the Hungarian and Polish Catholic kingdoms and the Muslim Ottoman Empire) and openness (Romania is at the crossroads of "worlds" and world-views) melted into the idea of Romanian uniqueness.

It is not in the least surprising that such an idea had to be refined and turned not into a mere marker, but a framework of Romanian identity during the 19th century, in close relationship with the coming into being of the nation-state. However, its conditions of possibility were created long before that, as I will try to prove below.

The awareness of the fact that people speaking the same language, performing the same rituals and having a common origin, but belonging to different, oftentimes hostile, administrative and political entities, made it an important task for early historiographers to point out an illustrious past, thus trying to compensate for the shortcomings of the present.

The idea of uniqueness is developed on three major coordinates: geographic, historical and cultural. From the geographic point of view, there is a strong emphasis on Romania's strategic position as a "turning point" between the Orient and the Occident, and, when necessary, as a defence line against all invasions.

Imagined geography locates the (ideal) territory of Romania between the natural borders of the Dniester, the Theiss, the Danube and the Black Sea, with the Carpathian range as its spine, a unifying, rather than separating, area between the provinces (I have brought together a series of widely spread clichés of Romanian collective imagery). Romania is repeatedly singled out by underlining the diversity of its relief and the abundance of its natural resources.

In its turn, the illustrious origin of the Romanians is obsessively recurrent in historiographic writings. The double descent, heroic and civilizing, is called upon to claim superiority over the closest neighbours and to legitimate Romania's position as a rightful member of the European choir of nations.

Most often than not historically and existentially justified by the need to resist foreign pressure, this kind of rhetoric has sometimes led to painful exaggerations, symptom of an identity uncertainty overemphasized by the looseness of frontiers, regimes and rules. The positioning in an area of interference where different, often conflicting sets of values and attitudes meet and mingle has caused the collective imagery to build the historical past according to an agonic model, one of perpetual resistance against the expansionist impulses of the neighbouring empires (or states).

Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that, although the Latin origin of Romanians and the genealogic, linguistic and spiritual identity of the inhabitants of former Dacia were a constant of the historiographic discourse, their individualizing function became a fact only at the beginning of the 19th century, increasing evermore afterwards.

The common Byzantine heritage of the area, the ever present Ottoman threat, even in the calmer periods of peace, and the extensive use of Latin and Greek as cultural idioms, and of Church Slavonic as worship language all over the Balkan Peninsula worked, if not as cohesive factors, at least as a way of levelling the differences. In the 16th and 17th centuries, historiographic writings convey a feeling of relative identity comfort, historic shortcomings were distributed by the hand of fate, and the middle position in the regional hierarchy (between economically and politically superior Poland and Russia, with its alleged rudeness and unexplainable excesses) is perceived as natural, without causing any complexes.

The ever increasing feeling of isolation that turned the idea of uniqueness into a true framework of Romanian identity took place as a reaction against competing identity projects, nourished by the new national ideologies. The hypothetic threat of pan-Slavism was answered with a powerful reassertion of Latinity seen as a legitimate way into a Europe that had actually never been left. The 19th century thus witnesses a decisive turn towards the Western values and models, and the Romanian culture experiences a process of reshaping along the lines allegedly designed by the metropolitan eye/I. Under what it considers to be the gaze of the Centre, it self-orientalizes itself.

But if Eastern Europe, as it has been said, is a construction of the West, this also works the other way around. Invested with all the attributes of a model, the Occident becomes an ideal, and the attempts to reach it are marked by a specific pathos. European identity is projected as a positive utopia, a flawless identity, generating a tragic sensation of inadequacy. By contrasting itself to an imagined Europe, the Romanian identity (re)discovers, anguished, its constitutive tension ; measuring against Western standards had not helped to soothe, but had sharpened the conflict instead. Unable to find its own pace and constantly fearing to be "left out", the Romanian culture struggles to achieve a however fragile balance between its specificity and a longing for integration.

But for that to happen, a kind of critical scrutiny is required which would resist the temptation of dimming the discontinuities and filling the gaps. Internal disruptions need not so much solving as facing and accepting, and maybe this will keep so many Romanians from thinking that, since they have no particular reasons for being proud of their "Romanianness", they could just as well be ashamed of it. I am neither proud, nor ashamed of being a Romanian, just as I am neither proud, nor ashamed of being a woman. My worry is of a different nature: being what I am, how can I phrase my own experience so that the others could benefit from it?

© Anca Baicoianu (University of Bucharest, Romania)


Sorin Alexandrescu, Paradoxul român [The Romanian paradox] (Bucharest: Univers, 1998)

E.H. Carr, What is History (London: Penguin, 1986, 2nd edition)

Mircea Martin, G. Călinescu şi complexele literaturii române [G. Calinescu and the complexes of Romanian literature] (Bucharest: Albatros, 1981)

Jacques le Rider, Europa Centrală şi paradoxul fragilităţii (L’Europe Centrale ou le paradoxe de la fragilité ), trad. Izabella Badiu, Dana Chetrinescu, Ilinca Ilian (Iaşi: Polirom, 2001)

Tzvetan Todorov, Les Abus de la mémoire (Paris: Arlée, 1995)

2.2. Models of Victimization in Contemporary Cultures

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For quotation purposes:
Anca Baicoianu (University of Bucharest, Romania): The Trap of Memory: Auto-Orientalism as Victimization. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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