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Vindictive Memories Agamben

[please don't circulate]

Vindictive Memories by Giorgio Agamben

The Italian political class, by rejecting any possibility of an amnesty for offenses committed during the "years of lead", sentences itself to ill-feeling: what should be object of historical investigation is treated as a current political problem.

Like many categories and institutions of modern democracy, amnesty can also be traced back to athenian democracy. In 403 AD, in fact, after having overthrown the bloody oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants, the victorious democratic party gave a sworn guarantee in which they committed themselves to "set aside ill-feeling" (me mnesikakei, meaning literally "to not remember wrongs, to not have bad memories" "not to remember past evils") towards one's opponents. By doing this the democrats recognized that there had been a stasis, a civil war and that a moment not-remembering, of "amnesty", was now needed so as to reconcile the city. In spite of the opposition of the more fractious, whom, such as Lisa, demanded punishment for the Thirty, the oath was effective and the athenians would not forget what had happened but suspended their "bad memories" and let ill-feeling go. It wasn't so much a matter, if we look closely, of memory and forgetfulness as much as knowing how to select the moments of their exercise.

Removals/Clsore Why is it so difficult to talk of amnesty in Italy today? Why does the italian political class, so many years after the years of lead, continue to live in a state of ill-feeling, mnesikakein? What prevents the country from freeing itself of its "bad memories"? The reasons for this uneasiness are complex, but I believe one can risk an answer.

The italian political class, with just a couple of exceptions, has never admitted that in Italy there was something akin to a civil war, nor conceded that the conflict of the years of lead had a genuinely political character. Thus the crimes committed during those years were, and remain, common law crimes. This thesis, clearly arguable on a historical level, would nevertheless be legitimate if it wasn't refuted by an obvious contradiction. Because in order to clamp down on these common criminal offenses, this same political class took recourse to a series of of exceptional laws which severely limited constitutional freedoms and introduced principles into the legal order which had always been considered extraneous to it. Almost all those convicted were investigated and tried on the basis of these special laws. But the most incredible thing is that these laws are still in application and throw a sinister cloud over the life of our democratic institutions. We live in a country which claims to be "normal", yet in which anyone who has a friend stay in their own home without declaring their presence to the police risks serious criminal punishment.

The veiled state of exception in which this country has been living for nearly twenty years has so deeply corrupted the civil consciousness of the italian people, that, instead of protesting and resisting, they would rather depend upon the police's inertia and their neighbors pact of silence. It seems fair to recall - without claiming anything other than a formal analogy - that the Verordnung zum Schutz von Volk und Staat, issued by the german government on the 28 february 1933, which suspended those articles of the german constitution concerning personal freedom, freedom of assembly, inviolability of the home, and the privacy of postal correspondence and telephone conversations, it remained in application until the end of the Third Reich, that is thirteen years; our emergency laws and related police powers have far surpassed this duration.

Ill-feeling No surprise then that our political class cannot think of amnesty, cannot set aside its own "bad memories". It is condemned to ill-feeling, because in Italy the exception has truly become the rule, normal country and exceptional country, past history and current reality have become indistinguishable. As a consequence, that which ought to be the subject of memory and historical investigation, are treated as a current political problem (authorizing the maintenance of special legislation and the emergency culture) and that which ought to be object of a political decision (amnesty) is instead treated like a problem of historical memory. The incapacity to think that seems to afflict the italian political class and, with it, the whole country, also depends on this malign conjunction of wicked forgetfulness and wicked memory, such that they seek to forget when they should remember and are forced to remember when they should know how to forget. In any case, amnesty and the repeal of special legislation are two sides of a single reality and can only be considered together. But in order to do this it will be necessary for Italians learn once again how to use memory and forgetting well.