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My History, Our History

Among the many rich seams that emerged from the Conflict and Community workshop, one phase especially relevant to commemoration sticks with me: ‘my history in your history’. It arose from the discussion, I think, of Hannah Arendt, speaking as Jew to Germans on being awarded the Lessing Prize in Hamburg in 1959. While there’s more in Arendt’s moving and dense reflection, this phrase does work as a useful place from which to think about the relationship between heterogeneity, the social and acts of remembrance.

At first, it made me worry: surely ‘my history in your history’ simply repeats the opposition found in strong forms of identity politics. Mine against Yours even if Mine is inside Yours.

And again, surely no history is simply ‘My history…’? History, even the most solitary autobiography, involves others, invokes a world (a psychiatrist friend of mine often cites Winnicott: ‘there’s no such thing as a baby’ – a baby exists only in a world of mothers, others, family, and so on). On the other hand, ‘my’ is often the way of claiming a voice.

So I began to play with the phrase in my mind. Could there be ‘our history in your history’? Yes, but still too oppositional. What about ‘My history in Our history’?  This introduces the issue of who ‘we’ are – the whole problem really. Somewhere Derrida offers an elegant, true but – I sometimes think – slightly easy solution to this: the ‘we’ is those of us, at least, reading this text, now.  (There’s more to Derrida, too, than this shall we say, sleight-of-hand: in his memorial for Lyotard, in The Work of Mourning – I was looking for the quotation – he does offer a more profound reflection on ‘we’).

Does ‘My history in Our history’ risk subsuming the ‘my’ into the ‘our’, as if adding all the Mys we could make one huge Our? Perhaps: but it also pushes back against the ‘we’. My in Our oscillates between a voice for ‘me’ and a possibility of ‘us’.

I thought about this, too, the next day, attending the Remembrance Service close to where I live, in Streatham in South London. The service had veteran associations, the local MP and other dignitaries, scouts groups, and so on. And it was organised and introduced by a Rabbi; the service was led by a priest from the local Swaminarayan Satsang temple (and last year, by a local Imam); the tea and biscuits afterwards was held in the nearby Catholic Church. From the speaker, I learned that India provided the largest ever volunteer army, 2.5 million service personnel, during the Second World War: his history in our (us all, gathered there, at least) history.

No one moment ushers in a solution. But, standing in the cold, I couldn’t help think about how, just for an hour or so, this service in a corner of South London did ‘My history in Our history’ in an unfussy and rather moving way: allowing for many different ‘mes’, and showing, for a moment, in and by our assembly, an ‘us’.

You can watch the panellists’ presentations from the workshop here.


Robert Eaglestone

Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought

Royal Holloway, University of London