Reopening the Question of Memory: Ambivalence and Difficult Returns
While Fran^oise David’s comment cites emotional proximity as a hindrance to claiming a memorial narrative of emblemization, I suggest that this proximity may be read, instead, as indicative of how difficult (emotionally, politically, socially, publicly, etc.) yet necessary it is to face Lepine’s accusatory hatred of feminists (feminism) as a reason for murder. Perhaps this is how the next decade of public remembrance practices might be oriented: not as a displacement of the memory of the victims but, rather, as a layering of what constitutes the massacre’s legacy in Canada. This means beginning to come to terms with the massacre as the difficult return of a series of losses that include, but are not limited to, the lives of the women Lepine murdered. To publicly remember the massacre as a loss is to face the social wounds it has inflicted—to prevailing notions of Canadian civil humanity, to feminism as a tolerated set of discourses, to liberal claims of gender equality, to universities as “safe places”— to name only the most obvious.
A rare exception in tenth anniversary coverage—two columns by Nathalie Petrowksi, a reporter for La Presse—offers resonant gestures towards one aspect of what it might mean to face the memory of the massacre as a difficult return of multiple losses. These columns are remarkable not only for their distinct rumination on the men who left the classroom that Lepine first entered at the Poly but also for the particular questions they raise about this leaving. Petrowski writes: “Between the victims and the assassin, there was not nothing. There was a handful of young men [approximately fifty] who didn’t react and whose passivity we never questioned, nor even analyzed, when it would have been in our every interest to do so” (La Presse, 7 December 1999, translation). Petrowski goes on to note that, although panicked and distressed, these students (and I would add the two professors) were not held hostage; once they left the room, they were out of Lepine’s sight and immediate reach.
While Petrowski’s analysis initially concerns itself with why these men did not attempt to protect the women in their class, her closing remarks are pointed and, I think, much more productive. She writes:
We have never appealed to people’s public-spiritedness, nor to their personal responsibility, nor to their instinct to protect human life. Never have we said to people that indifference is also a form of violence… .Ten years later, the story is still the same: that of a murderer and his fourteen victims. Between the two, we obstinately continue to believe that there was nothing and nobody. Ten years later, it is still the same terrible reality we are fleeing. (La Presse, 7 December 1999, translation, emphasis mine)
What Petrowski gestures to here is one of the central difficulties of remembering the massacre, a difficulty that continues to rupture emblematic memory as fully explanatory or consoling—namely, while Lepine was motivated by identity-based hatreds, public memory of the massacre and its legacy is horribly foreclosed when remembrance (through emblemization) is bound too tightly to already constituted identity categories in which “women” are readily aligned with “the fourteen victims” and “men” with their killer, “Lepine.” As Wendy Brown (2001, 39) argues, “identitarian political projects are very real effects of late modern modalities of power.. .[but] they are symptoms of a certain fragmentation of suffering, and of suffering lived as identity rather than general injustice or domination. suffering that cannot be resolved at the identitarian level.”
It is on these terms that I want to argue for ambivalence, as a resource, in the public memory of the Montreal massacre. In other words, I want to attend to what is displaced by an emblematic reading (differences, the complexities of identification, anti-feminism, what it means to be bound to others through a trauma). I want to call for a suspension of prevailing feminist investments in the pedagogy of memory as a strategic practice, with its socio-political accents and its emphasis on remembering to educate “others.” This was an understandable reading during the late 1980s and early 1990s, constituted as it was by the urgency of contesting the “madman” interpretation and the broader socio-political climate within which feminist concerns about “violence against women” were barely registering. However, more than twelve years later, the stark and difficult reality is that an emblematic reading, and strategic memorial practices such as gun control legislation and a federally declared day of memory, have neither secured a decrease in violence nor opened to scrutiny the precepts of moving on, healing, progress, and so on that diminish what might be learned from—and what needs to be faced in the memory of—the 1989 murders at the Poly.
It is in this regard that I find the second of Petrowski’s columns so pertinent to an endeavour to face the massacre as a difficult return. She writes: “I may not have written it on Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean I think it any less. If I had been at Poly on December 6th, I would have fled as well. Would I have been right to do so? That is my question” (La Presse, 9 December 1999, translation). If Petrowski’s question is broadened here to “would we, would you, have been right to do so” then it points us to a particularly productive reopening of the question of the massacre and its legacy. While recognizing that we all stand in different and complex relations to the event of the massacre— and, thus, must anticipate multiple and nuanced responses—the question remains: How will I (you, we) live after the massacre? More than a decade later, when, as Charles Foran writes, the massacre has “seemed frozen in meaning” and “journalists [grant] that with each passing year the ‘story’ [grows] tougher to write” (Saturday Night, June 1999, 78), that question has a particular urgency. For it holds the promise of re-opening “us” to the inheritance of these killings and their public memory—and not so as to make an effort to staunch the wound of the loss through strategic memorial pedagogies and practical-political responses. These have been important and necessary; however, they are insufficient to another ten years of feminist memorial-activism. We cannot bring these women back: but we can and need to ask, when they died in “our” name, what are the memorial responsibilities of feminism to the dead? What do these imply for my, your, our living—now? What practices and formations of public memory might help ready “us” for these encoun – ters—with the dead and with each other?