Screen Memory - Department of English

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Screen Memory - Department of English

Screen Memory

At just the moment Proust was seeking salvation in

hypermnesia, Freud was projecting memory as a

consummate and perpetual trickster that transforms

everything in accordance with needs of which we

are not aware.

Terdiman

Freud deserves a crucial place in this survey because he

severely destabilized classical notions of memory. Freud’s

theorizing about memory was itself, Terdiman suggests, a response

to memory crisis: “when memory fails or we fear its failure, we

devise hermeneutics to remedy that gap”:

When, in dreams, in parapraxes, in hysteria, and in the

other transference neuroses, the present unexpectedly

becomes inexplicable on its own terms, Freud discovered

he could productively invoke the covert persistence of

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the past and the determinations of a memory whose

extent and intensity no one before him had ever

conceived as so ubiquitous or so sovereign (1993:247).

More than creative memory, more, even, than the confusion of

memory and fantasy, Freud tried to demonstrate dynamics of

fabrication in the psyche that could cunningly duplicate the

effects of memory (even duplicating its stamp of authenticity).

Memory was a “hypocritical counterfeiter,” a version of

Descarte’s malin génie (Terdiman 1993:292). Memory was not

natural or original, but a species of calculated after-effect.

Freud also textualized memory: it was not transparent but layered

and coded. A strict believer in the indelibility of memory, he

also made memory much more inaccessible, subject to a fierce

dynamic of desire; what counted as memory for him was outside of

or under the storehouse.

The instrument of this undoing was an entity Freud called

the screen memory, signifying that the memory in question was not

a memory at all but a screen for an inaccessible memory. To the

rememberer, the movie playing on the screen feels natural. The

clue to its falsity is a surface paradox: that it is really quite

insignificant as memories go, but held on to as if it were

significant.

Screen memories are usually childhood memories carrying

pleasant reminiscences. Not only are screen memories pleasant,

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they also tell a relatively insignificant story; and this is the

screening designed to protect their catastrophic importance. Like

so many items in Freud’s mental universe, they must be read

through their opposites; in this case: after childhood,

unpleasant, significant. The subject of memory is thus a huge

enigma for Freud.

After finishing the essay, Freud told Wilhelm Fliess that he

had liked the paper “immensely” while producing it, “which does

not augur well for its future” (1985:351). Approaching the

subject in a spirit of common-sense rationalism, he assumes that

memories are retained and reproduced in direct proportion to

their importance. In the case of childhood memories this law

seems to be reversed, and Freud pretends to be astonished by

these “mnemic images, whose innocence makes them so mysterious”:

“I feel surprised at forgetting something important; and I feel

even more surprised, perhaps, at remembering something apparently

indifferent” (3.306 and 303). We find, Freud says, such

displacement strange to contemplate.

Screen memories, then, work to conceal “an unsuspected

wealth of meaning . . . behind their apparent innocence”: “They

relate to [repressed] impressions of a sexual and aggressive

nature, and no doubt also to early injuries to the ego

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(narcissistic mortifications)” (3.309 and 23.74). Freud

characterized them as “‘mnemic residues’ which take on a

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compulsive quality as they act to protect the subject from

repressed trauma or desire” (19.20 and Furnari).

These memories are of course not completely fabricated; they

incorporate actual memory-traces. Each of the details that makes

up the representation, Serge Leclaire states, “is evidently

borrowed from a different context and assembled into the

uncertain composite image” (78). Screen memories are apparent

memories of one's earliest years that are actually formed during

other periods of emotional arousal. The retrogressive screen

memory is constructed at the site of a later event, out of

psychic events from many periods of our lives, and organized into

a strong, clear memory: “In these [later] periods of arousal, the

childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say,

emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives,

with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming

them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves"

(3.322).

In 1899, Freud proclaimed a law of childhood amnesia which

stipulated that memory does not function until the fourth or

fifth year and if a memory carrying an earlier date stamp does

arise, it is invariably false. This is not due to fading memory

or psychological development, but blockage (distinguishing, as he

says so, between a memory and a memory-trace). Memory is, in

fact, operative much earlier:

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No one calls in question the fact that the experiences

of the earliest years of our childhood leave

ineradicable traces in the depths of our minds. If,

however, we seek in our memories to ascertain what were

the impressions that were destined to influence us to

the ends of our lives, the outcome is either nothing at

all or a relatively small number of isolated

recollections which are often of dubious or enigmatic

importance (3.303). 2

By way of contrast, Vico had claimed that children have

exceptionally strong memories, and Ribot felt that “The earliest

memories are the most secure and solid of all” (Roth 1989:56).

Diderot had simply declared that “The time of childhood is the

time of memory” (Poulet 198). And certainly no childhood amnesia

operates in Proust when he is blessed with the receipt of his

entire childhood in Combray.

Like most entities in Freud’s mental universe, screen

memories both conceal and express past meaning. They are a double

formation: “Two psychical forces are concerned in bringing about

memories of this sort. One of these forces takes the importance

of the experience as a motive for seeking to remember it, while

the other--a resistance--tries to prevent any such preference

from being shown” (3.306-7).

In addition to pleasure and triviality, screen memories are

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also characterized by an unusual sharpness of image and produced

in a register of clarity--“too clearly, one is inclined to say”

(3.305). In the analysis of the specific dream behind his 1899

essay on this subject, Freud exaggerates the qualities of

pleasure and clarity, convicting the unconscious of being a comic

artist. Of the dandelion episode at the center of the memory, he

writes,

Now what is there in this occurrence to justify the

expenditure of memory which it has occasioned me . . .

. Altogether, there seems to me something not quite

right about this scene. The yellow of the flowers is a

disproportionately prominent element in the situation

as a whole, and the nice taste of the bread seems to me

exaggerated in an almost hallucinatory fashion. I

cannot help being reminded of some pictures that I once

saw in a burlesque exhibition. Certain portions of

these pictures, and of course the most inappropriate

ones, instead of being painted, were built up in three

dimensions–-for instance, the ladies’ bustles (3.311-

312).

The memory is one of the subject at play in a meadow of

dandelions with a boy and girl cousin, John and Pauline, his

half-brother Emmanuel’s children. At a nearby cottage “two women

are standing chatting busily, a peasant-woman with a handkerchief

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on her head and a children's nurse.”

We are picking the yellow flowers and each of us is

holding a bunch of flowers we have already picked. The

little girl has the best bunch; and, as though by

mutual agreement, we--the two boys--fall on her and

snatch away her flowers. She runs up the meadow in

tears and as a consolation the peasant-woman gives her

a big piece of black bread. Hardly have we seen this

than we throw the flowers away, hurry to the cottage,

and ask to be given some bread too. And we are in fact

given some; the peasant-woman cuts the loaf with a long

knife. In my memory the bread tastes quite delicious--

and at that point the scene breaks off (3.311).

Freud distinguished three types of screen memory: an early

memory screening an equally early experience, a late memory

screening a childhood event [the “pushed forward” variety], and

retrogressive screen memory, in which a childhood memory screens

a later concern (3.320). Freud suggested that C. F. Meyer's novel

The Monk's Wedding

magnificently illustrates the process occurring in

later years in the formation of fantasies . . . . a new

experience is in fantasy projected back into the past

so that the new persons become aligned with the old

ones, who become their prototypes. The mirror image of

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the present is seen in the fantasied past, which then

prophetically becomes the present (1985:320).

The 1899 essay is almost wholly concerned with this third

type: an innocent childhood memory that was ignited by some later

trauma and a substitute memory of childhood composed to hold that

later trauma in its coils. Freud’s translator James Strachey

found this emphasis to be a “curious thing,” since “the type of

screen memory mainly considered in the present paper . . . almost

disappears” from the psychoanalytic record, to be replaced by a

second type, the “pushed forward” memory (3.302). The second type

of screen memory soon comes to be regarded as the regular type,

and it is the only type of screen memory that Freud deals with in

The Psychopathology of Everyday Life only two years later. 3

Why did Freud feature only one of three types of screen

memories in this essay and why was this choice almost immediately

cancelled in (and by) the development of psychoanalysis? The

answer seems obvious: with the abandonment of the seduction

theory in 1897 and the development of a theory of infant

sexuality (by 1899), the period of early childhood became the

only period in which serious repression occurred and thus the

period whose memories had to be most rigorously screened by

memories of the “pushed forward” variety. 4

The subject of the 1899 essay, is fully in possession of his

childhood memories, or so he believes:

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I have at my disposal a fair number of early memories

of childhood which I can date with great certainty . .

. all these memories of mine relate to my birthplace

and therefore date from my second and third years. They

are mostly short scenes, but they are very well

preserved and furnished with every detail of sense-

perception, in complete contrast to my memories of

adult years, which are entirely lacking in the visual

element (3.309).

Freud is the patient in fact if not in behavior; this therapeutic

transcription was quasi-autobiographical.

The patient soon comes to know that the experience

registered by this memory never occurred. All the analyst has to

do to dispel it is ask whether this memory had recurred

“periodically since his childhood, or whether it had perhaps

emerged at some later time,” and the patient immediately knows

that this childhood memory never occurred in his earlier years

(3.312). He can, however, identify its later trigger, “the

occasion which led to my recovering this and many other

recollections of my earliest childhood”: a return visit to

Frieburg at seventeen where he nourished a secret love for

Gisella Fluss, the fifteen-year old daughter of the family with

whom he had previously stayed (3.312-23). He then recalls a

second “occasion” three years later when he again saw the two

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playmates of the childhood memory-scene. There was no love on

this occasion: he was at the University, “a slave to my books. I

had nothing left over for my cousin.” He believed, however, that

his father and uncle had made a plan for him to marry the girl

(3.314).

The childhood memory emerged on the second occasion,

attached to two experiences: desire for Gisela and shame over the

financial crisis that had originally caused his father to

relocate the family. Freud tells his alter ego that he “projected

the two phantasies on to one another and made a childhood memory

of them. The element about the alpine flowers is as it were a

stamp giving the date of manufacture. I can assure you that

people often construct such things unconsciously––almost like

works of fiction” (3.315). Freud’s later experience of certain

yellow flowers in the Alps had helped to trigger this childhood

recollection of the meadow scene with its dandelions when he was

aged three and still in Freiburg. 5

Do screen memories connect us to our childhood in any way?

Freud hesitates among various answers. At times he is positive

that there is a connection: "Not only some but all of what is

essential from childhood has been retained in these memories . .

. . They represent the forgotten years of childhood” (12.148). In

the essay, Freud offered a compromise position:

You have accepted my assertion that every suppressed

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phantasy of this kind tends to slip away into a

childhood scene. But suppose now that this cannot occur

unless there is a memory-trace the content of which

offers the phantasy a point of contact–-comes, as it

were, half way to meet it . . . . So the phantasy does

not coincide completely with the childhood scene. It is

only based on it at certain points. That argues in

favor of the childhood memory being genuine (3.318-19).

Freud resists concluding that screen memories are false but,

in his vacillations, thoroughly undermines the validity of

childhood memory. The final sentences of the essay suggest that

there is no such memory, only screen memories projected back into

a mythical childhood: “The raw material of memory-traces out of

which [the screen memory] was forged remains unknown to us in its

original form.” And the recognition of this fact, he concludes,

"must diminish the distinction we have drawn between screen

memories and other memories derived from our childhood." Freud

ends the essay with a radical challenge to the integrity of early

memories: “It may indeed be questioned whether we have any

memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our

childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show

us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at

the later periods when the memories were aroused” (3.322).

In an 1898 letter to Fliess, Freud had declared childhood to

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e constitutionally mantled in forgetfulness because of the

crucial work that is done in the “prehistoric period of life,”

the constitution of our curiously angular psychology. Childhood

is “the source of the unconscious and alone contains the

aetiology of all the psychoneuroses, the period normally

characterized by an amnesia analogous to hysterical amnesia”

(1.274).

Freud’s conclusions are confirmed by “Diverse and wide-

ranging studies” that agree

that childhood amnesia for most events before the age

of four or five is universal . . . . True, most of us

possess a set of internal pictures of those early

times. But these pictures seem to fall into several

classes: (a) memories stimulated or created by photos

or family lore which may or may not be our memories;

(b) frightening or otherwise intense or traumatic

experiences which seem to be recallable due to the

sheer impact certain events had on our lives; and (c)

so-called "screen" and "telescoped" memories, which are

the most common memories of early childhood (Hedges

15).

The second category is presumably the “seduction,” which Freud is

in the process of abandoning. 6

James Strachey noted that the concept of "screen memories"

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was closely related to other psychoanalytic concerns, other

“problems concerning the operation of memory and its distortions,

the importance and raison d’être of phantasies, the amnesia

covering our early years, and, behind all this, infantile

sexuality” (3.301). It also resembles other psychoanalytic

formations, like the symptom, the fetish, nächtraglichkeit, and

the dream.

Like the symptom, the screen memory is produced by a

compromise between the thrust of repressed contents and the ego’s

defense against them, a substitute formation that both obscures

and reproduces the original content. Freud claimed the fetish to

be a “screen memory,” a “remnant and precipitate” that conceals

“a submerged and forgotten phase of sexual development” (7.154).

Nächtraglichkeit describes the ways in which an incomprehensible

or traumatic infantile experience is nonetheless somehow retained

unconsciously and reactivated as screen memory at a later time in

a different context: “the delay which is in the beginning”

Derrida called it (1978:203). Nächtraglichkeit is the mechanism

for “pushing back” that produces the screen memory discussed in

the essay. In “Recollecting, Repeating and Working Through”

(1914), Freud stated that screen memories represent the forgotten

years of childhood “as adequately as the manifest content of a

dream represents the dream-thoughts" (148). The dream is another

formation analogous to the screen memory; made out of memory but

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passing as something else. 7

The falsification of the past produced in screen memories

plays its part in the construction of subjectivity (or, as Lacan

would have it, “resubjectified” through the “mnemonic

catastrophe” of nächtraglichkeit): the innocent, pleasant, clear

principles of existence thus displayed would obviously support a

particular myth of childhood and human nature (Smith 85). Screen

memories are part of a system (perhaps the system itself) that

produce narratives of normality, of a glowing childhood.

But if screen memories are partly or wholly false, is there

an alternate concept of true memory in the Freudian system? In

the screen memory essay, Freud pays lip service to “normal”

memory, a memory that is abruptly bracketed by the existence of

these aberrations, but it is unclear whether he really credits

its existence. Is the state of childhood memory the condition of

all memory? Leclaire seems to think so: “The practice of analysis

forces us to recognize that all the recollections registered in

what we call memory always create . . . a limit or a screen,

beyond which unfolds the scene of another memory” (76). Terdiman

puts an extreme case:, conscious “recollection exhibits a

positively wanton disloyalty to the truth. There seems no

seduction before which its representations will not yield”

(1993:291). Forgetting also seems to be traumatic for Benjamin, a

form of repression; as he says, “forgetting is never innocent”

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(Bogaç 73). 8

There is another systematic split in psychoanalysis–-

conscious/unconscious–-and it also is crucially inflected by

memory. In a seemingly paradoxical turn, memory belongs only to

the unconscious: Freud “only acknowledged memory insofar as it is

unconscious, denying to consciousness even the capacity of

memory” (Leclaire 76). In one sense, the rationale for this

seeming paradox is almost simple-minded, the sort of mathematical

thinking that lay behind Augustine’s cavern, Déscartes’

intellectual memory, or Bergson’s soul: that consciousness is not

sufficiently capacious to store all our perceptions and thoughts,

“Consciousness has no capacity for the retention of anything”

(Freud 5.540).

A more complex version of this difference, according to

Terdiman, is that the unconscious “lodges an integral and

unchanging reproduction of the past (though not the past our

conscious self has lived), whereas consciousness circulates a

mobile and ungroundable representation of these contents to which

direct access is theoretically impossible. These two memories

cohabit within us but cohere nowhere” (1993:289-90). The process

of nächtraglichkeit allowed Freud to conclude that leaving a mark

in memory and being conscious of something are independent

processes: “such memory-traces, then, have nothing to do with the

fact of becoming conscious” (18.25). The impression of an

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experience leaves “behind a laborious [memory] trace which has

never been perceived, whose meaning has never been lived in the

present, i.e. has never been lived consciously” (Derrida

1978:214).

This may explain why for Proust and Benjamin as well as

Freud what we retrieve from memory is something we have never

experienced: “Concerning the mémoire involontaire, its images do

not only come without being called up; rather, they are images

which we have never seen before we remember them”; “Memory

fragments are often most powerful and enduring when the incident

which left them behind was one that never entered consciousness”

(Benjamin in Cadava 100 and Freud 18.27-28).

Finally, in a psychic system where memory is always false

and forgetting tragic, how can memory also be held up as the key

to healing? Obviously, what we have here are two systems in

tandem, another version of Freud's dual archaeological model of

Rome as the visible city of ruins and Pompeii as the lost city,

buried whole. Psychoanalysis, like Christianity or Marx’s

political economy, betrays itself as a transcendental system in

which memory is actually only false and ideally only true. The

course of treatment is governed only by the former; the goal of

treatment dreams only of the latter: the recovery of memory as

the recovery of health. The goal of psychoanalysis is

remembering, an end to neurosis (an end to personal history).

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Freud and Josef Breuer worked with an enlightenment model whereby

hysterical symptoms evaporated after “bringing clearly to light

the memory of the event by which it [the trauma] was provoked and

in arousing its accompanying affect" (2.6).

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Collective Memory

The very idea of unique memories rooted in the

autobiographical past of an individual self may itself

by the result of particular Western narrative practices

and conventions.

Jens Brockmeier

A seemingly irresistible desire to pluralize memory has led

to the growth of a second body of memory studies that looks at

memory as collective, social, cultural, historical or national.

Given the stunning fit between memory and subjectivity, this

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desire to relocate memory in a collective seems perverse. The

meanings of a phrase like “collective memory” range from the

literal to the metaphoric and the ordinary to the mystical.

Shadowing ordinary notions of collective memory, there is often a

second, uncanny variant: in anthropology collective memory refers

to a society’s sense of its past but also the vaguer notion of a

past as an agency, preserving itself into the present and shaping

social thought and feeling.

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A deeply mystical version of memory held sway in the

nineteenth century, in the belief, for example, that memory

persisted after the death of its original holder. The final

sentence of Ewald Hering’s 1870 lecture on organic memory to the

Vienna Imperial Academy of Science was, “Man’s conscious memory

comes to an end at death, but the unconscious memory of Nature is

true and ineradicable: whoever succeeds in stamping upon her the

impress of his work, she will remember him to the end of time”

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(Otis 26). Transmitted atmospherically, memory could drift

through the material cosmos; Charles Babbage, John William Draper

and others believed that the universe contained an Akashic memory

(from the Sanskrit word for space) that stored every thought,

word and action that had ever occurred in it (Lowenthal 19). In

Tony Morrison’s Beloved, memory adheres to the places where stark

experience occurred: “The past, its memory, is out there still,

real enough to capture the living in its grip . . . . what's

more, if you go there--you who never was there--if you go there

and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it

will be there for you, waiting” (36). This version of memory was

not exclusively human or animal but referred to a general

function of all organic matter.

Collective memory was more commonly conceived of as having

been transmitted genetically or biologically: as “racial” or

“organic” memory. Nietzsche and other contemporary thinkers

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elieved that “man carries within himself the memory of all past

generations” (Barash 716). It was carried along the trail of

blood: one inherited memories from ancestors just as one

inherited their physical features. Herbert Spencer offered the

universality of some knowledge (i.e., fear of snakes), which

cannot be tied to experience or education, as the basis for this

belief (Young 1996:92). Racial memory also drew on Ernst

Haeckel’s notion of epigenesis, the idea that a species’

evolutionary history is recapped in the embryological development

of its individual member. Freud and Jung both subscribed to

theories of racial memory, Freud in Totem and Taboo and Moses and

Monotheism, particularly, and Jung in his theory of archetypes. 3

The concept of racial memory has also been put to political use,

to prop nationalism or attack differences.

Throughout history, the body has been perceived as a

receptacle of memory, from the memory of bodily

movement, such as walking, to the memory of past events

in physical scars, to the memory of one’s genetic

history in every cell . . . . the immune system as a

system of memory, remembering, for instance, the

viruses it has previously encountered (Sturken 12 and

220).

Organic memory was stored in the body not the brain. According to

Henry Maudsley who introduced the concept in 1867, memory exists

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in every part of the body, even in “the nervous cells which lie

scattered in the heart and in the intestinal walls.” Three years

later Hering claimed that every cell contained the memory of the

experience of all its parent cells (Kern 40). These beliefs are

to be distinguished from a more ordinary body memory whereby,

say, the body remembers to stand or bow as a gesture of respect.

As the quotation from Sturken indicates, biological memory, the

memory that drives heredity, has been scientifically recuperated

with the application of computers to biology; the “archival

ordering of the body's code,” DNA, discovered in the 1950s, opens

a new act in the drama of organic memory (Guertin).

These and other conjectures underwrote a series of Romantic

tropes: the eternal tidal expansion of experience in Poe’s “The

Power of Words,” for instance, or the haunted portraits in the

tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and, at the turn of the century,

the haunted-house tale generally. This collaboration continued

into the Modern period when unconscious (and ancestral) memory

became a standard motif in the work of Proust, Joyce, and Mann.

A less mystical version of racial memory, “cultural memory,”

as presented by nineteenth-century mythographers and art

historians like Aby Warburg, conceives of memory working

intertextually across the ages. For Warburg and Benjamin,

crystallizations of the past are scattered throughout the present

in small, symbolic cultural details, like street names, which

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preserve the memory of the heroes and deities of antiquity. In

the form of art, these symbols of civilization preserve “intense

basic experiences” of primitive life (Gombrich 243).

It is likely that the purely secular notion of collective

memory entered Western thought as a metaphoric deposit of racial

memory. The major players in this twentieth-century development

were the sociologist Halbwachs, the art historian Warburg, and,

later, the historian Nora. The emergence of such a concept may

very well have been an inevitable consequence of the development

of the social sciences, anthropology, sociology, and history.

Halbwachs began as a student of Bergson but later switched

his intellectual allegiance to Emile Durkheim. In 1922 he wrote

Collective Memory, the pioneer study of the workings of group

memory; a second book on the subject, The Social Frameworks of

Memory, was published in 1925. For Halbwachs, memory was not an

attribute that belongs to one in the way that vision does.

Individual memory was a secondary, phantasmic, effect: a “man who

remembers alone what others do not remember,” Halbwachs wrote,

“resembles somebody who sees what others do not see. It is as if

he suffers from hallucinations” (Boyer 26). The individual was

nothing but the “crossroads of collective memories” (Tai

2001a:52).

Many writers agree that collective memory is metaphor not

memory because the collective lacks such an agency; so, for

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example, Yosef Yerushalmi--“Just as ‘the life of a people’ is a

biological metaphor, so too ‘the memory of a people’ is a

psychological metaphor”; Susan Sontag--“not remembering but

stipulating that this is important”; and Amos Funkenstein--

Consciousness and memory can only be realized by an

individual who acts, is aware, and remembers. Just as a

nation cannot eat or dance, neither can it speak or

remember . . . . The employment of “collective memory”

can be justified only on a metaphorical level–-and this

is how historians of old have always employed it–-as a

general code name for something that is supposedly

behind myths, traditions, customs, cults, all of which

represent the “spirit,” the “psyche,” of a society, a

tribe, a nation (Boyarin 23, Sontag 2003:86 and Gedi

34-35).

Collective memory can also be thought of as a combination or

consolidation of individual memories, a category of abstraction.

Robert Bevan considers it to be “a bundle of individual memories

that coalesce by means of exchanges between people and develop

into a communal narrative” (15).

For others, collective memory is not simply a metaphoric

analogue. Qualitative differences have been proposed between the

two memories: collective memory is more intersubjective and

dialogical than personal memory, more “act than object, and more

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ongoing engagement than passive absorption and playback” (Lambeck

1996:239). Many of the terms are not transferable, so we are

warned to keep collective memory free from the taint of

psychoanalysis. “The concept of trauma, as well as the concept of

repression,” Wulf Kansteiner writes, “neither captures nor

illuminates the forces that contribute to the making and unmaking

of collective memories” (187). Nancy Wood reminds us that while

personal memory is governed by the laws of the unconscious public

memory “testifies to a will or desire on the part of some social

group or disposition of power to select and organize

representations of the past” (2). But even studies that warn us

to avoid psychologizing collective memory, Klein points out, “do

precisely this: “Freudian vocabularies are far more common than

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Halbwachsian or even Lacanian ones” (135). Historians like Anne

Rigney insist that a collective memory with no analogical

relationship to personal memory can be theorized. It is not the

only instance of a memory without rememberers. Mikhail Bakhtin

attributed this facility to language (“Our practices and language

remember,” he wrote) and Warburg to imagery (Cole 27). 5

Like memory itself, collective memory has a range of

meanings: it can refer to the fact that our memories are woven

out of social strands (shared items of knowledge and experience,

the nature of language itself, etc.); it can simply mean that

memories can be validated and fleshed out through social

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exchange; or, at the other extreme, it can refer to the process

by which memories suture the rememberer into particular social

groups. In the case of language particularly, the individual

speaker is always being colonized by the group, already inhabited

by the other; our experience is not the unmediated reality we

believe it to be. Our memories are filled with alien contents,

for example, other people’s recollections passing as our own, For

Hamlet, memories are not individual possessions but shared

commonplaces:

Yea, from the table of my memory

I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,

All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,

That youth and observation copied there” (877).

Halbwachs insisted that people inhabit a social arena when

they remember:

. . . it is in society that people normally acquire

their memories. It is also in society that they recall,

recognize, and localize their memories . . . . if we

examine a little more closely how we recollect things,

we will surely realize that the greatest number of

memories come back to us when our parents, our friends,

or other persons recall them to us (1992:38).

We have as many kinds of memory as there are groups that we

belong to, and these groups inflect their common memories in

8


different ways. Conversely, these groups are the products of

collective memory: the family, for example, the fundamental

social group, is held together by shared memories at least as

much as shared genes (Kihlstrom 5). “On the very same day, the

birth of the Prophet is . . . jointly remembered by Muslims in

Malaysia, Guyana, and Sierra Leone. By the same token, on Good

Friday, Christians all over the world come to recall the

Crucifixion together, as a single community” (Zerubabel 4).

For Halbwachs, the main social categories that generate

collective memory are religious community, social class, and

family, but many other groups and groupings–-by generation,

gender, relationship and friendship--function in this way. Memory

belongs to the group even though members may disagree about the

details of a common experience, particularly, popular culture has

it, the gender couple, as in the song “I Remember it Well” from

Gigi where the man’s and the woman’s memories of their early

relationship are totally at odds. Halbwachs’s collective memory

was a product of consensus and made no room for conflict, but

most current models have room for a range of consolidating

processes, “sharing, discussion, negotiation, and often conflict”

(Brundage 4).

Memory is social not merely because of its content and its

acquisition but because it operates through cultural frameworks

that condition even those memories that appear to be the most

9


private; it is “constructed along the lines of old chains of

associations laid down in the mind: schemata, models, paradigms”

6

(Cole 25). Bartlett called these frameworks schemata, and for

Halbwachs they were “social contexts and relationships at a given

moment in time when a memory is made, which colour and inflect

the memory itself” (Russell 13).

We acquire group memories by hearing people talk about them,

by participating in commemorations and rituals or by reading

about them or viewing their representations. Collective memory is

an anthology of different kinds of mental and communication

events, “multimedia collages” consisting in part of “a mixture of

pictorial images and scenes, slogans, quips, and snatches of

verse, abstractions, plot types and stretches of discourse, and

even false etymologies” (Kansteiner 190 and Fentriss 47). These

memories are brought to us by what Confino calls “memory

carriers,” semiotic systems like commemorations, popular movies,

or scholarly works of history, and the two primary routes are art

and politics: on the one hand, artists “from whose imagination

new representations of collective experience enter into public

currency via cultural gatekeepers such as the publishing and

movie industries,” and, on the other, “institutionalized forces

such as governments, political parties and pressure groups”

(Confino 1997a:1395 and Boutine 6).

As a consequence of all this, we “own” memories of events

10


that we did not or could not have experienced, events that

happened to groups to which we would later belong (this

concatenation begins to fulfil the mythic promise of organic

memory). “You do not need to have stormed the Bastille,” Confino

writes, “in order to celebrate 14 July as a symbol of national

identity”:

Even in the midst of such a commemoration there is

nothing within us that we could properly call a

“memory” or “remembering.” And yet in this and other

similar instances, the call to commemorate evokes a

string of memories (lessons, narratives, allusions)

that underwrite the emotional connection (1997b:8 and

1997a:1400).

Jews who never suffered from Nazism, African Americans who never

experienced slavery--in some sense they own those memories by

virtue of their identification with those groups. Marianne Hirsch

calls this more abstract process “postmemory,”

a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely

because . . . [it is] mediated not through recollection

but through an imaginative investment and creation . .

. . Postmemory characterizes the experience of those

who grow up dominated by narratives that preceeded

their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by

the stories of the previous generation shaped by

11


traumatic events that can be neither understood nor

recreated” (22).

How far back can these memories go? While collective memory

at most attains to three generations, cultural memory reaches far

back into the past: Jan Assmann divides collective memory into

collective and cultural memory and has the latter take us back to

ancient traditions and myths, to what Freud called the childhood

memories of the nation (2006:48). What is being remembered is a

body of knowledge that defines the community and is deemed

necessary for its continuity. So, for example, Assmann writes,

“What the children of Israel must not forget is . . . the story

of the exodus from Egypt . . . . To make sure that this memory

does not die with them, it has to be transmuted into . . . the

symbolic forms of cultural memory,” the Passover seder

(2006:18). 7

Despite Halbwachs’ balanced picture of collective memory fed

by all the groups to which we belong, we know that certain groups

are particularly powerful in establishing this body of

understanding and belief. Collective memory is not something that

just happens; it is often orchestrated as a politics of memory by

dominant elites who control powerful modes of representation.

Most theorists take for granted a top-down process of influence

that follows the terrain of power. But some also believe that

resistance and interference from lower strata enter into the

12


equation.

There are few satisfactory models of how collective memory

is constructed, how it is received, and what factors govern its

endurance. Unlike its near synonyms, myth and tradition,

collective memory is an active stratum of mentality, constantly

8

in the process of reformulation. Like personal memory,

collective memory is determined by present needs and desires and,

in their service, distorts or invents the past. As examples,

David Thelen relates that in the relatively prosperous 1970s

Americans recalled the 1930s not as a time of misery and struggle

but as a time when people had been closer to each other, warmer

and more caring, and John Foster and Wayne Froman cite the very

late appearance of the Amistad mutiny of 1839-42 as a central

part of the cultural memory of Sierra Leone (Thelen 1124 and

Foster 90).

Because collective memory is not memory it must circulate in

the public realm in material form before it can lodge itself in

our minds: in documents, memorials, commemorations, rituals,

slogans or songs; “rules, laws, standardized procedures, and

records . . . . books, holidays, statues, souvenirs” (Schudson

1992:51). George Washington remains an important part of the

American collective consciousness, for example, because he is

commemorated through the celebration of his birth, the Washington

Monument and his profile on quarters and dollar bills (Johnson

13


37).

Libraries and museums are the great repositories of

collective memory. Cinema, television, and now the internet are

the most powerful agents in its construction and dissemination,

although this non-confrontational, semi-conscious, non-

referential, and decentralized process is extremely

difficult to reconstruct after the fact . . . . The

media of representation tend to disappear from the

consciousness of the audience in the process of

consumption. Radio listeners, for instance, regularly

forget the source of their memories . . . and often

attach them to other sources” (Kansteiner 194-95).

If memory constructs subjectivity for the individual it

offers a corresponding group identity to the collective in which

it is somehow archived. Collective memory is the glue that holds

groups and societies together. The cultivation of certain texts,

images, objects, and rituals “serves to stabilize and convey that

society’s self-image,” and this allows a society to become

visible to itself and others (Assmann 1995:132). Jan Assmann

calls this form of memory “bonding memory,” and finds its

theoreticion to be Nietzsche: “Just as Halbwachs has shown that

people need bonds in order to develop a memory, Nietzsche has

shown that people need a memory in order to be able to form

9

bonds” (2006:5). It is the form of memory incorporated into the

14


discipline of anthropology.

But if a particular body of memory is the identifying

property of a group, isn’t it also always being modified to

justify the existence of that group, to apologize for its past

mistakes and elide its shames? Writing of the family album,

Bernadette Flynn finds that while it “allows the construction of

narratives of collective family memory out of freestanding images

. . . it most always constitutes a story of domestic life from

which conflicts and difficulties are erased” (online). Meditating

on the left’s fetishization of its own pantheon of heroes and

heroic moments, Ahmet Bayazitoglu asks if there is “a way of

remembering that is not a narcissistic reification?” (online).

National memory

Collective memory has been held to be the primary form of

plural memory, developed to stabilize and solidify the nation-

state, which is built on shared memories of joy and suffering,

and above all of collective sacrifices. Collective memory is

nationalism’s project, shared by people who have never seen or

heard of one another. National memory trumps the corresponding

memories of other groups, which may, for example, hold the Great

Depression in memory in their own ways: still, there will also be

a national version of this memory that tends to hold sway. After

the American Civil War, through the mid-twentieth century,

15


American conservatives fashioned a memory of slavery, a benign

fiction of honorable masters and contented slaves–-a perspective

that effectively silenced “alternative memories of violence,

exploitation and cruelty” (Climo 28).

As defined by The Popular Memory Group (a Birmingham study

groups that works at the boundaries of collective and oral

memory), national memory refers to representations of the past

that “achieve centrality” within the public domain, because

“Their institutional propagation by the national and local state,

the culture industries, or the public media ensure their scope to

make public meanings for vast audiences” (Ashplant 13). The

players in this game consist of various “status groups who become

society’s symbolic bankers and whose efforts to preserve sites or

artifacts often assume the character of symbolic crusades”

(Barthel 152). National memory is thus a map of the vectors of

power in a social system.

In the early modern period, Europeans were somehow made to

internalize a nation and “in a remarkably short time” it became

an everyday mental property–-“a memory as intimate and authentic

as the local, ethnic, and family past” (Confino 1997a:1402). Once

this happened, Le Goff adds, the capital city becomes “the center

of a politics of memory” and the king deploys “a program of

remembering of which he is the center” (60). The nation and its

new form of memory gave meaning to human life after religion

16


waned; the nation, Peter Fritzsche writes,

can be usefully thought of as a memory system that

enabled individuals to recognize their lives in

nonrepeatable, historical time. Because of their

boundedness in time and space, national narratives have

an unusual ability to organize remembrance and to make

the past sensible . . . . At the same time, the very

forcefulness of the representative powers of the nation

10

have worked to disable other narratives (108).

National memory is frequently charged with bias, with being

the champion of and apologist for dominant elites. Nations

remember largely what suits them, so Japan remembers the bombings

of Hiroshima and not its own prior history of militarism. America

remembers Japan’s history of imperialism but not the dark side of

the Enola Gay episode. Control of the national memory is a

crucial weapon of the ruling class, since, as Foucault has

stated, “If one controls people’s memory, one controls their

dynamism . . . . It is vital to have possession of this memory,

to control it, administer it, tell it what it must contain” (25-

26).

Societies, therefore, expend great energy to control the

circulation of recollection, generally by supervising the

mechanisms of memory exchange. For the U. S., Gary Taylor

instances a variety of regulatory mechanisms, including the

17


Freedom of Information Act, the Federal Communications

Commission, the antitrust division of the Justice Department, the

Central Intelligence Agency and the Interior Department’s

Register of Historic Buildings (1996:15). In addition to the

obvious, highly visible, forms of national memory, Matsuda

discusses a second type: “What Max Weber would refer to as the

‘domination through knowledge, specifically rational,’ which

characterized modern bureaucratic organizations, the knowledge of

the file” (121-22). This might be called “institutional memory”

and would include the fingerprint system, the census, mechanisms

of surveillance, registries, and transcipts.

Dominant forms of memory tend to be melodramatic, already on

their way to nostalgia. Svetlana Boym makes a distinction between

collective memory and national memory: the latter tends “to make

a single teleological plot out of shared everyday recollections.

The gaps and discontinuities are mended through a coherent and

inspiriting tale of recovered identity” (53). Very little of the

ruck and welter of history gets into it.

National memory has been further accused of being a

deliberately false and manipulative narrative, a progressive

melodrama in which nationals are always right and foreigners

always wrong--devoted to supporting an impossibly ideal image of

a people, their leaders and their past. War memorials embody what

John Mack calls “the egoism of victimization.” Commemoration in

18


general “seeks most often to supply us with heroes to worship or

with enemies to detest; it deals in desecration and consecration”

(Perlman 27 and Todorov 2003:133). And there is often an intense

struggle (around the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, say, or

the 9/11 attacks) to keep unflattering information out of memory.

Are there collective screen memories? Many writers have

pluralized this concept as well as a way of explaining ideology.

For example, historian Daniel Biork claims such are the stirring

memories of the American Revolution, masking the trauma of this

national childhood event (Biork 276). National memory is thus a

primary example of what Marx and Engels called “false

consciousness”--or nostalgia, which Marx termed “memory’s lie”

(Sennett 11). There are more benign ways of viewing this

manipulation: Halbwachs, for example, suggested that “society can

live only if there is sufficient unity of outlooks among the

individuals and groups comprising it . . . This is why society

tends to erase from its memory all that might separate

individuals, or that might distance groups from each other”

(1992:182-83).

Time itself can break up these melodramas. The founding myth

of postwar France, for example, that the French who had

collaborated with the Nazis were limited to a few misfits while

the majority of citizens resisted and eventually drove the German

armies from France was dislodged by the 1970s when this

19


comforting illusion was shattered by The Sorrow and the Pity and

Lacombe Lucien (Golsan 25). Austria’s attempt to cast itself as a

victim of Nazi aggression crumbled as its role in Nazism was

11

increasingly acknowledged in public discourse.

Remembering the nation has often taken the ironic form of

simply inverting an accessible, actual history, e.g., the stories

of native American aggression designed to justify the genocidal

slaughter of the tribes or stories that blame the fall of

American business empires on labor unrest and governmental

regulations. In Renato Rosaldo’s essay on “imperialist nostalgia”

agents of a dominant culture conjure up fond recollections of the

old ways that they are in one way or another responsible for

destroying. Algerian pied noirs repressed any memory of racial

tensions, remembering “Algeria as a ‘paradise without colonial

sin,’ a land where everyone, Arabs and Europeans, lived in

harmony and plenty” (Greene 243).

According to Aleida Assmann, monuments are part of a culture

that is stage-managing itself (Holthorf). The practice that most

sustains national memory is commemoration, one of the primary

forms taken by nostalgia, “the ultimate attempt to master the

past and render it innocuous forever” (Ankersmit 166). But

commemoration has a tendency to freeze into permanent forms that

cannot be changed without cries of sacrilege–-although dynastic

changes, like the collapse of the Soviet empire, can radically

20


alter the commemorative map--and is thus also a way of forgetting

(Todorov 2001:21). As Casey writes: “To commemorate a war such as

the Civil War or Vietnam is at the same time not to remember its

many horrors, its unspeakable and even unthinkable mutilations

and agonies. For an individual to recall the horrors is to

undermine participation in the public event of commemoration”

(xii).

One of clearest sign of the crisis of memory has been the

acceleration, intensification, and amplification of

commemoration. Commemoration intensified after the first world

war, elevating all citizens who had fallen in nationalist wars to

a post of honor. The most basic commemorative text in a culture

is its sequence of holidays which become ever heavier with

anniversaries. In The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm

discovered that “an astonishing number” of the ceremonies and

rituals “that define the ‘traditional’ pole of nineteenth-century

society . . . . were simply created wholesale” (e.g. the tartans,

12

kilt and bagpipe of Scotland) (Terdiman 1993:36). Now that

tourism has become a major industry for most nations memory is

its primary commodity. Stories about the past are “appropriated

by transnational corporatism, tourism, multicultural nationalism,

and many other forces, ultimately domesticating their unsettling

qualities and endorsing only the ideas of pluralism that produce

an illusion of harmonious diversity” (Fujitani 21-22).

21


Collective amnesia

Amnesia was also pluralized in the twentieth century, when

it came to be regarded as a social disease. Modernity and

postmodernity are said to carry heavy charges of it, so much so

that we are frequently told that we have now lost our sense of

the past. John Frow describes postmodernity as “the time of a

fall from . . . history into amnesia” (218). But Marx and his

followers had already written amnesia into the psychology of

capitalism: “Ideology and amnesia have long been linked,”

Nicholas Dames writes, “from Lukács’s analyses of the structural

forgetting embedded in reification to Althusser’s well-known

argument that ideology ‘has no history’” (2001:17). “All

reification is a forgetting,” Adorno and Horkheimer had declared,

and Herbert Marcuse announced (after Adorno) that “the spectre of

man without memory . . . is more than an aspect of decline–-it is

necessarily linked with the principle of progress in bourgeois

society” (Jay 229 and 234).

Earlier, the historical novel of Scott and Hugo was often

occasioned by an inability (in Waverley and Nôtre-Dame de Paris)

to find any signs of the past in the present as a result of

radical social change. The absence of memorial signs produces the

amnesia that Eliot described in Silas Marner: “Minds that have

been unhinged from their old faith and love have perhaps sought

this Lethean influence of exile in which the past becomes dreamy

22


ecause its symbols have all vanished, and the present too is

dreamy because it is linked with no memories” (1978:22).

Richard E. Sullivan lists as the occasions of such amnesia

“massive migrations of peoples across the face of the earth, both

voluntary and forced,” the “rapid emergence of world

interdependency,” the “astounding developments in mass

communications” which “have drowned us in the present to the

point where our minds have no room for remembering” and

“incessant waves of new material products.” He goes on to assert

that “Even more deadly to collective remembering have been two

potent intellectual movements”: the brightening of the future

through the idea of progress and the darkening of the past

through modern determinism in the form of social Darwinism and

Marxism (98).

Radical change and upheaval lead to either amnesia or a form

of false memory Nora calls “historicized memory” (10). Genocide

and violent exile break the human chains of communication so that

“cultural memories, identities, and practices do not flow simply

or predictably from one generation to the next or from the

homeland to the diasporic people” (Landsberg 2004:10). It also

follows that such disruption should lead to memorial hoarding:

Whereas middle-class families in Britain and the United

States had shown little concern about their origins

before the nineteenth-century, after 1800 a feeling of

having been ravaged by time turned “living rooms into

23


family portrait galleries” and “attics into archives” .

. . . the early nineteenth-century [also] witnessed an

explosion of autobiographical writing, diary keeping,

scrapbook pasting, and portrait taking. Families took

more care to commemorate personal occasions such as

birthdays, holidays and Christmas (Fritzsche 111).

Territories that have suffered great historical upheaval are also

likely to retreat into memory; for example, the American South,

at least in the popular imagination, which, like Tennyson’s

lotos-eaters, chose “To muse and brood and live again in memory”

(79).

Forced forgetting, however, is at least as old as history.

As a weapon against imperial tyranny, the Roman Senate instituted

the damnatio memoriae, removing the name of a defiant emperor

from archival documents and monumental inscriptions (Le Goff 67-

68). After the hated Domitian was assassinated, the Roman Senate

immediately had images of him torn down and mentions of his name

chipped out of inscriptions in order to remove all memory of him

from the world (Weinrich 33). Monuments have been razed long

before the fall of the Soviet Empire or the invasion of Iraq: a

famous instance was the fall from favor of Tiberius’s aide,

Sejanus (as described by Juvenal), and the melting down of his

equestrian statue: “Then from that face which was second in the

entire world are made pitchers and basins, frying pans and

bedpans” (Hedrick 99).

24


Commemoration is only one of the systems designed to anchor

national memory; another is censorship, socially dictated

forgetting, which may be even more important. Ernest Renan laid

this rule down:

Forgetting, and I would even say historical error, are

essential factors in the creation of a nation; in this,

the progress of historical studies is often a danger

for nationalité. Historical investigation, in effect,

brings to light facts of violence which took place at

the origin of all political formations, even those

whose consequences were the most beneficial. Unity is

always brutally created (Matsuda 206).

Renan further pointed out that there was a fundamental procedural

forgetting that holds the people of a nation in place: they

“forget that they are not inevitable and that their internal

fissures may be as significant as their external boundaries”

(Olick 117).

Although empires have been systematically obliterated and

lost to memory (e.g., the Incas), the “tyrants of the twentieth

century,” Todorov writes, seek “to capture memory systematically

and to bring even its most secret repositories under control . .

. . The traces of what once existed have been either erased or

doctored or transformed, lies and inventions replace reality”

13

(2003:113 and 11). The image of a toppling statue following a

25


egime change is familiar television fare: The Chinese communist

government tried to destroy all places of memory, “such as

temples and monasteries, after the occupation of Tibet in 1951"

(Misztal 18). Is this so different from the digital removal of

the World Trade Center from television and movies? Milan Kundera

offers the following wry example of a doctored image: “After the

Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February of 1948 the fur hat

on Party leader Klement Gottwald’s head was the only trace that

remained of former Foreign Minister Vlado Clementis because it

had started to snow and he gave Gottwald his hat” (Sayer 76).

Censorship has become an all-embracing policy for nations;

the modern landscape is pocked with absences and disappeared

people, monuments, histories, images. Contemporary states monitor

memory in an ongoing way in the name of national security and

engage in techniques of disinformation. In George Orwell’s 1984,

Winston Smith puts facts that are embarrassing to the present

conduct of the state down a “memory hole” (188). Czech writer

Ivan Klíma notes that “In our country, everything is forever

being remade: beliefs, buildings, and street names” (Sayer 76-

77). One of the more extraordinary stories of memory manipulation

came out of the Korean War, under the name of brainwashing.

Brainwashing was one of several imaginary events that made the

writing of cold war history possible; it was a phantasmal

rediscovery of state force which America used to frighten itself

with during the early 1950s. According to Robert J. Lifton,

26


popular writings established brainwashing as "an all-powerful,

irresistible, unfathomable, and magical method of achieving total

control over the human mind" (Biderman 549):

The word was seized upon by the public, not only to

refer to the actions of the POWs [in Korea] but to

describe such phenomena as the forced public confession

of Cardinal Mindszenty in Hungary in 1949, [and] the

earlier forced confessions during the Moscow Show

Trials of 1936-1938 . . . and to every type of

Communist propaganda and indoctrination (James

1986:242).

Memory and history

Despite the circulation of a term like “historical memory,”

memory and history have been engaged in a serious struggle for

several decades. Mnemosyne was originally goddess of both memory

and history. Herodotus, “the father of History," wrote his work,

he said, in order to preserve memory--opening in this way: "These

are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he

publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the

remembrance of what men have done" (3).

Memory also has has a long history as the handmaiden of its

sister art, as a source of material to be reworked by the other

more disciplined practice. As Le Goff writes: “Memory is the raw

27


material of history. Whether mental, oral, or written, it is the

living source from which historians draw” (xi). Popular history

often appeals to memory as a form of wisdom (those who do not

remember the past are doomed to repeat it) or an invocation to

revenge (Remember the Alamo! The Maine! Pearl Harbor! Never

forget!).

Hegel distinguished the two as parallel intellectual

currents, memory the subjective and history the objective (Jonker

15). Halbwachs saw them as opposites, since there was a break in

the continuity “between the society reading this history and the

group in the past who acted in or witnessed the event” (Hutton

1993:76). He thought that history focuses on change, memory on

continuity. History, writes Michel de Certeau, tends to depict

the past as “other than ourselves, memory as the same” (1988:16).

If there is no other difference between history and memory, there

is a difference between their nominal subjects: what happened in

the past and how we remember it.

R. G. Collingwood had also declared them distinct, but

believed in the clear superiority of history. “Memory is not

history, because history is a certain kind of organized or

inferential knowledge, and memory is not organized, not

inferential at all” (252). If memory now lords it over history,

it has been a long-awaited shift in the balance between these two

mentalities. In the work of Halbwachs and Nora, memory and

history are not even two separate but equal activities: memory is

28


everything, history is less than nothing. That is why, according

to Nora, memory “is always suspect in the eyes of history, whose

true mission is to demolish it, to repress it” (3). In a high

Platonizing vein, both declared that history, memory’s poor

synthetic substitute, only becomes necessary when the reign of

memory fails, and this is the occasion of great loss. History

begins when memory is lost: the condition of history is the

disappearance of the past from the present. Memory, on the other

hand “‘reincarnates,’ ‘resurrects,’ ‘recycles,’ and makes the

past ‘reappear’ and live again in the present (Spiegel 162).

Nora equates memory with presence and continuity in all

their fragility, history with the opposite:

Memory is life, always embodied in living societies and

as such in permanent evolution, subject to the

dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of

the distortions to which it is subject, vulnerable in

various ways to appropriation and manipulation . . . .

History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction,

always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer

(3).

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi similarly distinguishes collective memory

from historical recollection: the former unbroken and perpetually

available, while the latter is the act of recovering that which

has been forgotten (197-98). Memory is to history as nature is to

artifice, an “organic” flow versus “calculated accounts of the

29


past” (Davis 1989:2).

According to Nora and others, living memory has been

replaced by artificial, deliberately fabricated memory-sites,

lieux de mémoire–-a reincarnation of the loci memoriae of the art

of memory. They “arise out of a sense that there is no such thing

as spontaneous memory, hence that we must create archives, mark

anniversaries, organize celebrations, pronounce eulogies, and

authenticate documents because such things no longer happen as a

14

matter of course” (Nora 7). The memory left over, the memory

that co-exists with history, is false; “True” memory “subsists

only in gestures and habits, unspoken craft traditions, intimate

physical knowledge, ingrained reminiscences, and spontaneous

reflexes” (Nora 8).

“Just when this rupture took place,” Peter Fritzsche writes,

“is not clarified by Nora, but his sturdy artisanal metaphors”

suggest that one of the fictions of loss that he has in mind is

“the onset of the industrial revolution and the sustained

movement from the countryside to the city, which suggests

sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century”(92).

Whenever it occurred, the fall is marked by a dominance of

writing: the last two centuries have been periods devoted to the

institutionalization of memory in every discipline, producing

ever-swelling archives. 15

History is writing; in its most accomplished state,

30


narrative. In a postmodern age that is characterized by a

distrust of grand narratives, memory is again the valorized mode:

Memory is partial, allusive, fragmentary, transient,

and for precisely these reasons is better suited to our

chaotic times . . . . The moments that produce it are

those that, as with the Vietnam War and the AIDS

crisis, “disrupt master narratives of American

imperialism, technology, science, and masculinity.”

History is modernism, the state, science, imperialism,

androcentrism, a tool of oppression; memory is

postmodernism, the “symbolically excluded,” “the body,”

“a healing device and a tool for redemption” (Sturken

in Klein 138).

Remembrance “must not proceed in the manner of a narrative or

still less that of a report,” Benjamin declared, “but must, in

the strictest epic and rhapsodic manner, assay its spade in ever-

new places, and in the old ones delve to ever-deeper layers”

(1978:26). Halbwachs believed that memory came to us in

fragments, “formed on the tactics of surprise, ruptures, and

overturnings,” as Christine Boyer puts it (68).

Narrative betrays even history, so one common argument goes,

because it is then shaped more by the laws of its own

construction than the truth of the past. “The most powerful form

of forgetting,” Michael Roth writes, “is narrative memory itself,

for it is narrative memory that assimilates (filters,

31


econfigures) the past into a form that can be ‘integrated’ into

the present. Narrative memory, which is at the core of historical

representation both on paper and on film transforms the past as a

condition of retaining the past” (1995a:100). The argument

against historical narrativity was set by Hayden White. It arises

out of a desire to have real events display the

coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image

of life that is and can only be imaginary. The notion

that sequences of real events possess the formal

attributes of the stories we tell about imaginary

events could only have its origin in wishes, daydreams,

reveries (1987:24).

Within the context of film theory, Christian Metz developed

a model of memory in which, between the end of a film and the

lighting of the theatre, an instantaneous act of narrativization

organizes the diverse understandings and associations we have had

of the stream of images. It is a model based on Freud’s notion of

nachträglichkeit, and it can be applied to other imaginative

experiences, like reading a novel: “the very issue of

authoritative meanings in a story can be raised only once the end

of the story is known. With a novel, for instance, it is only at

the end that one can tell the adumbrations from the false leads;

things fall into place in retrospect” (McCole 276).

Others argue that memory is just as dependent on narrative

32


as history, that narrative is the natural form of remembering.

According to Bachelard, for example,

It is reasoning about our past which serves to compose

together disconnected instants, forming a temporal

narrative. This involves a process of reflection which

creates a sense of time–-it is not time or duration

itself which gives coherence to a disconnected past. We

take events out of the temporal flow in order to reason

with them . . . . Events do not simply lay themselves

out along a temporal flow–-they must be ordered

(Russell 11).

There is no original memory which is later transformed through

narrative; memory cannot be thought apart from narrative: it

“does not have any concrete existence in itself and it is always

contiguous to the act of being narrated . . . . In short, we do

not make stories out of our memories, because memories exist only

16

within our narratives” (Sepulvida 174). Collective memory,

certainly, is only narrative.

Various other binaries are used to proclaim the superiority

of memory. History is frozen on the page before us, while memory,

Halbwachs argued, “always occurs behind our backs, where it can

neither be appropriated or controlled” (Boyer 67). Memory is

concrete, history is abstract: “Memory is the history that cannot

be written, that eludes codification, that remains stubbornly

discreet and that refuses consistency and fixity” (Lambeck

33


2003:211). Nora states that “Memory is rooted in the concrete: in

space, gestures, image, and objects. History dwells exclusively

on . . . changes in things and in the relations among things”

(3). Memory is more than history, it contains the excess of the

past: “the phenomenon of historical consciousness continually

exceeds those documentable moments which result in texts and

narratives” (Crane 46).

History is detached and uncommitted while memory is

emotional and politically active. James credited memory with a

warmth and intimacy that could not be found in history, and

Steven Ostovich insists that memory is an “activity in [Hannah]

Arendt's sense of this term . . . . Memories are not simply the

usable raw materials or resources for writing history. Rather,

the activity of remembering is itself part of political life”

(Warnock and Ostovich 245). That politics is certainly

democratic: Halbwachs regarded history as scholarship for the

very few while the collective memory of the past is shared by the

whole community.

Le Goff, however, warns us against the contemporary

valorization of memory:

Recent, naive trends . . . give preference in some

sense to memory, on the ground that it is more

authentic, “truer” than history . . . . [Because the]

workings [of memory] are usually unconscious, it is in

reality more dangerously subject to manipulation . . .

34


than the discipline of history itself . . . . To

privilege memory excessively is to sink into the

unconquerable flow of time (xi-xii).

Most of the binaries in play in this field of discourse can

and have been inverted to assert the supremacy of history over

memory. Memory is faulty, prone to error and fading–-unlike the

written text, memories change in time--while history is stable,

the result of a solid process of investigation and its own

inscription. Michael Frisch and his fellow researchers summed up

the objections of others to oral history: “memory was unreliable

as a historical source because it was distorted by physical

deterioration and nostalgia in old age, by the personal bias of

both interviewer and interviewee, and by the influence of

collective and retrospective versions of the past” (Frisch

1994:33). Peter Novack claims that collective memory simplifies,

“sees events from a single, committed perspective; is impatient

with ambiguities of any kind,” while history renders “the

complexity of the past . . . . To understand something

historically is to be aware of its complexity, to have sufficient

detachment to see it from multiple perspectives, to accept the

ambiguities, including moral ambiguities, of protagonists’

motives and behavior” (3-4). But, conversely, one could also say

that testimony (memory on behalf of the community) complicates

the simplicities of history.

Memory is subject to its own psychic laws, so for Dominick

35


LaCapra history is a corrective to memory because it “attempts to

retrieve what it has repressed or ignored, and supplements it in

ways that may provide a measure of critical distance on

experience and a basis of responsible action” (1994:195). As

Freud demonstrated in his study of screen memories, memory is

achronological, liable to work in loops--forward as well as

sideways and backward. “Memory,” historian Mona Ozouf has

remarked, “is largely indifferent to a linear unrolling, the

calendar is not its religion” (Matsuda 10). Later commemorations

of an event, for example, can be imported into folk memory and

projected back on the original event. And to further complicate

matters, for collective memory, much of “memory” is written by

“history.” This collective memory, however, is a mock effigy of

the real thing, as Nora objected, a resuscitated collective

memory frozen in a stereotypical form.

The dominant binary so magisterially set in place by

Halbwachs and Nora (i.e. memory as real experience and history as

mediated representation) has come under critique as romantic,

nostalgic, and reactionary (see Frow 222 and Levy 89-90). Nora’s

work has been called a “hopelessly nostalgic master narrative”

that obscures “the historicity of its own stance vis-à-vis the

premodern past” (Hess 40). Finally, the opposition of memory and

history has been challenged, simply because it is a binary in

which memory and history are continually made to play out the

stark, unresolvable opposition between nature and culture. Once

36


we shake ourselves free from the melodrama of differences, both

activities look like similar highly mediated discourses separated

only by institutional differences.

Counter-memory

Control of collective memory is one of the great ends of

groups, classes, and societies engaged in national or global

politics. Contesting the nation as the primary site of collective

memory for many peoples is the global village, represented by

minority populations who have come into their voice and power

strongly motivated by a feeling that they have been left out of

memory, including their own. Jay Winter feels that in some ways

counter-memory has replaced national memory; that although, for

example, commemoration has traditionally celebrated the

historical winners, there have recently “been many other

instances of commemoration as an expression of the tragic history

of persecuted minorities,” the Jewish, gay, African-American and

Japanese-American communities, for example:

Commemoration no longer serves those centripetal forces

that made the nation in the previous century into the

most important social and historical agent, but the

centrifugal forces that are generally considered to be

the defining characteristics of postmodernism.

Contemporary commemoration and the return to memory

37


that is expressed by it were both born on the grave of

the state as the center of all creative politics

(Winter 74 and Ankersmit 171).

As Walter Benjamin wrote, the task of remembrance is “to save

what has miscarried” (Jay 22).

Group identity is worked out against the dominant discourse.

At every moment, countless revisionist versions of countless

official narratives are circulating in rich ambient play.

National memory may be deemed false not only because it is shaped

by national desires and the laws of narrative but also because it

is rhetorically totalizing, intent on absorbing the entire past.

Another effect of narrative is to make the past feel told, fully

understood, what Claude Lanzmann calls an “absolute obscenity in

the project of understanding” (Roth 1995b:209).

Utterances and images that articulate the memories of

relatively powerless groups, usually written in resistance to

dominant narratives, are commonly referred to as counter-

17

memories. National memory and counter-memory meet and struggle

at various sites of contention:

In the United States, monuments such as the Vietnam War

Memorial, special displays such as the Enola Gay

exhibit, commemorative occasions such as the

Christopher Columbus quintecentennial (?), the decision

to honor Martin Luther King Jr. through a public

holiday, and attempts to create theme parks out of

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hallowed sites such as Gettysburg have all been the

focus of intense scrutiny, negotiation and contestation

(Tai 2001a:9).

This other more diffuse and multivoiced discourse represents a

democratization of memory: “For those who regard the national

‘heritage’ as a sacred text,” John Gillis reminds us, this

democratization “is equivalent to profanation, or, what is worse,

18

cultural suicide” (Tai 2001b: and Gillis 19).

What should ideally come out of this struggle? Do the

various versions ultimately combine in a new totalizing

narrative, a more or less acceptable authoritative version of the

past? Do they arrange themselves in sequences of probability or

do they just keep multiplying? This last is the conservative

nightmare, but it is also the condition of history in

postmodernity. However, memory and counter-memory may not lay

themselves out so neatly against one another; counter-memory,

Svetlana Boym reminds us, is “not merely a collection of

alternative facts and texts but also an alternative way of

reading by using ambiguity, irony, doublespeak . . . [and]

private intonation” (62).

As opposed to the specious comfort of the closure offered by

official narrative, counter-memory, it has been argued, offers

true healing. It allows for empowerment, the re-enchantment of

experience, and the possibility of properly mourning the past.

Discussing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in

39


South Africa, the writer Njabulo Ndebele was hopeful that “the

narratives of memory” which are brought forth will help establish

a more truthful understanding of the history of apartheid.

The dynamics and therapeutics of counter-memory are most

brilliantly presented by Toni Morrison in her slavery novel,

Beloved, as it works to create new national memory, to provide

(quoting Catherine Hall) its share of the “‘memory work’ which

which needs to be done so that African Americans and white

Americans can recover the history of slavery and understand its

foundational place in the construction of the United States”

(31). In the novel, the black community is scattered by

suffering, so “disremembered and unaccounted for,” that the story

to be passed on “is not a story to pass on”; if it is not re-

remembered, Morrison suggests, “it will haunt and disrupt

contemporary society” (Morrison 274-5 and Hall 31).

Truth and reconciliation hearings like those in South Africa

have also been held in Chile and Serbia. And these line up with

current philosophical interest in the ethics of memory: memory as

an act of justice, because, as Christa Wolf says in her memoir, A

Model Childhood, “memory is not a solid block fitted into our

brain once and for all; rather, perhaps–-if big words are

permitted–-a repeated moral act”(143).. In his Ethics of Memory,

Avishai Margolit considers the inscription in our ethical code of

an absolute obligation to remember. Regarding the Holocaust,

Margolit asks if we also have an obligation to forgive and if

40


forgiveness does not inevitably lead to forgetting. His

conclusion in this case is that we do have an obligation to

forgive–“an obligation founded in the duty that we have to

ourselves to prevent the deformity of our own lives”–-but he does

not admit that this includes forgetting (Barker ).

Dangerous memory

Into the sea of repressed “rememory” that Morrison lays down

as a condition of African American life comes the dialectical

image of Beloved, murdered at her mother's hand. Not content to

remain a mere memory trace, frozen in history forever as “the

crawling-already baby" of two, she arrives in corporeal form as a

young woman of twenty, and

disrupts the lives of Sethe, Denver and Paul D just as

the pleasure of their reunion threatens to override

once and for all the horror of their past. . . . she

embodies and brings with her the Then, the collective

memory, and the collective rage, of the slaves forced

from their ancestral homes, piled in ship holds for the

Middle Passage, brutalized by the system of slavery

(Nutting online).

Ankersmit posits an extreme opposition between memory and

history as unconscious and conscious. Memory “stands for all that

was repressed, ignored, or suppressed in the human past and

41


therefore by its very nature could never attain to the . . .

domain of ‘history’ in the traditional sense” (154). In defiance

of memory’s many connections to subjectivity, at times it emerges

violently, threatening to undo the subject. Memories flash up to

overwhelm or undermine the subject and put a temporary halt to

simple, progressive narrative understanding. Steven Ostovich

calls this “dangerous memory,” and, according to the theologian

Johann Baptist Metz, such memories “break through the centre-

point of our lives and reveal new and dangerous insights for our

present. They illuminate for a few moments and with a harsh

steady light the questionable nature of things we have apparently

come to terms with” (241).

In The Content of the Form, White identifies these radical

visitations with the traditional sublime–-that which is too

terrible to be known (Megill 53). Saul Friedlander distinguishes

common memory (after Lawrence Langer), “which tends to establish

coherence, closure and possibly a redemptive stance,” and deep

memory: “that which remains essentially inarticulable and

unrepresentable, that which continues to exist as unresolved

trauma just beyond the reach of meaning” (Friedlander 1992:41 and

Young 1998:666-67). An apt contemporary image for dangerous

memory might be the Japanese monster figure Godzilla who,

Yoshikuni Igarashi has argued, represents

wartime memory that haunted postwar Japan. Godzilla’s

monstrous body stood in for the memories of war and

42


loss that could not be recuperated by the resurgent

Japanese nationalism of the 1950s . . . . Memory

returned to the city of Tokyo as a monstrous body,

mercilessly destroying what had been reconstructed

since the war” (16 and 154).

Freud’s repressed or traumatic memory and Benjamin’s

dialectical images are also versions of dangerous memory:

“Central to the differently nuanced modernisms of Benjamin and

Freud was a view of memory as a hidden substratum whose meanings

might run counter to those of surface understanding–-of ideology,

19

or of consciousness” (Radstone 2003b:168). “Traumatic memory,”

Winter writes, “was a time bomb that once detonated could wreck

lives and families. Its evident and troubling existence

undermined more comforting or officially sanctioned memories,

heroic narratives about war, about the reintegration of soldiers

20

into peacetime society” (84). Dangerous memories are

unconscious and involuntary memories. Recovered memories of

childhood abuse are a controversial contemporary form of

dangerous memory; critics declare they emerge from nothing deeper

than therapeutic insinuation.

Benjamin was one of the early chroniclers of dangerous

memory and its great poet. He adapted the notion from his reading

of Proust, but his dialectical image was a subversive version of

Proust’s involuntary memory; he called it “Humankind's

involuntary memory” (Rieusset-Lemarié). In his "Theses on the

43


Philosophy of History," he wrote that “The past can be seized

only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be

recognized and is never seen again” (1969:255). Benjamin’s

storyteller creates dialectical images that “fuse past and

present, images that shock the reader into a critical awareness

of what has been left out . . . and now must be reclaimed and

redeemed”–-an image in “which the Then and the Now come together

into a constellation like a flash of lightning” (Nutting and

Bejamin 1989:50).

Benjamin also wrote of a recovery of memory “When the half-

light of habit denies the plate the necessary light for years,

until one day, from an alien source it flashes as if from burning

magnesium powder, and now a snapshot transfixes the room’s image

on the plate”; “Like ultraviolet rays, memory shows to each man

in the book of life a script that invisibly and prophetically

glossed the text” (Benjamin 1978:56-57 and 89). 21

If history is responsible narrative, then dangerous memory

(perhaps all memory) is disruptive, working toward narrative’s

subversion. Derrida opened his lectures on memory with the

following question, “Why do those who love Mnemosyne lack the

ability to tell stories? Is it possible to narrate a history out

of our memories?” (Sepulvida 168). Memory is disruptive for two

reasons: At its best it is involuntary, as Proust declared; it

speaks through us against our will. Secondly, it is assaultive,

in line with Freud’s and Benjamin’s recasting of experience in

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modernity--no longer a tranquil flow, but a battery, a series of

shocks. Memory for Benjamin “is unable to deliver a full

reconstruction of the past. It recovers “images which are

detached from their original contexts and which are like torsos

and broken statues in the gallery of a Renaissance collector”

22

(Emden 219-20). As Nutting says, Benjamin’s dialectical images

interrupt and destabilize the comforting narrative of history:

“Progressive history, which looks ever-forward and sees its past

only in terms of its present and future effects, omits mention of

past injustices and facilitates the devastation of the oppressed”

(online). Dangerous memories are performed in a minor historical

mode (“the Leidensgeschichte or history of suffering”) that runs

under the “history of progress” (Ostovich 243).

Dangerous memories are often belated effects of the great

traumas of modernity, like Hiroshima (a flashbulb memory par

excellence) or the Holocaust. Michael Schudson observes that

“There are two kinds of studies of collective memory--those that

examine the Holocaust, and all the others” (Perlstein 16). That

event is posed by contemporary students of memory as a unique,

virtually transcendental, moment, occurring in history yet

marking an outside or an end to history: an event, Hayden White

writes, which escapes “the grasp of any language even to describe

it and of any medium–-verbal, visual, oral, or gestural–-to

represent it, much less of any historical account adequately to

explain it” (date:30). LaCapra considers Auschwitz to be an event

45


where “an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression was

crossed,” and Klein regards the attempted Nazi extermination of

the Jews as the “ultimate traumatic decentering of history and

subjectivity” (LaCapra 1998:6 and Klein 139). 23

Given such attitudes, the Holocaust can only be held in

place by memory, not history. History, with its all-knowing

subject position and its appropriating language, is felt to be

disrespectful to such events (Ankersmit 178). History is the Nazi

extermination all over again: “In short, the totalizing gestures

that are part and parcel of the Hegelian subject appear to

replicate a certain fascist gesture and to evade the fundamental

trauma of the Holocaust by recouping some meaning from it”

(Eisenstein 13).

Although other genocides have been quite easily forgotten

and dropped from Western collective memory, arguments exposing

this particular exceptionalist claim seem to carry no force; the

Holocaust is protected by a “double-binding injunction perhaps

best articulated by Elie Wiesel: ‘Never Forget/you can never

know’” (Spiegel 158). “For Levinas it is the immemorial, for

Lyotard the unrepresentable, for Blanchot the catastrophe that

erases the possibility of knowledge,” Frow writes, and yet, he

notes, just the opposite seems to be the case; the Holocaust is

also a ubiquitous trope in Western culture: “It is an

overwhelming fact of our daily lives, constantly referred to both

in scholarly and political cultures and in the mass media. There

46


are Holocaust museums and memorials in most countries of the

Western world”(241). Yet this horrific uniqueness, Friedlander

warns, has a term to it: “With the passage of two or three

decades at most, the memory of the Shoah will be essentially

ritualized for some and historicized for the great majority, like

any other past event saved from oblivion. The destruction of the

Jews of Europe will become an empty formula and, in any case,

‘mere history’” (1993:48). 24

Collective memory does not so much claim to be an accurate

account of an event (actually, it does claim to be that but we do

not credit that claim as we do the similar claim of history), as

an accurate account of how it is remembered. Personal memory,

therefore, can correct history but collective memory never can.

Perhaps counter-memory and dangerous memory should not be aligned

with collective memory but opposed to it. The relationship

between the larger and lesser concepts is slippery. The phrase,

after all, is invoked to refer to counter-memories that challenge

an official record, as well as the opposite: the dominant meaning

of an event within a culture at that time, against which wave

after wave of revisionary history is written. Michael Lambeck

finds “a curious tension between looking to memory for a new

source of authority . . . and looking to memory in order to defer

and displace the very idea of certainty and authority”

(2003:211). Geoffrey Hartman distinguishes between two senses of

collective memory, between a collective memory which is bound up

47


with community, as Halbwachs proposed, and a public memory

“dominated by the media that all but destroys the former” (Bal

xvii).

Memory as theological

Remorse--is Memory--awake--

Her Parties all astir--

A presence of Departed Acts--

At window--and at Door--

Emily Dickinson

Counter-memory and dangerous memory are considered to be

redemptive. One last binary should be mentioned as dividing

history from memory: history as secular and memory as sacred.

Klein argues that memory is always implicitly a theological

concept, that “the secularization and privatization of memory”

cannot really unhook it from that context (132). He infers from

its genealogy that the work we wish memory to do is “to re-

enchant our relation with the world and pour presence back into

the past”: “It is no accident,” Frow also writes, “that much of

the vocabulary Nora uses to describe memory–-that of piety, of

ritual, of the relation to the ancestors–-is religious, and

evokes a continuity of passage between the living and the dead”

(Klein 145 and Frow 223).

For Nora and others, memory and history encode the more

general opposition of sacred and secular: “If we still dwelled

among our memories,” he says, “Every one of our acts, down to the

48


most quotidian, would be experienced, in an intimate

identification of act and meaning, as a religious repetition of

sempiternal practice” (2). The mystical “true” memory that Nora

invokes is one in which there is no separation between the

present and the past. As in Mircea Eliade’s realm of the sacred,

the past inhabits the present (but blissfully, without weight or

pain), and the long run of historical time collapses under its

grace.

Judaism and Christianity have been described as “religions

of remembrance.” “Divine acts of salvation situated in the past

form the content of faith and the object of rites.” Deuteronomy

calls the faithful to remember in the Old Testament, and in the

New, “The Last Supper founds redemption on the remembrance of

Jesus,” a command to the disciples, “Do this in remembrance of

me” (Le Goff 69 and Weinrich 22). A “plethora of memorial

injunctions eventually becomes condensed into the Six

Remembrances that observant Jews still recite each day,” and the

injunction “Remember!” appears in the Christian bible 170 times

(Schwarz 57 and Heller 231). For Yerushalmi and others, the Jews

were the archetypal people of memory, a people who had only

recently adapted themselves to living with history.

Coda: The Postmodern Turn

Modernism was hostile to memory in its art and architecture,

49


ut its literature contained extensive memory palaces in the work

of Proust, Mann, and Joyce in particular. Postmodern literature,

according to Fredric Jameson, is saturated with the presence of

the past, but it is a paper-thin and unruly past circulating as

pastiche. Klein on the other hand seems to suggest that our

current interest in memory is essentially postmodern and quite

essentialist: “The new memory work displaces the old hermeneutics

of suspicion with a therapeutic discourse whose quasi-religious

gestures link it with memory’s deep semantic past” (141). For

Klein, the postmodern turn is a return to premodern community

(via the Internet) and orality (via electronic imaging).

A more familiar postmodern establishment, heralded by Freud,

claims there is no difference between memory and one of its

others, fantasy--that indeterminacy rules in its production

(several earlier moments in the history of memory discourse have

brushed up against this conclusion). Like the screen memory,

postmodern memory is produced at the site of remembering. It does

not retrieve the past but recreates it–-an already familiar

conclusion. As Belinda Barnet writes, “There is no lived memory,

no originary, internal experience stored somewhere that

corresponds to a certain event in our lives. Memory is entirely

reconstructed by the machine of memory” (online).

In the postmodern world not only has the concept of an

archive been abandoned for “memorial dynamism,” but even the

notion of an indelible trace is no longer meaningful ( ). If the

50


metaphor of the archive persists it is the archive as

pandemonium, as infinite wandering in Borgesian tales like “The

Secret Miracle” or “The Library of Babel.” In Alain Resnais’s

1957 film, Toute la mémoire du monde, the camera drifts across

library stacks and storage rooms filled with endless rows and

piles of useless and forgotten print.

In the postmodern turn we lose the past, but this connection

had originally been an act of faith on the order of Locke’s

belief that perceptions actually correspond to the qualities of

objects. Why, then, continue to bother about a past that is so

far removed from the noble concept staked out by philosophy and

history? The past is now a commodity, the “date-mark” of Freud’s

day dreams or Barthes’s “effect of the real”--necessary but

meaningless (Freud 9.147 and Barthes 1968). Beckett’s work is

emblematic of this turn: His narrator “cannot remember the past,

because he has no identity except the one assigned to him from

his surroundings. He repeatedly chooses silence rather than

assimilate himself into an oppressive collective memory” (Remmler

27).

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