Tuesday, 20 September 2011

ESSAY

Books are the collective memory of mankind.
 


 


Recollection of the past is an active, constructive process, not a simple matter of retrieving information. To remember is to place a part of the past in the service of conceptions and needs of the present. Thanks to a number of scholars, including     and , this insight has become a permanent feature of our understanding of individual memory. Still, we do not fully understand the mechanisms which determine and sustain mnemonic consensus. Few contemporary sociologists have systematically studied how the past, as a “collective representation”, are affected by the organization and needs of social groups. This is not to say that the problem has been neglected in other disciplines or in the work of our predecessors in sociology. Furthermore, the collective memory of a nation is represented in part by the memorials it chooses to erect. Public memory is enshrined in memorials from the newly opened Holocaust memorial in Berlin to the Vietnam Veteran’s memorial in Washington DC. Whatever a nation chooses to memorialize in physical monument, or perhaps more significantly, what not to memorialize, is an indicator of the collective memory.


 


During the past twenty years, historians like have tried to show how society’s conception of great men ( and respectively) changes from one generation to the next. Sociologists’ interest in the collective interpretation of the past emerged much earlier, and the man who did most to stimulate this interest was


 


The belief in memory as an actual living entity appears to be the underlying supposition of memoriologists (we can indeed define a memoriologist as one who conceives of memory as an actual living entity). Memory is associated with the remnants of experience still lived in the warmth of tradition, in the silence of custom, in the repetition of the ancestral,” with “collectively remembered values,” with “skills passed down by unspoken traditions” in other words, it is collective memory. ( 1996)


 


The first theme in collective memory is “active”. It has been argued that rather than being a thing, or possession, remembering is best understood as a form of action. Specifically, it is a form of mediated action, meaning that it is fundamentally distributed between active agents, on the one hand, and the cultural tools – especially narrative texts – that they employ, on the other.


 


The second theme is that collective remembering is essentially social. To say it this way is of course redundant, but it bears repetition and clarification. Specifically, it is further argued that the textual resources historians employ in collective remembering always belong to a category, and hence reflect, a social context and history. This means that instead of being neutral, or asocial, the textual resources employed in collective remembering bring with them a social position and perspective. With this given as it is, it becomes obvious that even when a solitary individual engages in remembering, the exercise is likely to involve an inherently social dimension.


 


The third theme is that collective remembering is dynamic. Collective memory often makes claims of stability and constancy, but in fact it appears that one of the few genuinely durable attributes of collective memory is that it undergoes change. When examining the production of official history, for example, it has also been proposed that both the dialogic and referential functions of narrative texts can provide impetus for change, and that they exist in a system of functional dualism that itself varies from one context to another. And under the heading of textual consumption, outlined cases in which the control of narrative information and the control of narrative performance undergo rapid and drastic transformation come out. ( 2002)


 


A critical initial step in understanding both individual and collective memories, then, is that the long-term impact of events themselves helps to determine the memories. Studies on individual memories, for example, demonstrate that people tend not to recall common events or objects that have no personal impact or adaptive importance (1985). By the same token, a war may give the impression of changing the course of history at the time. However, if no institutional and/or personal effects are apparent once the war is over, there will be very few collective memories. Citing the powerful social memory of the execution of  in France in 1793,  (1990) demonstrated that previous murders of French kings were ultimately unimportant because the basic dynastic succession remained. With the French revolution and the death of  however, the basic structure of government changed forever.


 


Underlying all the analysis made and changes is the claim that collective remembering is an inherently distributed phenomenon. It is defined by an irreducible tension between active agents and the textual resources they employ, especially narrative texts. From this perspective, it would be misguided to search for collective memory in libraries and other depositories of texts, on the one hand, or in individuals or groups considered in isolation from textual resources, on the other. If one starts from this perspective, one is naturally led to pose questions about how textual resources are produced by those who have the power and authority to do so and how they are consumed (mastered, appropriated, used in public and private performance regions and so forth) by members of a collective.


 


In the broader scheme of things, however, it is worth keeping in mind that such memory existed well before the emergence of states as we know them today. Some other observations remind us that history and collective remembering have not always been understood in today’s terms, and have not always been under the control of states. Moreover, within the past few centuries, the differentiation of analytical history from collective memory and an ensuing redefinition of the latter have been important developments in the Western tradition. And even more pronounced differences often exist when one considers non-Western traditions. Cultures can be marked off from one another by their sense of time, and this may differ radically from what the modern state provides in the way of narrative resources.


 


In the near future, it is also to be expected that the future will witness the emergence of new forms of collective remembering. In particular, it is likely that groups operating at levels other than the state will play new and more important roles. In the United States as ethnic groups, local communities, and other collectives took on increasingly important roles in the negotiation of public memory during the twentieth century. We can also expect supranational efforts to emerge. Indeed, if some authors are right, these efforts are already well underway.


 


The more general point is that no matter how collective memory is formed and who controls it, the same basic structural tools – narrative texts – must be employed. This claim has parallels in some of the writings of authors and these focuses primarily on differences, but an underlying assumption is that the two forms are inherently linked by a basic set of narrative tools. Other authors reinforce the notion that there are important differences between spoken and written textual practices and cultures, but in the end it is still narrative in some form that organizes human ways of knowing the past.


 


The forms of collective remembering that emerge out of various schematic narrative templates may differ, sometimes radically, from one another. What often remains most interesting – and potentially dangerous – is how these differences give rise to distinct collective identities. Notwithstanding the fact is that all “collective” terms are problematic — and “collective memory” is no exception — because they are conceived of as having capacities that are in fact actualized only on an individual level, that is, they can only be performed by individuals. To quote


    … 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. Remembering is a mental act, and therefore it    is absolutely and completely personal.


Of course any act, not just mental, is “absolutely and completely personal.” Speaking of “collective action” can hardly be justified even if every individual member of the group could be said to be acting in the same way. ( 1996)


 


However, to speak of a group as some integral entity with a will and capacity of its own is to commit the fallacy of “concrete generalization,” namely of treating a generalization as though it were some concrete entity. 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. Even with respect to the latter most commonly used terms — “society,” “tribe,” “nation” — it is not necessarily suggested by historians that these terms have any real, living substance that can actually be experienced separately or independently from the members who comprise such a group. “Nation,” “tribe,” “society” are general names whose sole substance lies in their actual members who share common myths, traditions, beliefs, etc. This is the only sense in which a nation or a society can be said to exist, but never as a separate, distinct, single organism with a mind, or a will, or a memory of its own.


 


According to , there is really no such thing as “individual memory”; the only “real memory” is “collective memory.”  prefers the term “recollection” to “memory” because of its obvious affinity to “collective” and to the way “collective memory” is formed, as though by means of collecting various blurred impressions (pictures) from various sources and molding them into a well-structured and stable memory. However,  does not provide us with a clear theory which would describe and explain the way collective memories are formed.


 


His argument rather inclines toward a somewhat literary description of how one recollects one’s past experiences, always within the framework of a certain social group — family, social class, religion: “The individual calls recollections to mind by relying on the frameworks of social memory.” For example, whatever “individual image” one has of a certain person or an event in one’s family, it cannot be dissociated from the general ideas, types, patterns that comprise the “family memory,” to which  also refers as the family’s “traditional armor”; for “there exist customs and modes of thinking within each particular family that equally impose — and even more forcibly — their form on the opinions and feelings of their members.


 


Despite the fact that important questions about the nature of schematic narrative templates remain unanswered at this point, a couple of points can be made. First, schematic narrative templates seem to be deeply rooted in particular narrative traditions, so much so that they may survive the appearance and disappearance of massive efforts by states to inculcate specific narratives organized around mid-level events. Second, narrative templates are probably especially transparent.


 


This is probably an important part of their effectiveness and staying power. Of course, it is also something that makes them even more impervious to rational argumentation and negotiation. It might be extremely difficult to argue with them about specifics, if for no other reason than that virtually no specific, mid-level events were to be found in their texts.


 


In the end, the emphasis of this paper lays so much on particular forms of collective memory or particular settings in which it has emerged. Instead, this is more primarily concerned with how we can go about understanding what these forms are and how they might operate in any setting. As such, the keys to this enterprise are the claims that collective remembering is (1) an active process, (2) inherently social and mediated by textual resources and their affiliated voices, and (3) inherently dynamic. However we go about building on these claims, the voices of collective remembering promise to shape memory and identity for as long as we can peer into the future. ( 2000)


 


The mastery of a cultural tool has to do with knowing how to use it. Questions of mastery are questions about the cognitive skills required to use a cultural tool with facility, regardless of one’s beliefs or emotional commitment to it. Issues of belief fall under the heading of appropriation in the terminology used here, and may be quite distinct from mastery, especially in cases of politically loaded cultural tools such as the narrative texts that mediate collective remembering. The first and most obvious way in which the two generations in this study differ is reflected in a simple measure of mastery – namely, the amount of information from specific narratives about World War II that they were able to provide.


Conclusion:


 


An important characteristic of this essay is that it reflects a reliance on a specific narrative, as opposed to a more abstract schematic narrative template. In this connection, it is useful to consider the level of description involved. As theorists have observed, events may have the appearance of being defined independently of any narrative in which they are embedded, but in actuality the narrative often does a great deal to shape their boundaries and interpretation. Depending on one’s purposes, events can vary along several dimensions. Of special importance for my purposes is the fact that they can range from narrowly defined, concrete events involving particular, identifiable individuals acting in a limited, local setting to vaguely defined happenings involving unspecified actors and settings.


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 


 



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