30 November 98

Fellow travelers:

As we gear up for or scrabble toward our final sessions for this semester’s Humanities Seminar, I would like to share a few preliminary (incomplete) thoughts and questions with you about our unit on collective/institutional memory. I hope you will find the readings thought-provoking and a useful site for revisiting some of the other ideas about memory, trauma, and history that we’ve read and discussed. They also open up a space to discuss "culture," should we feel so inclined.

As a social scientist (and I think I will keep that label in spite of Foucault), I tend to privilege the forest (society) over the trees (individuals) and like my theory to be empirically grounded. The readings here relentlessly forefront and interrogate the social, and tend to do so through an examination of specific events, institutions, histories, and memories. As a whole, they attempt to convince us that society and culture (or specific institutions and/or social formations therein) impose constraints, or even direct, the substance of our remembering and forgetting. Indeed, some of the readings (e.g., Halbwachs, Douglas, Connerton) suggest that the function of memory is to legitimate the present social order, or (perhaps less radically) that the past serves a function in the present. If we accept any of these premises, we might wish to direct our attention to investigating the mechanisms through which social and/or cultural forces act upon, produce, refine, affect, our memories. The readings for this unit examine a number of potential sources (or vehicles, or subjects, and perhaps all three) of collective memory, ranging from ritual and habit to (written) history and museums.

If you complete all the readings (!) you will see a certain degree of intertextuality in this social science discourse on memory and history. Halbwachs (who was a student of Durkheim’s) is something of a founding figure in the sociological study of memory. One question we might choose to examine is how Halbwachs’ ideas have been represented in the writings of later authors, a question we asked (I think fruitfully) of Assman and Freud. Bergson (whose ideas about memory I would like to explore further) is also re-presented in this week’s readings, as is Freud (though usually in the breech).

I append a few questions you might wish to consider below. Happy reading!



Some questions:

Connerton discusses the body as a site of non-narrative memory. Does the body "remember"? What is the analytic utility of talking about habit as memory? How might bodily performances impair, rather than improve, memory? Can we use the examples Leys provides in her discussion of trauma to problematize Connerton’s notion of bodily performances as aids to memory? How did bodily acts replace memory in Janet’s traumatized patients? If we can find examples of the body obstructing and enhancing memory, how is it possible to theorize the role the body plays in remembering?

If we accept the thesis that the groups to which we belong influence how we think and how we remember, what should we do with Freud’s work on memory? What do we do with the knowledge that remembering (and forgetting), even at the level of the individual, is socially or culturally shaped (some, perhaps including Mary Douglas ["structural amnesia"] say "determined")? Or need the socio-cultural shaping of memory problematize Freud’s work at all?

How is collective memory unlike individual memory? Who creates collective memory? How do we understand the process by which collective memories are created and accepted in ways that go beyond simplistic notions of hegemony and resistance? What other institutions of collective memory exist besides grandparents (Bloch), rituals (Connerton), museums (Watson, Canclini), and history (Paine)? Are institutions of collective memory dependent on narrative, and if not, to what extent can we think of the effects they produce as "memory"?

If we are best served by thinking about memory as a cognitive process of creating narratives, how do we differentiate memory from history? Is Halbwachs’ argument, that history focuses on change and memory on continuity, adequate to differentiate the two? How does Halbwachs’ ideas about collective consciousness render his faith in history as impartial problematic (e.g., Trouillot)? Should history meet different criteria than memory, and if so, what and how? Freud has argued that emotional cathexis is an essential part of therapeutic remembering; what role does cathexis play in the writing of history?

I’d like us to take a look at Halbwachs’ account of Stendahl’s memory of the Day of Tiles. Do we agree that Stendahl remembered this event because it was "fitted within a framework of enduring concerns that emerged within him at this time, concerns that already involved him in a more extensive current of collective thought"? What about trauma? How does trauma get reconciled to "collective thought" or "culture"?

Halbwachs (on p.62) suggests we remember things because they are new; Douglas, on the other hand, articulates a theory that remembering is dependent on structural reinforcement (a kind of "economy of memory"). Does unfamiliarity make us more or less likely to remember? Do we remember because we can fit something within a framework, because we can’t, or both? Are memories that are intelligible ("memory") and those that aren’t (trauma, habit) significantly different? Are they different in how they are remembered, in the effects of remembering, in their degree of narrative coherence, or emotional resonance? Something else?

Halbwachs, Connerton, and Douglas suggest that the present shapes our memories of the past. Does memory have anything to do with the past at all (c.f. Augustine, Bergson)? What is the value of locating our experiences in the past, of telling stories that we believe have something to do with the past? Does Freud have the answer to collective memory in his theory of the individual’s ego formation, e.g., should we see the creation of group identity as an analogous process, also requiring narrative coherence (though not necessarily accuracy)?

Douglas, using Merton’s work, suggests that forgetting is structural, that features of our social organization enable some things to be forgotten while encouraging others to be retained. She also suggests that we examine memory on the margins, watching events we remember as they sink out of sight (p.76). How might such a sociological perspective on memory problematize Foucault’s idea of "subjugated knowledges"? To what extent does a subjugated knowledge require some element of structural support to be retained as memory? To what extent are subjugated knowledges merely relatively disenfranchised knowledges, rather than the truly unthinkable? Are subjugated knowledges collective? Is memory (ever) a subjugated knowledge, or are memories (always) the simultaneous subject and vehicle of a regime of power?