Sunday, March 17, 2013

More on Collective Memory

The is a follow up to my previous post.

What makes collective memory so frequently memory-as-a-contested-terrain, is that it is most often closely linked to our self-identity.  And a common form of self-identity within a group is when we identify with our nation. The nation forms one of the most convincing communities of memory and, as such, collective memory is the foundation myth that forms the ideological basis of the nation. But the myth which is the national collective memory is always open to assault.  Groups that hold counter-memories may attempt to contradict the accepted narrative or try to force themselves into the national discourse.

Famine memorial, Dublin
National memory frequently becomes memory-as-a-contested-terrain when the conquered, the losers, the victims, usually in a deliberative, instrumentalist manner, attack the accepted narrative and push forward their counter-memories. When group membership involves an experience that might be deemed shameful, for example a past event that runs counter to the foundational myth (which is inevitably a positive self-image), collective forgetfulness is an option. Most British citizens will remember the triumphs of the Industrial Revolution but have well and truly forgotten the Irish Famine; Americans will remember their Declaration of Independence but are less likely to remember that its authors were not only slave owners, but were enthusiastically such; French children learn of the brave French resistance while French society as a whole has forgotten the massive numbers of Vichy collaborators.

From a psychological point of view the act of forgetting and repressing is a common collective strategy that may be imposed by a repressive government but can also be found in open societies, such as democracies.   Where the national community is concerned, it seems to be relatively simple to forget that which seems shameful or that which does not cohere with the positive self-image that the members of the community hold.  For instance, while we know that German soldiers misbehaved during World War Two, and that the soldiers of the Soviet Union perpetrated widespread rape against German women and children, citizens of western democracies have been able to forget that their own troops indulged in widespread rape of Japanese and German women. Johanna Burke quotes an American intelligence officer in wartime Germany: “There is a tendency among the naïve or malicious to think that only Russians loot and rape (…) the warriors of Democracy were no more virtuous than the troops of Communism were reported to be.” [  Johanna Burke, “Introduction to ‘Remembering’ War”, Journal of Contemporary History. Volume 39 (4), October, 2004, p. 473]

But to forget the past has become a non-option. Facing up to the crimes during World War Two, (or at least the crimes that were perpetrated by Germany and Japan), along with the popularity of Truth Commissions in more recent post-conflict societies (beginning in post-apartheid South Africa), as well as the call for justice through institutions like the International Tribunal for Crimes in Former Yugoslavia, has given the process of forgetting a bad name.  The truth must be told. It is often those who perceive themselves as the silenced victims, who take the instrumentalist approach and force their experiences back into the collective memory.
Historians are the ones who are professionally engaged with the past. Their rememberings (re-constructions) are partially shaped by their media, strongly biased towards the scholarly, written essay. Their interpretations, (with their scholarly apparatus externalized in the form of footnotes, bibliographies, jargon and peer review) form only one strand of representing the past; for the general public, perhaps, not the most vital representation. When analyzing the construction of collective memory, historiographical works earn no special respect.  Novelists, politicians, artists and, increasingly, film makers offer the public representations of a past reality and when these representations come to be accepted they in turn contribute to the construction and distribution and maintenance of a mediated collective memory. Steven Spielberg’s recent Lincoln will no doubt help to shape the American collective memory to a far greater extent than academic monographs on the same subject.

International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, The Hague

Collective memory is always mediated. Without the mediated representations there would be no collective memory and we would all be condemned to remember only those parts of the past that we have experienced directly or those which have been shared with us directly by those who have experienced them. Memory on the collective level – that is, the construction and circulation of knowledge and versions of a common past in socio-cultural contexts – is only possible with the aid of media. Of course media are not simply tools that aid remembering but, themselves, shape our constructions of the past. The representations provided by a movie, for instance, will be quite different than those provided in an autobiography or a work of academic history. Increasingly our memory of the Holocaust, and other past realities, is shaped by the entertainment industry, so called ‘histotainment’ and this does determine, to a great extent, how we remember.  In this sense the medium is the memory
There is no doubt that the years 1945-1950 in Dutch-Indonesian relations formed a major rupture in Dutch history.  It is no exaggeration to say that the period was experienced by the Dutch as being traumatic. For many decades after the conflict the main strategy seems to have been, for the most part, to maintain a silence. But the memory of the conflict would not disappear. Just below the surface, memories of the period became contested. Occasionally these contested memories broke the surface and representations of decolonization that contradicted the official version entered the national discourse by means of television, cinema and the arts. Eventually contested memories found their way into the law courts.  As I write, those who perceive themselves as having been victims of the Dutch are still taking their cases to court, are attempting to have their voices heard and are assaulting the Dutch national collective memory.  The silence has been broken.


  1. Absolutely fantastic essay!

    1. Thanks. I hope you'll read the first half as well:

  2. Great, many thanks for this article and thanks to the people who have the courage to claim their rights in court. Best regards.