Reflections on the Collective Memory
An Essay on the Question of its Existence, and its Suggestibility
Text by Michl-Felix Bierl (Freie Universität Berlin)
Image by Lena Rorschach
The following essay is a reflection on the so-called collective memory of a society. The imagined past is one in which the questions, “what must be remembered?”, and “what must be forgotten?” are asked, and answered differently. This essay tries to reflect on the flawed constitution of a collective memory which will be compared with the also flawed memory of the individual. Reacting on the critique, that a collective memory is merely metaphorical in the sense, that individual psychological terms are just transferred to the scale of a society, this essay discusses the existing structures stemming from normative memory practices. Considering the National Narrative Templates of James Wertsch, and its implications on the memory of a heterogenous society, it will shed light on the memory practices of Canada, and its counter-narrative. Furthermore, the collective memory, expressed through symbols, media content, public institutions, and societal practices, is confronted with the collected memory, which is the individual memory informed, and influenced through collectively shared narratives. Underlining the importance of counter narratives, as a corrective in the practice of ignoring concurrent voices, and heterogenous memories, some suggestions are made. Since there is a plurality of voices, and simultaneous existing different memories, it should not be pathologized, as it is within ambivalent memories of the past in individuals, but encouraged, celebrated, and incorporated in national narratives, and collective memories.
Identity, identity politics, and especially collective identity are buzzwords not only in public-, and media discourses, but also in academia. They are highly, and controversially debated, used for political propaganda, and polarization. Some edgy TV-show hosts even refer to identity discourses as a “minefield”. But what do people of a group identify with? What is it, that makes people of a group argue, fight, and even die for? During the course, of this essay, I want to shed light on at least a small fraction of the bigger picture here. One source of a collective identity as a group, is an imagined, collectively embraced narrative of a shared past. Of course, ignoring all the other factors at play, at least for the moment, and the time of this short read.
One could refer to this (imagined) past as myth, (hi)story, fairy tale, normative narrative, tradition, or the oral, mental or material expression of belonging. But of course, there is neither an individual who belongs to, and identifies with only one group, nor are all individuals of a group included in the imagined past, and therefore neither in the present. Isn’t this, why it seems to get more, and more complicated in nowadays discussions about belonging, and identity?
The human mind, especially the memory is flawed, full of errors, and not really a reliable source of information, due to the structure of our brain, which overwrites, overemphasises,, and even ignores information coming in. Coming back to collective memory, which must consist of a collective of individual memories, I want to talk about whether, there even is such a thing as a collective memory, and if there is, if it is as amenable to influence, as the individual memory?
A Metaphoric Mess?
The collective memory of a people, so the accusation of critics against collectivist theories, is nothing more than the improper transference of individual psychological terms to a structural, or societal level (Erll 2017, 94). Marc Bloch for example, was the first one to critisise the ad-on of the word “collective” to terms, such as “memory”, or “oblivion” (Ibid.). Since there is nothing physical to measure here, it is, so the critique, just a metaphoric hypothesis to grasp a physically non-existent entity (Ibid.). But are the structures, the monuments on squares, and the implicit exclusions, as consequence of specific memories, which are shared throughout a group not real?
At the end of the day, it seems like “collective memory” is an umbrella term, that subsumes a large number of cultural-, social-, psychological-, and biological phenomena, so it seems like the term might just be too simplistic to be of any analytical use (Erll 2017, 96). But on the other hand, just because something is not immediately measurable, it does not mean that it cannot be considered in the analysis. It is just like the term “culture”, which is not just highly interwoven with the subject of this essay, but also like a cloud, which gets more, and more, fuzzy the more you think about it.
To further develop my point, I want to introduce the national narrative templates of James Wertsch, in which societal narratives of a nation (also physically not immediately measurable) serve as “[…] cultural tools […] [that] shape the speaking and thinking of individuals to such a degree that they can be viewed as serving as ‘coauthors’ when reflecting on the past” (2008, 139). Let us have a look at Canada to demonstrate Wertsch’s point here. Stephanie Anderson (2017), draws from Wertsch’s narrative templates, and identifies three specific Canadian National Narrative Templates. Two of them are reproduced, and reinforced in public institutions, and sites of pedagogy, such as museums. The National Narrative Template 1.0 (NN. 1.0) communicates progress in the light of the arrival of the European settlers, their hardships, ambitions, and finally the success of “taming the wilderness” (Anderson 2020, 429). In the wake of the NN. 1.0, Canadian First Nations are marginalized, and exoticized as “[…] noble savages, or children in need of white, European dominance” (Anderson 2017, 17). There are many examples of the NN 1.0, still in (implicit) use in museum curations, advertisements, art calendars, and so forth, but unfortunately there is not enough space to go in detail now (Ibid.). Jan Assmann identifies a central question asked by a “memory culture” to establish the identity of a group. The question is the following: “What must we not forget?” (2011, 16). Though to build a nation, the other side of the coin must be considered at least as important, incorporating negative, repressive, and oblivious factors, and the question, “what must be forgotten?”. Concerning the Canadian First Nations, an ethnocide was put into practice, and through the prohibition of specific rituals, and indigenous knowings, such as languages prohibited to be taught, assimilation was enforced (Saunders 1997, 140).
The National Narrative Template 2.0 (NN 2.0) emerged during the 20th century, and constitutes Canada, and its European population as a tolerant mosaic, in which minorities have an official multi-cultural, national identity, which is constructed as unstable, and serves (symbolized through a dash), as an add-on to the Canadian identity (Anderson 2017, 19-20, Anderson 2020, 511). While still often structurally ignored, the history, and (physical) culture of those First Nations has been appropriated as part of the “[…] panindigenous-Canadian national identity“ (Anderson 2020, 511). The storyline here is one from colony to nation, which is about social cohesion, instead of marginalization, and is collectively celebrated as a national succes (Anderson 2018, 324).
The Counter-National Narrative (NN 3.0) is not as much a narrative at play, as it is a concurrent rupture, which questions the NN 1.0, and NN 2.0 through reflexive criticism (Anderson 2018, 323). In this narration, the term nationality, and identity is questioned through art, and museal practice, which sheds light on diasporic-, hybrid- or transcultural identities, and their perspectives (Anderson 2017, 24). In every society, such narratives, shape, and frame the historic discourses, and therefore the collective memory of specific events. And while they are at play, they exclude certain groups of the collective. The collective memory could be identified as symbols, media content, public institutions (such as museums), and societal practices, regarding the past, which is indeed only a metaphoric memory. While the collected memory is the socially-, and culturally shaped individual memory, which is informed, and influenced through collectively shared narratives, and norms (Erll 2017, 95). Both memories mentioned above, are only effective in combination, since there is no such thing as a pre-cultural individual memory, and neither is there a culture, detached from individuals (Ibid., Assmann 2011, 22)
One can say that commemorative culture(s) exist to shape a collectively shared past, and a self-definition, identifying a group as an “imagined community” (Anderson 2006). What is considered cultural, and collective memory is never factual, but always remembered history, and therefore in a strict sense antihistorical (Assmann 2011, 37, Wertsch 2008, 150). To now make use of the debatable application of individual traits on a societal level, I would argue that as much as an individual makes sense of one’s life by constructing a specific myth (“[i]t is a story that I continue to revise, and tell to myself (and sometimes to others) as I go on living” (McAdams 1993, 11)), the collective also makes sense of the past through narrated myths, which lead to real existing identities, and realities of life. Maurice Halbwachs, and Jan Assmann would call this approach to the past a socio-constructivist one (Assmann 2001, 33). Our memories are of course interior, as in being internalized contents of the past in the mind, but at the same time exterior, since the perception of experience is highly influenced by the own group’s conventions, and categories (Halbwachs 1992, 168). Since I already applied the example of Canada, let us stay on a national level, because even though nations are considered quite recent cultural artifacts, they also provide a quite universal base to look at collective memories (Klimenko 2018, 142). While forging a nation, and constructing homogenous unity, historical knowledge must be monopolized. This is exactly what Timothy Stanley, Professor Emeritus at the University of Ottawa, with an expertise on antiracist education means, when he writes that the representation of nations history can either serve a nationalist narrative, or an anti-racist one, but not both (Stanley 2012, 40, Klimenko 2018, 153). Therefore, collective forgetting is the complementary factor to collective memory which ignores and forgets the “[…] ruins of the past by imagining coherence” (Shuman 2005, 61). This is what the two main Canadian National Templates at play also enforce, while the third one tries to counteract, from an indigenous, marginalized perspective.
Now we know, even though the collective memory of a nation is, first of all a metaphor that allows pointing out, what exactly leads, and affects the thinking, and acting of individuals, it exists through the structures it produces. We also know that individuals are quite easily manipulatable regarding the memory of specific events. But on a national narrative level, if collective memory is deep, and therefore not only implicitly at work, but also deeply embedded, it is quite resistant to change and conservative in nature (Wertsch 200, 24). So, one could argue that, after a specific commemorative narrative is established, it is hard to change through either repressive prohibition of specific rituals, etc., or through reflexive, and critical historical reappraisal. In the latter case, public institutions like museums, must act like memory activists, not only to counter-act the collective memory of those considered the majority, but also to give voice to concurrent memories, which are shut down, ignored, and eventually forgotten. Those institutions are never neutral, even if some want to maintain the illusion. In consequence, memory activist institutions like museums, and so forth could influence the collective memory by curating, what Roger Simon calls “difficult knowledge” (2014, 11), which confronts and reminds individuals of their responsibility, and even compliance with past wrongs, and the resulting present structures (Harris 2018, 204).
In the best case, the plurality of voices, and simultaneous existing different memories are not, (as it is with individuals) pathologized, but rather encouraged, and celebrated, since only a tolerance of ambiguity, and the recognition of the plurality of commemorative cultures lead to “healthy” structures within societies. And with “healthy” structures I mean structures, which are democratic, and decolonized.
To round up my argument, one can say that the above-mentioned collective-, and collected memories influence each other, such as the structures affecting individuals, and vice versa. And even though critics could argue that the debates about collective memory (and therefore also about identity) are mere metaphorical ones, and symbolic in their nature, it eventually leads to deeply rooted, existing exclusions, discriminations, and structures one would never dare to call “not real”, or only metaphorical.
 To read more about those templates at work in Canada, see Anderson (2017, 2018, 2020).
Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities- Reflections on the Origin and Spread Nationalism. New York: Verso.
Anderson, Stephanie. 2017. “The Stories Nations Tell: Sites of Pedagogy, Historical Consciousness, and National Narratives” Canadian Journal of Education, 40:1, 1-38.
Anderson, Stephanie. 2018. “The construction of national identity and the curation of difficult knowledge at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights” Museum Management and Curatorship, 33:4, 320-343.
Anderson, Stephanie. 2020. “Unsettling national narratives and multiplying voices: the art museum as renewed space for social advocacy and decolonization – a Canadian case study” Museum Management and Curatorship, 35:5, 488-531.
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