Collective Memory and the Historical Past
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Collective Memory and the Historical Past

Jeffrey Andrew Barash

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eBook - ePub

Collective Memory and the Historical Past

Jeffrey Andrew Barash

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There is one critical way we honor great tragedies: by never forgetting. Collective remembrance is as old as human society itself, serving as an important source of social cohesion, yet as Jeffrey Andrew Barash shows in this book, it has served novel roles in a modern era otherwise characterized by discontinuity and dislocation. Drawing on recent theoretical explorations of collective memory, he elaborates an important new philosophical basis for it, one that unveils profound limitations to its scope in relation to the historical past.Crucial to Barash's analysis is a look at the radical transformations that symbolic configurations of collective memory have undergone with the rise of new technologies of mass communication. He provocatively demonstrates how such technologies' capacity to simulate direct experience—especially via the image—actually makes more palpable collective memory's limitations and the opacity of the historical past, which always lies beyond the reach of living memory. Thwarting skepticism, however, he eventually looks to literature—specifically writers such as Walter Scott, Marcel Proust, and W. G. Sebald—to uncover subtle nuances of temporality that might offer inconspicuous emblems of a past historical reality.

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* Part 1 *

Symbolic Embodiment, Imagination, and the “Place” of Collective Memory

Chapter 1

Is Collective Memory a Figment of the Imagination? The Scope of Memory in the Public Sphere

The historical introduction in the previous chapter advanced the hypothesis that the prominence of collective memory as a theme of theoretical reflection since the early decades of the twentieth century corresponds to a decisive shift in conceptions of collective experience that could no longer be accounted for through the principal paradigms bequeathed by the past. Over the modern period, as we have seen, the demise of traditional metaphysical presuppositions concerning the intelligibility of unchanging truths governing human society and the world in which it is situated brought to the fore a resolutely anthropological scope of reflection. The twentieth century witnessed a widespread questioning of all-encompassing spiritual or natural principles in their capacity to account for human historical development as an overall process. Parallel to the unprecedented transformation of the conditions of human life, beginning in Europe and North America, and a wide experience of discontinuity with the past, the preoccupation with collective memory reflected a shift in the modes of interpreting the phenomenon of social cohesion and human historical development. Here the historicist presuppositions that “historical memory” might discern a principle of cohesion uniting the epochs of history as a process or that the notion of an “organic memory” might explain historical development in terms of an inherited natural legacy gave way to a more limited perspective from which the topic of collective memory as an autonomous field of investigation provided a corresponding method of reflection.
After tracing the emergence of this new paradigm in the introduction, I devote my efforts in the following chapters to the development of a theoretical approach to the phenomenon of collective memory in the human social and political world. In this theoretical perspective, my primary concern centers on the precise sense that we might attribute to the concept of “collective memory.”


Upon initial examination, the concept of “collective memory” presents an immediate difficulty as soon as we attempt to clarify it. According to its primary signification, remembrance is carried out in the original sphere of the self. In a strict sense, collectivities never “remember” any more than they have an autonomous, substantial being. And yet, members of a community, as vast as it may be, may share remembrances of what can be publicly communicated through word, image, and gesture. In the public sphere, however, it is not generally possible to convey what memory recalls in immediate personal experience: people and things, events and situations as they actually present themselves in a direct encounter or, so to speak, “in the flesh.” My understanding of this phrase draws on phenomenological theory—above all on the work of Edmund Husserl, who equated original experience with what he termed experience “in the flesh” in a given, living present (“leibhafte Erfahrung in einer jeweiligen lebendigen Gegenwart”).1 Other persons, as Husserl explained, present themselves to us “in the flesh.” In a precise sense, this signifies that their bodies, movements, and gestures are displayed to us, and it is by this means that we gather in a secondary manner their inner thoughts and feelings. Moreover, Husserl also applied the phrase “in the flesh,” leibhaft, to other things in the world, as to the givenness of the surrounding world itself. If photographs, paintings, or descriptions may revivify these encounters or publicly relate them through signs, images, or gestures, they can never replace this primordial capacity, which is unique to remembrance in the original sense. A brief example serves to illustrate this concept.
Autobiographical literature provides particularly vivid accounts of encounters in the flesh as, for example, in François-René de Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe. In this autobiographical memoir composed in different periods of the author’s life and modeled along the lines of a confession, Chateaubriand proposed “to account for myself to myself [ . . . ]; to explain my inexplicable heart, in seeing finally what I will say once my pen abandons itself without constraint to all of my recollections.”2 With this aim in mind Chateaubriand, in an early chapter of the work, recalls his experiences as a young man when, in the early 1790s, he embarked on a voyage to the New World. After he arrived in Philadelphia, he was invited to the home of George Washington, first president of the United States, who was in Philadelphia at that moment. Chateaubriand recounts their first meeting, before seeing him the next day at a dinner to which he was invited in the president’s unassuming residence: “Large in size, appearing calm and cold rather than noble, he resembles his portraits.” Regarding the dinner with Washington and a small number of his friends, Chateaubriand relates that while the president was “at his brilliant apogee,” he himself was completely unknown; “I was happy, however,” he writes, “that his gaze turned toward me! I felt enheartened by this encounter for the rest of my life!”3
Another example, this time a visual representation, will serve to complement Chateaubriand’s reminiscence. In roughly the same period as Chateaubriand’s visit to Washington, the United States Congress commissioned the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon to fashion a marble representation of the first president of the United States. He made the trip from Paris to the New World to create this and other sculptures of Washington. The works were done in Washington’s presence at his residence in Mount Vernon, Virginia, where the one commissioned by Congress stands today. The candidness of expression and the imposing demeanor of Houdon’s representation of Washington corroborate Chateaubriand’s description of the statesman. But here we come to our principle point: in spite of the vivid evocations of Washington conveyed to posterity by the talents of the writer and the sculptor, nothing permits us to recall an original encounter with Washington in the flesh, which Chateaubriand and Houdon each experienced at different moments and which it is the primordial capacity of memory to recall.
In our contemporary world, such a limitation of original experience to direct personal encounters might, of course, seem hopelessly narrow. Nowadays, we have immediate ways of conveying encounters through radio and television, and we can watch video interviews with public figures long after they have ceased to exist. Nonetheless, these media, even if they are able to record events for an untold number of spectators and preserve them for a seemingly indefinite period in film archives, cannot replace direct encounters in the flesh. What is missing in such reproductions or virtual representations is precisely the aura of a singular presence encountered in the plenitude of a surrounding “lifeworld” (or Lebenswelt). In its full sense, an encounter in the flesh signifies not only the perception of persons or things as single objects, but above all an experience of them in the lifeworld’s immediately given horizon. Within this horizon, the foreground upon which the observer focuses presupposes a background, the plenitude of an accompanying context that is simultaneously given, even where the observer pays no attention to it. Where it is not explicitly noticed and stands in the background of the direct theme of attention, its passive presence may in many cases be made a topic of recall where an effort is made to retrieve it. Moreover, in the case of film or video presentations, it is rarely a matter of spontaneous encounters: even when they are, so to speak, “live,” and not merely recorded, they are regularly organized or “staged,” and they address a wholly anonymous mass audience with which there is only very rarely a possibility of interaction.4 Even the social media that have become a popular means of communication in the Internet, where they make possible a measure of direct interaction, do so only through the mediation of a video interface that simulates personal encounters without being able to recreate them. As such, no “live,” “prerecorded,” or interactive media are able to reproduce the direct personal quality and the unique aura characteristic of situations and events as they are experienced in the flesh.
Figure 1. Jean-Antoine Houdon, Bust of George Washington, 1789–1808, Louvre Museum, Paris. © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/René-Gabriel Ojéda.
The cardinal importance we attribute to such direct encounters is clearly illustrated by the role that we generally accord to eyewitness testimony in everyday experience. Of course, witnesses may in certain cases be mistaken or may even attempt to mislead us in their accounts. Indeed, to return to our previous example, George Washington’s records of his meetings during the month when Chateaubriand was in Philadelphia, which do not seem to corroborate Chateaubriand’s account, have led some commentators to question the reality of this encounter, or at least the sequence of events as Chateaubriand recorded it in his work Mémoires d’outre-tombe.5 In this regard, we cannot exclude the possibility that further evidence might eventually be uncovered proving that what Chateaubriand claimed to be an encounter in the flesh was actually a product of his literary imagination.
Beyond the possibility, however, of mistaken testimonies or those that invent or intend to mislead, reports of direct encounters are themselves manifestly of different kinds: eyewitness experience by passive bystanders presents a very different perspective than that of active participants in events, especially in violent or traumatic situations, such as war or similar occurrences. Involvement in traumatic situations has been associated with well-documented forms of memory loss and, in extreme cases, with aphasia.6
In all of these situations taken together, the fact that we can represent fictive constructions as real events, or that all sorts of imaginative constructions may lead us to distort the recollection of in-the-flesh encounters, and that traumatic experiences may cause us to repress them, encourages us to exercise great caution in interpreting such accounts. Here we must allow not only for the possibility that purely fictive creations may be represented as experienced “events,” but also for the fact that experienced events themselves are always perceived in a particular perspective and are necessarily reconstructed through interpretative acts, raising the possibility that beyond the margins of the occurrences themselves, they may be subject to voluntary or unwitting re-elaboration, distortion, or suppression. Given the diversity of perspectives and the role of interpretative acts in the reconstruction of past experience, it would therefore be naive to claim that encounters in the flesh directly register the “reality” of events themselves, beyond the interpretative reconstruction of the viewer. And yet, in spite of this obvious limitation, eyewitness representations correspond to fundamental and irreplaceable kinds of experience. Far from recapitulating reality in some absolute sense of the term, they must constantly be complemented and corrected by other testimonies, which is why the comparison of numerous testimonies by different witnesses and their fit within the pattern of events remains the most reliable way to reconstruct the factuality of past occurrences. And here, not only in our everyday behavior, but also in the work of the judge or the historian, eyewitness reports are accorded a role of particular importance.7
In certain exceptional situations, publicly significant events may be experienced as encounters in the flesh, but only rarely and by a very small minority of remembering individuals who witness them directly. Even in such cases, direct experience of a given event does not necessarily entail comprehension of its publicly significant scope. In such instances, the unbridgeable gap between the recollections of individuals or of members of small groups and what might be termed “public memory” in the sphere of vast collectivities might well lead us to question the legitimacy of any application of the concept of “memory” to the public sphere as such. Large-scale public commemorations, indeed, almost always recall what is beyond any possibility of remembrance by those who participate in them since, for example, the foundation of a state or the occurrence of other politically significant events most frequently lie beyond the possibilities of what any living individual might have experienced and remembered. In all such commemorative ceremonies, as in any form of representation of publicly constituted collectivities, such as national groups, it might seem more just to refer not to “collective memory” but to images that are products or “figments” of the imagination. This consideration has led numerous theorists of the social world to follow the lead of Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities, for whom such vast collectivities are “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds [sic] of each lives the image of their communion.”8 As a means of accounting for collective identity and group cohesion on a vast scale, insofar as it is rooted in reminiscence of a shared collective past, this recourse to the term imagination permits us to avoid the dilemma that the concept of “collective memory” would seem to introduce, since imagination as a capacity to maintain and revivify an “image of communion” on a large scale in no way requires that we invoke the most original feature intrinsic to remembrance of past experience, which is to have encountered what is remembered in the flesh.
Admittedly, however, the term imagination, as it engenders such “images of communion,” raises another kind of difficulty: it might seem to blur any distinction between an interpretation of social cohesion that traces its source to blanket fantasy or fiction and one that admits that, if social cohesion draws on the imagination, it may also lay some claim to a basis in a “remembered” past, even where recollection is indirect and borrowed from past experience reported by others. We may, of course, deny the importance of such a distinction and claim, with Nietzsche, that all viable social existence and political cohesion depend upon roots in the mythical Heimat and mythical maternal bosom.9 Indeed, as Nietzsche well appreciated, it may in many instances prove more in keeping with the requisites of a healthy vitality—and certainly of group contentment—to forget what is bothersome in the past or to recreate it along the lines of fiction. In referring to remembrance of the historical past, Nietzsche therefore frankly suggested that it is only when historical narrative is reframed as a “pure work of art” that it may sustain or even awaken vital instincts.10 However, our experience with political myths of the most sinister kinds in the twentieth century necessarily leads us to moderate Nietzsche’s radicalism and at least to distinguish between different varieties of myth on which collectivities may be founded; and here the delicate question of the relation of imagination to what is held to be a remembered past—even a past that has been remembered and related by others—must once again be asked.
To a large extent this question is of a semantic order. Ordinary language refers to memory or to imagination as if they were clear-cut and separate functions, whereas, even in immediate personal experience, they play multiple roles and are always interconnected. Far from designating simple operations, the words memory and imagination cover a wide range of capacities. A few cursory examples will suffice to illustrate this point.
In the original sphere of intimate life, the verb to remember is indifferently applied to very different kinds of experience, for I can remember a fantasy I have had, as I can recall all sorts of persons, events, or situations I am convinced I have experienced. On another level, I can remember an algebraic formula or how to ride a bicycle, just as I can remember how to use all kinds of skills I have acquired by learning, both purely intellectual and more corporeal and physical. The single term memory clearly covers a whole range of possible experiences, actual or fictive, sensuous or intellectual, passive or active.
In a similar manner, the word imagination carries multiple connotations that ordinary discourse rarely distinguishes in an explicit manner. We generally recognize the work of imagination in the production of fictive events—the so-called “experiences as if” (“als-ob Erlebnisse”)—as also in the more incoherent flights of fantasy. From a theoretical point of view, the phenomenological research of Edmund Husserl has emphasized the fundamental role of imagination at the heart of perceptual acts. Where perceived objects always present themselves partially in a given field of view and from a given standpoint, it is imagination, he explains, in an act of “fulfillment,” that permits their identification as meaningful phenomena. Still another fundamental capacity of the imagination is identifiable in what might be termed its deliberative capacity.11 It is this activity of imagination that permits us to localize past events in memory and place them in temporal sequence. If I have lost a key or implement, I may apply this deliberative capacity of the imagination to envisaging all of the places where I might have inadvertently dropped it in order to find it once again. It would reach beyond the scope of the present discussion to examine this topic in detail, which has been interpreted from different theoretical standpoints since Aristotle, Hume, Kant, or Husserl, to name only the best known interpreters. I limit my comments to the collective sphere and remark that here too, if we are to interpret collective remembrance by vast groups in public life, it is necessary to precisely identify its relation to “imagination.”
How might we understand the role of imagination in the realm of collectively remembered, publicly communicable experience? Certainly fantasy and myth play a central role at all levels of social existence, but, as I interpret it, the social bond is not simply based on imaginary creations, for it must be traced to a more fundamental function of imagination in the communal sphere, which interweaves the very fabric of communal cohesion. Imagination in this sense is a precondition for social existence per se and, as such, con...


  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. Acknowledgments
  7. Introduction: The Sources of Memory
  8. PART 1  Symbolic Embodiment, Imagination, and the “Place” of Collective Memory
  9. PART 2  Time, Collective Memory, and the Historical Past
  10. Notes
  11. Bibliography
  12. Index