Notes on how we remember, 1: memory as collective process

My friend and adviser, historian Dr Mansour Bonakdarian, recommended this book to me early in our conversation about this project a few months ago:

Zerubavel, Eviatar. Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

It was one of the first books that I read but am just now getting to add some highlights here. As I start developing the script for Sampsonia (aka Theresia Shirley) and Sayyida Salme (Emily Said-Ruete), it is particularly important to think about “how we remember” rather than just “what we remember.” There is not a whole lot remembered about Sampsonia, and Sayyida Salme’s biography is available to me only in English not in German, the language she had written it in. Also, I’m combining the two figures to arrive at a composite. Hence I think this review of “time maps” would be a good way to start the week.

A “sociomental topography” implies a pronouncedly cognitive focus, … how the past is registered and organized in our minds… much less concerned with what Jesus, Columbus, or Nebuchadnezzar actually did than with their roles as “figures of memory” … not what actually happened in history but how we remember it. p 2

A sociomental topography of the past helps highlight [the] pronouncedly social dimension of human memory by revealing how entire communities, and not just individuals, remember the past. The phenomenology of history it provides is thus grounded in a sociology of memory. p 2

In transcending strictly personal recollections, the sociology of memory effectively foregrounds what we come to remember as social beings. p 2

Unlike psychology, sociology is particularly attentive to the social context within which we access the past, thereby reminding us that we actually remember much of what we do only as members of particular communities. p 3

Our recollection and reconstruction of historical events in general and historical traumas in particular, are part of social and communal processes much in the same way as empowerment and healing have to be social and communal.

Being social presupposes the abiltiy to experience things that happened to the groups to which we belong long before we even joined them as if they were part of our own personal past. p 3

Hence in creating alternative versions of the past – alternative memories – it is essential to constitute mnemonic rituals and social processes.

[E]xistential fusion of one’s personal history with that of the communities to which one belongs also helps explain the tradition of pain and suffering carried by American descendants of African slaves as well as the persoanl sense of shame felt by many young Germans about the atrocities of a regime that ended long before they were born. p 3

Indeed, axquring a group’s memories and thereby identifying with its collective past is part of the process of acquiring any social identity, and familiarizing members with that past is a major part of communities’ efforts to assimilate them. p 3

By the same token, exiting a social community often involves dispensing with its past; children of assimilated immigrants thus rarely get to learn much from their parents about the history of the societies they chose to physically as well as psychologically leave behind. p 3

Therefore, in constructing new ways of remembering, the social aspects much be reinforced in language, “we, us, ours,” to create a sense of inclusion. Interestingly, this intersects with the notion of “transformative language” as a language that is inclusive of the speaker and listener. A simple device for creating a sense of belonging and inclusion is to have chorus lines that get repeated by the audience in response to invitation by the performer/reader.

Rather than a mere aggregate of the personal recollections of its various members, a community’s collective memory includes only those shared by its members as a group. As such, it invokes a common past that they all seem to recall… [A]s becomes evident on any commemorative holiday, they often recall that past together, thereby reminding us that our social environment affects not only what we remembers but also when we come to remember it… The social nature of human memory is evident not only in the actual content of our recollections but also in the way they are mentally packaged… as various mental filters that are quite independent of those facts nevertheless affect the way we process them in our minds… Such filters are highly impersonal, as they are rarely ever grounded in individual’s own experience. p 4

Far from being a strictly spontaneous act, remembering is also governed by unmistakably social norms of remembrance that tell us what we should remember and what we should essentially forget. It is through such mnemonic socialization that both born-again Christians and recovering alcoholics, for example, learn to include in their autobiographical accounts some earlier period marked by highly formulaic memories of depravity. p 5

I often witness different ‘norms of remembrance’ in groups when people introduce themselves and give brief autobiographies.

Given their unmistakably impersonal nature, social memories are by no means confined, like personal recollections, to our own bodies. It was language that freed human memory from having to be stored exclusively in individuals’ brain. Once it became possible for people to share their personal experiences with others through communication, such experiences could be preserved as essentially disembodied impersonal recollections even after they themselves were long gone. pp 5-6

It may, therefore, be argued that the mode of historiography we are familiar with – impersonal and factual – alienate us from our ancestors by disembodying generational experience. On the other hand, stories, parables and allegories allow us to inhabit the encapsulated experience without falling into temporal disjunctures and discontinuities.

Indeed, language allows memories to actually pass from one person to another even when there is no direct contact between them … mnemonic transitivity enables us to preserve memories in the form of oral traditions that are transmitted from one generation to the next… p 6

We could stretch the domain of language to include ritual and ceremony. Indeed, we must stretch it otherwise we get locked into impersonal and disembodied logocentrism.

Since the invention of writing it is actually possible to bypass any oral contact, however indirect, with any future audience… That explains the tremendous significance of docuemnts in business (receipts), law (court decisions), diplomacy (treaties), bureaucracy (minutes), and science (lap reports)… Social preservation of memories does not even require any verbal transmission. Portraits, statues, photographs, and videocassettes, for example, represent various efforts to capture the images and sounds of the past and thereby offer posterity visual as well as auditory access to historical figures and events… Libraries, bibliographies, folk legends, photo albums, and television archives thus constitute the “sites” of social memory as well as some useful means for studying it. p 6

To this list one might add earth mounds left by itinerant and/or earth-centred societies.

Following the fundamental “structuralist” claim that meaning lies in the manner in which semiotic objects are systematically positioned in relation to one another, I believe that the social meaning of past events is essentially a function of the way they are structurally positioned in our minds vis-a-vis other events. p 7

Yes and no. Yes, because the structure of narration of the past is a factor in our understanding of it, and not quite because it is not the only factor. Every narration – every structure – by its nature carries its own negation because every narrative is selective. Thus the absences are conditions of possibility for re-interpretation and multiplicity of meanings.

My pronouncedly generic theoretical concerns call for an explicit commitment to decontextualize my findings by pulling them out of the culturally and historically specific environments within which I first happen to identify them, since my ultimate goal is to develop a transcultural as well as a a transhistorical perspective on social memory as a generic phenomenon. p 9

These generic structures are very exciting for me, as I think I will be able to use them in developing structures of narration for the performances.

One of the most remarkable features of human memory is our ability to mentally transform essentially unstructured series of events into seemingly coherent historical narratives. We normally view past events as episodes in a story… In order for historical events to form storylike narratives, we need to be able to envision some connection between them. Establishing such unmistakably contrived connectedness is the very essence of the inevitably retrospective mental process of emplotment. p 13

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  1. […] – is inscribed on the collective and individual body. We internalize history by forming collective memory which is recorded and colletivized through rituals of remembering. When it comes to traumatic events (and, let’s face it, history is non but trauma), unless […]