The future of memory

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Richard Ned Lebow December 2007
I, entelechy, form of forms, am I by memory

because under ever-changing forms.

- - - Stephen Dedalus1

In this essay I speculate about some of the ways in which greater public awareness of memory as a political resource and site of contestation is likely to influence elite and mass behavior. Changes of behavior in turn have the potential to alter the dynamics by which memory is created, recalled and altered. If knowledge of memory influences the practice of memory, which in turn negates, at least in part, the validity of any understanding of the interaction among institutional, collective and individual memories, we are talking about an infinite regress – something that would surely put a smile on Max Weber’s face.

My inquiry is premised on three related assumptions. The first, an empirical one, is that elites and public opinion in at least some countries have become increasingly aware of memory as something that is problematic and often a site of contestation. My second assumption, theoretical in nature, is that elite and public opinion in at least some countries has become more receptive to the implications of this information. My third assumption, back to the empirical, is that growing awareness by elites and the ordinary public of both the malleability and politicization of memory will have important consequences for future efforts to influence and control memory at institutional, collective and individual levels.

My first assumption has two components: awareness of memory as something that is not necessarily accurate, unchanging and recallable, and recognition that groups with competing agendas often struggle to shape and control memory on at least the institutional level. What evidence is there to support this claim? This is not an easy question to answer in the absence of good survey data. A simple poll could provide useful data about how the public regards memory along several relevant dimensions.

A follow-on and more elaborate study would devise measures to determine the degree of public exposure to discourses that problematize memory and treat it as a site of contestation (the independent variable), and then survey publics in a sample of countries that score high and low on the independent variable to see the percentage of people in each who acknowledge memory to be problematic and contested (the dependent variable). A high correlation between greater public exposure to conflicts over memory and greater public awareness of memory as a site of contestation, and a lower correlation in countries where public exposure was less, would help establish this claim. In the absence of such studies, I must fall back on less scientific, impressionistic arguments.

The discourse on memory takes place in the scholarly literature and more popular media. In the historical profession, in North America and Europe, there is undeniably a “memory boom” underway. Searches on Amazon under the heading of “memory politics” or “politics of memory” get almost 4,000 hits just in English. A cursory examination of major historical journals over the past two decades also indicates a growing interest in the subject. Jay Winter (2000: 69-92) goes so far as to claim that memory is the new paradigm of history, overpowering and restructuring other frames of reference like class and gender.2 In the United States, academic debates take place in a rarefied atmosphere and with rare exceptions have little impact on wider publics. In Western Europe, especially in Germany and Italy, the media covers controversial political issues, and in Europe these have not infrequently concerned questions of historical memory and memorialization. Examples include the Touvier and Papon trials in France, the Waldheim affair in Austria, U.S. pressures on Swiss banks, official recognition of the Jedwabne massacre in Poland, the design and location of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin.3 All of these issues raised past events, often crimes in which the state was complicit and that official versions of institutional memory sought to hide.

Until recently, Eastern Europe had a different trajectory. In the Soviet Union and other communist states there was no open debate about the past and its memorialization, only efforts to impose official interpretations of history through the educational system and the media. The heavy-handed nature of such socialization, and the extent to which it was so much at odds with more national representations of the past made people more aware than they would have been otherwise of the importance of memory and extent to which it was a political resource. The fall of communism has had the same effect, although for the opposite reason. The “right to memory” has been asserted by peoples everywhere east of the former Oder-Neisse Line, and has served as a catalyst for the revival of national histories, but also efforts to confront the past in ways inimical to those propagating or supporting self-congratulatory national histories.4 In the last decade, debates about the past, and about the politics of memory itself, have been at least as prominent in Eastern Europe as they are in the West.5 During this period, the countries of Eastern Europe have at times been under pressure from both Russia and the West to approach memory in particular ways. Applications for entry into the European Community provided some leverage to the West in this regard, and there were pressures on Eastern European countries in the 1990s to consider their past more openly and honestly, pressures that strengthened the hand of indigenous intellectuals and politicians who were similarly inclined. Moscow was exerting its influence in the direction of retaining and respect Soviet war memorials that were omnipresent throughout the region. Most recently, the destruction of a Soviet war memorial in Talinn, Estonia provoked riots by ethnic Russians, a conflict with Russia and a growing public debate in Estonia.6

The United States is something of an outlier, as it is on so many issues As a victor in World War II it had little incentive to reconsider its past. This arose initially from the internment of Americans of Japanese descent which was declared unconstitutional after the war was over and widely recognized as morally reprehensible some decades later.7 Attempts to problematize World War II outside of the scholarly realm have not been noticeably successful. The controversy and cancellation in April 1995 of Martin Harwit’s planned Enola Gay exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum indicates that service organizations, the military and conservative congressmen remain unwilling to reconsider the ethics of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.8 Although a loser in Indochina, the U.S. was still powerful enough to shrug off its defeat and there was very little effort outside of the academic community to rethink the country’s national security policy on the basis of this experience. The Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 and the invasion of Iraq evoked memories of the Vietnam and of the trauma arising from the American defeat. They produced a display of yellow ribbons on cars, houses and trees, many of them with the logo: “Support our Troops.” In 2007, in keeping with their commitment to “stay the course” in Iraq, right-wing revisionists began publicizing the myth that America would have won the Vietnam war if public opinion had supported the forces engaged in combat.9

To the extent that memory has become at all problematic in the U.S. it has more to do with the phenomenon of “repressed” or “recovered” memory.” The concept originated by Freud, and later rejected by him. and remains one of the controversial subjects in psychiatry.10 A repressed memory, usually associated with trauma, is one that is not available to the conscious mind. Some therapists contend that memories of this kind recur in dreams and may be recovered years after the event. Other health professionals deny their existence. Repressed memory was popularized in the 1980s and 1990s by the media, some feminist groups, and a small number of psychologists. It featured in numerous criminal and civil trials, many of them involving alleged sexual abuse of children. In some states, the presumed existence of repressed memories provided the grounds for extending the statute of limitations in child abuse cases.11 Many of these trials have been widely discussed in the media, including those where recovered memory has been discredited, as in the case of Cardinal Joseph Bernadin who was charged with sexual abuse by a former seminarian who subsequently withdrew his allegation.12.

During this period repressed memories became the subject of popular books and a frequent talk-show topic.13 They have long provided plot lines for feature films, including Spellbound (1945), Tommy (1975), The Butterfly Effect (2004), and Serenity (2005), and for video games and comic books. In the movie Serenity (2005), the lead character’s mental health is restored once he is made aware of a repressed traumatic memory. In the video game Final Fantasy VII the protagonist has false memories of his military service because his “real” memories have been suppressed by brainwashing. Alien abduction is another major theme in popular culture that features repressed memories of encounters, often aboard spaceships, that cause nightmares and other problems until they are recovered.14

This foregrounding of repressed memory can reasonably be expected to have sensitized the American public to the importance of memory, but in a very different way than in Europe. The discourse of memory in the U.S. has been comparatively apolitical as it is focused largely on personal trauma. While the phenomenon of recovered memory has been extremely controversial, I have not found any data on how credible it is in the eyes of the American public. I surmise that it is high given the state-level legislation for which it is responsible. As for alien abduction, it is estimated that 3.7 million Americans to claim to have been abducted by aliens, and a 2002 Roper poll indicates that one in five Americans believe in alien abduction15 For those who reject recovered memory, the concept of memory itself cannot help but become more problematic. Just the reverse is true for those who give credence to recovered memory because it suggests that memories can be repressed but are “real” and remain remarkably resistant to efforts to reshape their content.

My second assumption is that elite and public opinion in at least some countries has become more receptive to evidence indicating the malleability of memory. In other words, many people not only recognize that memory as a resource that groups in their society attempt to exploit, but believe in the feasibility of this enterprise. This understanding of memory could profitably be examined in many different countries, but I will restrict myself to Europe where the memory boom – the in scholarly literature and popular media – has arguably been the most pronounced.

Earlier I noted the connection between memory and identity. As memory is considered by most people to make them who they are, they are most likely to safeguard and defend their memories – individual, collective and official – when they are confident about and content with their identities. They will defend their memories with a particular vengeance if they feel beleaguered. A dramatic case in point was the Protestant commitment during the so-called “troubles” in North Ireland to march through Catholic neighborhoods on Orange Day to commemorates the Protestant victory over Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690. The march reaffirmed Protestant identity and political power, and was accordingly resisted, often violently, by Catholics for whom the Battle of the Boyne was a marker of subjection. When identity becomes problematic, which it can for many reasons, people are likely to be less committed to memories and commemorations on which existing identities are based or from which they derive justification. Some of those memories and commemorations may become inconvenient if they stand in the way of changing or reformulating identities. For reasons that are widespread and idiosyncratic, identity was problematic in much of Europe after World War II, and is so again in the aftermath of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union.

The paradigmatic case in postwar Europe was the Federal Republic of Germany, national identity, previously strong, became uncomfortable for many Germans by raeson of the country’s Nazi past and the postwar division.16 Few Germans wanted to identity with Nazi Germany, but many found it difficult to define their identities in terms of either successor state. Some citizens of the Federal Republic sought to strengthen their attachments to the regions or develop a new, or at least supplemental, identity as Europeans. In Germany, Heimat (referring to the territory, people and customs of a region) had historically preceded Vaterland (the national state) as an identity and had remained a viable and respected secondary identification. Germans also had some earlier experience with a trans-state identities. In the nineteenth century, Deutschland and Deutschtum referred to the community of Germans and German speakers regardless of their political unit (e.g., Prussia, Austria, Bavaria). These pre-existing identities made postwar sub- and supra-state identities more accessible and acceptable.

Regional and European identities for Germans were also welcomed by their neighbors and the Americans. Regional identities – Prussia aside, and that was in the German Democratic Republic -- appeared to them relatively benign and raised the prospect of centrifugal tendencies that might restrain that still not trusted federal government. Supranational identities were built around European integration, of which the Franco-German alliance was the core, and were encouraged as a means of integrating Germany more fully into the Western community. Both kinds of identity – and they are by no means exclusive – had to be built on memories. In June 2004, Germany was invited for the first time to the D-Day commemoration at the invasion beaches in France. German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder used the opportunity to align Germany with the allies, telling his audience that D-Day was not as a “victory over Germany, but a victory for Germany” that lead to its liberation from Nazi rule. Schroeder’s speech raised some eyebrows at home but was very favorably received by other European leaders and public opinion.17 This unprecedented move toward a common, celebratory understanding of a former battle stands in sharp contrast to the continuing division in Northern Ireland over the Battle of the Boyne or in Poland, Baltic countries and Russia over Russia’s “liberation” of Eastern Europe in 1944-45.

Another indication of receptivity to the idea that memory is malleable is the burgeoning of counterfactual history, academic and popular. In North America and Europe, it is no coincidence that the rise of counterfactual history has paralleled the memory boom. Popular counterfactual history is based on the premise that the present is highly contingent and with only surgical interventions in the tissue of history – what Max Weber called “minimal rewrites” – different presents can readily be conjured up. Counterfactual novels often address the outcome of wars, like the American Cavil War and World War II, that are central to contemporary problems of identity and memory. They highlight, even call into question, the connection between identity and history by revealing the contingent nature of both. More scholarly efforts at counterfactual history has sought to undermine essentialist narratives and counteract the certainty of hindsight bias. They have also sought to expose the generally unspoken assumptions on which historical interpretations are based, and by extension, the identities they support.18

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