Anthropology Of Collective Memory Research Paper

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Focused on shared, collective, or social memory practices, this research paper examines the linkages between memory and history with attention to the fields of power, in which the struggle for domination over remembrance and tradition, the manipulation of retrievable historical consciousness and collective for-getting, takes place.

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1. Definition Of Concepts: Memory And History

The term history is often used to describe representations of the past that appear in written or narrative form, a primary medium through which states, elites, or dominant descent groups confiscate linear time and proclaim official chronologies as master narratives. The writing of history is ‘a colonization’ of time ‘by the discourse of power’ (de Certeau 1988). The term memory, by contrast, is conventionally applied to those oral, visual, ritual, and bodily practices through which a community’s collective remembrance of the past is produced or sustained (Connerton 1989). It includes the vast complex of unofficial, noninstitutionalized knowledge not yet sedimented into formal traditions and which represent the ‘collective consciousness’ of whole groups (Halbwachs 1980), forming a counterweight to the knowledge that is privatized and monopolized by certain elites for the defense of established interests. While memory may be a moving reservoir of history, furnishing the ‘raw material’ for representing the past, it is not the same as history (Le Goff 1992). Individual remembrance, collective memory, and narrative history interact in highly complicated ways, shaping each other as different versions of the past are constructed and reconstructed, modified, and invented.

2. The Politics Of Time: History And Anthropology

The theories, models, and methods that were developed by anthropologists to study non-European worlds tended toward a ‘rejection of historical research of any kind’ (Evans-Pritchard 1962), at least within the limits of the discipline. Having as its central theme ‘the unlettered and forgotten peoples,’ the anthropological endeavor was inclined to disregard the existence of indigenous histories, which included, in particular, the trauma of the colonial encounter. But if making history is a social practice that produces peoples, bodies, and places, as de Certeau (1988) suggests, then the very erasure of such a universe of time and being must be understood as a figuration of power. The effacement of historicity is a political operation.

Nineteenth-century anthropology was deeply implicated in the projects of Western modernity: the construction of nation-states and the creation of colonial systems with which Europeans came to dominate other worlds. During this process of global expansion, and the establishment of modern hegemonic polities, the past was increasingly mobilized as a symbolic discourse ‘in the definition of, and the marking of, the boundaries of states and nations’ (Cohn 1981, p. 228). Anthropologists of this period contributed to the colonial undertaking by a reliance on analytic tools that used Western notions of time as an index of unequal evolutionary development. The prerogative to know and control the past, by defining it as ‘history’ (an order of chronological or linear time), was an entitlement of civilization. The social worlds outside of Europe came to be marked as timeless: a closed symbolic universe inhabited by ‘the people without history’ (Wolf 1982). Displaced into the sphere of alterity, colonial subjects were incarcerated by the temporal logic of an expansive European world system.

The past as history became a way to construct schemes of classification which differentiated Europeans from others. Anthropologists began to delineate stages of human development via the comparative method: by identifying phenomena of a general type (taboo, totemism, polygamy), their goal was to map out a global history of social institutions. In this endeavor, however, analytic units were ‘taken out of the flux of time’ (Evans-Pritchard 1962, p. 175): social forms, stripped of their unique features and context-bound meanings, escaped temporality, appearing static and unchanging. The comparative method, in its attempt to achieve conceptual stability as a socio-logical proposition, was explicitly anti-historical in emphasis and thereby served to obscure the effects of Western contact and domination.

By the early twentieth century, anthropologists had decisively abandoned the comparative paradigm. But in spite of the shift to new methods of analysis, the discipline’s aversion to historical research intensified. Scholars in Britain, Germany, and the United States asserted that the customs of native peoples were to be found not in colonial archives, missionary reports, or dubious travel accounts but in the field: reliable data about non-Western societies demanded first-hand observation. This was accomplished at first through brief expeditions, and later by long-term residence of the anthropologist in native communities. British scholars, in their interpretation of the ethnographic venture, reasserted the enlightenment program: anthropology was to become ‘a natural science of society, based on a descriptive analysis of the structure and functioning of social forms’ (Cohn 1981, p. 232). American scholars, by contrast, adopted a romantic idealist stance: anthropology emerged as a hermeneutic science, focused on the descriptive reconstruction and symbolic capture of entire cultural systems. Although the nation-bound projects of anthropology began to diverge, the ethnographic field method was adopted as a common research standard, thereby imparting and codifying the now conventional disciplinary gaze: the observers’ eyes were trained to see society only at a particular point in time. Ethnography, in its obsession with reifying the authenticity of peoples, fabricated a closed temporal frame: a present present or a past present, as Evans-Pritchard (1962) termed it in a critical commentary on the discipline’s ‘breach with history,’ illuminating the distortions which flow from the imposition of a priori temporal limits upon ‘traditional societies.’

But it was precisely this aversion to history that led anthropologists to discover ‘memory’ as a valuable ethnographic tool. Evans-Pritchard (1962), for in-stance, suggested that the past was always ‘incapsulated in a context of present thought’: the past, as memory, was embedded in material, ritual, and narrative practices and therefore ‘part of the social life which the anthropologist can directly observe’ (pp. 177–8). The pursuit of collective memory was to constitute a major change in ethnographic practice: the ‘life story’ of local worlds—of bodies, magic, and markets—could be rendered intelligible through the oral archive. But in the colonizing imagination of Western anthropologists, the work of memory was consigned to the uneventful register of structural, mythical, and sacred time: an order of signs without history. Peoples’ means of remembering traumatic events (famine, migration, conquest) ‘were always seen to reinforce the system in place, never to trans-form it’ (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992, p. 21). In a shift from historical past to ethnographic present, anthropologists erected ‘counterfeit signposts’ of a primitive world of enduring traditions—an analytic fiction. The anthropology of collective memory, in consequence, began as a kind of anti-history.

3. The Shape Of Memory: Modes Of Historical Consciousness

In their ethnographic explorations, anthropologists encountered indigenous memory forms that did not seem to fit the European idea of historical time: an objective, unmediated, linear account of past events. By a focus on myths, ritual, oratory, and body practices, they uncovered the narrative and performativity possibilities of a history of the present: the social sense of time whereby people attempted ‘to grasp the world as both a synchronic and a diachronic totality’ (Levi-Strauss 1966, p. 263). In the realms of memory, past and present—although theoretically distinct— were conjoined to link, from generation to generation, the living with the dead.

Among Australian aborigines, for instance, historical or commemorative rites ‘recreate the sacred and beneficial atmosphere of mythical times—the ‘dream age’—mirroring its protagonists and their great deeds,’ and transport ‘the past into the present’; rites of mourning ‘correspond to an inverse procedure: instead of charging living men with the personification of remote ancestors, these rites assure the conversion of men who are no longer living into ancestors,’ thereby bringing ‘the present into the past’ (Levi-Strauss 1966, pp. 236–7).

These images of time are different, perhaps, but not ‘other.’ In the rites performed, past and present are propelled into a social space—the body. The act of remembering takes corporeal form: memory is embodied (Connerton 1989). But this transposition of temporal worlds, which connects the living and dead to the ancestors via the mimetic power of embodiment, is not an abrogation of time. It is a generative reconstitution of society: a practice of empowerment, a political engagement with the matrix of life (Stoller 1995).

Other anthropological studies suggest that collective memory may be systematized on the basis of relative temporalities, that is, a flexible system of polymorphous reference points. Among certain peoples of the Ivory Coast, like the Guere, ‘the consciousness of a historical past has developed alongside a multiplicity of other times’ (Le Goff 1992, pp. 8–9): mythical, genealogical, lived, and projected time. Such a register of memory forms belongs to the aftermath of the colonial project. Under the impact of prolonged social trauma, the disparate logics of time and memory chart the precarious matrices of life: a synchrony of struggle, violence, and perseverance.

4. Memory-Sites: The Localization Of Remembrance

The anthropological analysis of collective memory moves toward a renunciation of linear temporality in favor of multiple kinds of time as experienced at the levels where the individual takes root in the social: language, demography, economics, politics. Memory production is in this sense not dependent on a single individual’s experience of the past. A remembrance, a social understanding of events that is represented as memory, can be constructed by sharing with others ‘sets of images that have been passed down to them through the media of memory—through paintings, architecture, monuments, ritual, storytelling, poetry, music, photos, and film’ (Watson 1994, p. 8). In every society, we can identify an array of memory-sites or places of commemorative record and practice where remembrance anchors the past: topographical places (archives, libraries, museums); monumental places (cemeteries, architectural edifices); symbolic places (commemorative rites, pilgrimages, emblems); functional places (manuals, autobiographies, associations); and places of power (states, elites, milieux) which ‘constitute their historical archives in relation to the different uses they make of memory’ (Le Goff 1992, pp. 95–6, Nora 1986). These memory-sites furnish a series of locations where knowledges of the past are conveyed and sustained by a circulation of signs that calls attention to its own logic of inclusion, exclusion, and selective incompleteness.

5. Unsanctioned Archives: Memory And Countermemory

The anthropology of collective remembrance is not only concerned with affirmation and heritage, but with processes of contestation, the aftermath of violence, and the emergence of countermemories (Stoller 1995). A social history of remembering must take account of ‘the mechanisms that make unsanctioned remembrance possible’ under repressive political regimes: in asking how people remember what is meant to be forgotten, ‘matters of transmission’—the mechanics of shared memory and hidden histories—take center stage (Watson 1994). Here, interpersonal memories, commemorations, theater, drama, folklore, secret, and oppositional histories are ‘the venues within which alternative remembrances’—unauthorized and unapproved memories of the past—can be located and analyzed (Watson 1994, p. 2). Collective memory practices are not only linked to sites of domination that attempt to legitimate a given social order, but also to unsanctioned sites of struggle, opposition, and transformation.

6. The Traffic In Memory: Global Hegemonies And Local Struggle

In all societies, there exist distinct moments when new representations of the past are forged, contested, and put to cultural and ideological use. Battles waged over ethnic origin or national identity may be linked to the constitution of radically new kinds of memory-archives (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). The creation of nations, ethnicities, and subjects inevitably alters the shape of the past. ‘Memory’ is therefore not a generic term of analysis, but itself an object appropriated, transformed, and politicized. Or, put differently, memory can be nationalized, medicalized, aestheticized, gendered, bought, and sold.

Historical consciousness shaped by nation-building, scientific ideology, and global capitalism plays a significant role in the formation of social identities. Detailing the politics of remembrance in postsocialist China, Schein (2000) shows how state-orchestrated reforms, staged against the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and implemented during a period of increasing exchange and fascination with the West, produced a popular appetite for exotic others: com-modified images of minority peoples, like the Miao, were fashioned by an acute nostalgia for ‘ancient’ traditions and those feminized cultural essences on which to recraft a distinctive Chinese nationness. The result was a boom in memory recuperation among China’s urbanites and Miao elites, who simultaneously played to a Western valorization and high-spending tourist consumption of dwindling pasts. But such a newly forged cultural attachment to memory artifacts, the ‘fossil bed’ phantasms of folk heritage, also entails transformation. In other words, the work of symbolic restoration ‘may conceal very new projects’ (Le Goff 1992, p. 9). The recruitment of the past for revolutionary or political ends, as in the case of China, is entangled in a twofold venture: the forging of a distinctive ethnonational imaginary and the re-negotiation or recalibration of place in the global order.

The pursuit, rescue, and celebration of collective memory is always socially motivated and has, thus, to be understood in positional terms. The global context—the theater of transnational consumer capitalism—is, according to Friedman (1994), particularly relevant in understanding how local memory forms are affected by the formative impact of world systemic processes. In the case of modern Greece, as Friedman shows, national selfhood was crafted by internalizing the ways in which European elites, in constructing their own ‘civilized’ origins, mythologized classical antiquity as the cradle of Western civilization. Greek nationalists found their past in the institutional memory of the West, thereby accelerating incorporation into an expanding European world system. Such acts of cosmological repositioning are symptomatic of a transglobal system that fuses socio-economic transformation and collective memory to ‘the reconfiguration of the map of the world’s peoples’ (Friedman 1994, p. 123).

Yet even in the global arena, there exist other possibilities of memory production. In the Hawaiian case, Friedman’s instructive contrast, indigenous com-munities attempted to extricate themselves from Western dominance by projecting a value system, produced in the modern context, onto an aboriginal past. The result was a body of memories composed of mythic history, a work of folklore and folklorization ‘rife with simulacra of tropical fantasies.’ Social and economic marginalization, in the aftermath of World War II, gave rise to an intense period of Hawaiian cultural revival. Recuperation efforts, centered on the reconstitution of ethnic history by retrieving precolonial social forms, brought into play a museology of memory that was staged in opposition to the West: a precontact Hawaii stocked with all the items to be found in Western historical archives—libraries, museums, missionary records. The Hawaiian confiscation of these colonial memory-stores proceeded, as Friedman documents, by forging an indigenous past uncoupled from the larger world, a Western-imposed modernity, which had obliterated a population and absorbed its social history into the projects of global economic systems.

Anthropologists have firmly established the need to attend to these paradoxes of mobile cultural and symbolic forms—this traffic in memory—during periods of transnational crisis and restructuring (Appadurai 1996). In the context of global systems, where the practice of identity is brought on stage, the logic of time and the meaning of memory have been radically transposed. In the global arena, the production of historical consciousness becomes increasingly entangled with the commodity form: encoded by temporal longings and mythic value, it furnishes the common stock for a memory market saturated by cargo-type products of surplus and lack, bearing the deep imprint of the globally hegemonic mode in which people’s ethnonational remembrances are manufactured, exchanged, and consumed (Taussig 1980). But memory consumption can also be a subordinate production, one that creatively and tactically resists the homogenizing tendency of centralized systems. This suggests, as Schein (2000) observes, an alternate sense for cultural production: ‘the myriad ways in which people make use of received [memory] products presents a measure of possibility, not only for autonomy, but also for subversion of the dominant order’ (p. 16). Put differently, the modalities of collective memory practice attest to the possibilities of symbolic creativity—even in the province of globalizing modernities.


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