Memory and History: The Collective Case

Appeals to forgetting as a strategy of coping with a nasty past are not limited to individual disputes, but are made, even more commonly, in connection with collective ones, particularly states. But here too the choice between remembering and forgetting is not exhaustive. Rather, like in the individual’s case, a change in a state’s temporal boundary allows for the intermediate possibility of unremembering past events while retaining knowledge of them. This possibility is suggested by a distinction that has come to occupy center stage within scholarly fields dedicated to the study of the collective past. In the last quarter-century or so, this study has greatly diversified its interests and methodology. Part of this diversity came to be marked by a salient, if highly contested, opposition between history and memory, with scholars proclaiming themselves, sometimes vehemently, as studying the one or the other.22 Juxtaposing history to memory as two modalities of knowing the past reveals in the collective case a logical space for an epistemological relationship to the past similar to the one we have just noted in the case of the individual self: retaining or losing historical knowledge is one thing; remembering or forgetting a past event is another. Like individuals, collectivities too can cease to remember an event while retaining knowledge of it. A change in their temporal boundaries allows them to occupy this middle ground.

The juxtaposition of memory to history in the study of the past centrally involves the idea of collective memory, the extension of the notion of memory to a collectivity’s relationship to its past.23 Talk of collective memory is part of an intellectual swell that effaces at least to some degree the distinction between individuals and collectivities by maintaining that individual identity is in part a matter of people’s social roles and collective affiliations.24 One way of capturing the gist of this view is by highlighting the correspondence between singular and the plural first-person pronouns. As was already discussed in Chapter 1, the reflexivity of both I and we serves to signify people’s self-awareness. The two pronouns thus provide parallel modalities of people’s self-conception. In this regard, the notion of collective memory does not break new ground; it is just an implication or extension of the more fundamental point regarding collective identities and their relationship to the individual self. Just as in the individual case memory licenses a conversion of a present-tense “I’m doing X” into a past-tense “I did X,” so in the collective case, collective memory licenses a conversion of a present-tense “we’re doing X” into “we did X.” Consequently, those who urge the creation or the retention of some collective memories commonly do so as part of a constructive effort to forge or shape a collective identity by subsuming certain actions and events under people’s use of we.

Consider in this light a historical event analogous to the imaginary conflict between Arcadia and Tasmania we discussed earlier— the British victory over France at Waterloo. Note what is not here at issue: the British victory itself. In exploring epistemological relations to a past event, we take the event itself as given. Specifically, we accept talk of “Britain” and of “winning” as permissible references to a collective subject and its action. As in the case of Arcadia’s attack against Tasmania, when speaking about “Britain’s victory,” we ascribe to the collective subject a single intentional action that supervenes on the individual actions. Such an ascription of victory to Britain amounts to stating a historical fact. This historical fact can be validly stated by anyone, unlike the corresponding collective-memory statement, which in this case would naturally take the form “we won the battle of Waterloo,” and which can only be made by some. How and by whom can a nineteenth- century war be remembered today? Who may permissibly use the we locution in reference to this past event, and what’s the special significance that attaches to this usage when construed as an expression of collective memory?

To answer these questions we must revert to the initial ascription of victory to Britain. Here too the third-person statement assumes that some people were entitled to use the self-referential, present-tense statement, “we are winning this battle.” Such a statement could have been appropriately made not just by Wellington, his generals, or any of the soldiers, but by any contemporaneous Brit. By virtue of what? Simply by virtue of being British—that is, being identified with the same collective subject to which the victory is ascribed. Moreover, the contemporaries’ identification with Britain evinced by first-person-plural locutions underwrites the kind of self-regarding emotions I have mentioned, such as pride or shame. Now given that such identification makes appropriate the we statement in the first place, and so underlies the very ascription of a victory to Britain over France, no new puzzle arises regarding the possible use of a first-person locution by British people today. The longer temporal horizon need not undo the reflexivity involved. Britain persists over time, so identification with it would give a present-day Brit a basis for using a past-tense reflexive locution regarding the battle, similar to the basis that was available to the battle’s British contemporaries for making the corresponding present- tense statement in the past. By the same token, the emotions that attend the present-day report made at the time of the battle can also be perpetuated by the reflexivity of collective memory, and conveyed by a present- day Brit via a “we” reference to the battle.25

This account of collective memory parallels the account of individual memory as illustrated by Gertrude’s case. And here too, as in her case, a different option exists. Once more, the crucial reminder is that Britain is not a natural-kind term, and its persistence is not that of a material object. To speak of Britain as a unified subject is to take seriously some propositions regarding certain geographic regions and certain events. It is, for example, to accept that, say, Lake Windermere is in Britain. And, by the same token, it is to recognize certain goings-on in the nineteenth century as Britain’s doings. And as I have argued in the previous section, such propositions are founded on a cluster of norms and attitudes that range over people, territories, and events. But precisely which people, territories, and events depends on the content of the norms and attitudes and is variable, indeterminate, and contested. Consequently, the Britain that plays a constitutive role in forming a present-day Brit’s identity need not include the victory over Napoleon.26 Just like in the individual case, in the collective case too there is a logical space between the polar options of knowing a past event on the one hand and forgetting it on the other. Since memory is reflexive knowledge, there are two ways of ridding oneself of it: by losing the knowledge, or by retaining the knowledge while losing its reflexivity. Like everyone else, contemporary Brits may retain the external historical knowledge of the Napoleonic wars without this knowledge being part of their collective memory—that is, without its being the kind of knowledge that is bound up with responsibility and with the affective attitudes and responses that go along with it. Although the British may share with everyone else a range of emotional attitudes toward the battle—perhaps admiration for the fighters’ bravery or the generals’ ingenuity, horror at the carnage, and the like—this range will not include emotions predicated on being a party to the battle, such as pride in the victory, or resentment against the French. A British person holding this intermediate position will best express it by her willingness to acknowledge that the British won at Waterloo, while being reluctant to avow that “we won.” At bottom, the point is really quite simple and mundane, encapsulated in the colloquial expression that many former adversaries, now reconciled, are wont to use in reference to the source of their previous acrimony: “It is all just history now.”27

But is this transposition of a past action from memory to history really tenable? It may be pointed out in opposition that when a contemporary British child reads in a history book that Britain won the battle of Waterloo, the child will reason, “I am British; hence, we won the battle. Why am I not allowed to use this expression? Why is this bit of knowledge not part of my collective identity, and hence collective memory, as a Brit?” In response, we could say something along the following lines: “Though Britain did win the battle, it does not follow that this victory is still constitutive of your British identity. Brits no longer appropriately derive shame or pride from it; they no longer enjoy the spoils nor owe amends to the French. The version of Britain as a victor has been superseded by a version in which that battle no longer plays a role. What you say is true as a matter of history, but not as a matter of memory, and your way of putting it misleadingly suggests the latter.” This, after all, is my argument in a nutshell, and it ought to convince the child. One might reasonably object, however, that this reasoning will rather baffle the child, being too complicated or convoluted compared to the child’s own straightforward, if simplistic, reasoning. This is indeed an important objection, but its import is somewhat different than might first appear. The teaching of history and the cultivation of collective memory are related but importantly different enterprises that can be easily confounded. One implication is that in the interest of reducing strife and acrimony, and cultivating reconciliation and peace, some history is better taught only to adults, lest it be inadvertently transformed into memory.28

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