Didactics of Modern Memory

Until the rise of memory studies we did not have a clear conceptual framework for describing what films do with the past. For lack of imagination and conceptual alternatives we keep talking about film and history and historical film invoking at every step the world of academic scholarship. That intellectual habit does a serious disservice to both sides of the equation. With hindsight and the benefit of a memory studies vantage point (Erll, 2011; Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi, & Levy, 2011) it has become increasingly obvious that a non-visual, historically increasingly non-immersive and for many people unattractive technique for representing the past, which has not changed drastically since the times of Thukydides, has very little in common in terms of production and reception processes with mechanical/digital recording and editing devices that owe their tremendous success to their uncanny ability to perform the past as a type of instant replay. Consequently, memory studies not history is the appropriate academic framework for discussing filmic renditions of the past and, when using film and TV in the social studies classroom, we should be teaching about memory not about history in an academic sense (Guynn, 2006: 165-178).

Once we have accomplished the conceptual transition from history to memory, the extraordinary value of film and television as teaching tools becomes obvious. Film and TV mark an intriguing layer of media technology involved in intense remediation processes with both print culture and digital culture (Rippl, 2015). Film and TV are dynamic cultural environments and were the key media platforms shaping everyday lives across the globe for most of the twentieth century before they had to yield that role to digital media. The media events of film and television history have provided the rhythm of autobiographical memory and represent the cultural kernels around which generational, national, and transnational collective memories and identities have been constituted (Dayan & Katz, 1992). Throughout the long and eventful century from the decade before WWI all the way to 9/11, film and television established entertaining yet also relentless and highly centralized regimes of memory and forgetting sorting the visible and unforgettable from the invisible and negligible. Consequently, film and television represent humanity’s memory of (post)modernity which we can better appreciate from the perspective of 2017 since the political project of modernity and the analog media technologies of film and television appear clearly dated today. In fact, as long as we lacking sophisticated interactive digital games and platforms for the exploration of twentieth century history, film and television offer the only opportunity for immersively exploring modernity and its media landscape featuring film in a starring role as (1) an icon of modernity like the train, the car, and the factory; (2) the arena which shaped and distributed the dynamic culture of modernity and its iconography; (3) the communicative space which taught people how to be and act modern; (4) and, last but not least, the cultural resource permitting us to feel modernity intimately yet from a once removed vantage point (Kansteiner, 2015).

At the center of those remarkable 100 years of media history, inextricably intertwined with and neatly packaged by film and television culture, stand the key ethical challenges of the twentieth century: Nazism, Communism, and the Holocaust. The memories of these events will be shifting in the twenty-first century as they continue to transition from the realm of communicative memory to the realm of cultural memory. But at the moment, Holocaust memory is still the focus of Western transnational self-reflexive memory and well worth exploring (Fogu, Kansteiner, & Presner, 2016). In fact, the key event of the history of post-WWII memory was the intense transnational encounter between the commercial Hollywood melodrama Holocaust and a (West) German national TV audience whose members learned for the first time on a large scale how to feel their way self-reflexively into the Nazi past and acquire a sense of empathy for the victims of the German crimes (Eder, 2016: 32-37). The media event Holocaust in Germany has been the gold standard of memory didactics for many decades. Ever since January 1979, film makers, television executives, and teachers of memory have strived to replicate that moment of self-reflexivity trying to match films, TV programs, and audiences in ways that help the latter acquire a critical perspective on their own collective accomplishments and shortcomings. The results have been mixed, fairly successful across Western Europe and less spectacular in the rest of the world. But the politics of regret are now a well-established tool of international politics and have led to an impressive track record of apologies and reparation agreements all across the world (Olick, 2007; Wolfe, 2014). Such developments would never have happened without years of successful memory didactics in the public sphere. Memory politics are always deployed strategically and in self-serving fashion but they also offer opportunities for empathetic unsettlement and self-reflexive learning primarily by way of exposure to visual historical culture.

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