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Power Disputes in Constituting National Collective Memory

SR of history can be used to support and defend a particular construction of the social reality or to resist against hegemonic realities that some powerful groups may attempt to impose upon others. In the current global world, multiple versions of reality coexist, and the systems of knowledge are less homogeneous and stable; therefore, more possibilities arise for critique, argumentation, and discussion. Different SR may compete to become the reality, each defending itself from the other possible SR, thus limiting the range of available meanings. The dialectical movement between cooperation and conflict (consensus and dissent) is exactly what differentiates SR from Durkheim’s collective or individual representations (Howarth, 2006; Moscovici, 1961). This dynamic process of conflicting relations between SR led Moscovici (1988) to distinguish hegemonic SR from polemic and emancipated SR in order to account for the dissension within the social consensus. Polemic SR inform the different representations, which are usually debating the same object. These are built by groups experiencing particular situations of social conflict over how to signify such a relevant object for both groups. Emancipated SR show a particular way of understanding a divergent representational object compared to the hegemonic SR of the same object. However, as minorities hold the former, they have neither the social power nor the acceptance to become contentious and so challenge the dominant (hegemonic) SR.

The Argentine ‘Conquest of the Desert’ clearly illustrates the tensions between different representations of the past. They concern the collective memory of this military campaign conducted by the Argentine State, a period of national organization and territorial expansion involving the slaughtering and enslaving of indigenous people. Thousands were massacred while others were sold to the new landowners. The surviving were forced to neglect their culture and to assimilate to the dominant power, becoming invisible as a social group for the city dwellers of the ‘rn'olla’1 or ‘white’ societies founded during the ‘Conquest’ (Del Rio, 2005; Halperin Donghi, 1980/1995). Different organized indigenous groups have claimed their rights to the land since this period. However, their condition of invisibility has continued (Gordillo & Hirsch, 2010; Valko, 2012). In the last decades, different native communities have gained more visibility and achieved important goals, especially dealing with their rights before the Argentine National Constitution. Nevertheless, they are still living in poverty and are victims of racism and social exclusion (Sarasola, 2010). This claim for visibility together with different scholars’ perspectives (Bayer, 2010; Briones, 1994; Halperin Donghi, 1980/1995; Novaro, 2003) has questioned the hegemonic national master narrative presented by symbolic resources, such as school textbooks and monuments. The master narrative of this historical process presents the Argentine militaries as heroes that pacified and organized the nation, while it depicts the indigenous as violent and uncivilized groups that attacked the southern border of the Buenos Aires territory. In the new revisionist narrative, the slaughtering, abuses, slavery, and looting performed by the Argentine State are emphasized. Tensions between these accounts have caused the debate on the presence of a picture of General Roca, who was in charge of the Conquest, on the 100 Argentine peso bill, leading to his gradual substitution by other national icons. Nevertheless, in various central provincial capitals in Argentina, there are large equestrian statues commemorating General Roca’s achievements. Because for many people he represents genocide, these monuments are vandalized with graffiti and thus demonstrate the tensions between the different versions of the past.

Power conflicts usually lead to the coexistence of different meanings of a same historical process even within the same social group, as is the case with the ‘Conquest of the Desert’. Hence, subjects build on different thought systems or logics to appropriate them. As was said before, common sense thinking does not develop univocally from less to more valid, but different plausible representations can coexist conforming a state of cognitive polyphasia. The cognitive polyphasia hypothesis suggests abandoning the notion of a single knowledge development that grows in consistency. It claims that there is a univocal relation among different situations and ways of thinking, without an evolutionary line between them. The relations between these different ways of knowing are characterized by tensions and contradictions between SR or between SR and disciplinary historical contents.

In this sense, Barreiro, Wainryb, and Carretero (2016) report about memories of the Conquest of the Desert in Argentina. They give a noteworthy example of how transformations in the same context can elicit the individual to construct contradictory narratives on the same representational object, depending on the contextually salient historical aspects. The following interview excerpt illustrates this. The interviewee is a social scientist who works at the local historical museum. She lives in a town founded during the Conquest of the Desert to serve as a military hub moving southwards, and it was part of ‘the last border against the indigenous people’ (Nagy, 2014). Upon welcoming the researchers at the door of the local historical museum, she starts retelling the historical process:

The Argentine government offers them [referring to the colonizers] lands, it offers them materials to build their houses, it offers them seeds and tools to cultivate the land, and it offers them protection in the form of a trench and forts. Why wouldn’t they want to come? It was all peaceful. Why? Because there were no aboriginal people (...) There was nobody here. (...) Some say that when General Villegas arrived, he found Indians (...) He arrived on April 12, 1876, and the town was founded. (...) Roca [the Minister of Defense] is the one who orders General Villegas to arrest Pincen. Why? Because up to that time there had been a kind of mutual respect between Pincen and Villegas, they called each other ‘Bull’. Bull Pincen and Bull Villegas. (from Barreiro et al., 2016: 48)

The museum has different rooms dedicated to the memory of the town’s foundation by the military forces with the aim of conquering the indigenous- inhabited lands. One of the rooms is in honor of General Villegas, the town founder, and his wife. In another room, pictures of Indigenous Chief Pincen are exhibited together with his wife and other indigenous captives of the Argentine national army. In this room, the woman says:

Going back to the aboriginal people, well (...) their families were divided, some of their children were adopted out, women became servants, the husbands were held prisoners (...) they didn’t have so many options (...) Because you dig a trench, you isolate them from resources, where would they go to find their food? They don’t have water, they can't go to find animals to hunt. They were enclosed. Either you surrender or you die like that. And they became more and more ill. And the Church baptized them, in the name of the church they changed their identity. See her? [points to a woman in a picture] She was with Chief Pincen, and her granddaughter [a local woman living in town], tells of how soldiers used to cut their heels, so they couldn’t escape. (from Barreiro et al., 2016: 48)

The woman started her narrative depicting a peaceful relationship between the military and the indigenous people, which is the core of the founding myth of the town. However, to the researchers’ surprise she ended up talking about the tortures inflicted on the captives. While there is a contradiction between these two narratives, she did not seem to be aware of this. The organization of the museum encouraged the researchers to think of glorious militaries and humble indigenous families. However, no material source accounting for the tortures inflicted is offered. The woman brings the abuses and sufferings that indigenous people went through into the scene when she sees the photos of the different captives together with their families. Furthermore, her earlier commentary about the absence of indigenous people in the region is inconsistent with the reference to Chief Pincen and his people living there.

This woman’s account of the past suggests the juxtaposition of two narratives: one about the peaceful town foundation and the other about the violence and abuses committed by the Argentine army against the indigenous people in the same timeframe. According to Barreiro et al. (2016), this juxtaposition demonstrates a state of cognitive polyphasia. This woman’s narrative about the glorious foundation of the town may support a sense of social identity; abandoning such a narrative may be threatening to her identity. Nevertheless, she is also aware of the tragic history of the indigenous people, so she cannot simply deny these facts either. Thus, both narratives are alternatively externalized in her discourse, depending on the contextual demands, without maintaining a coherent relation between the two. In this way, cognitive polyphasia may operate as a strategy to avoid guilt about her nation’s actions.

Another way to analyze how power relations intervene in the construction of SR is to consider the dialogical process by which meanings are constructed (Jovchelovitch, 2010). In dialogical relations between people and social groups, the social asymmetries of the speakers may lead to relations of domination and some representations may fail to be recognized. The non-dialogue is a way of ignoring a representational field, that is, the legitimacy of certain knowledge can be denied by the power of some over others. In dialogical situations where SR are constructed, the dominant information can prevail, constraining the meaning-making processes. From this perspective, power in human relations is not only about domination and subordination, but it also refers to the human capacity for action and recognition.

In this vein, the meanings that prevail in this struggle between representational fields within the social arena constitute a positive SR. This specific symbolic structure occupies the place of the real object in the individual’s everyday life. Nevertheless, the other possible representations become nothingness and remain as the dark, unacknowledged, side of the positive representations or the non-present parts of that structure (Barreiro & Castorina, 2016). This repression or exclusion of some meanings from the representational field is by no means casual. Their exclusion is due to their challenging role in the dominant ideological vision of the social world and, in that sense, they become threatening to social groups. In these cases, the absence of SR is not because they lack relevance for the social group. On the contrary, the SR refer to the existence of an emotionally decisive object as an indicator of its overwhelming affective presence in the social group’s daily life. Traditionally, in SR theory, the absence of a consensual representation of an object in a particular social group was explained through the non-salient features of that object in the individual’s everyday life (Wagner & Hayes, 2005; Wagner, Valencia, & Elejabarrieta, 1996). Nevertheless, this absence in some cases stems from a constructive process to cope with uncanny social objects (Barreiro & Castorina, 2016).

The remembering of the Argentine ‘Conquest of the Desert’ illustrates the group’s and individual’s active construction of nothingness as a strategy to deal with the uncanny. Although this historical process is crucial in the constitution of the current Argentine State, it is seldom found in the Argentines’ narratives of their national past (Sarti & Barreiro, 2014) and in school history textbooks (Novaro, 2003). However, there are lots of monuments that pay homage to the ‘heroic’ militaries participating in the operation. Their names are street names and many 100 peso bills still show a commemorative image of this campaign. Despite the daily interaction with different symbolic commemorations of this historical process, it is significantly absent in most individuals’ narratives about the national past (Sarti & Barreiro, 2014). During the collective meaning-making process to represent an object creating SR, some of its constitutive features may be omitted by social groups. Those ignored characteristics of the representational object perform a constitutive function in the geneses of SR, as the SR can be constructed precisely because features are excluded (Barreiro & Castorina, 2016). Moreover, the people participating in our studies (Barreiro et al., 2016; Barreiro & Sarti, 2014), who were able to explain something about what happened during this historical process, do not seem to know that the conquest was carried out by the Argentine military forces. Many of them state that it was performed by Spanish colonizers. We think that this obliviousness about the agent responsible for the killing and torturing of indigenous people is a strategy to deny the responsibility of the Argentine government and population regarding this matter. Moreover, many studies (Gordillo & Hirsch, 2010; Valko, 2012) have shown that the indigenous groups or their descendants currently living in Argentina are still invisible in general, and specifically in the province of Buenos Aires where actually more than 30 % of the indigenous population in the whole of Argentina lives. Clearly, ignoring the agent of the massacre of indigenous people during the Conquest of the Desert or considering the ‘Spaniards’ to be responsible is a way to avoid the present conflict with this social group claiming for reparation for the injustices suffered by their ancestors in the past. As was already said, any account of the past has a political dimension. Because of this, societies can negate or legitimize the historical basis of social group claims that provide them with temporal continuity (Sibley et al., 2008).

Is it Possible to Intervene, Raising Awareness About the Hegemonic Narratives of the Past?

In this chapter, we have focused on the common sense register of historical knowledge (Rosa, 2006). We have stated that this account is built on close interaction with historiographical and school history accounts. In particular, SR of history, typical of common sense, are built upon the school register, contrary to other SR such as those of psychoanalysis studied by Moscovici (1961). They do not result from transforming scientific knowledge into common sense, but as a result of the school intervention between scientific and common sense. Today’s school knowledge is kept alive in the collective memory for 30 years (Pennebaker, Paez, & Deschamps, 2006). We argue that components from the three registers are interwoven in the cognitive polyphasia state, seen in both symbolic resources and individual discourse regarding the memory of the Conquest of the Desert (Barreiro et al., 2016). Specifically, we think that the new narrative constructed by historiography and other scientific disciplines has not strongly impacted collective memory, built upon the traditional hegemonic tradition for over a century. The hegemonic tradition still coexists with the new narrative in most school textbooks used by history teachers. It is supported by material and symbolic resources and the need of the group members—teachers included—to draw a positive image of the own national group. Acknowledging a new revisionist narrative of the Conquest of the Desert bewilders the descendants of those who performed it. This new narrative indicates their ancestors’ responsibilities ignored in the mainstream narrative. It is important to emphasize that cognitive polyphasia does not contain incommensurable elements or diverse fragments of knowledge, naturalized, or immobilized knowledge that work in parallel with the acquisition of representations about the past. Different versions of the past coexist, even on the same subject. Individuals experience contradictions among the different registers of historical thought that constitute cognitive polyphasia, when different logics or thought registers are externalized simultaneously in their discourse. However, if this happens, experiencing this contradiction does not lead to the construction of an integration that overcomes previous representations (Barreiro & Castorina, forthcoming). Its contradictory coexistence is maintained, as there is no demand for change if it is not implemented in a didactical situation with this aim. Furthermore, to think about representational change the idea that these contradictory meanings can be externalized in the same context (Jovchelovitch, 2008) becomes vital. It allows the study of the interactions between the SR and other forms of knowledge framed in the teaching and learning of history, both at school and outside the school.

It is true that historical knowledge has its particularities. There is no clear distinction between the narrative world interpreted by individuals according to their social identities, the narratives in collective memory, and the historians’ account that can eventually be taught at school. The three of them are set in ideological perspectives and social values. Nevertheless, it is possible to determine if a version of history is more objective than another, in the sense of attending to the sources and available evidence. Therefore, both social psychologies’ and teachers’ responsibilities cannot be reduced to the simple identification and description of the SR. It should imply devising possible interventions to raise awareness of such historical evidence among social groups with the aim of guiding their knowledge toward more valid versions. The objective is to encourage social groups to acknowledge past responsibilities and the consequences carried over to the present, for themselves and other social groups. This involves the analysis of the possibilities of designing didactic interventions aimed at strengthening and even modifying the relations among the different representations. In this case, we think that it is necessary to experience the contradiction that exists between them, intrapersonally or interpersonally, that is, resulting from the discourse of the other social group.

We could provide new information that contradicts individuals’ common sense beliefs and confront them with the data regarding the historical processes denied by their ingroup. However, as it can be seen in the remembering of the Conquest of the Desert in Argentina, this is not enough to change representations. The new revisionist accounts present aspects of this historical process that have been collectively ignored. Following Barreiro et al. (forthcoming), this does not imply that people do not know about the torture inflicted on indigenous people. Some talk about this while others negate it as if it never occurred. Yet, taking into account the historiographical knowledge about the process does not enable the transformation of individual remembering. It coexists with the traditional narrative in a state of cognitive polyphasia.

Nevertheless, we think that it would be possible to move forward in overcoming this state of the juxtaposition of different narratives in individuals. It would be possible by contrasting past versions of the different knowledge registers, from the perspective of their plausibility, and fostering the awareness or thematizing (Piaget, 1974) of what is beyond symbolization, such as the nothingness in SR construction. That is, we would suggest the procedures used by historians: the selection of the available evidence on the matter and their systematic comparison with other evidence upon formulating a hypothesis and its consecutive testing (Limon & Carretero, 2000).

Moreover, when considering the possibility of an intervention to transform the SR that people have acquired in their lifetime, we need to take into account that such a process involves a change in their social identities. SR are not wrong ideas isolated from the representational object that can simply be replaced by another. On the contrary, they are part of an interwoven process stemming from a greater set conforming the viewpoint or ideology of the ingroup. It does not only mean replacement with more advanced knowledge, as researchers in conceptual change propose (Carretero, Castorina, & Levinas, 2013), but also a change the way groups think about their past, their position in society, and their relationships with other groups. Therefore, this process cannot be explained addressing the individual analysis (cognitive or affective). On the contrary, SR transformation depends on a profound social change of the ways individuals think the represented object. SR are valid by social consensus. A single individual’s change in viewing the history shared by the ingroup can result in a feeling of losing her/his position in the social group or being rejected by the social group, because her/his different version of the past is contested by the hegemonic narrative. This way, transforming an individual’s SR is likely to result in a conflictive situation with their ingroup, as they could be perceived as a traitor to the ingroup’s beliefs about the world.

Following Jodelet (2010), interventions to modify SR have to affect three spheres of actions that are different but constitutively related to each other: the subjective, the intersubjective, and the transsubjective. SR are subjective, as individuals appropriate them through processes involving cognitive activity, their affective and bodily expressions with others, and the material environment. The incarnated thinking results in a play of emotions closely linked to the group’s beliefs and its social identity. In turn, it constitutes a social and individual subjectivity. It is also necessary to consider the contextualized interactions as they enable the SR agreed upon by the group members through meaning constructions negotiated and commonly produced in social communication. Finally, the transsubjectivity sphere crosses the other two, it calls for the commonalities among individuals, resulting from their access to cultural heritage, social, and public spaces where SR circulate. It also refers to the imposed frameworks in place in the institutions.

Hence, the possibility to intervene to transform the SR of the history depends on the relations set among the mentioned spheres. Each of them allows the design of different kinds of specific actions. At the subjective level, they aim at challenging individual representations, establishing a dialogue among the different representations of the same historical process, the learnt concepts throughout their school trajectories, and disciplinary knowledge. At the intersubjective level, the exchanges are more or less confrontational, and can lead to a revision of some SR or their reformulation. At the level of transsubjectivity, disciplinary knowledge systems, cultural tools, and social ideologies circulate in the community’s public space, interweaving and hindering the interventions to achieve their goals. Therefore, SR have to be considered locally, involving the experiences, knowledge, and actor’s behaviors inscribed in specific places and social roles within a broader social and cultural space framing.

In conclusion, we consider that there is a pending challenge for both social psychologists and teachers. It does not only mean identifying individuals’ SR of historical processes but also moving forward in understanding how to transform them. The instruction of a version more related to historiography cannot substitute the SR in the collective memory of the past. However, it can enable individuals to question, suspend, and thus acquire a more critical attitude toward certain issues. In this sense, we are certain that working on interventions can contribute to educating citizens who can denaturalize their national past. The improvement of their knowledge of the past can enable their historical and political analysis, less linked to common sense in those contexts demanding important political decisions.

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