Collective historical memory is no respecter of the past

“Collective historical memory is no respecter of the past” opines David Rieff in his excellent article about his forthcoming book, In Praise of Forgetting.

I am very excited about this book as it resonates very much with my anthropological research on refugee repatriation in Bosnia, where I focus on real historical victims’ experiences as oppose to subsequent generations’ understanding of historical wrongs, appropriation and (mis)use that are key features of collective memory.

Like John Torpey’s book on Reparations Politics, Rieff wonders whether our obsession with memory might sacrifice our present and future:

But what if this is wrong, if not always, then at least part of the time? What if collective historical memory, as it is actually employed by communities and nations, has led far too often to war rather than peace, to rancour and resentment rather than reconciliation, and the determination to exact revenge for injuries both real and imagined, rather than to commit to the hard work of forgiveness?

Tzvetan Todorov has written that knowing about the past crimes and suffering is not enough for us to ‘learn lessons’. In fact, he questions our ability to learn from others’ past experiences given that the ‘never again’ plea has never ceased. Similarly, Ian Buruma writes that our tendencies to look for authenticity in human suffering have made historiography irrelevant. History, as a discipline that concerns itself with “how things were” or “trying to explain how things happened”, has been replaced with a study of memory and history in terms of “how it felt”.

Of course, all the above writers note that there is no easy solution, nor do they argue for amnesia, but that we need a new approach, as Rieff reiterates:

To be wholly without memory would be to be without a world. Nor am I arguing against the determination for a group to memorialise its dead or demand acknowledgment of its sufferings. To do so would be to counsel a kind of moral and psychological self-mutilation of tragic proportions.

However, he agues that we need more “letting go” and that even the work of mourning must eventually end if life is to go on, whilst recognising that some societies or social groups may not be ready, referring to cases like Israel and other examples of intractable conflicts:

Even the work of mourning, essential as it is, must eventually end if life is to go on. Perhaps some memories are seen as too precious for human beings to give up. For societies, especially societies and groups that either feel themselves to be under existential threat or want to impose their own religion, or values, or territorial demands on their neighbours, the possibility may be still more remote.

Israel offers a florid illustration of how disastrously collective memory can deform a society. The settler movement routinely appeals to a version of biblical history that is as great a distortion of that history as the Islamist fantasy about the supposed continuities between the medieval kingdom of Jerusalem and the modern state of Israel. At the entrance to the settler outpost of Givat Assaf on the West Bank, a placard reads: “We have come back home.”

So, he proposes forgetting those events that may cause us to be destructive as a counterbalance to our need to remember:

But is it not conceivable that were our societies to expend even a fraction of the energy on forgetting that they now do on remembering, then peace in some of the worst places in the world might actually be a step closer?

In my view, a large proportion of victims are likely to try to incorporate or move on from their traumatic experiences, as they see no positive benefits in its narration or remembering. They actively endeavour to reconsolidate their memory of a particular event in order not to let the past dictate their present. However, subsequent generations in search of meaning and identity will often employ emotion as a device to (re)create an imagined experience, healing or belonging.


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