04 September 2011

On memory and the politics of nostalgia

"The curious thing is this: although there has been an enormous proliferation of work on memory studies in the last quarter century—not only in English, but also in French, German, and Italian—it seems to me rather strange that no one has really set out to explain why exactly during this particular historical period, from 1980 or so on, there has been such an obsession with memory studies. I don’t think this can be understood via any single factor, but it could possibly be explained by the confluence of three powerful forces coming together. The first could be described as the long shadow of World War II, which continued to exert its impact even as late as the 1990s. Think for example of the celebrations in 1995 of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. Another factor in the emergence of memory studies has been what I would call 'transitional justice.' And by that I mean to say that in the 1980s and 1990s there were transformations in various countries—in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, South Africa, in the states of central eastern Europe—that had had a very difficult past, on the whole a totalitarian or authoritarian past, and had moved toward a more democratic form of government. Precisely because they had had a difficult past, they had to take up a position about it, they had to examine their memories. They had to think about what attitude they should take toward the previous perpetrators and victims of injustice. And the final significant factor has been the process of decolonization, which had very significant repercussions—not only for the previous colonizing powers, in particular Britain and France—but also for the previously colonized powers, in particular Africa and India, who have sought, so to speak, to re-appropriate their own memories, whereas for the previous colonizing powers, what has emerged is what might be described as a politics of nostalgia. In fact, the famous three-volume work edited by Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory, is an interesting case in this regard because although it is presented as a gigantic and cooperative academic exercise, it seems to me that there is a very powerful undercurrent of nostalgia in that volume."

In the most recent edition of Cabinet and currently up on the publication's website, "Historical Amnesias," an interview with University of Cambridge social anthropologist Paul Connerton. From willed collective & selective suppressions of historical memory, to the acceleration of forgetting in the service of "planned obsolescence," there's a number of fascinating ideas scattered throughout.

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