6 minute read


Cultural Contexts Of Memory In The Twenty-first Century

Among contexts contributing to the idea of memory's fragility in the twenty-first century, one might highlight the following:

The one-way transit to amnesia in the pathologies of dementia.

The degree to which the workings of memory elude research in the biological sciences is dramatized by the difficulties of understanding the perplexing diseases that lead to the deterioration of memory in old age. Freud's faith in the prospect of memory retrieval is difficult to reconcile with the insurmountable barriers erected by the ravages of dementia. An unfortunate by-product of longevity in the affluent Western world has been an increasing susceptibility to the maladies of memory impairment with advancing years. Alzheimer's disease is the most dreaded among an array of forms of dementia that rob victims of their memories and by consequence of their identities. Here there can be no recall of the past from the oblivion imposed by neurological degeneration. Alzheimer's disease has come to serve as a cultural metaphor for twenty-first century fears of trends that promote not only personal but also social amnesia.

Media and the eclipse of tradition in mass culture.

The twenty-first century is characterized by its present-mindedness, but ironically has little regard for the presence of the past. We live in a consumer society whose interest lies in using and then discarding the resources of the present, not conserving them for future generations. Tradition, once valued as the bequest of the wisdom of past generations to the present one, is dismissed as trivial to the manufactured pursuit of immediate gratification in which the hallmarks of tradition are redeployed as the kitsch of consumerism, divested of the social and cultural frameworks that once defined social identity.

The media work their pervasive influence thanks to a revolution in the technologies of communication in the late twentieth century. The invention of new forms of electronic communication—notably the personal computer, linked by the Internet to a worldwide web of memory banks in cyberspace—so vastly expanded the capacity and facilitated the ease of information retrieval that it reshaped both perception and learning in ways analogous to those that accompanied the transition from orality to literacy (during which the art of memory was invented), and then from manuscript to print culture (when the interconnection of memory and personal identity was established). In this respect, the organization of knowledge on computer screens and Internet Web pages departs from its linear organization in print culture, to be reconfigured spatially on Web sites and in icons reminiscent of the places and images of the art of memory. Temporal models (timelines) are replaced by spatial ones (hyperlinks among Web sites).

The revolution in media communication accelerated the fraying of older forms of social and cultural identity. The media mold images in pervasive and homogeneous ways by virtue of their expanded control of the networks of communication, and favor tendentious publicity over deliberation. The media deepen present-mindedness, since their imperative is to publicize images of recent events as quickly as possible before moving on to others even more recent and enticing in their prurient interest. They evoke a sense of immediacy in which the past is glossed over and the future reduced to idle speculation. The mnemonic power of forms of publicity to incite interest prevails over the force of ideas, undermining the value of cultural traditions that once provided sure reference points of collective identity.

A reluctance to mourn.

In the late twentieth century, historians too turned avidly to research on memory, more specifically to the relationship between memory and the dissolving cultural identities of the postmodern age. Whereas scholars of the nineteenth century had looked to formative beginnings, those of the late twentieth century were more interested in irresolute endings. During the 1970s, social historians such as Philippe Ariès, Pierre Chaunu, and Michel Vovelle launched studies of changing attitudes toward death and mourning across several centuries, in some sense as a response to the denial of death and the difficulties of mourning common in the late twentieth century. For comparison, Ariès portrayed the nineteenth century as a golden age of mourning. He noted newly intense expressions of personal mourning, made manifest in lavish funeral rituals and ornate commemorative monuments in cemeteries reconceived as gardens for meditation. Mourning in the nineteenth century confirmed personal identity by integrating the rituals of private mourning into well-established public traditions. The twentieth century, he claimed, was conspicuous for its reluctance to face death's realities and its diminished capacity to devote time and intensity to the process of coming to terms with the loss of loved ones.

The politics of memory.

Historians soon extended their inquiry to encompass public commemoration—what the U.S. psychologist Peter Homans has characterized as the mourning of symbolic loss. During the 1980s, historical scholarship addressed the politics of memory, especially as it was displayed in the nineteenth-century commemorative practices that solemnized the building of nation-states in their use of icons of sacred moments (for example, national holidays) and avatars of patriotism (such as "founding fathers"). Given the challenges facing the nation-state in an age more acutely aware of the need for global perspectives on humankind, the historians' perspective on the making of national memory tended to dwell on its present-minded politics and geographical parochialism. Such research drew heavily on Halbwachs's theory of collective memory, as historians sought to rein in memory's claims on the past. In parallel with the efforts of philosophers and literary critics to deconstruct the forms of cultural discourse, historians sought to expose the building blocks from which practices of public commemoration had been constructed. They juxtaposed and to some degree reduced the reverential task of commemoration to its efficacious use in consolidating political allegiances.

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger's The Invention of Tradition (1983) and Pierre Nora's Les lieux de mémoire (1984–1992) stand out as pioneering studies in this field. Both seek to expose memory's role in the making of political identities that have become suspect in their biases and whose appeal at the turn of the twenty-first century began to wane. Nora's book on the making of the French national memory provided a method for digging through the accumulating layers of mementos that contributed to the making of political identity over long periods of time. It inspired a host of studies dealing with like political uses of memory in countries around the world.

Traumatic memories of atrocities.

The twentieth century witnessed episodes of genocide and mass destruction on a scale that traumatized entire populations into collective repression. Reckoning with these unhappy memories demanded a new approach. Concerned that the worst atrocities might be glossed over and forgotten, historians undertook an inquiry into a relationship of a different order between memory and history. These investigations reiterated Freud's thesis about the necessity of "working through" the trauma of repressed memory to uncover harsh and painful truths about crimes against humanity. They concluded that some memories cannot be easily tamed by history, and that they maintain their singularity at the limits of history's powers of representation. Memories of the Holocaust of European Jewry are the most studied among them.

The problems involved in historicizing the memory of the Holocaust was the subject of the much-publicized "historians' controversy" in Germany during the 1980s. One group of historians contended that it was time to place the Holocaust in historical context. Another countered that no extant conceptual framework is adequate for doing so. It argued for the importance of the preliminary task of gathering testimony from Holocaust survivors still struggling to come to terms with their painful memories. Meditating on the differences between memory and history, the Israeli historian Saul Friedländer (b. 1932) wondered whether history could ever do justice to the existential meaning the Holocaust held for its victims. His question is whether the immediacy of memory can ever be reduced to the selective perspectives and conceptual abstractions of historical interpretation. He suggests that traumatic memory may be a realm of human understanding whose meaning is to some degree incommensurable with historical explanation. The conversation among historians about the limits of history's claims on traumatic memory lingered into the 1990s, and the European Holocaust served as a point of departure for studies of other instances of genocide in the late twentieth century, the memory of which presented obstacles to adequate historical interpretation.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mathematics to Methanal trimerMemory - The Ancient Art Of Memory, Modern Memory And Personal Identity, The Social Frameworks Of Collective Memory