Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Memory, memory making and heritage: Some fundamental considerations

An introduction to memory studies: Notes from Prof. Vincent Houben 

Memory is infused in individuals, groups, and societies; it is the object of national and supranational institutions. Memory can be characterised as a system of reference in order to allow for its positioning in a spatio-temporal order. It gives a sense of direction, a sense of purpose, and it reworks past events in such a way that these become meaningful. Memory is therefore fundamental to identity formation. 

Memory is also a social phenomenon. Maurice Halbwachs has underlined the social conditioning of memory, because it mirrors the system of reference people use in their society. Collective memory means that memories can only be generated by communication and interaction within social groups. We remember not only what we know, but also what others tell us and confirm as being important. 

Memories, as Jan Assmann argued, depend on sensuousness in that they must be figured and attached to concrete moments, places, concepts, thereby creating ”memory figurations“ (Erinnerungsfiguren). These figurations reflect reconstructivity, i.e. what a society, or actors within a society, at a given time believe it is meaningful to keep. Collective memory is therefore the result of a changing and active social process of memory making. Communicative memory consists of memories which refer to the recent past. Cultural memory on the other hand, is aimed at fixed points in the past and is connected to socially differentiated formats of participation. 

When institutions get involved in memory making they seek to create history. History aims to override diffuse memories and potentially conflicting practices of memory making through the creation of order. This entails creating order in terms of time and place (what came where, what before and what after), as well as creating order with regard to the broader meaning of what happened in the form of cause-effect relationships. History has thus become the instrument of statehood, since nation-states need to legitimise their existence through the creation of an official narrative. The culmination of history is in heritage, i.e. something material or immaterial which is transmitted down through the generations, exemplifying the core of memory, memory making and history alike. 

However, the field of memory and history is highly contested, since remembering is, as Roxana Waterson and Kwok Kian-Woon pointed out, a dimension of social relations, if not a political matter. Selection and distortion, the politics of forgetting, are as much part of memory, history and heritage as is setting the record straight. 

 In this summer course we will address all these dimensions of memory making and heritage in the region of Southeast Asia, allowing for critical comparisons as well as theoretical and empirical insights. The course will also give participants the opportunity to "do memory studies" by going into the field, visiting sites, having discussions with collective memory experts and getting impressions of how ordinary citizens visiting history sites interpret and accommodate what they have heard and seen into their personal world views.

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