On Collective Memory and Historical Responsibility: An Interview with Jeffrey Olick (Complete)
In your talk at the University of Minnesot, you have said that “memory studies have established Halbwachs as a totem, and this came at a particular intellectual cost”. You also mentioned that “the international exchange between Europe and the United States has left a huge gap in the foundation of memory or collective memory literature.” Can you elaborate on this?
Sure, the intellectual cost is in two directions. So in one case, singling out Halbwachs as the founding father who deserves all the attention, or most of the attention pushes out our memory of other possible predecessors, trajectories, sources, of contemporary work. So as I talked about in the lecture yesterday, there’s a line of thought going back to studies of organic memory in the 19th century, writers who were looking for intellectual equivalents of genes in culture, and so on memory, especially memory that is transmitted across generations, as functioning in a similar way. That origin of contemporary thought about memory has been closed off in part by the overwhelming focus on Halbwachs. There are other traditions, for instance in experimental psychology. Names like Hermann Ebbinghaus, Wilhelm Wundt, and certainly Frederick Bartlett, who was commemorated in an interesting way in Mary Douglas’s work “How Institutions Think” should be brought into the discourse of contemporary memory studies. Also, giving too much attention to Halbwachs, provides a misbalance to the other major strand of contemporary memory studies which is cultural memory studies, which traces its origins to writers like Freud and Jung, but also pays attention to the anthropological tradition, …art historian Aby Warburg, literary writers and the works of Jan and Aleida Assmann.
You referred in your talk, to the fact that lack of or incomplete translations has been part of the problem…
Yes, of course. So, you know, we didn’t have in English the works of Jan and Aleida Assmann available to us, their major works, except for a few very small fragments in English. The first we had of Jan Assmann was Moses the Egyptian, which I believe was 1992 or 1993, but his big book Das kulturelle Gedächtnis wasn’t translated into English until probably, 2008, 2009, I’d have to check on the date, but a very late date. The other part of the translation issue is that we have only fragments of Halbwachs available to us in English. Interestingly, many of Halbwachs’s works on topics other than memory are in fact or already were in fact, available in English. But, even though Halbwachs is most known for his work on memory, arguably that’s a mistake… we really only have about a 3rd of his writings on memory available to us in English. So, there were the posthumous works of his essays The Collective Memory, published in 1980 by Frank Ditter, who was a student here in Minnesota in 1980, with a Mary Douglas introduction. But that was based on the 1950 edition of The Collective Memory which subsequent research in France has shown, was quite partial and misleading and was then reconstructed and reissued in the 1980s in French. So you had that one version which is outdated in French. Halbwachs’s most famous work, The Social Frameworks of Memory, which was originally published in 1925, we only have about forty percent of it and it’s missing the philosophical chapters. This forty percent was included in Lewis Coser’s book, On Collective Memory, which is not a title that Halbwachs ever used. And the 3rd major book, The Legendary Topography and the Gospels of the Holy Land, we only have the conclusion which Lewis Coser included in his collective volume, On Collective Memory, we’ve never had the complete translation of The Legendary Topography.
But you have taken up the mission to address this issue and make those works available to scholars in the Anglo-American world, correct?
I’m very much looking forward to and am proud to be involved in the reissue, and in some cases first issue, of the complete translations of The Social Frameworks of Memory, The Legendary Topography of the Holy Land, and the retranslation based on the 1980’s Gérard Namer edition of the posthumous The Collective Memory, which will come out in 2019 from Oxford University Press. The damage to Halbwachs’s reputation, however, in treating Halbwachs as the singular founding father of collective memory is it reifies collective memory as a special topic, and it, therefore, encourages us to see Halbwachs as a particular kind of sociologist, namely a sociologist of culture and memory as a part of culture. These are not the reasons Halbwachs had for his investigations of memory. His work on memory was very much part and parcel of his general sociology. This is an argument that has been made very clearly in a recent article in the Journal of Classical Sociology by the French sociologist, Sarah Gensburger, where she attempts to show how Halbwachs’s work on memory was connected to another piece with his work on other topics, which for memory scholars may seem very far field; namely standard of living, household budgets, suicide, and the studies of what Durkheim called social morphology. So by treating Halbwachs as the founding father of memory studies, we lose the ways in which Halbwachs’s interest in and work on memory was organically connected to these more general sociological concerns.
You mentioned that “individual” should be a disclaimer for memory, not “collective,” as memory is always collective. What do you mean by this?
So, as a Neo-Durkheimian, I believe fundamentally that the individual is the product not the source of society. One of my favorite readings that I always assign in “Introduction to Sociology” is from Norbert Elias’s Society of Individuals. And in that work, Elias takes issue with the political theory of the 18th century, namely contract theory, which, in various versions, always sees the isolated individual wandering around the forest until he accidentally bumps into another individual and then they have to work out a social contract between them. In contrast, Elias says, “Well, if you need a myth to underwrite your view of the world, this myth is the wrong one. What we have to start with is the fact that human beings are born out of other human beings, connected to them by a cord, into a set of circumstances which pre-exists them. So we are not primarily individuals, we are first and foremost members of a group and we, in fact, then develop our sense of individuality from that group context.” So I’m very much a sociologist in this vein that we start with groups, we start with our groupness and our individuality is a product rather than a source of our groupness. So when I talk about memory, and this is one of the lessons I take from Halbwachs, who was very much involved in the expansion and institutionalization of Durkheim’s legacy. So, Halbwachs’s fundamental insight is that even though we think of memory as a fundamentally private matter, (we do it in the dark with our eyes closed, by ourselves, and, unless we tell somebody about it, they don’t know about it. So it’s private, it’s closed off to us), except Halbwachs makes the point that when we’re doing that remembering, we’re doing it as social persons. We’re doing it with a specific set of identities. We’re doing it in a language, and with concepts, and with structures, that are not of our own making.
Is this what Halbwachs calls “the social frameworks of memory?”
Precisely. Our identities, the notion of calendars, and times, and names, and obligations, and symbols, and meanings, with which we understand ourselves and our existence. These are social frameworks and there’s no remembering without them. Halbwachs also points out that much of what we think of as individual or private memory is a response to cues and circumstances which originate outside of ourselves. For instance, if I ask you “Tell me about your childhood,” you may not have thought about your childhood today. Or if I say, “What was the name of your high school principal?” You may not have thought of that in 5, or 10, or 20 years, depending on how old you are. But I’m spurring you to that, it’s a cue. Our groups also do that. They tell us what things are worthy of remembering. Our groups give us the tools with which to think about them. Another important thing that happens is we get social reminders over time. So even though we experience an event, and we think we’re remembering in an unmediated fashion what happened to us, first of all, we don’t really know the meaning of the event until afterwards and that meaning is continually revised by future inputs, our memories are reactivated in social interactions, so… you can tell me my new phone number, but if I don’t have occasion to dial that phone number again and again, or give it to other people, or write it down on forms repeatedly, I’m going to forget that number. And so even this originary memory, we were told a number once, only remains active and present in our minds through repetition. One of the things that memory studies have shown is that kind of repetition, those kinds of new cues, also include contaminating elements. That is, things come into the memory and the originary memory gets transformed beyond recognition. Halbwachs also gives the example of remembering our childhood, and that we may think that we have… “what is your earliest memory?” … but even something as personal as your earliest memory is mediated by familial retellings, by photographs, by other kinds of frameworks of memory. Halbwachs also shows how we remember together as a social act. That is, we sit around the dinner table, “hey remember that time we went to that baseball game and you got lost” or “you dropped your hotdog” or whatever it was. We’re reminded, we’re shaped, sometimes we forgot something: “No, no, no, it wasn’t a hotdog. You had a hamburger.” “Oh, yes, yes, yes.” And you incorporate that in, and you remember together. Cognitive psychology has shown that that’s the case. If you give somebody a list of words to memorize, and then at a later date, under different conditions, ask them to reproduce those words; they’re only going to be able to come up with a certain number of them. But if you were to give a group of people words to remember, there are two different ways. Either they can divide and conquer and if there are 30 words, each of three memorize 10, and they’re going to come up with more words together, or they can all study the same 30 words and some will remember some words and some will remember others, but together they can help each other to reconstruct a larger list.
In your work, you introduce concepts that disentangle the often mystified term ¨collective memory.¨ Can
Collective memory tends to imply that there’s one collective memory that everyone shares or that collective memory is this mystical group mind. And I don’t think of it that way. So in my own work, I refer to what I call “mnemonic practices” practices and also “mnemonic products” and “mnemonic processes.” And there are wide numbers of different mnemonic practices, and products, and processes. So for instance, remembering your phone number is a particular kind of mnemonic practice. Remembering who the president is is another one. Remembering that time we went on a hike is yet a different one. Remembering that America had a civil war is yet a different one. So is giving a speech or painting a painting about the past, or telling a story, or recalling a set of numbers and facts. These are all different mnemonic practices. The question from memory studies is how they relate to each other or don’t. There’s also a variety of mnemonic products. You know, a statue is a mnemonic product. A historical movie is a mnemonic product. An essay is a mnemonic product; so is a story I might tell at a dinner table. These are different mnemonic products. The question is, how are they, in the words of media scholars, how are they intermedial? How does the telling of the story at the dinner table, affect people’s experiences and the way in which a museum is constructed? So the question is how do all of these different mnemonic products, practices, and processes relate to each other? Which is, I think, a more differentiated way of speaking about the many things that constitute what we label with the term collective memory.
So, I have a “personal interest” where do you see emotions in all this? Like where do you see and how do you think we can theorize in emotions into this interaction between individual and collective memory or mnemonic practices?
So I would say, first of all, that memories preserve emotions and can call up emotions in interesting and complex ways. So that, for instance, remembering something that angered you in the past, can make you angry again. Emotion also feeds into the ways in which we decide something is worth remembering. The notion of the trope in politics, particularly the politics of genocide, “Never Forget.” That implores us, it demands us, it demands something of us, it riles us up, it creates a strong sense of obligation. So emotions feed into both what we remember and memory feeds into and creates emotions when we do remember. One of the interesting things though is the ways in which both memory and emotion can be separate. So I can remember that I was really angry at my partner or my kid or something like that, but I’m not angry anymore about it. I can remember that I was, but it’s gone away. I remember what caused it, and isn’t it strange that I was so angry at the time, but I don’t feel that anger anymore. By the same token, I can remember the feeling of anger sometimes. I wake up (this is a terrible thing to say about myself), sometimes I wake up angry and I can’t put my finger on what it is I’m angry about… So these work in complex ways, but I should also point out that so much of the discussion in memory studies is about trauma, and negative memories, and outrage, and things like that. There’s also memories of joy and happiness. It’s very important in certain circumstances to hold onto positive memories; that something actually worked really well or was really nice. Of course, the one lesson of a long life is that it’s very hard, you can’t step in the same river twice, that even something you remember as great, may not have been all that great in fact. So this is one of the distortions of nostalgia, which is an emotional distortion. You venerate a past and you load extra emotions onto a past that may or may not have been actually a part of the process in the first place.
In your book “The Sins of the Fathers” you develop a new concept, legitimation profiles. Can you explain it for us, and talk about its applicability to different cases?
The Sins of the Fathers is organized on two analytical principles: profile and genre.
In your talk, you mentioned how during your formative years as a PhD student, one of your tasks was to establish collective memory as a legitimate sociological pursuit. How do you think the field has evolved in the past 25 years since you have gotten your PhD?
The chronology is a little bit different. When I started working on my dissertation I didn’t actually have the concept of collective memory; so in part, when one of my advisors said, “Well, there’s this student of Durkheim’s named Maurice Halbwachs, and he wrote a book called The Collective Memory and you should go read it,” this was a great discovery for me because, as someone interested in narratives, story-telling, symbolism, language, I felt very marginal to American sociology. You know, I’d just finished a year of statistics and methods and sociology looked very different from the kind of work that I wanted to do and I was feeling very marginalized and alienated from sociology. And then I went and I read this guy who was the major protégé of the field’s founding father and he was writing about exactly what I wanted to write about and so I felt vindication. Right, you see! You see, I’m the real sociology, I haven’t left sociology, sociology has left me! The problem is, that at that point in time, this was the late 1980s, early 1990s; there was very little in the way of work on collective memory. So we used to go, in those days, when we didn’t have the internet, we had to go to the reference librarian who would give us a CD-ROM which you would stick in the computer and it would have last year’s social science citation index. So you found articles that way and I typed in the keyword “collective memory” and the only one that came up was Barry Schwartz and so I went off and did my research and wrote my dissertation and I used the concept of collective memory; at the time Michael Schudson’s book on Watergate had just come out, there were a few other things, and I used them as best I could, but when I finished the dissertation, before turning it into a book, I really wanted to theorize what exactly it is it I’m talking about and how exactly it works. And I was making up concepts like “genre” and “profile” on the fly with the resources that I had available to me. And so I set to work on, first of all, reviewing every piece of reading and writing I could find that seemed to me to be talking about these things. So I read across an enormous array of fields, looking for people who used the term “memory” or “collective memory” or “public memory” or “national memory,” but also for people who were talking about those things but perhaps using different terms like political myth or tradition or heritage. So my first major contribution, I think, was trying to synthesize all of those different endeavors into something that I thought of as one field; and I did that in a 1998 Annual Review of Sociology piece. It’s been sort of funny to me when people refer back to the things I talked about as being relevant to memory studies in that article. “Well everybody knows there’s this work, and this work, and this work,” when really that was really more of a description of the piles of books and papers that were spread out on my dining room table for a year and that I was making into piles, and so it’s really funny to see the categories, the distinctions, the things that I included, sort of reified to a pre-existing field when some of them were fairly arbitrary choices and I’m sure I missed an awful lot. So this is what I did for the first 10 years of my career – which was in many ways a mistake, it’s better if you have a pre-existing theoretical apparatus, that you don’t need to build it from the ground up yourself – but as I did this, I discovered more and more people were coming around and starting to write about these things. I’ve often said that when I started as a graduate student and as a new assistant professor, every time I went to the bookstore or read a journal if there was something that used the term “collective memory,” I’d buy the book or I’d photocopy the article. By the mid-1990s, of course, that was financially unfeasible. More and more, every time it’d be an exponential increase in the use of the term “collective memory.” So it’s a literature that, in many ways, grew beyond control; beyond the ability of any one person to master it. At the same time, lots and lots of people were also coming to recognize this, and there were more and more conferences and workshops.
When does the Journal come into the scene?
I believe it was 2008, a number of colleagues starting talking about “well, we really need a journal” and the Journal of Memory Studies was formed. I would go from conference to conference to conference, usually small workshops, some of which were other memory scholars who knew the literatures and I was always happy to find people who knew the same things I had, but many of them were using memory in a sort of lay fashion and we ended up sort of putting the program on hold and having a sort of didactic seminar: “oh there was this guy named Halbwachs and he used this term but don’t forget the other stuff.” But through the period of about 2005 to 2015 or so, it really seemed as if a field known as memory studies was really coming into existence and I tried to be a multiplier of this as an institution builder and so it was really gratifying in 2006 when we declared the existence of the Memory Studies Association, built on the successes of the Journal of Memory Studies and over the past – Sorry, 2016 that that happened – and now we seem to be on pretty solid organizational footing and we’re hoping that the Memory Studies Association will continue – establish itself as a major scholar organization and a reliable piece of the scholarly apparatus; which will be sort of an in-gathering of people who have been working on memory and memory-related issues and all sorts of cognate and related disciplines like archive studies and heritage studies and oral history and museology and transitional justice, and the traditional disciplines of sociology and literary studies and art history and all the others, and political science and philosophy. So we’re trying to make an in-gathering.
Where do you think the field is going?
Where do we go from here? It’s obviously an open question. Astrid Erll, the literary critic from Frankfurt, has a wonderful article in which she identifies three waves of literary memory? studies. The first being the pre-World War II wave of Halbwachs and Warburg and others, the second being the 1980s and 1990s, the crucible in which my ideas were formed which focused mostly on national memory and the nation-state as a carrier or container of memory, the third wave of memory studies, which has been led by Astrid Erll herself, but also Ann Rigney and Aleida Assmann (15:50), but perhaps most importantly Michael Rothberg, has been a trans-national memory studies which tries to overcome the idea that the nation-state is the sole or most important container of memories with concepts like “traveling memory,” “entangled memory,” and “multi-directional memory.” So, for instance, viewing immigrants as vectors of complex, multi-directional memory: they have their memory of the place of origin, they adopt the collective memories of the destination country, but then they also travel and trade and exchange memories across these artificial boundaries and borders and through complex media flows that are not described best by the member nations of the United Nations. So that, I would say, is the most promising avenue. This tracing out the flows and the conduits through which memory travels and the different ways in which memory forms into clusters or nodes.
In recent talks, you have introduced the concept of “regions of memory”. How does it fit within the overall trend of transnationalization?
There’s been an argument about, with the mass media and the worldwide knowledge about certain historical events, there’s been a globalization or universalization of memory. So in a way, global memory has replaced national memory as the point of reference. What I want to show is also that there are entities or clusters between the level of the nation-state and the global, which I call regional. So there are regional constellations of memory like Central and East-Central Europe, where different nation-states, and different groups are remembering the past in complex ways which are not global, but nor are they constituted particularly by the nation-states that can be found on a map in this geographical arena. A good example of work in this field is the impact of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands; where he shows that there is a territory and a broad period of destruction from the late 1920s through the 1950s, which cannot be delimited by the declaration of war in 1939 or 1941 and the declaration of the end of war in 1945, nor can it be defined solely by what happened in Germany or what happened in Poland, but these issues spread out and there are complicated geographical and cultural clusters; which I try to capture with the notion of regions of memory. There are ways in which, for instance… countries in the Southern continent of Latin America are dealing with similar kinds of issues. There are ways in which Canada and, to some extent, the United States, but also Australia and New Zealand are a region of memory, dealing with the treatment of indigenous peoples. There is a cluster of issues which define Northeast Asia as a region of memory; South Korea with the comfort women issue and Japanese imperialism and the Rape of Nanjing all form a sort of cluster of issues that come about from a century of Japanese imperialism resulting in the Pacific War, but what can’t be defined solely as Japanese memory or Chinese memory or South Korean memory.