In this interview with Yagmur Karakaya, Prof. Olick demystifies processes involved in collective memory, discusses the role of emotions and nostalgia in remembrance, and introduces the notion of regional constellations of memory. Olick also untangles the fruitful concept of “legitimation profiles”, which he applies in his latest book to the ways Germany confronts the specters of its Nazi past. 

Jeffrey Olick is a professor of sociology and history and chair of the sociology department at the University of Virginia. He is a cultural and historical sociologist whose work has focused on collective memory and commemoration, critical theory, transitional justice, postwar Germany, and sociological theory more generally. His books include “The Politics of Regret: On Collective Memory and Historical Responsibility,” and “The Sins of Fathers: Germany, Memory, Method”.

(Editor’s note: This is a condensed version of our interview with Dr. Olick. Follow the link at the end to read the interview in its entirety.)

In your work, you introduce concepts that disentangle the often mystified term ¨collective memory.¨ Can you elaborate on those?

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. Profile is meant to understand the relational structure of memories within cultures at particular moments or in a particular epoch; whereas genres are meant to understand the ways in which every version of the past is in dialogue, not only with the past itself but with previous memories or versions of the past. So the genres are the connective structure through time; profiles are the non-reductive structure or totality of a system of meanings in the present. So from French structuralism we know that there is a discursive structure where tall and short, fat and skinny, high and low, and lots of other kinds of concepts are in a paired relational structure at a particular moment. So a particular version of the past may fit with a particular legitimacy claim. So in the book, I argue for instance, that in the 1980s when German politicians are trying to legitimate Germany by saying it’s a normal nation, the idea of Germany as a normal nation entails a particular view of the past. And so they produce a particular form of public memory that relativizes the Nazi past; whereas, in contrast, in earlier periods, for instance, in the 1960s, in what I call the moral nation, which is the legitimate profile, Germany wants to appear to the world as a moral entity with authority. And a key part of being a moral nation is to have a deep acknowledgment of the guilt of the past, and this is captured, for instance, when the German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, goes to Warsaw and goes down on his knees in a gesture of repentance. This is something that the later Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, would never have done because he’s trying to claim that Germany is normal. In Sins of the Fathers, I talk about 3 legitimation profiles: the reliable nation of the 1950s and early 60s, the moral nation of the mid-1960s to early 1970s, and then the normal nation of the 1980s up through unification. To capture the ways in which images of the past fit within a wider political-cultural system of meanings; some of which concern the past, some of which concern the present. So in other words, not to treat memory as something separable, something that can be pried out of a deeper cultural nexus intact. Memory works together with other meanings and symbols in what I think of as an irreducible profile.

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.

Find the complete interview here.

Yagmur Karakaya is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She studies nostalgia as a collective force, highlighting its central place within both populist political discourse and popular culture. Her work has appeared at American Journal of Cultural Sociology and New Perspectives on Turkey. With Alejandro Baer, in an article, forthcoming in Sociological Forum, she compares Holocaust Remembrance Days (HRD) in Spain and Turkey to argue that even though memory travels transnationally, the nation-state still is the most powerful translator.