States of Memory: Continuities, Conflicts, and Transformations in National Retrospection / Edition 1

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States of Memory illuminates the construction of national memory from a comparative perspective. The essays collected here emphasize that memory itself has a history: not only do particular meanings change, but the very faculty of memory—its place in social relations and the forms it takes—varies over time. Integrating theories of memory and nationalism with case studies, these essays stake a vital middle ground between particular and universal approaches to social memory studies.

The contributors—including historians and social scientists—describe societies’ struggles to produce and then use ideas of what a “normal” past should look like. They examine claims about the genuineness of revolution (in fascist Italy and communist Russia), of inclusiveness (in the United States and Australia), of innocence (in Germany), and of inevitability (in Israel). Essayists explore the reputation of Confucius among Maoist leaders during China’s Cultural Revolution; commemorations of Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States Congress; the “end” of the postwar era in Japan; and how national calendars—in signifying what to remember, celebrate, and mourn—structure national identification. Above all, these essays reveal that memory is never unitary, no matter how hard various powers strive to make it so.

States of Memory will appeal to those scholars-in sociology, history, political science, cultural studies, anthropology, and art history-who are interested in collective memory, commemoration, nationalism, and state formation.

Contributors. Paloma Aguilar, Frederick C. Corney, Carol Gluck, Matt K. Matsuda, Jeffrey K. Olick, Francesca Polletta, Uri Ram, Barry Schwartz, Lyn Spillman, Charles Tilly, Simonetta Falasca Zamponi, Eviatar Zerubavel, Tong Zhang

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“An old Yugoslav aphorism goes: ‘The future is not hard to predict, but the past is forever changing.’ The essays gathered in this volume all deal in one way or another with the way people organize their collective memories of a past, and particularly a national past. The range of topics is remarkable, and the essays themselves are uniformly excellent—beginning with Jeffrey K. Olick's masterful introduction.”—Kai Erikson, author of A New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience of Modern Disasters
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822330639
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/2003
  • Series: Politics, History, and Culture Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 1,367,555
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey K. Olick is Associate Professor of Sociology at Columbia University.

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States of memory

Continuities, conflicts, and transformations in national retrospection
By Jeffrey K. Olick

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3063-6



Since at least the nineteenth century, scholars and politicians alike have recognized the fundamental connection between memory and the nation. While political elites invented and propagated legitimating traditions, historians objectified the nation as a unitary entity with a linear descent. At the same time, critics like Renan pointed out that forgetting is at the heart of national self-understanding-forgetting alternative possible stories and alternate possible identications-while Nietzsche bemoaned the proliferation of "monumental" history. The First World War seemed to many good enough reason to abandon nationalist chauvinism, but for others a myth of the war experience "provided the nation with a new depth of religious feeling, putting at its disposal ever-present saints and martyrs, places of worship, and a heritage to emulate" (Mosse 1990). And the anemic internationalism of the 1920s was just that-inter-nationalism rather than postnationalism, based on a nebulous and misunderstood notion of "self-determination"-where the burning memory of stabs in the back and imposed settlements fanned old antipathies to new heights. Memory has long been the handmaiden of nationalist zeal, history its high counsel. Even those like Nietzsche and Renan who critiqued memory's ambitionsunderstood its centrality.

Recent theorists of nationalism, however, have challenged both national memory and historiographical nationalism by historicizing the nation as an identitarian as well as political form. As Benedict Anderson (1991: 5) puts it, there is a paradox in "the objective modernity of nations in the [non-nationalist] historian's eye vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists." According to Anderson, the nation is the only candidate to make up for the missing existential securities lost with the decline of the religious world view resulting from the accelerated rhythms of life under print-capitalism. Anderson argues that a massive transformation of temporal perceptions and an associated rise of interest in the past thus made it possible, even necessary, "to think the nation" in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Nationalism, as Anthony Smith (1986) puts it, in the process became "a surrogate religion which aims to overcome the sense of futility engendered by the removal of any vision of an existence after death, by linking individuals to persisting communities whose generations form indissoluble links in a chain of memories and identities."

Theorists of postmodernity, however, have focused not on the rise of the memory-nation but on its demise in recent years. This is not old-style modernization theory, which sees nationalism as an intermediate stage in a progression from enchanted to disenchanted world views, though it does occasionally reverberate teleological overtones. Rather, these authors have problematized the role of memory as one component in a complex and shifting amalgam of perceptions that form the pervasive and permanent, though ever-changing, historicity of the world. There are no identities, national or otherwise, that are not constituted and challenged in time and with histories, but nations have had a special place in the history of memory and identity and in the history of their relations. Memory and the nation have a peculiar synergy. Even when other identities compete with or supplant the national in postmodernity, they draw on-and are increasingly nostalgic for-the uniquely powerful forms of memory generated in the crucible of the nation-state.

According to Pierre Nora (1992)-the preeminent figure in recent discussions of the memory-nation nexus-the memory-nation in its ascendancy relied on national historical narratives to provide continuity through identity. In the nineteenth century, Nora argues, the nation as a foundation of identity eroded as the state ceded power to society. The nation itself, earlier shored up by memory, now appears as a mere "memory trace." Nora thus sees the nation-state as declining in salience, the last incarnation of the unification of memory and history, a form in which history could provide the social cohesion memory no longer could. But history too has now lost its temporary ability to transmit values with pedagogical authority (Wood 1994). We are left with a proliferation of different memories; the remains of unitary history are but residues scattered throughout the social landscape.

"We speak so much of memory," Nora writes, "because there is so little of it left." Where premodern societies lived within the continuous past, contemporary societies have separated memory from the continuity of social reproduction; memory is now a matter of explicit signs, not of implicit meanings. Our only recourse has been to represent and invent what we can no longer spontaneously experience. The memory-nation of the late-nineteenth century was never really up to the task, though it managed for a while because it used the past to project a unitary future. Now, since the end of the twentieth century, we experience a memory boom in which novelty is associated with new versions of the past rather than with the future. In contrast to the historical fever to legitimize the nation-state that Nietzsche derided, "the mnemonic convulsions of our culture," Andreas Huyssen (1995) writes, "seem chaotic, fragmentary, and free-floating."

But theorists of postmodernity are divided as to whether this is a case of total loss. Nora's grand project to catalogue all of the "sites of memory" in French society has been labeled by some critics a neonationalist fantasy (Englund 1992). Patrick Hutton (1993) has characterized it as a call not to celebrate the past but to celebrate our celebrations of the past; Hutton refers to Nora's project as the attempt to autopsy the past's remains. On the other hand, many others are relieved by the refutation of nationalist grand narratives. Jonathan Boyarin (1994), for instance, points out that statist ideologies "involve a particularly potent manipulation of dimensionalities of space and time, invoking rhetorically fixed national identities to legitimate their monopoly on administrative control." Prasenjit Duara (1995) writes that the relationship between linear historicity and the nation-state is repressive: "National history secures for the contested and contingent nation the false unity of a self-same, national subject evolving through time" enabling "conquests of Historical [sic] awareness over other, 'nonprogressive' modes of time." Huyssen (1995) sees in recent positions "a welcome critique of compromised teleological notions of history rather than being simply anti-historical, relativistic, or subjective."

At a more mundane level, it is clear that questions of memory and its relation to national and other identities have moved to the center of a variety of intellectual agendas in the past ten to twenty years (see Olick and Robbins 1998). Scholars from a wide range of disciplines and with diverse area specialties have begun to examine aspects of social memory. Sources of this scholarly interest include a revival in cultural sociology (Crane 1994) and the sociology of knowledge (Swidler and Arditi 1994), the turn first to social and then to cultural history and the associated questioning of historiography's epistemological privilege (Hutton 1993), as well as multiculturalism's interest in unrecorded histories as sources for alternative narratives and identities. Scholarly interest in memory, however, has largely followed political developments, including the increase of redress claims, the rise of identity politics, a politics of victimization and regret, an increased willingness of governments to acknowledge wrongdoing, as well as the breakdown of repressive regimes that have left difficult legacies behind-all part of the decline of the memory-nation as an unchallengeable hegemonic force. It is possible to trace some of this, as I do in my paper in this volume, to the universal impact of the Holocaust, to principles of justice developed for the Nuremberg tribunals, as well as to German and other struggles with this legacy. But as the theories outlined above demonstrate, there is something more broadly existential and epochal going on here.

One problem with the diverse landscape of scholarship on memory, and particularly on the memory-nation connection, is that it has often opted for one extreme or the other: either epochal generalizations of the sort outlined above that move in the rarefied atmosphere of general theory and macro-history; or parochial case studies that may appreciate the uniqueness of particular moments in particular places but often miss what is general or comparable in the cases. A common syndrome is the attempt to address through a few references in a first chapter other cases that are rarely examined again in the rest of the work. From the other side, there is the temptation to level unique cases as mere instantiations of a trend that occurs above or beyond the memory work done in particular times and places, the subjectless history of theoretical eschatology.

The papers presented here seek, in their own ways, to remedy the infelicitous choice between parochialism and generalism in the analysis of the memory-nation nexus. As I've written elsewhere (Olick and Robbins 1998), social memory studies is a "non-paradigmatic, transdisciplinary, centerless enterprise." In other words, despite an enormous eorescence of interest in social remembering-and particularly in the memory-nation nexus-surprisingly slow headway has been made conceptually and methodologically, and unfortunately little cross-case discourse has developed. The authors here are unusual in that they are immersed in their particular cases as well as fundamentally interested in methodology and cross-case connections. Their papers provide illustrative case studies that contribute to middle-level theory-not as an alternative to either particular or grand approaches, but as part of an integrated program that includes elements of each, where the general and the particular, epochal and eventful, inform each other iteratively in scholarship as they do in life.

The first major issue with which each must come to terms is methodological: How do we approach a phenomenon-or set of phenomena-at once so general and particular? What mechanisms and patterns are common across cases, how are distinct cases connected, and how do we discover or theorize these commonalities and connections without hypostatizing or reifying them? Given the origins of the concept of collective memory in the crucible of statist agendas, unfortunately, scholars of the memory-nation nexus have inherited reductionist tendencies. Regarding nationalism, for instance, Rogers Brubaker has demonstrated that scholars mistakenly begin by trying to define what a nation is because they see nations as entities. In the process, Brubaker argues, they risk adopting "categories of practice as categories of analysis." Nationalists work hard, that is, to reify the term (nation) on which they base their claims. But nations are not entities that develop; they are practices that occur, institutional arrangements that are continually enacted and reenacted. Scholars must therefore be careful to "decouple the study of nationhood and nationness from the study of nations as substantial entities"; they need to study the reifications of nationalists without certifying them ontologically.

Brubaker notes in regard to nationalism research that "one might think this sociologically naive view has no place in recent scholarship." But the situation is even more dire in the literature on collective memory, where the very term substantializes what is in fact a uid process. Where remembering is a quintessentially relational phenomenon (what is it if not relating?), memory is a grossly substantialist metaphor, implying cold storage rather than hot use. This is to say nothing of "collective," which often implies all the problems Simmel found with "society" when he replaced it with "sociation," in addition to the standard anti-Durkheimian critique of an assumed unity. How, then, are we to approach collective memory without adopting the bogus naturalism of memory makers or the misleading substantialism of an outdated social science?

The literature on "collective memory" has provided two polar options: either treat collective memory as the lowest common denominator or normal distribution of what individuals in a collectivity remember, or see "the collective memory" as a "social fact sui generis," a matter of collective representations that are the properties of the "collective consciousness," which is itself ontologically distinct from any aggregate of individual consciousness. Maurice Halbwachs-the seminal figure in this field-often sounds like a true Durkheimian in the latter vein (which makes sense, given that he was Durkheim's student), but he also provides the seeds of a "third way." All remembering, Halbwachs argues, takes place in group settings and is a matter of social interaction. In this way, it does not make sense at the limit to distinguish sharply between individual and social memory. Furthermore, highlighting this interactive setting helps avoid hypostatizing memory. Rather, it is to grasp the processual aspects of remembering, not the static aspects of memory. Halbwachs hints at these moves, though his vocabulary remains distinctly classical.

In more contemporary language, it makes sense to refer to mnemonic "practices" rather than treating "the collective memory" as a "social fact sui generis" in the Durkheimian sense, or reducing it to mere properties of cognitive atoms. A genuinely processual scholarship? which, as I discuss at the end of this introduction, is the hallmark of a new historicism in the social sciences-thus avoids the substantialist temptations by viewing social remembering as the ideological projects and practices of actors in settings. People, alone or together, remember, recollect, commemorate, etc. These various mnemonic practices, however, create only the appearance of substance rather than an actual entity scholars should treat as (the?) collective memory. Actors make claims on behalf of memory, assert what they think it is and what they want to have as parts of it; scholars study remembering and the variety of other practices associated with it (e.g., commemoration, museication, heroization, etc.) but avoid taking claims made on behalf of and in terms of collective memory as indicators of a substantial entity-"the collective memory." The scholar's job, again, is to chart the uses of the claim, not to participate in its ontological transubstantiation from concept into reality.

This point may seem easily assimilable to standard "constructionist" positions in the interpretive social sciences, which emphasize the ways in which taken-for-granted categories of thought and action are really the products of the interested activities of particular actors rather than features of nature. Social constructionism, of course, is a much maligned position, but not always for the right reasons. Critics charge constructionists with idealism, with the assertion that "social reality" is merely the emanation of the minds of social actors. But few constructionists truly go that far. The constructionist challenge is to highlight the active involvement of people in making the social world around them. The real problem with constructionism is thus not idealism. Instead, it is a tendency toward voluntarism: Constructionists often move too easily from W. I. Thomas's famous dictum that "situations defined as real are real in their consequences" not to the belief that situations defined as real are real, but to the belief that all one has to do to create an identity is "imagine" it.


Excerpted from States of memory by Jeffrey K. Olick Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Rethinking a Great Event: The October Revolution as Memory Project 17
Of Storytellers and Master Narratives: Modernity, Memory, and History in Fascist Italy 43
Idols of the Emperor 72
Confucius and the Cultural Revolution: A Study in Collective Memory 101
Institutional Legacies and Collective Memories: The Case of the Spanish Transition to Democracy 128
When Do Collective Memories Last?: Founding Moments in the United States and Australia 161
Legacies and Liabilities of an Insurgent Past: Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. on the House and Senate Floor 193
Postnationalist Pasts: The Case of Israel 227
What Does It Mean to Normalize the Past?: Official Memory in German Politics since 1989 259
The "End" of the Postwar: Japan at the Turn of the Millennium 289
Calendars and History: A Comparative Study of the Social Organization of National Memory 315
Afterword: Borges and Brass 339
Contributors 347
Index 351
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