Letters

Letters Archive
Fall 2001, Vol. 10, No. 1 (requires Adobe Acrobat)
  • Memory, Identity, and Political Action
  • 2001/2002 Fellows
  • Vanderbilt Alumnus to Present the 2001 Harry C. Howard Jr. Lecture
  • We the People.... The Citizen and the Constitution
  • 2002/2003 Fellows Program
  • Deirdre McCloskey to Speak in the 2001/2002 Gender and Sexuality Lecture Series
  • Memory, Identity, and Political Action
    An Interview with Professors Larry J. Griffin, William James Booth, and Michael Kreyling

    The 2001/2002 Fellows Program at the Warren Center, ìMemory, Identity, and Political Action,î considers the role that memory plays in shaping identity and justifying political action. Memory allows people to ascertain the pastís moral and emotional gravity, spurring or retarding political action premised on an understanding of this morality. The seminar will investigate memoryís function not only as a cognitive device allowing individuals and their communities to know the past, but also as an active agent in experiencing the past. The seminarís participants are from a variety of academic backgrounds, including English, history, political science, sociology, philosophy, fine arts, education, music, and communication studies. The programís co-directors are Larry J. Griffin, professor of sociology and history; William James Booth, professor of political science; and Michael Kreyling, professor of English. Professors Griffin, Booth, and Kreyling met recently with Letters to discuss their hopes and plans for the program.

    LETTERS: Could you tell me about how this project came about?

    GRIFFIN: For the last several years Iíve been struck by the attention people are paying to a remembered past, and how important that seems to be to who they are and to what theyíre doing, and more significantly, to what they ought to do, morally and normatively. People look to a represented past to extract lessons about who they are, about where they should go, and what they should do about this pastóforget it, embrace it, damn or condemn it. The more I thought about the inextricable connections between memory and identity, the more I thought that this would be a wonderful project for interdisciplinary faculty. I began to think about who could contribute to a broader intellectual framework and I thought about James [Booth] because I knew that he had been working on the Holocaust and I thought about Michael [Kreyling] because I know that Michael has worked on the politics of memory for years. We spoke, and decided to put together a proposal engaging history and the role of memory in the construction of this past within the present.

    BOOTH: Iím at work on a book on memory, identity, and politics, so this topic complemented my own research and afforded me the chance to benefit from the research of other colleagues. As Larry mentioned, the politics of memory is a burgeoning field of study, typically interdisciplinary and increasingly important in the study of literature, political science, political philosophy, and sociology. I would also like to emphasize the international dimension to the politics of memory; it is very current in Europe as well as in America. The universality of this concept and its implications for so many different fields makes this a timely issue for the Warren Center and a welcome one for me in my research.

    KREYLING: At the time that Larry introduced this topic, I was teaching Southern Literature. The proposal came at an opportune moment because in the last few times that Iíve taught Southern Literature, I have always included one of the memory or heritage booksóTony Horwitzís Confederates in the Attic, for exampleóin which the traveler interviews an indigenous person about his/her heritage. Iíve noticed that heritage has become a sort of industry, a cultural tourism, in a sense. This really struck me as an area I needed to know more about: Who is in charge of this memory? What is false memory and how does it get recorded? What constitutes authentic or inauthentic homage to this memory? Does reenacting historical events recapture any sense of authentic memory?
    My interest in the politics of memory also has the international dimension that James spoke of; I spent some time in Italy as a Fulbright scholar when they were going through re-remembering Mussolini, trying to launder the memory of fascsim to create legitimate right-wing conservative politics. Re-remembering is more complicated than reenacting. Re-remembering is declaring that the past was not what people thought it was or what the record says it wasóessentially, re-remembering is a rewriting of the past. It isvery interesting to see what happens with the traces of the discarded ìresidueî of community memory. Does it erupt and reappear in another location or in another form? Does it deconstruct the hegemony of communal memory? It seemed as though all the work I was doing was just saturated with the politics of memory. I needed to know more on a theoretical basis about it, and I needed to know more about it from other points of view.

    GRIFFIN: I teach introduction level courses in both American studies and sociology and in both classes, I employ newspaper accounts about current issues that illuminate basic social processes or conflicts in the character identity of America. It is truly remarkable how much coverage in todayís newspapers pertains to past happenings. In the enormous coverage of recent issues such as the Birmingham church bombing trial of 1963 that just ended, we can understand how memory shapes identity. The issue over the Confederate battle flagsóSouth Carolina, Georgia, and now Mississippióis another such conflict. It is an issue that is literally 140 years old, still persisting, kindled by memory.

    KREYLING: I was also teaching an Introduction to American Studies course this semester and basing it on the biographies and autobiographies of destined significant American young men. I framed each figureís story through an examination of how certain cultural values filtered through that figure. For example, Colin Powellís autobiography reflects a double-voiced irony and honor with respect to his experiences in Vietnam. Powell describes his experiences in Vietnam, while also protecting the memory of Vietnam as an honorable military operation.
    We can also see a more problematic representation of the past in the recent story about Bob Kerreyís exploits in Vietnam. The citation presenting him with the bronze star misspells his name and misrepresents the actual facts that happened in the episode for which he won the medal; the event and the official record of the event are not coincident. The personal memory and the cultural memory of Vietnam that is fought out in both Kerreyís and Powellís careers is also contested in the public arena in the lives of young men for whom the Vietnam War was supposed to be a defining passage. The pressure to have it be a successful past is just so great that people tinker with their memory to make it turn out okay.

    BOOTH: One of the questions which interests me in my own research and in this seminar is why memory matters. We live in a society which fashions itself post-traditional and we imagine that we remake our society everyday, that we are members of a highly mobile deracinated community. You would think that the weight of the past here would be relatively little, but in fact, as the examples that Michael and Larry have just cited suggest, the past does matter. So, we must ask ourselves why the past matters in a post-traditional society in which our ancestry is no longer central to our way of life. This brings up a rather different question tooóthat of the ethics of memory. Vanderbilt has sponsored a Holocaust lecture series for the past twenty-four years. For twenty-four years running we have met every October/November as a community to remember this. It seems relatively uncontroversial, but then you ask yourself, ëwhat are the ethics of this?í Why do we feel that it is important to do them the justice of remembrance? Rather than looking at the construction or deconstruction of memory, the dimension of political controversy, we might ask what moral elements in our societies the imperatives of remembrance play upon. Why do we feel that this is our responsibility to remember? Why do we feel that if we didnít remember six million Jews that this would be a moral failing on our part? It is important to try to understand this ethics of remembrance in our attempts to comprehend the politics of memory.

    LETTERS: What sort of work has been done in this field in the past? What have been the predominate areas of focus and how do you understand the politics of memory as a fluid evolving framework?

    GRIFFIN: In the last ten years or so the amount of attention to memory both inside and outside of the academy has been staggering. It is really quite unbelievable and itís coming from virtually all pathways in the social sciences and the humanities. There are some signal words, but the field itself is so remarkably disparate and fluidóI donít think it is yet codified. We see the politics of memory in literature in these fictional accounts that are now being understood as a recasting of a past or a remembering of it. The social sciences proper have also developed theoretical apparatuses in methods to study memory, particular concepts that literally fifteen years ago did not exist, such as flash-bulb memory: Where were you were the day John Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963? Thatís a flash-bulb memory. It may be incorrect but itís something that is indelibly seared in those of us who were alive at the time. This is just an example of the extraordinary amount of attention now given to collective memory, particularly when itís tied to political action or to an effort to understand a peopleís ìwe-nessî or a peopleís ìotherness.î

    KREYLING: Iíve felt that in teaching Southern literature at Vanderbilt that Iím in a nest of memory because Southern literature and Southern civilization and culture are built on memory: whose it is, who gets to be included in memory and who is excluded from memory. All Southern cultural identity is aimed at the past as opposed to the future. It is not so much even aimed at the present, inasmuch as the present includes a ritual memory. This accounts, for instance, for the contested memory over Alice Randallís The Wind Done Gone, a parody or re-remembering not so much of the past, but of Gone With the Wind, which is in fact, I would argue, not just a book, but a fixture of Southern memory, conjuring recollections of the flashbulb memory which Larry mentioned: Where were you when you first read, or first saw the movie? The issue with Randallís book is really not so much one over legal copyrightóalthough thatís what itís eventually going to end up beingóbut over whether someone can claim memory as his/her intellectual property and exclude someone else from access. Iím interested in the legal aspects and the creative, intellectual, and cultural aspects of controversies like that. I think she has a rather good case in cultural law, though not in courtroom law, at repossessing that instrument of memoryóand sort of tinkering with it a little bit to include some other people.

    GRIFFIN: The Randall case is actually a good example of second or third-tier memory-work so to speak; she is appropriating or attempting to re-appropriate a set of memories that were systematized by Margaret Mitchell in Gone With the Wind, itself a work of memory about a South that may never have existed, but certainly didnít exist when Margaret Mitchell wrote her novel.

    KREYLING: But part of the argument though, is that there was a history of the antebellum period that Margaret Mitchell appropriated, and itís okay for another author to appropriate THAT history, but not the history of Gone With the Wind. You can tell the story of reconstruction and the Battle of Atlanta again because nobody can hold copyright over the historical events, but you canít tell it with respect to Scarlett OíHara. Of course, so many people get their information on the history of the antebellum period and the Civil War from Gone With the Wind. Probably more than half.

    GRIFFIN: And one other thing tooóthis is something James talked about and this is going to be somewhat more personal than distancedóunlike some academic topics, the politics of memory has immediate pertinence for me at least as an individual: What ought my people, white southerners, do about their remembrances? What should we do with a past that Iím sure we wish we did not have, but we have? What should we do with it? Try to ignore it? Try to re-remember it and recast Birmingham and Old Miss and somehow figure decency and honor out of those times? I donít think thatís possible. These memories are not going to go away, and that means that we, and I truly mean we, must do something. So thatís an additional interest over and above intellectual or academic interests.

    BOOTH: Memory is a living past; we tend to think of it as a sort of an exercise in nostalgia, but what it really means in social terms is the past made present; modified, parts of it excluded, parts of it celebratedóan attempt to make the past work in the present. Anyone who feels rooted in a community knows what it means to have the various memory signposts of that community affect, exclude, and/or celebrate him or her. I come from Quebec. On all the Quebec license plates is the nationalist slogan ìI rememberî written in French. Do they mean by that the remembrance of a French speaking community and all the difficulties associated with this? Are these first-hand personal memories? No, weíre talking about the English conquest of New France in 1759 and the French communityís struggle for survival in the following centuries. The memory is a living presence for them, often misrepresented, often instrumental, often manipulated by the purveyors of memory, but it has its moral and political weight in the fact that it lives and is not just a backward looking glance. It is the fact that the past is restored in the present that makes it such a powerful force.

    KREYLING: The Kreylings didnít get here until after the Civil Waróeven Reconstruction was done officially when they got hereóbut nobody in my family has any memory prior to 1917. When youíre a German immigrant, especially in the era of the World Wars, you tend to try to forget or erase the fact that you have any kind of national memory or personal memory. In my family, nobody knows who anybody was, or where they came fromónobody kept any documents that I know of.

    GRIFFIN: This reminds me of another concept thatís of great interestóthat of collective amnesia. This is a people forgetting a past, either deliberately forgetting a past or it could be a forgetfulness thatís taught by a dominant group. But the point is that people willingly forget their past, either because they want to reinvent who they are and redefine themselves or because they want to leave the old country, the old ways and start anew. Hence, this amnesia of a collective sort.

    LETTERS: Are there any particular moments in cultural history that are ìhot pointsî or nodes in the field of the politics of memory?

    KREYLING: I think the 60s are a hot point. The 60s serve as a label for politics right now for both sides of the issue, for a kind of social movement that went wrong and needs to be corrected, as well as a social movement that went right, and needs to be extended. So, that phrase ìthe 60sî gets used a lot- and it depends on who uses it. I think there is probably a type of code developing to replace the simple phrase ìthe 60s.î Iím not sure I could precisely define this more specific terminology, but I think I know it when I hear it. This decade was extremely important and before the rest of us who went through it die, it will be an important issue; what should be done with the 60s? Should it be included as a part of the memory? Or should it be excluded as a failed detour? Should we go back before the 60s and start over again? Thatís where the political action part of memory comes in.

    GRIFFIN: The U.S. Civil War, still, too, as you talk about Horwitz and that book Confederates in the Attic and a really fine book that has just been issued, by historian David Blight, Race and Reunion: Civil War in American Memory. I think both authors show how profoundly important it is to consider slavery and the Civil War as conjoined. This subject is remarkably topical today for Americans of many hues and tongues.

    BOOTH: Virtually everything I read about race in this country has a strong memory dimension; even as you get current time-splice changes in the demographics and economics of race relations in the U.S. in the sense that the memory of discrimination, and before that of slavery, stands there unchanged. These long memories of slavery seem to modify and to diminish to some extent the successes that have been made in race relations.
    World War II and the Holocaust, in particular, remain a vivid presence. The pressure on Germany to compensate for its past has probably gone as far as it can, but thereís still pressure on Japan to acknowledge and come to terms with its activities in the Pacific during the Waróit hasnít in the past, at least not to the extent that Germany has. We can also look back at the Cold War and the way it shaped not only Americans but also global communities. If youíre looking for grand topics, theyíre going to be race, Civil War, the Holocaust and the Cold War, but thereís a more subterranean and resurgent dimension in which people excluded from the pantheon of memory fight to get their rightful position. These could be national minorities, or local communities, immigrant communities who have had their story subordinated to the grand national tale. People who have had their story written out of the national script. They now insist that the overarching majoritarian story is not the only memory, but that they, too, have a rightful place in the national remembrance. There is this continuous process of construction and deconstructionóthis notion that these received memories really arenít truthful and so need to be scrutinized.

    GRIFFIN: This may be tied in to something you began this interview session with: this sense that in a Postmodern societyóa society that has moved beyond the past traditionómemory ought to be more inclusive. In fact, it is precisely because there is contestation over the dominant narrative, or the story, that there is room for this kind of insurgent use of memory by any numbers of people who felt themselves to be slighted, or ignored or forgotten in the grand narrative. It is not necessarily crumbling because of their attacks, but because it is crumbling they also have room to advance their narrative, their story, their identity, their pastóthatís why there is such a contestation over the past.

    LETTERS: Youíve mentioned before that memory is implicated in the formation of groups because it advances a sense of the ìsamenessî of some and the ìothernessî of others. In what ways can you see this as becoming problematic as we move from a single narrative of identity, such as the autobiography, to an emblem of group identity, such as a monument or museum?

    BOOTH: In so far as memory is bound up with identity, with our individual lives, or our collective memory, itís a way of establishing a boundary. Remembrance, individual or political, is a way of drawing a boundary; thatís what identity is, itís a way of speaking about boundaries between you and others. Our sense of who we are on the individual level also belongs to who we are as persons at the collective level. The boundary does not belong solely to the individual. The terms we use to describe our past and our community inevitably draw a line between us and other people. For example, imagine someone who comes to this country, someone for whom the Civil War and slavery are not a part of their past, whether he/she comes from Vietnam, or China, or Canada. Suppose that this person examines the institution of slavery and its effects and says, ìRaceóslaveryóGone With the Wind, these are someone elseís stories. They may be the stories of a good part of the American people but theyíre not mine.î You see this type of resistance, this feeling that ìthis isnít our story, this is somebody elseís, we want our story.î Hence the proliferation of disputes over memorialization of the past.

    LETTERS: Your comments about memorials make me think of the recent issue over the monument to slaves on Savannahís River Walk. As you may recall, the debate concerns the addition of a graphic poem by Maya Angelou depicting the horrors of the Middle Passage and of slavery in general. Do you have any thoughts on this notion that pictorial depictions need a verbal supplement? In this issue in particular, there seems to be a sense that a picture cannot be interpreted for itself.

    GRIFFIN: I have not yet seen this monument, but I can consider this issue with respect to the Vietnam Veteransí memorial. This memorial has no text, and no words beyond the names. Thatís quite a deliberate attempt to induce ambiguityóto induce those of us who go to the wall, to think about what it means. In this case, the supporters of the inscription clearly wish to insist that there is to be no mistake about the interpretation of the history this monument represents.

    KREYLING: I havenít seen the River Walk memorial either, but it seems to me that the issue of slavery and the sort of sub-issue of breaking up families and commodifying them by putting different price tags on the mother and father and children and selling them apart is also at work in Gone With the Wind, for instance. There is the claim that Gerald OíHara or the Wilkses never sold families separately, that they never broke up families and sold them. In the case of the River Walk monument though, you can see a sort of reactionary response. The objections of the detractors to the monument inscription are ironically opposed to the very thing that that monument seems to be expressingóa sort of preemptive strike against what everyone knows really happened. What that monument and the accompanying inscription seem to be doing is retroactively supplying the other side of the story. Inscriptions on monuments tend to do thatóthere are always fights over inscriptions on monuments, it seems. These fights are not just about how much the inscriptions are going to cost, but over who gets to carve the words, who gets to direct the interpretation.

    LETTERS: In what ways do you see the mass media informing memory? Television and obviously the internet are informing memory in a way that they wouldnít have in previous generations.

    BOOTH: One of the most important parts of the literature on memory is the passion for memorialization, for some sort of localization, for putting into stone, glass, films or on the History Channel a record of memory. This passion is motivated by a sense that our memories are no longer a living presence among us. We concretize memory in a way that societies deeply immersed in it donít have to do. We have archives, we have photographic records, we build museums in superabundance. Traditional societies with genuine deep-rooted long memoriesósocieties in which grandmothers take their grandchildren to the cemeteries to discuss their dead relatives, donít have to do that, it is part of their lived daily reality. We donít do that, so what we do as a substitute is build a monument that allows us the sense that we have a collective memory, but that it is also something from which we can walk away. This calls to mind the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin; in building it, it was goneóan instance of ìmemory-duty,î so to speak. You build this huge stone thing, put the names on it, you view the memorial to remember, and after that, the experience is over.

    GRIFFIN: One of my graduate students last fall turned me on to something I did not even know existedóa virtual Vietnam veteranís memorial. The siteís creator, Jan Scruggs, established this virtual memorial so that you can search for names, as well as post remembrances. There are presumably 70,00 to 80,000 posts.

    KREYLING: So essentially, you could create a virtual past?

    GRIFFIN: Exactly, and propagate it. So history is democratized. You donít have to contest, you donít have to struggle with city officials to get this memorial or that memorial so that folks can look at it. Itís a mouse-click away. Itís a profound democratization of history, even if, on one level, it could be thought to generate inauthentic memoryóif there is even such a thing.

    KREYLING: One thing that strikes me is that the age we live in abounds in technological methods of creating images of memory. Movies are an obvious example, and filmmakers have been attempting to do that for a long time. Today, however, we can create effects that are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. When you look at old films about war you can always tell where the news reel footage has been spliced in. In more recent films, however, such as Saving Private Ryan, you canít tell the difference between the film and news reel footage. We have the technological means of producing virtual documentaries of memory that it make it possible for people to think they were actually there and that they actually remember these events. Our ability to create memory makes any notion of authentic or inauthentic memory much more complex.

    Letters Archive Index

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