Letters Archive
Spring 2002, Vol. 10, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Reflections on Memory, Identity, and Political Action

It is a puzzle why memory has become the central term in so much contemporary reflection about our common life. While much American writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, has traditionally taken “experience” as its central concern, the fiction of memory (e.g., Toni Morrison’s Beloved) and other forms of representation of the past (one thinks of the work of the filmmaker, Ken Burns) seem to grip the contemporary imagination. How has this happened under the conditions of post-modernity in which, according to Fredric Jameson, the past becomes pastiche and commercialized production? However we attempt to answer such a question, it is clear that the meanings of terms such as memory, remembering, history, and experience are far from clear. It is with such issues, specifically with how the memory-experience “family” of terms relates to identity and political action, that this year’s Warren Center faculty seminar has been, and will be, grappling throughout the year. The seminar, which meets for two hours each week, has so far been immensely stimulating to me, as the visiting fellow at the Warren Center this year. In the space allotted to me here, I want to explore some of the issues raised by the theme of the seminar. My purpose will be less to answer questions or arrive at conclusions, as it will be to muddy the waters a bit.

It is interesting to note that some of the difficulties with the term memory are paralleled by--and perhaps related to--the ambiguity in the term history. Every student of history soon realizes that “history” may refer to the actions, events, and forces of the past and/or to the written accounts of those actions, events, and forces. Indeed, there is a tradition of thought that suggests, wrongly I think, that without a written history, a people lack a history altogether. Analogously, memory refers to the contents of the past as they become present and to the process that brings the past into the present. Through the workings of memory we are confronted with memories from the past, often unbidden and unwanted.

Just to make things more complicated, one crucial distinction in recent discussions of these matters is between history and memory. Here history is generally taken to refer to written accounts of the past as produced by professionally trained historians, while memory denotes the past as it is articulated through myth and folk-tale, music, and popularly shared legends of a polity or a people. The historian is supposed to strive for objectivity, “that noble dream” in Peter Novick’s terms, or at least for fairness, while the guardians of memory, a group’s advocates before the bar of history, are concerned with preserving its values, its grievances, its demands, and, above all, its story of itself. In this view history is “cooked” memory, while memory is “raw” pre-history.

Not surprisingly, a state of mutual suspicion exists between the two. As Eva Hoffman has recently reminded us, where all history is regime-history in the service of the established order, as in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union up to the late 1980s, popular memory becomes a source of opposition to that order and on the side of human liberation. Yet, closer to home, we know from David Blight’s recent Race and Reunion that popular forms of white southern memory were--and still are--grounded in white supremacy and a hostility to the rights of former slaves, hardly a vision in the service of human flourishing or freedom. It is never easy, though always a temptation, to place either memory or history on the moral high ground vis-à-vis the other.

Less contentiously but still importantly, there is a distinction to be drawn between memory and remembering. In her The Art of Memory, Frances Yates notes that Aristotle first distinguished between memory, as something akin to an involuntary and sensory capacity, and remembering, as involving conscious, intellectual effort. Though this may seem literally like ancient history, it is a distinction that highlights some of the same differences that the memory/history distinction does. The resonant title of Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory conveys this subtle but important difference. Historians or psychoanalysts aid our capacity to remember and convey the results as lessons, precepts, warnings, and admonitions. But memory speaks through us, often against our will, as Freud, Proust, and Faulkner so powerfully tell us in their work. On occasion we are powerless to resist memory to the point that we may act irrationally or against our best interests. Or memory may open up new realms of possibility to us.

But such distinctions are not entirely the province of high modernist novelists and thinkers. Something similar is at issue in the tense relationship between professional, i.e., academic, and popular historians. The nature of the dispute usually involves charges by the latter that academics simply don’t know how to tell a good story, either in the sense of identifying or of creating one, while academic historians charge popular historians with superficiality and being parasites on academic research. David McCulloch’s recent, best-selling biography of John Adams is suspected of paying insufficient attention to complexity; of describing, not explaining; of narrating, not analyzing, the life and times of the second President. At least these are some of the standard charges raised against history done outside the academy or aimed at an audience beyond the confines of the university library and seminar room.
And then there is oral history, the supreme practitioner of which has been Studs Terkel. A radical journalist and media personality in Chicago, Terkel has chronicled some of the seminal experiences of twentieth-century America by placing a tape recorder in front of various individuals and letting them talk, then collecting those memories--and undoubtedly shaping them--into a single volume about, say, the Depression (Hard Times) or World War II (The Good War). Since the 1960s, oral history has proven an immensely popular form of public memory. Again, professional historians can raise disturbing questions about oral history if it claims to be an account of “how the past really was,” as opposed to how the past has been remembered and shaped, long after it was originally experienced. Oral history conveys a truth but not necessarily the truth about the past. That aside, since the 1960s, the voices of participants in every political movement in America have been preserved on tape and/or transcribed for use by historians of all types. This is an unparalleled resource, though it is not so “raw” a source as is sometimes thought.

Finally, there is a real problem with drawing too sharp a distinction between memory and experience, the dichotomy with which I began. As one participant in the faculty seminar on “Memory, Identity, and Political Action” at the Warren Center asked quite early: “Isn’t it all memory anyway?” This is a difficult question to answer. Much recent theory has pretty convincingly called into question the idea that there is something called “experience” that comes to us, or which we undergo, immediately and without filters or preconceptions or frames of reference. Experience is itself such a basic term that it is hard to define what it means, but philosopher Thomas Nagel once suggested that it involves answering the question of “what it is like to be….” That is, it involves a comparison with someone else’s experience or with our own experience at some other, previous, time. In other words, it is doubtful whether there is any experience that doesn’t “always already” depend upon a comparison with a previous experience and thus involve memory. But the reverse is also arguably true: to have a memory is to re-experience some past event or feeling or complex of things. This suggests that all memories are preserved experiences, whether those experiences refer to something that really happened or happened in fantasy.

If we shift our focus to the issue of identity, things that seemed simple suddenly emerge as more complex. Because of the dominant position now occupied by memory, it is tempting to assume that identity is a function of memory. And there is, of course, much truth to this claim. Yet there are traditions in which group identity is based on a rejection of a shared past or a received tradition of thinking, feeling, and acting. The theorist of colonial liberation, Frantz Fanon, was deeply skeptical of the importance of a subjugated people’s rediscovery of some glorious past. For Fanon, it was a matter of relative indifference whether people of African descent could claim that Egypt had been the source of African and European thought and tradition. Rather, he insisted that a common culture, a group identity, should be forged in the shared experience of revolutionary action, including violence.

Whether or not we agree with Fanon, it should also be remembered that for the cultural “founding fathers” of America, and one thinks of Emerson and Whitman here, the condition for American identity lay in a rejection of the European past. As Emerson urged in the 1830s, the American “scholar” must leave off attending to “the courtly muses of Europe.” And of course, for the modern revolutionary tradition that links 1789 (France) to 1917 (Russia) to 1959 (Cuba), the successful revolution wipes the slate clean and marks “year zero” as the commencement of a new history and a new tradition. Who “we” are in this tradition depends on what we make of ourselves. The past is not prologue, as the old saw has it; it is a dead-end.

There is another sense in which identity may override, rather than be subordinate to, the workings of memory. On most accounts we remember most vividly what is most traumatic or momentous. But such a claim begs the question of how “we” decide what is momentous or traumatic. Black and white Southerners occupied the same place and time circa 1865. Yet because of the radically different bases of each group’s identity, what was traumatic for one was experienced as a matter of triumph for the other—and vice versa. How African Americans remember(ed) the War (positively) and Reconstruction (as an overall failure) differs radically from the way many white Southerners remember(ed) those two processes. In this respect, who “we” are determines “what” of the past we incorporate into our group narratives. This isn’t to say that memories are fabricated out of whole cloth; rather, different identity groups will inflect, arrange, interpret, the same past events and actions in quite different ways.

More recently the dynamic interaction between memory and identity can be seen in the re-writing of history. As one member of the faculty seminar made clear to the group, immediate post-World War II Japanese identity was organized around a narrative of the near past and present which re-wrote the history of the country and culture, including the role of the emperor in the origins and conclusion of World War II. Both collective memory and identity were impressed into the service of Japanese political imperatives as dictated by United States occupation policies. Since the 1960s, the story of America has undergone some radical revisions as first, African Americans, then women, gays, and various ethnic minorities “rediscovered” pasts that had been submerged in the dominant American/white/
male/heterosexual narratives. It has become fashionable to sneer at multiculturalism and identity politics in recent years, but the positive role identity groups have played in a much needed re-thinking and re-narrating of American history is undeniable. In each of these cases, the emergence of a self-conscious group identity has forced a re-configuration of its past and the past of the nation. For instance, as a foundational act of political resistance, the Stonewall Riot of June 28, 1969, generated a new group consciousness among gays. This has had numerous ramifications, among them the unearthing or creation of an alternative gay past as part of the national narrative. In posing new questions of the past or in asking old questions from new identity perspectives, the gay movement has forced that past into new shapes and forms.

One final issue involving memory and identity concerns the concept of collective memory. Though recent theories of the self have made the concept of individual identity problematic, we still use (and assume) some sort of continuity over time to our individual selves. Otherwise, crucial notions such as responsibility, innocence, and guilt would be incoherent, even untenable. But the concepts of collective identity and memory are much more problematic. This is so, perhaps, because collective identity has been so closely associated historically with notions of racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes; moreover, the notion of collective guilt seems intuitively unfair and/or dangerous, somewhat akin to the notion of guilt by association. Collective memory is perhaps even harder to make sense of. Yet any notion of group identity would seem, on the analogy with individual identity, to assume some sort of social shaping and hence of group memory; yet we lack a way of talking very clearly about the processes, mechanisms, or outcomes of group memory. Where does it reside and who is in charge--the State? The media and Hollywood? Professional guardians of memory? Historians? Who authorizes whom to speak for the collective? Who is the “we” who is remembering and “how wide,” as David Hollinger has asked, is the circle of “we”?
The final term in our thematic triumvirate, political action, adds complexity to complexities. Again, the conventional wisdom assumes that we can only act, or can act most wisely, if we know where we, as a group, have been and who we are. But, again, as we have seen with Fanon, it is not clear that an individual or group that is firmly ensconced in, and proud of, its past is best situated to act effectively. Indeed, in the 1870s, Friedrich Nietzsche suggested, provocatively as always, that a prime requisite for effective action is to “learn to forget.” Learning to forget is a quite complicated, even paradoxical notion. But, if we bring

Nietzsche’s injunction closer to the present, we might want to claim that the effectiveness of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s depended on its leaders and its foot soldiers learning to forget, as it were, the odds against their success, since little or nothing in 1950s America suggested a readiness to respond positively, even to the extent it did, to the forms of action hazarded by leaders of the nascent Movement. Similarly, but less happily, the bitter Israeli-Palestine conflict might seem to an outsider as a case where effective action to resolve the conflict might be furthered by some heavy doses of historical amnesia on both sides. On this view, then, the old saw about “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” should be modified to read, “Those who forget the past are granted leave to act.” Of course, it is never that easy, either. But group action may just as often precede as it follows from group identity and thus a group’s memory.

Finally, it is most striking to me that all three terms--memory, identity, and political action--can be--and have been--used for good and bad, beneficent and evil purposes. If much of our “progressive” politics over the last several decades has been linked with identity politics--finding a way to give formerly submerged groups a voice and power--identity politics itself has a very checkered history. In nineteenth century Europe, the politics of race and ethnicity, however defined, fed into the traditions of exclusionary nationalism and “reactionary modernism” (to use Geoffrey Herf’s phrase) in Europe and in the southern United States. Action as a concept and as a value has as often been associated with the right as with the left. And memory, of course, has most often been pressed into the service of the forces of conservatism and reaction. Emerson himself contrasted the “party of hope” with the “party of memory;” and there is something about the fetishizing of memory that, however intellectually appealing, remains disturbing.

And yet, I can think of no more fascinating or encouraging “new” form of political thought/action linked with identity and memory than the various forms of the “truth and reconciliation” process that have been initiated on three continents--Europe, Africa, and Latin America--over the last decade or so. An intriguing thought presents itself: could or should the United States have had such a truth and reconciliation process in the late 1860s or in the early 1970s? Whatever the answer to that question, it is clear that the model of revolution as the vehicle for radical change has been replaced by a model of political transformation in which a democratic polity begins to reconstitute itself through a public process of testifying to, and thereby illuminating, a troubled past. Ideally, in this process, the recognition and re-incorporation of formerly excluded groups and individuals will take place. Finally, it is hard to think of any other contemporary phenomenon that more clearly illustrates the crucial nature of the interaction between memory, identity, and political action.

Richard H. King is William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow and visiting professor of history for 2001/2002. He is professor of American intellectual history at the University of Nottingham.

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