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“The past…is constantly being broken down and reintegrated into the present…” (Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local, p.85).

This is a photograph I took recently of the twisted, rusted metal that forms the centerpiece of the memorial park in the small New Jersey town I live in.  Surrounded by greenery, the monolithic steel was once a beam in New York’s World Trade Center.  To stand in front of the structure is to feel its power and to reflect on the past.  It serves as a reminder of political and physical forces and events that change us.  It reminds us of a day that some say has changed the world forever.  At first glance it appears to be a discard, something that belongs in a junkyard or a scrap heap.  The closer one gets to it, the more it speaks.

In small towns and large cities, we collectively remember historical events in a variety of ways.  We encounter stories told in film, we read books, visit monuments, watch plays, travel to national parks, exist amongst architectural forms, and exchange numerous other cultural forms such as postage stamps and collectibles. Without stories that continue to be told to audiences, customs that continue to shape people generation after generation, and monuments that continue to stand in public places, the social fabric of communities might unravel, their cultures disintegrating into diasporic oblivion.  Collective memory is that important.  This hunk of metal was saved so that it could provoke memory.

The presentation of pieces of the past in the present can promote strong conflict or deep harmony.  The storytellers and cultural gatekeepers in any given culture, for better or for worse, make decisions about what we should know, how the past should be translated into the present, what is to be considered as truth, and what should be left behind. In popular culture, Hollywood filmmakers and journalists influence what we remember; they weave historical narratives and re-tell identity-making stories for us. Oftentimes, the recollection of the past is purposefully manipulated to suit the current needs of a society and the social problems faced by a new generation.  This is made especially clear in studies by collective memory theorist Barry Schwartz (1982, 1996, 2005).

Schwartz, following in the tradition of Maurice Halbwachs, the father of memory studies, focuses on how memory is socially constructed and how the past is understood by collectivities (social groups).  For Schwartz, memory is not permanent, fixed, and unchanging; rather, it is mutable and subject to compromise in the face of greater societal requirements. It follows that as the structure of society changes, the events chosen as significant and worthy of commemoration change.  In “The Social Context of Commemoration: A Study in Collective Memory” he writes: “Recollection of the past is an active, constructive process, not a simple matter of retrieving information.  To remember is to place a part of the past in the service of conceptions and needs of the present” (1982).

In a seminal article on collective memory, “Social Memories: Steps to a Sociology of the Past,” Eviatar Zerubavel also considers how our current social conditions shape how we remember the past.   Remembering, he asserts, does not take place in a “social vacuum” (1996, p.284).  Whereas cognitive psychologists study individuals and their memories, he examines remembering at the shared level of the “thought community” or the “remembrance environment” (1996, p. 284).

Zerubavel instructs us that we evoke the past as members of families, communities, ethnic groups, and work groups by consuming various “mnemonic links” to the past: medals, plaques, tombstones, memorials, and commemorative monuments. From nation to nation, authoritative narratives exaggerate, adorn, and distort real experience.  As members of thought communities we learn to accept these stories and to fuse them into our personal and social identities.

Traumatic, tragic experiences engender private and public memory work; this is a central concern for Iwona Irwin-Zarecka.  She writes that a community of memory is one created by an extraordinary memory.  A special bonding exists between soldiers who survived World War I trenches, or Cambodians who lived through Pol Pot’s regime, or survivors of the Holocaust in Europe.  Their memories set them apart from those who did not witness or experience the tragedy, and significantly, in many cases, their experience cannot truly be shared by others.

The reader of discard studies can look to her chapter, “Communities of Memory,” in Frames of Remembrance. She emphasizes that the shared meaning given to the traumatic experience underlies the bonding between the survivors; without that shared meaning, there are no bonds of remembrance.  Despite witnessing concentration camp horrors such as “the stench of burning bodies,” and living through the same traumatic period of time, the destruction of the Jewish community “did not constitute a trauma for Polish society”(49).  She argues that it was simply not relevant to them in the same way.  Having been victimized by their own trauma at the hands of the Nazi occupiers, Poles experienced the events of the Holocaust, but the meaning of those events was different for Poles and Polish Jews.

Frames of Remembrance is an important book for those interested in collective memory.  At the micro-level of everyday interaction, she considers how the reality of the past is oftentimes translated at family dinners, family gatherings, conversations with a new worker joining a company team, the brief exchange of favorite old stories between friends, home movies and songs, and class reunions, all described in her text as small and fragile communities of memory.  These small groups have the potential to preempt publicly articulated memories, and to counter other official versions of the past.  Families preserve memories of time and people long gone and function as remembrance communities.  These smaller, more private groups serve ongoing memory functions in society as “…neither the past nor remembrance of it can be deduced from public discourse alone” (p.56).

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Works cited:

Halbwachs, Maurice. 1992. On Collective Memory. Trans. and Ed. Lewis Coser. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Irwin-Zarecka, Iwona. 1994.  Frames of Remembrance: The Dynamics of Collective Memory. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Lippard, Lucy. 1997. The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society. New York, NY: The New Press.

Olick, Jeffrey. “Collective Memory: The Two Cultures.” Sociological Theory (1999) 17: 333-348.

Schwartz, Barry. “The Social Context of Commemoration: A Study in Collective Memory.” Social Forces (1982) 61: 374-402.

—–. “Rereading the Gettysburg Address: Social Change and Collective Memory.” Qualitative Sociology (1996) 19: 395-422.

Schwartz, Barry, Kazuya Fukuoka and Sachiko Takita-Ishii. 2005. “Collective Memory: Why Culture Matters” in The Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Zerubavel, Evitar. “Social Memories: Steps to a Sociology of the Past.” Qualitative Sociology (1996) 19: 283-299.