Jeffrey Andrew Barash

The University of Chicago Press CHICAGO & LONDON



Acknowledgements Introduction: The Sources of Memory

PART 1 Symbolic Embodiment, Imagination, and the “Place” of Collective Memory

1 Is Collective Memory a Figment of the Imagination? The Scope of Memory in the Public Sphere

2 Analyzing Collective Memory
3 Thresholds of Personal Identity and Public Experience

Excursus: Critical Reflections: The Contemporary Theories of Ricœur, Edelman, and Nora

PART 2 Time, Collective Memory, and the Historical Past 4 Temporal Articulations

5 Virtual Experience, the Mass Media, and the Configuration of the Public Sphere

6 The Contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding

Conclusion: The Province of Collective Memory and its Theoretical Promise






Collective Memory and the Historical Past is scheduled for publication by the University of Chicago Press in the autumn of 2016. Its principal aim is to elaborate a philosophical basis for the concept of collective memory and to delimit the scope of this concept in relation to the historical past. The book is divided into an historical introduction and two sections. The historical introduction explores the principle significations different traditions of Western thought have accorded to memory. According to its central premise, the predominant philosophical arguments in given historical periods regarding the significance and scope of memory are more than abstract speculations, for they owe their persuasive force to fundamental convictions they convey concerning the sense of human existence and of human interaction in the socio-political sphere.

This historical introduction culminates in an examination of our current situation, and of the theoretical significance of memory not only as a faculty or a cognitive function, but in the contemporary role that is attributed to it under the heading of « collective memory ». This role is far from transparent: the phenomenon of group remembrance is as old as human social existence itself, whereas the concept of collective memory and the term itself are of recent vintage. Howmightthecontemporarypreoccupationwithcollectivememorybeaccounted for? In my analysis, I relate the rise of theoretical concern for collective memory to the decline of more traditional ways of accounting for collective cohesion in the socio-political sphere. Its conceptual visibility has followed the weakening of the conviction that immutable metaphysical ideas or, in a more modern perspective, all-encompassing philosophies of history or ideologies might definitively account for human identity and socio-political existence. The loss of plausibility of traditional theoretical frameworks has been fueled by the experience of historical contingency, discontinuity and dislocation that became ever more radical following the demise of the ancien régime in the 18th century, industrialization, urbanization, and the advent of mass society. It was dramatically confirmed by the cataclysm of the First World War. At this precise juncture, the concept of collective memory, as it emerged in the pioneering works of authors like Maurice Halbwachs and Walter Benjamin, began to reoccupy the place left vacant by the decline of traditional ideas of human identity and it has subsequently been called upon to frame the discourse of socio-political cohesion. In this situation, the concept of collective memory requires an appropriate theoretical foundation.

In the second section of this work I highlight the difficulty of constructing such a theoreticalfoundation. Thisdifficultyarisesduetotheparadoxtheconceptofcollective memory immediately entails, above all where it is extended beyond small groups or associations to encompass the public sphere of collective interaction. This paradox comes to light where it is acknowledged that memory in its original sense always transpires in the personal sphere of individual rememberers and that, at a fundamental level, it involves direct encountersamongindividualsandgroupsinthecontextofalife-world. Allsecondaryor indirect forms of remembrance presuppose this original experiential source. Nevertheless, beyond the scope of small groups and associations, direct experience and remembrance of publicly significant events is usually possible only for a tiny minority of witnesses. Remembrance of publicly significant events is almost always based on indirect reports or accountsdiffusedamongthevaststrataofcontemporarymasssocieties. Thisindirectquality of public remembrance underlies the essential difference in kind between all forms of remembered experience in its original sense and collective remembrance of actions and events in the public sphere. In view of the gap between original remembrance in the life-world and what is indirectly retained in the diffuse representations of vast collectivities, in what sense might it be claimed that they share a common basis of « recollection »? In what way might the seemingly nebulous concept of « collective memory » be distinguished from mere figments of the social imagination? According to the detailed argument that I elaborate in the different chapters of this section, the possibility of drawing such a distinction, and of delineating the collective reach of memory, depends on an adequate conception of the imaginative potency which memory deploys: it requires that we distinguish between the multiple functions of the imagination which, far from limited to the production of fantasy or fiction, engenders symbolic interaction through which remembered experience is made communicable among vast groups. In this perspective, the symbolic embodiment of experience, far from a secondary addition that would be tacked on to interpreted actions and events, lends it immediate spatio-temporal and conceptual configuration through which it is collectively conveyed and remembered. In this broad sense, symbols confer meaning on experience as it is communicated through language, gesture or style and is embodied in memory. As such, they lend spontaneous intelligibility to the public world in which more particular forms of communication among small groups and individuals are deployed. In an urban environment, for example, I immediately familiarize myself with spatial differences between private yards and public parks or semi-public shopping malls, even before I explicitly reflect on them, just as the background music I hear in an airport or supermarket, a restaurant or church gives me direct clues concerning the surrounding social milieu. Collective memory is rooted in a many-layered web of interwoven shared symbolic structures that orient spatiotemporal awareness and the conceptual logic it deploys. The continuity of this web attests the ongoing link between past and present in the shared context of experience recalled by overlapping living generations.

In view of further clarification of the theory of collective memory elaborated in this second section of my work, it is followed by a brief excursus that presents a critical examination of three contemporary concepts of collective memory proposed in the perspective of the neurosciences by Gerald Edelman, in that of hermeneutics by Paul Ricœur and of historical sociology by Pierre Nora. This leads in the third section to an effort to deepen and extend the general theory of collective memory proposed in earlier sections of the workthroughanalysisofitstemporalarticulations. Thisanalysisengagesanelucidationof the passive preconditions of shared remembrance that are primary sources of social cohesion and interaction. According to my interpretation, the passive temporal preconditions of shared remembrance compose a many-layered web of collectively communicable symbolic configurations interwoven in the shared context of contemporaneous living generations, which I term a common « horizon of contemporaneity ». However fragmented the memories shared among different groups may be, communication among them depends upon the network of immediately graspable symbols that defines the finite contours of their contemporaneity and sets it apart from the historical past beyond the grasp of all living memory.

With the emergence of increasingly anonymous and fragmented conditions of public existence in the contemporary world, the disparity between publicly significant forms of remembrance and the life-world of direct encounters has tended to increase. The second chapter of this section examines this phenomenon in relation to the ever-growing predominance of the mass media and of their ways of shaping the public sphere. Here the gap between remembered experience rooted in the « horizon of contemporaneity » of the immediate life-world and reports communicated by the mass media appears not only as a difference between experienced events and their representation, but as a reframing of events in terms of an autonomous symbolic order constituted by the virtual spatio-temporal pattern and logic of mass communications. According to my argument, this autonomous symbolic order draws its potency from an uncanny ability to simulate direct experience while dissimulating the gap which separates it from the immediate life world in which it originates. In this chapter I illustrate by means of examples drawn from recent events – such as the televised Romanian revolution, media representation of the Balkan wars, and the mediatized O. J. Simpson trial in the United States – the unprecedented role in configuring the contemporary public sphere of the media format through which communicated experience is symbolically embodied and remembered .

The final chapter of this section, and of the book as a whole, focuses on the difference between the horizon of collective remembrance shared by living generations and the historical past that stands outside its scope. I argue that the kind of historical skepticism that has arisen in recent decades, initially espoused in the work of Roland Barthes and of Hayden White, depends upon a tacit blurring of the essential disparity between the two temporal orders of collective memory and the historical past. According to my argument, the capacity to identify differences between these two orders depends not only on a correct portrayal of the past factual record, but also on the possibility of discerning symbolic nuances in the contextual structures from which actions and events draw their meaning. To substantiate my argument, I delve into the much debated question concerning the « reality of the historical past, » and I examine this topic less in highlighting the role of factual evidence than in identifying discontinuities in temporal horizon that distinguish the contextual structure of a recent past recalled by contemporary generations from an historical past reaching beyond the pale of living remembrance. My analysis relies not on historical works, but on the portrayal of temporal discontinuity in the modern novel. Where skeptics attempt to lay bare fictive elements in historical writing, my efforts focus on the novelists’ capacity to reveal, in different periods and a multiplicity of forms, the contextual shifts underlying what I equate with the real contours of group experience and group remembrance. To this end, I draw on the historical novels of Walter Scott and Victor Hugo, the subtle ruminations of Proust in A la recherche du temps perdu, and on more recent reflections on the burden of remembrance of the past elaborated by W. G. Sebald in his novel Austerlitz. If the concept of the « reality » of the historical past is indeed meaningful, its significance in this perspective depends on the possibility of according a measure of reality to discontinuities in temporal horizon that separate living memory from the historical past.

Throughout the work as a whole, my focus on the finite scope of collective memory in a socio-political realm punctuated by ongoing and ever more radical forms of discontinuity aims to provide both a theoretical basis for its interpretation and insight into the role in forging the discourse of social cohesion it is called on to play in the contemporary public world.