Photo: AGS Andrew/ Shutterstock
The traditional guardians of collective memories were state institutions, official historians, and newspapers of record. Collective memories and their social construction were vital to how nations saw and represented themselves, a process that demanded inclusion and omission. And, as Benedict Anderson noted in Imagined Communities, “All profound changes in consciousness, by their very nature, bring with them characteristic amnesias. Out of such oblivions, in specific historical circumstances, spring narratives.”
Who imagines, writes, or fashions these narratives? And in that process, who is forgotten or omitted? Paul Connerton has articulated seven kinds of ideological forgetting: “repressive erasure” (obliteration, destruction, editing out); “prescriptive forgetting” (erasure believed to be in the best interests of all parties); “forgetting that is constitutive in the formation of a new identity” (forgetting is not a loss but a gain that facilitates new beginnings); “structural amnesia” (the tendency to forget links that are socially undesirable); “forgetting as annulment” (flowing from a surfeit of information, discarding or storing vast quantities of data); “forgetting as planned obsolescence” (discarding as a vital ingredient of consumerism); and “forgetting as humiliated silence” (collusive silence brought on by collective shame).
Thinking about these kinds of forgetting in the context of traditional mass media and social structures operated by the state, it quickly becomes apparent that collective identity is firmly and often irrevocably founded on edited versions of national history, on ideologies that are biased or detrimental. In contrast, the potential of today’s digital media lies in their ability to challenge dominant narratives. As the editors of On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age note:
“Phenomena such as the increasing use of YouTube as an accessible archive of popular and elite/establishment memory, the unprecedented availability of online databases offering media-based documentation of the past, the ease with which conflicting representations of the past can now be evaluated and compared, alongside the ease with which distorted or even fabricated versions of the past can now be created and disseminated – all require a comprehensive inquiry into the ever-changing relations between mass media and the recollection of the past.”
The explosion of digital media has created a global scenario in which there are now thousands of competing narratives or “memories” of any happening. They can take the form of personal memories (audio and video recordings, blogs, photos, Instagrams, recollections and histories, and anything that can be uploaded and given permanence in the digital sphere.)
Then there are radio, television, and newspaper corporations – national and global, private, commercial and government – all creating their own versions of day to day events. These historians of the mundane bring their own ideological and editorial take to every aspect of political and social life. So that when it comes to sorting out fact from fiction, reasoned opinion from pure speculation, there is more information than ever, much of it more accessible than ever. The field of collective memories can easily turn into a quagmire of discord and dispute.
Consequently, as the editors of On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age also point out:
“The fundamental role of collective memories in the formation of modern national identities, the rise of mass culture and mass politics, and the development of new communication technologies have all led to the current state, in which the right to narrate the past is no longer reserved for academic and political elites. Nowadays, major historical events gain their public meaning not only through academic and state-sponsored interpretations but also through television, films, and the press.”
The right to memory
Logically, the right to memory is a basic human right, as is the right to forget. At the level of the individual, remembering or forgetting are often coloured by questions of privacy and human dignity. At the level of a collectivity, such issues are not so clear cut. Collective memories are often bitterly contested, with claims and counterclaims by imagined political communities (Anderson’s definition of a nation but by extension communities within a nation).
Today, these include imagined digital communities (imagined because their members mostly will never know, meet or hear their fellow members, yet they still picture themselves as part of a coherent entity.) Such digital communities have a communicative power unknown before the invention of the Internet, although their potential for organization and bringing about political and social change is still being tested.
In this context, the choice of what is recorded in the public memory and the way it is represented is not neutral, but takes place in accordance with predetermined policies and mind-sets. This politics of remembering (or consigning to oblivion) constitutes a power struggle in which justice is almost inevitably compromised.
Aided and abetted by digital technologies, it falls to civil society to be the defender and spokesperson of history and public memory. In this way, the right to memory becomes synonymous with the right to justice.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagines Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983, revised 1991.
Connerton, Paul. “Seven types of forgetting”. In Memory Studies 1 (1). Sage Publications, 2008.
On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age, ed. by Motti Neiger, Oren Meyers, and Eyal Zandberg. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Currently WACC Deputy Director of Programmes and editor of the international journal Media Development. Recent publications include Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (ed.) (2008), and Public Memory, Public Media and the Politics of Justice (ed.) (2012).