Now that we are finally about to start fieldwork, let’s spend one more moment to think about just what this research is about – memory. The more you read about it, the less it seems to be anything at all. Anything like an object on its own, that is. Rather, it emerges as the label of a process and a practice, something that only exists as long as it is done, and that inevitably transforms in that process.
At first glance, memory is simply the things that we can recall, like past events or phone numbers. But then, we realise that these memories are not just things stored in our heads like boxes in a warehouse. For instance, how did they get there in the first place? Why do we remember some things and forget others? Clearly we don’t always remember the things we want to, but often remember things we would prefer to forget.
The next, and thoroughly confusing, step is to ask what we actually mean by memory. If we say, for instance, “This is my memory of the July 2007 flood in Gloucestershire”, what exactly does that refer to? Is it the historical event, the inundations of streets and fields, soaked lower floors in people’s homes, the experience of living without mains water, the smell of flooded sewers, etc? Or is it rather the images we recall, i.e. not the actual event but the process of remembering it, that we call memories? And, on top of that – how do we actually recall memories? Or who is it that recalls them?
It is evident that memories are nothing without remembering. If we keep remembering certain things, they keep in our memory. If we do not recall them for a long time, they fade. Of course this remembering can take various forms, including looking at photo albums or websites, talking to people who have shared experience of an event or a place, listening to or reading their accounts, coming across a memorial, or celebrating an anniversary… But without this remembering, our memories have little chance of survival.
In the process of remembering them, memories do not stay constant, though. They are continually remade, as each instant of remembering adds to what is remembered next time. Geographer Stephen Legg, in an article on “geographies of memory/forgetting” has put it thus:
Memory changes through time in two ways, which bring into question how memory relates to both psychoanalysis and history. First, memories of an event change through time. Each recollection is as much a recollection of the last time an event was remembered as a direct relationship with the event in question. This allows the context of recall to infiltrate the memory leading to distortion, or enrichment, depending on perspective. Second, the ways in which memories are formed and valued change as one moves through time. Different methods and traditions of memory emerge, whereas evaluations of the utility and accuracy of memory evolve. These evaluations have varied in relation to memories of individuals and what are conceptualised as collective memories (p. 457).
In the same article, Legg also reminds us that “the temporal status is the present, not the past” (p. 457), emphasising the importance of the process of remembering, including the creativity and the specific context of this process.
One of the most central contexts of remembering – along with the material, spatial and historical ones – is the social context. Ever since the writings of early twentieth century scholar Maurice Halbwachs it has been acknowledged that memory is not only an individual phenomenon, but also a collective one – hence the talk about social memory, collective memory, or cultural memory. In a book published in posthumously in English, Halbwachs wrote that
psychological treatises that deal with memory[…] make it appear that to understand our mental operations, we need to stick to individuals and first of all, to divide all the bonds which attach individuals to the society of their fellows. Yet it is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall, recognize, and localize their memories (p. 38).
More recently cultural studies scholar Astrid Erll elaborated this point in a book on Cultural Memory Studies.
There is no such thing as pre-cultural individual memory; but neither is there a Collective or Cultural Memory (with capital letters) which is detached from individuals and embodied only in media and institutions. Just as socio-cultural context shape individual memories, a “memory” which is represented by media and institutions must be actualized by individuals, but members of a community of remembrance […]. Without such actualizations, monuments, rituals, and books are nothing but dead material, failing to have any impact in societies (p. 5).
What then do we mean my memory? I’d say there are four main points to remember about memory:
(1) Memory refers to both the things that are remembered and to the act of remembering, as well as the representations involved.
(2) Memory only exists as long as it is being remembered. Only through the act of remembering it comes into being; it fades when it is not recalled.
(3) Memory evolves by being remembered. Rather than an inert object, it continually transforms.
(4) Making and recalling memories is a practice shot through with collective dynamics, cultural identities and social structures. Personal and collective memory go hand in hand.
Hopefully I’ll be able to remember some of that later on in the project!