The Burden of Memory

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Burden of Memory

‘I did not see and therefore cannot tell’1
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyoshi Noda who held a competition to see who could execute one hundred people by sword quickest. China, 1937.

Forgetting is not always irreversible; and memory both in the physical and physiological, collective and individual senses is a resilient thing, the past may simply lie dormant rather than being lost forever, until changing events can trigger its return or rediscovery. When this occurs memories may not completely return because ‘in every remembering something is always forgotten’.2 Equally they may not reconstitute themselves predictably, but may return in strange stutters and starts. It is ‘this randomness, this lack of structure in the way we remember things and receive impressions’3 that led B.S. Johnson to write a novel of loose chapters in a box, designed to be shuffled and arranged in any order by the reader. This enables the novel to flit randomly from the distant past to a moment ago, one memory sparking off another like a line of mnemonic fireworks burning out of control.

To remember something does not mean it happened the way it is remembered, or even happened at all. The cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus found that memories were prone to distortion by suggestion, particularly in the immediate aftermath of their formation. Using conflicting text and visual evidence she planted false or inaccurate memories in subjects. This has wider significance because it means that ‘when witnesses to an event talk with one another, when they are interrogated with leading questions or suggestive techniques, when they see media coverage about an event, misinformation can enter consciousness and can cause contamination of memory’.4 Similar research has undermined the evidential value of ‘reclaimed’ memories of abuse or trauma, to the extent they are no longer accepted by criminal courts.5

National collective memory faces challenges both from the passage of time and from the fact that ‘the putative unity of the modern nation is irrevocably split by the complexity of affiliations and identifications which function in its name’.6 A similarly wide array of cultural mechanisms functions against this fragmentation to maintain a cohesive memory of national events. From monuments and symbols like The Cenotaph and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to cinematic epics like the American The Birth of a Nation and the Russian 9 Рота7  culture reinforces the official memory of the past. Because of this, memories that contradict official narrative may be sidelined or silenced. Equally these national collective memories are prone to manipulation or misremembering. Japan for example has faced criticism for its systemic unwillingness to recognise the scale or nature of wartime atrocities committed by its soldiers in occupied countries.8


1 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Purg VIII 103-105 , accessed 10th November 2012, avaliable at http://etcweb.princeton.edu/dante/pdp/
2 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity, (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998)  p. 164
3 Jonathan Coe, Introduction in B.S. Johnson, The Unfortunates (London 1999) p.ix
4 Elizabeth Loftus, Planting Misinformation in the Human Mind: A 30 Year Investigation  of the Malleability of Memory, published 2005, accessed 21st October 2012, available from http://learnmem.cshlp.org/content/12/4/361.full.pdf+html
5 Elizabeth Loftus, The Formation of False Memories, published 1995, accessed 21st October 2012, available at http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/Papers/Py104/loftus.mem.html
6 Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity (London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1998)  p. 204
7 The 9th Company follows a group of recruits in training for the Soviet-Afghan war. Despite misgivings about  the film’s accuracy from veterans groups the film set records for domestic ticket sales in Russia and was praised by Russian president Vladmir Putin.
8 Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Historical Issues Q&A, accessed 5th November 2012, available at http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/q_a/faq16.html#q8

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