Our theoretical topic this week has been Social Memory Theory, which developed out of the 1925 work of Maurice Halbwachs,
On Collective Memory
. Halbwachs was not interested in social memory (the memory shared by a group or society) but rather was arguing that the individual's memory was shaped by society, and he wanted to know how. Decades later, in the 1970s, his idea that memory and society are bound up was applied substantially to historiography and the study of modern social memory began to flourish in intellectual circles.
The foundational premises of social memory theory are:
1. Memories are products of the present and not the preservation of the past.
2. Memories are ignited and limited by social frameworks.
3. Memory distortion is the difference between the memory of the past and the past actuality.
4. All memory is distorted or refracted.
This knowledge makes the work of the historian interesting. There are a range of opinions among social memory theorists regarding whether or not it is possible to recover the past actuality from memories, and if so, how much. My own work as a historian has been deeply affected by social memory theory which I openly embrace. It has shifted my self-understanding as a historian. I no longer worry about recovering the undistorted past because I am not convinced I can do this with the sources I have to work with. The questions I try to answer have dramatically shifted. What I want to know now is how and why particular groups remember their past in certain ways, and how and why counter-memories of the same event develop. I am particularly interested in what I call "iconic" or "memorial" representations of individual and events, as providing insights into the group's self-understanding. Studying these allows me to reconstruct the earliest memories of the individual or event, and come to some understanding of how and why groups developed in the directions they did.
This doesn't mean that the memories don't point back to some past actuality. It just means that recovering the past actuality is nigh impossible. What I am better at doing is recovering a scenario of historical plausibility based on the memory sets available for study. I am convinced from my work in memory and how groups handle their past, that historians are actually assisted in this task by three dynamics of memory:
1. Although invention or fabrication is possible (as in the case of new governments trying to legitimize themselves), social memory is largely a subconscious or unconscious operation. It functions by selecting something important from the environment and putting it within the mental frameworks that exist in our minds and then relocalizes them within our present experience. Schwartz has noted in his work on Lincoln again and again that many of our heroes today are selected to be heroes because there was something that they did that made us see them as heroic in the first place.
2. Memory (whether individual or social) is limited by society. What is remembered has to be plausible and make sense to the group and what it already knows about its past. In other words, it is conservative even by society's standards, and builds incrementally and with continuity between the past and the present.
3. What we can see in our sources are the effects of the what actually happened, so by studying the effects, it is possible to create scenarios of historical plausibility that would best explain them. Here I am convinced that counter-memories are very significant (thus my intense work on the marginalized or forbidden memories): both the counter-memories created within the group and among different groups. We can not just study the similarities. It is the differences that reveal the full story!
There are many great books on social memory application. If you are interested in how social memory theory might be applied to the quest for the historical Jesus, I recommend Anthony Le Donne's recent book,
and now his trade book on the subject,
which will be released in January. Great reading!