Friday, October 8, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 6: Does memory make history unrecoverable?

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, The Historiographical Jesus and now his trade book on the subject, The Historical Jesus: What can we know and how can we know it? which will be released in January. Great reading!


Coleman A. said...

Good summary of Social Memory Theory and excellent points in regard to our work as historians of Christians Origins. Now that my dissertation revisions are done and my book on narrative, memory, and identity in Acts will be coming out next year, I am thinking of turning my attention to the social memory of Paul in the deutero-Pauline epistles to see what those authors did with Paul in their own communities and how that may help us understand the development of Christianity in those places.

Scott Bailey said...

Good summary.

"My own work as a historian has been deeply affected by social memory theory which I openly embrace."

It's amazing once you encounter and embrace these theories how deeply they can affect the texts we read. I am merely a junior underling beginning scholar writing my MA thesis, however, I have found social memory theories to be quite intriguing when considering the employment of the Watchers myth in certain literature and counter-memories of the same myth.

Jared Calaway said...

I just met Anthony a couple weeks. Chris Keith, who is at the same university, spoke on memory and the gospels.

It sounds like they are both doing some interesting work.

Ed Jones said...

Once again I beg to take strong exception to the premise, so widely embraced. that our primary problem with the historical Jesus is some limitation of memory.
On the authority of some of our top longest standing NT theologians. Given that the HJ cannot be reconstructed, the claim is made that we do have historical sources to apostolic witness to what Jesus said - if not verbatum - reliable witness to his intentionality - true Jesus kerygma.
Schbert Ogden: "The writings of the New Testament are not apostolic witness. With willi Marxsen he locates the NT Scriptural witness to be the earliest stratum of the synoptic tradition. Although Ogden does not name it, this leaves the Q sayings tadition found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Hans Dieter Betz, the expert on the Sermon on the Mount, specifically names this to be our nearest apostolic witness, an alternative to the NT writings, " as known above all from the letters of Paul and the Gospels, as well as later writings of the New Testament. (thus to orthodox Christianity).
Betz writes: If the Jewish Christian Sermon on the Mount represents a response to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, critical of that of Gentile Christianity, then it serves unmistakably to underline the well-known fact of how little we know of Jesus and his teaching. The reasons for or lack of knowledge are of a hermeneutical sort and cannot be overcome by an excess of good will. The Gentile-Christian authors of the Gospels trnsmitted to us only that which they themselves understood, they handed on only that which they were able to translate into the thought categories (Pauline kerygma) of Gentile Christianity and which they thought worthy of transmission. By contrast, the Sermon on the Mount stands nearer to the Jewish thought of Jesus of Nazareth, and manifests its characteristic affinity and distance over against later Christianity".

TonyTheProf said...

One of the most interesting studies on memory has been almost incidental in a study of the fans of the television series Doctor Who. As children, they had memories of the episodes, but no way of checking those memories.

Long before the advent of DVD releases, a series of books novelising the stories were released, and it was apparent that in almost 100% of cases, the memories were reshaped by reading those books - however, the books in the process of turning the story from a TV show (with the limitations of 1960s and 1970s effects) into a book, would often make changes, sometimes slight, sometimes quite radical, but legitimately because they were written as stories not transcripts.

When the original TV came out on TV, there was a considerable degree of frustration on fans between the disparity between what they remembered (and had also been shaped by the stories) and the reality. The phrase which most summed this up was by one of the producers of the show, who noted that "the memory cheats".

Given its popularity in the UK, there was a considerable number of fans, but almost all without exception found their memories faulty - not on the broad plotlines, but on specific details, descriptions of people and places and also dialogue.

PAULYR said...

Answer to seminar question: no, human memory does not make history "unrecoverable" (an inapt term here); if memory does not help in writing history, then 'to do' history is folly. Are historians fools?

maklelan said...

For those interested, April has an article in a relatively recent book on social memory and the New Testament. The book is A. Kirk and T. Thatcher, Memory, Tradition, and Text: Uses of the Past in Early Christianity (Semeia 52; Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005). April's article is "Reading the Gospel of Thomas as a Repository of Early Christian Communal Memory" (207-20). I would also recommend, as a way to provide more footing for the notion of memory and its use in residual oral cultures (like that of the New Testament), Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy (New York: Routledge, 2002).

R.Eagle said...

Does memory make history unrecoverable?"

Not entirely...but social and political pressures do.

Pastor Bob said...

Just a thought on memory and memorization in certain cultures.

Some cultures, particularly non literate cultures, assign certain people the task of memorizing the groups "history" word for word. This is particularly seen in geneological name lists in which perfect memorization was the requirement. There is evidence that such memorization is evident among South Pacific islanders and can be compared to similar lists memorized by Hawaiians.

I recognize that memorization of events will certainly be tainted by social context if the memorization does not go back to original observers of events. Still there are situations in which social modification is avoided for long periods of time by memorization.

Any comment on this?