Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Social Memories 'In the Flesh': War and Exile in Algerian Self-Writing

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

Social Memories 'In the Flesh': War and Exile in Algerian Self-Writing

Article excerpt

This article proposes an interpretive reading of contemporary Algerian cultural practice as providing 'techniques of living' in which social memories of traumatic experiences are encoded. Working across several genres--literary fiction, popular music, scholarship, autobiography, political humor, and journalism--the essay seeks to delineate the economy of narration through which intensely disruptive experiences of exile and war, and competing ways of accounting for them, are internalized and expressed in the social production of self-narratives.

**********

   One is never cured of memory. That is why one writes....
   Today at last I have to find the words to write the narrative
   of my life. I have the right, after all, to choose how to narrate
   myself, even if I did not choose the story. (1)

'Memory' poses obvious challenges for social science, whether as an object of study or as an analytical term, despite the enormous amount of work in several disciplines that has long sought to define and elucidate it. In posing the question of how contemporary history is lived and lived with, narrated and embodied, in the formation of personal selfhood within a particular set of social conditions, therefore, some initial clearing of conceptual ground is necessary. This article makes no claim to provide a 'social psychology,' or to locate individual self-narrative within a kind of collective unconscious--a notion often implied, and much abused, in some commentary on the traumas of contemporary Algeria. I take 'social memory,' instead, as referring to social relations of praxis and as preferable to psychologizing and mechanistic notions like 'collective memory.' (2) The problem with this latter term, frequently resorted to in discussions of Algeria and the traumas of its modern history, is that it tends towards the abstraction of the factors of selfhood from actual social processes and relocates them, instead, in a kind of intangible, ethereal realm of collective consciousness (or repressed unconscious); at worst, such notions elide 'collective memory' into homogenizing and analytically useless categories like 'national character' or 'group psyche.' Approached in these terms, social life and meaning appear to be structured and determined by some underlying or overarching collective 'social truth' which would hold the keys to the definition of both collective and individual 'identity.' Identity here has the sense of a singular 'sameness,' (memete), the grounds for community belonging being the mutual (self-)recognition of each in a collective unconscious, or a common narrative. (Some individuals may, of course, refuse to recognize themselves in such terms, but they will tend to be dismissed as 'alienated,' 'inauthentic,' or eccentric.) In fact, of course, no such 'collective memory' really exists: Such narratives of 'social truth' are in fact more commonly imposed by authority from above than elaborated in consensus from below--as, for example, in accounts of nationalism as 'revealing' or 'restoring' a transhistorical, pre-existing 'national identity' when in fact it fabricates a new form of cultural and symbolic authority. In the case of Algeria, recurrent outbreaks of violence have also sometimes been 'explained' by such notions of a structuring collective memory, or 'return of the repressed.' (3)

If such totalizing and mechanistic notions of collectivity are actively unhelpful, the social context of memory has nonetheless long been recognized as crucial to its operation (and indeed to its existence). (4) A more adequate way of grasping its importance, as a means of interpreting contemporary Algerian cultural production and self-fashioning--the construction of identity not as sameness but as 'selfhood' (ipseite) (5)--is to examine "self-writing," what Foucault called ecriture de soi: the self-disciplinary and self-constitutive "technique of living" produced in the act of writing (of) one-self. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.