Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Genealogy and Archaeology: Analyzing Generational Positioning in Historical Narratives

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Genealogy and Archaeology: Analyzing Generational Positioning in Historical Narratives

Article excerpt


The field of Memory Studies in respect to the Second World War and the Holocaust comprises research on how the past is constructed, transmitted and used in pubUc as well as in personal interpretations, narratives and practices. With increasing distance from the historic events, the question whether and in which way these historic events can have a meaning for younger generations becomes increasingly significant. This draws attention to the transmission of individual/biographical memory as intergenerational transfer on the one hand, and to the way s in which individual ways of making sense of the past are informed by generational setfpositioning.

In this article, I will focus on this topic of generational self-positioning and its impact on the ways in which individuals make sense of the past. I will introduce two types of generational positions which correspond with different modes of generating, or constructing memory and individual historical accounts. Both of them have different impact on the possibilities of attaching meaning to events from the past and they offer different possibilities for identification. Drawing on Michel Foucault's notion of genealogy and archaeology, I suggest to coin these modes of generational self- positioning genealogical and archaeological historical consciousness. By this, an analytical tool making the functioning and effects of generational positioning "legible" is introduced.

First of aU let us discuss a few premises put forward by the theory of historical consciousness that are relevant to the question of generation-specific interpretations of the past and manners of sense-making, as well as to the significance of references to the past for the estabUshment of generational identities and affiliations:


References to the past, as a dimension of temporatity, represent a crucial factor in the development of subjectivity as well the formation of identities, i.e., both individual and collective self-assurance and self-understanding.

Memories, understood as "imagined past," always represent the result of a whole series of mental operations: What is demanded is the selection and configuration of "elements of past" in the light of present-time issues and expectations for the future. Arranged in this way in representational systems and narratives, the past can become an object and point of reference of inter-subjective communication. It is only through this process that past events become a "past" or even "history" that is invested with sense and meaning. (See Rüsen 1994;MüUer/Rüsen, 1997; Straub, 1998).

Since the present from which one refers to the past is in continuous flux, with time, different other events and periods or eras move into the focus of historical consciousness which can derive varying profit from them.

Three things are thus clear:

1) For the younger members of a society, or of any other social group for that matter, a partly different set of points of reference to the past becomes relevant in terms of present-time orientation than for the older ones.

2) This is of course in no smaU measure also a result of the dtfferent time-specific "option structures," i.e., narratives circulating in the media, as well as references to the past updated through commemorative events.

3) Common points of reference in the past can, by contrast, be used by members of various generations in a totally different, even contradictory way for their respective identity and orientation needs. (See Lenz, 2009).

Nevertheless, transmitted memories possibly represent the most powerful "emotional putty" and a crucial functional element of generational relationships. In traditional societies it was the task of the older generations to pass on both the practical knowledge of everyday life as well as the prevaiUng value and norm systems to the younger generation, which was sufficient to secure the social survival and existence of the descendents. …

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