Academic journal article Polish Sociological Review

Bringing Habermas to Memory Studies

Academic journal article Polish Sociological Review

Bringing Habermas to Memory Studies

Article excerpt


In this paper, we attempt to show the fruitfulness of the theory of communicative action for memory studies. Specifically, we intend to demonstrate that concepts characteristic of the discipline, such as "history," "memory," and "dialogue," reflect three types of universal validity claims: "memory" formulates claims to authenticity, "history" formulates claims to truth, and "dialogue" formulates claims to rightness. Thus, it is possible to introduce a seminal Habermasian notion of rationality that rests on validity claims. This notion can serve to integrate, enrich, and identify blind spots in memory studies. Our purpose is to demonstrate the relevance of collective memory to social cohesion (cultural reproduction, social integration, and socialization) and the public sphere (its development and atrophy, rationalization, and colonization).

Keywords: memory studies, Habermas, critical theory, new museology, rationality, public sphere, politics of the past, European memory.

In this paper, we propose a theoretical extension (Snow, Morrill, Anderson 2003) of Jürgen Habermas' theory into memory studies as a way of reinvigorating and mainstreaming this "non-paradigmatic, transdisciplinary and centerless field" (Olick and Robbins 1998). Given its breadth and dynamic character, we do not intend to demonstrate the fruitfulness of the theory of communicative action as such. Rather, we focus on its most fundamental concept: the public sphere constituted by rational communication that is free of distortions (see Maslanka 2011: 26).

The context for our theorizing is the process of transition occurring within the remembrance of the Second World War, an event that remains critical to all European societies (see Alexander 2003; for Poland: Kwiatkowski, Nijakowski, Szacka 2010; for Germany: Rüsen 2001). Communicative memory regarding this event, transmitted in face-to-face encounters (see Filipkowski 2010), has been transformed into cultural memory that is embedded in cultural artifacts (Assmann 1992).

Habermas and Memory

Although Habermas has been an active participant, if not an instigator, in most of the important historical debates in Germany and, by extension, in Europe (Habermas 1989a, 1989b, 2001, 2004, 2008, Maier 1988), his theory has not been applied consistently to memory studies. Confining his analyses of memory to polemical interventions (e.g., Habermas 1989a, 1989b, 2001,2004,2008) rather than developing self-contained and fully-fledged theoretical contributions, Habermas has not exhausted the full potential of his own perspective. One underlying reason for this neglect might be that from the beginning, he has remained skeptical of the claim that memory, tradition, myth, and culture should be the foundational elements of modern nations.

For instance, inaugurating Historikerstreit, Habermas argued against German historians who lamented the loss of history (Verlust der Geschichte) but in fact attempted to instill national, if not nationalistic, myths. He associated memories with conventional forms of national identity, which should be subjected to public rational debate and, consequently, replaced with postconventional identity based on "constitutional patriotism," which justifies rational, universalistic principles of morality and democracy (Habermas 1989a, see Maier 1988: 58-60, 161). For Habermas, "the public contestation of the past" takes precedence over memories themselves; he emphasizes "renegotiation in an open public sphere" over a "particular view of the past." Although Habermas recognizes that "bloodless" constitutional patriotism needs "motivational power," which is found not in everyday politics but rather in common memories, he claims that traditions are always double-edged; we must be critical in choosing them to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust will always be central among them (Mueller 2006: 286-287).

It is truly striking that the question of memory finds a place only in Habermas' political commentaries and civic engagement, but remembrance as such is excluded from his theoretical focus. …

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