Anthropology of Collective Memory: Estonian National Awakening Revisited

By Gross, Toomas | Trames, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Anthropology of Collective Memory: Estonian National Awakening Revisited


Gross, Toomas, Trames


Nations are bound together by remembering and forgetting, and past is often purposefully altered by means of invention or amnesia. Circumstances, culture and society constrain the ways we employ our memory and recall history. Since the 1980s, anthropology and other social sciences have increasingly focused on the constructed nature of collective memory and its political implications. According to Lowenthal (1996), such shift in the social scientific focus was partly due to the fact that many nations became "possessed by the past." This was certainly true about Eastern Europe in the 1990s. The decade was marked by an outburst of nationalism, search for ethnic identity and what one might call "memory-work," an attempt to establish links between the past and the present to "legitimise" political changes. Today's Eastern Europe is more preoccupied with its future, as membership in the European Union is imminent for many countries. Nation (re)building almost complete and pragmatism triumphing over patriotism, it is a "safe" moment to study collective memory and its politics in a broader and less emotional framework.

In this paper I will use an "anthropological lens" to look at collective memory and scrutinise certain aspects of the construction of Estonian nationhood in the nineteenth century from the perspective of anthropological understanding of collective identity formation and maintenance. I am particularly interested in the creation and functioning of what I call "reservoirs of memory"--institutions, cultural practices, or physical places, which carry in themselves meaningful history and thus serve as a trigger for memories and identities. I will focus on three of them--song festivals, oral history, and the attachment to land--to exemplify the ways that anthropological perspective can help us understand the politics of collective memory.

On anthropological aspects of collective memory

"History resembles a crowded cemetery, where room must constantly be made for new tombstones," says a French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1980:52). It is everywhere a battleground for rival attachments, a "field" where, by discovering, correcting, elaborating, inventing, and celebrating their histories, competing groups struggle to validate present goals by appealing to continuity with or inheritance from ancestral and other precursors (Gathercole and Lowenthal 1990: 302). The past is thus subject to multiple interpretations and recallings. It is constantly altered by means of invention and forgetting, which, from the perspective of "memory work" or the "censorship of memory" in the psychoanalytic terminology (Le Goff 1992:94), are two sides of the same coin. Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (1983), caused a major paradigm shift in the anthropological study of memory. If politics of collective memory did not constitute a particular focus of study earlier, Invention of Tradition set a power example, demonstrating the historically recent and inventive content of many national traditions, cultural elements and symbols, commonly regarded as old and autochthonous. Invention of the new automatically means forgetting about the old. Barnes (1947:52) has called such collective forgetting "structural amnesia," which is another inevitable aspect of "memory editing." (1)

The collectiveness of memory, carried by what Irwin-Zarecka (1994:47) has called a "community of memory," makes the past especially powerful as the basis for collective identity. As Lowenthal (1985:xv) puts it, "each particular trace of the past ultimately perishes, but collectively they are immortal. Whether it is celebrated or rejected, attended to or ignored, the past is omnipresent." The unity of the "community of memory," based on a vague notion of the shared past, is, however, imagined, as there is no face-to-face interaction between past and present generations. In bigger societies, unity has to be imagined also with one's contemporaries. …

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