Mediation of Memory: Towards Transdisciplinary Perspectives in Current Memory Studies: Preface to the Special Issue of Trames

By Vosu, Ester; Koresaar, Ene et al. | Trames, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Mediation of Memory: Towards Transdisciplinary Perspectives in Current Memory Studies: Preface to the Special Issue of Trames


Vosu, Ester, Koresaar, Ene, Kuutma, Kristin, Trames


DOI: 10.3176/tr.2008.3.01

1. Introduction

Memory has become one of the buzzwords in today's humanities and social sciences. Concepts like 'collective memory' (Halbwachs 1950), 'lieux de memoire' (Nora 1989, 1996, 1998), 'cultural memory' (Bal et al. 1999), 'social memory' (Fentress and Wickham 1992, Misztal 2003), and many others catch our attention in the titles of recently published books and articles, in tables of contents and lists of keywords. We are witnessing an increasing 'memory boom' (Winter 2000) in humanities and social sciences and a new field of research--memory studies--has emerged and develops rapidly. Under these circumstances we should, more than ever, pose ourselves the question--what do we mean by 'memory'? Is memory an object of study, a unit of research, or is it a theoretical perspective through which we investigate other phenomena? What are the differences between the concepts of memory and history or memory and tradition? In which aspects do processes of individual memory and collective memory correlate, and in which they diverge? How far can we extend the sub-concepts related to memory like remembering, forgetting, or trauma? And how can individuals' remembering be juxtaposed to the construction of social memory? What is the agency of language or artefacts in producing memory, in reflecting the experience of temporality? What kind of potential, individual and collective, cultural or political, does the inversion of temporal order extend in narratives of memory?

The current special issue aims to raise some of these questions while implementing an interdisciplinary perspective on particular phenomena that arise from these explorations, in order to consider different aspects of memory with particular focus on cultural memory.

2. From the memory boom to critical contemplations

Taking into account the abovementioned developments, 'memory' has become an excessively used and 'abused' concept, in humanities and social sciences, to the extent that 'memory's' meaning and heuristic value become almost unclear (see Berliner 2005, Klein 2000, Fabian 1999). Misuses of memory seem to stem from the feeling that it may be easier to avoid providing an adequate account of memory rather than to risk providing an insufficient definition. In the field of anthropology Johannes Fabian warns against the 'dangers of overextension' of the concept of memory in the 'current boom of memory, whereby memory becomes indistinguishable from either identity or culture' (Fabian 1999:51). It appears that the concept of memory is undergoing developments similar to those that the concept of culture recently underwent (cf. Fox and King 2002). We, as the authors of this introduction, recognize that whereas it is probably impossible to provide an exhaustive definition of memory, it is nevertheless necessary, in the ongoing academic boom of memory research, to continue the discussion on the possibilities and limitations of memory as an object and as a method.

One of the first significant critiques of 'the memory boom' by historian Kerwin Lee Klein (2000:128) pointed out that memory has become a 'metahistorical category', something like a Foucauldian field of discourse, referring to both individual and collective practices of remembering. However, it does not mean that memory is becoming a more abstract object, quite the opposite--we witness "the new materialization of memory to the status of a historical agent, and we enter a new age in which archives remember and statues forget" (Klein 2002:136). Wulf Kansteiner has argued that the cumulative research on collective memory has not yet established a clear conceptual or methodological basis for the cultural study of collective memory processes. The characteristics of individual memory are too eagerly attributed to collective memory, ignoring that memory in group processes does not function the same way as it does in individual mind, and collective memory as an object of study needs therefore appropriate methods for its analysis. …

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