We Must Remember to Remember!

In cultural history the buzz word of the moment seems to be ‘memory’ and how different social groups, ranging from local communities to nations, remember the past. As I am sure you will agree this does sound a fascinating topic. However, the subject has now become bogged down in a debate over terminology that can make you want to forget all about remembering!

Most scholars agree that memory is affected by society and cannot be viewed simply as an individualist activity. Our everyday landscape is full of cultural elements such as artworks and architecture that have an impact on our memory. Yet, this is where historians stop being happy campers and start bickering over the finer details.

There are numerous terms advocated by different scholars as to the best way of describing this kind of memory. For example, Lucy Noakes argues the case for ‘popular memory’ which implies the fundamental role played by the media in how and what people remember. For Noakes ‘popular memory’ highlights the fact that what is remembered is often dependent on what is popularly consumed from newspapers or the television.

David Berliner agrees that media is important to how we remember. However, for him ‘popular memory’ just will not do! Berliner believes ‘cultural memory’ is preferable as it emphasises the transformation memory can undergo. For instance, each time there is a new film about the Titanic the memory of the event is reshaped. Our memories, probably created from the previous film, will be altered or completely replaced by this latest version (i.e. many of us now remember the Titanic as a heart-wrenching romantic tragedy between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet).

I do not have the space (or the patience) to outline all the different terms, but many more have been promoted such as ‘collective memory’, ‘social memory’, ‘historical remembrance’ etc. etc. And this is really my point. Whilst identify correct terminology is an important step in any academic study the discussion seems to have got slightly out of hand when it comes to memory.

This labelling frenzy can make the study of memory seem confusing and I am sure it has put more than a few people off. However, if you ignore the preference of ‘cultural memory’ or ‘public memory’ then Noakes and Berliners arguments suddenly become so much more interesting. The terminology almost has to be looked passed in order to get to the really juicy stuff. Stripped of its jargon I completely understand why cultural historians cannot forget about memory, I just wish they would forget to brand it!