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The Sources of Memory

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 58, Number 4, October 1997
pp. 707-717 | 10.1353/jhi.1997.0032

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Journal of the History of Ideas 58.4 (1997) 707-717

"What does it mean to remember?" This question might seem commonplace when it is confined to the domain of events recalled in past individual experience; but even in this restricted sense, when memory recalls, for example, a first personal encounter with birth or with death, the singularity of the remembered image places the deeper possibilities of human understanding in relief. Such experiences punctuating everyday life highlight the central place of memory as a source of human identity.

With a few notable exceptions, such as Henri Bergson or Maurice Halb-wachs, this central role of memory was rarely a topic of interest in the theoretical orientations of our century. It played only a peripheral role in the different philosophical orientations and in the human sciences of this century until, very recently, new attempts have been made to comprehend the significance of memory, above all in the fields of intellectual history and philosophy. Without dealing exhaustively with the bibliography of works on memory, I will mention what seem to me to be the signs of a recent renewal of questioning in this area of interest to historians and philosophers alike. This will lead me to the specific problem I will address in the pages that follow.

One of the chief sources of the historian's recent interest in memory has been the historians' conflict (Historikerstreit) of the 1980s concerning the interpretation of the German and European past since the rise to power of Nazism and in the aftermath of World War II. As the generations who lived through and -- from a given perspective--remembered these events increasingly disappear, the question concerning their precise historical meaning has reemerged with a new urgency. In this vein, for example, as the relatively new periodical History and Memory: Studies in the Representation of the Past and the collection of essays Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the "Final Solution," edited by Saul Friedlander, amply attest, the relation of memory to historical narrative is as important as it is problematic: to the extent that eyewitness memory claims a status of objectivity beyond the fictional sphere of the imagination, its role in informing historical narrative involves the very issue of objectivity itself.

Independently of this query concerning the relation of memory and history in recent scholarship focusing on the twentieth century, a number of studies have attempted to place the idea of memory in historical perspective during premodern periods. In this regard, we may cite Janet Coleman's recently published work, Ancient and Medieval Memories: Studies in the Reconstruction of the Past and Mary Carruthers's treatment of the subject of memory in the medieval period in The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. A number of other recent works in the field of intellectual history have attempted to grapple with the intriguing problem of the historicity of the phenomenon of memory in the West. This idea of the historicity of memory has been inspired at least in part by Pierre Nora's essay, "Between Memory and History," which introduced the multi-volume series he directed, Les Lieux de mémoire. In this vein, Patrick H. Hutton's History as an Art of Memory, Matt K. Matsuda's The Memory of the Modern, and Richard Terdiman's Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis all center on the historical transforma-tions to which, according to the different perspectives of their works, "memory" has been subject. Like Nora, they link this historicity of the social and cultural role of memory to the radical transformations that Western civilization has undergone in the modern period.

In a philosophical perspective David Farrell Krell's work, Of Memory, Reminiscence, and Writing: On the Verge, presents a very different idea of the phenomenon of memory. Where the intellectual historians of modernity stress the mutations in the role of memory, Krell, following in the footsteps of Jacques Derrida, emphasizes one essential line of continuity that, to his mind, has tied together the tradition of philosophical reflection on memory from Plato and Aristotle up until Freud: the metaphoric reference to memory as the faculty of imprinting images. This is the...

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