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Anthropological Quarterly 78.1 (2005) 197-211

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The Abuses of Memory:

Reflections on the Memory Boom in Anthropology1

Harvard University

In recent years, studies of memory have blossomed in the humanities. (Klein 2000, Radstone 2000, Zelizer 1995) 2 In anthropology in particular, a vast number of scholars are currently occupied with research about memory. (Candau 1998, Climo and Cattell 2002, Olick and Robbins 1998) The list of contributions in this recent field of research is too voluminous to even begin to report. In every new anthropological publication, there is another article about social, cultural or material memory. Anthropology of Memory has become a respected course of many American and European University programs, something that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Also, conferences and workshops are being organized with a special focus on memory issues, something that would also have been unthinkable 20 years ago.3

However, they are many unsettled areas in the field of memory studies. Historians have indeed begun warning us against the "terminological profusion" and the "semantic overload" of the notion (Kansteiner 2002, Klein 2000). Gillis observes that "memory seems to be losing precise meaning in proportion to its growing rhetorical power" (Gillis 1984: 3). As historian Jay Winter cogently writes, [End Page 197]

"The only fixed point is the near ubiquity of the term [memory]. Just as we use words like love and hate without ever knowing their full or shared significance, so are we bound to go on using the term "memory," the historical signature of our generation" .
(Winter 2000: 13)

From the idea that "a society or a culture can remember and forget" (Are not only individuals capable of remembering?)4 to the widely used notion of "vicarious memory"5 and the questionable validity of the notion of memory in approaching certain trans-culturalcontexts,6 a broad range of fundamental epistemological issues are still to be raised with regard to memory.

The point that I would like to emphasize here concerns the "danger of overextension" of the concept. A concept losing precise meaning, memory can also be approached as an expansive notion. For Gedi and Elam, "'collective memory' has become the all-pervading concept which in effect stands for all sorts of human cognitive products generally" (Gedi & Elam 1996: 40). In particular, historians have already underscored the risks of entanglement of memory and identity (Gillis 1994, Megill 1998). Some anthropologists, too, started expressing concerns about the "dangers of overextension that are inherent in the current boom of memory" (Fabian 1999: 51). For Fabian, the "concept of memory may become indistinguishable from either identity or culture" (ibid: 51). Jonathan Boyarin concurs, noting that "identity and memory are virtually the same" (Boyarin 1994: 23). In this essay, I contend that the current usage of the notion by anthropologists can be a source of confusion as it tends to encompass many features of the notion of culture itself. I argue that this process of conceptual extension leading to the entanglement of memory and culture merits careful scrutiny as it tells us a great deal about the anthropological project. Needless to say, I will raise many questions and give very few answers. This piece should be taken as an epistemological challenge rather than a pessimistic reproach.

Memory in Anthropology: a Historical Perspective

It is unfortunate that there has not been yet a history, a genealogy of the concept of memory in anthropology, whereas the ongoing obsession with memory in the humanities has been abundantly documented. In a powerful article, Klein reminds us that [End Page 198]

"Memory grew incredibly marginal, and in 1964 The Dictionary of the Social Sciences claimed that the word verged on extinction [...] The 1968 Edition of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences declined to define memory at all, despite the luxury of stretching its contents out for 7 volumes. By 1976 [...] Raymond Williams's classic study, Keywords, [...] ignored memory. [...] Little more that two decades separate memory's virtual disappearance and triumphal return" .
(Klein 2000: 131)

To explain this triumphal return, historian Jay Winter has shown that there...