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Memory and the South Edward L. Ayers I would like to admit right off the bat that I didn't have a thing to do with organizing this extremely well-organized conference, though I did consult on the Tshirts and mugs. I was therefore flattered when the people behind this enterprise asked me to say a few words about memory in general. The Dome Room is a good place for that, since it is testimony to the power of self-consciously shaped memory. The Rotunda and Monticello, idealized memories of a distant classical past, incongruously and somewhat improbably set down in the middle of a rustic slave state, are now what many people think of when they think of Virginia or Charlottesville. The more I looked into this memory business, the more I realized that this conference, and southern history in general, are parts of an international rethinking of the meaning of memory. The late-twentieth century brings many people to talk about memory in new ways, and there are several reasons for that. Some of those reasons have to do with the historical profession and intellectual life in general, while some of them are located in the world outside. Our sudden interest in memory has something to do with the democratization of history, with our interest in how literally everyone saw themselves. Our interest in memory is part of our interest in the quotidian, the personal, the local, the concrete. It has something to do too with our loss of faith in the coherence and objectivity of professional history. We can see now that many memories— not merely a few myths and symbols—competed for people's allegiance. Memory , unlike older conceptions of "national character" or "American culture," tends to divide as much as unify. Our interest in memory has something to do with historians' almost reflexive celebration of oppositional cultures and contestation in general. It has something to do with the heightened level of self-consciousness historians and other intellectuals have about our enterprise, its language, and its assumptions. We are making room for the ineffable, the emotional, the transitory, the incoherent in our accounts of social life—and memory encompasses all of those things. People think and talk more about memory too because of the increasing politicization of the past by people throughout the world. In fact, the first thing 6 Southern Cultures we have to recognize about social memory is that it is inherently political ; it is about defining us against them —whether the "us" is the nation -state, ethnic group, geographic population, family, or organization— any group with a recognizable past to which it can lay claim. Every group must tell a story to itself about itself, who it is and why it came to be, what memories it cherishes, why it deserves to be taken seriously and respected. Memory is more politically „ ......., ., , , . ~ r charged than almost anything histoRepnnted with permission from the University of° jo Virginia Library.rians can talk about right now. The things that make people angry today are more about culture than they are about the traditional divisions between left and right or rich and poor; memory makes the cultural political, the political cultural; memory makes present conflicts revolve around questions about the past. As a result of this fundamentally political impulse underlying memory, we should not be surprised to see it resurfacing at a time in world history when nationalism seems to be reasserting itself along new lines. We should not be surprised to see it at a time when people are killing one another over questions of ethnic purity, when "homelands" are being created and destroyed. We should not be surprised to see it at a time when multiculturalism is a hot topic in the United States. The battle over multiculturalism shows, on one side, people trying to set themselves apart with a "heritage" or "culture," with an identity deriving its authenticity from the past, from something remembered by the group. On the other side, people who see themselves as the cultural guardians of the nation strive to impose an American national identity through "cultural literacy," thinking that we would be unified if we could only remember some commonality...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 5-8
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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