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  • Photo Essay:Tropes of Memory
  • Jens Meierhenrich (bio) and Martha Lagace (bio)

The historian James Young, with his seminal book The Texture of Memory, may have inadvertently started an analytical trend wherein—in the context of the study of collective violence—official memorials and otherwise privileged lieux de mémoire, including memorial museums, are deemed worthier of investigation than everyday sites of social memory.1 Many a time, perhaps because they are located far from centers of power, informal sites of memory—what Paul Connerton recently called “loci”—have fallen through the analytical net.2 This is unfortunate, because studying memory in the vernacular is particularly instructive in instances where contending narratives about a violent past abound but perhaps are not given full or any recognition in national and international debates. Post-genocide Rwanda, the subject of this photo essay, is a case in point, because “memory is neither plural, nor openly contested” there.3 “The post-genocide state has a dominant role in setting limits on whose lives are to be remembered publicly and how.”4

Unfortunately, a growing literature on the politics of memorialization in post-genocide Rwanda has nevertheless prioritized the study of official memory at the expense of what the historian John Bodnar, in the American context, termed “vernacular memory.”5 Most of the available scholarship gives pride of place to analyses of the country’s seven so-called national genocide memorials.6 By leaving aside the hundreds (possibly thousands) of formal and informal sites of memory not actively, or less actively, curated by the authoritarian government, the existing literature unwittingly contributes to the marginalization—at least in the policy-oriented discourse about supposed virtues of memorialization in times of transition—of spatial responses to loss that are less coordinated and often more spontaneous than efforts at memorialization prescribed from above. Our field research suggests that variation in mnemonic practices is often more readily observable in peripheral locations than at the center in post-genocide Rwanda. Because “the nationalized mourning eclipses community-level or family-level commemorations,” which can create the impression of a unified response to loss in the countryside that often has no empirical referent, disaggregating mnemonic practices in post-genocide Rwanda is essential for the study of social memory in that landlocked country.7

We believe that what we have elsewhere described as “a micropolitical turn” would benefit students of social memory more generally, since most remembering and forgetting is done through the textures of everyday settings, in contexts frequently invisible and often mundane.8 Despite a burgeoning literature on the macropolitics of social memory, remarkably little is known about the diversity of mnemonic practices [End Page 289] in small-scale, living, breathing contexts where violent pasts are to be contended with; nor do scholars understand well enough how meaning is transferred, filtered, defended, and improvised between and among different spheres of social life. The dozen empirical vignettes at the heart of this photo essay provide glimpses of these spheres. We single out tropes of memory that merit careful investigation in situ, in Rwanda and elsewhere. Each trope will be familiar to analysts involved in knowledge production about social memory. Singling out such tropes is to invite more observational work on their empirical salience, as well as on the salience of related themes. We hope the empirical vignettes illuminate our larger methodological argument—that the extensive literature on the macropolitics of memory ought to be complemented with ethnographic research on the micropolitics thereof—and reinforce the policy implications that follow from this argument.

Memory in situ

In an effort to encourage more fine-grained research on what one of us has elsewhere termed “underprivileged memory,” below we present deliberately unsystematic evidence about tropes of memory that we collected in Rwanda’s countryside and cities. When memorialization is at risk of being transformed into yet another technology of international humanitarianism, we try to eschew the formulation of generalities about the nature and determinants of social memory in post-genocide Rwanda. Instead we offer what we hope are suggestive glimpses into multilayered lifeworlds, gathered in passing throughout the country. We touch upon the intersection of subjectivity and space, but we offer no conclusive evidence, at...


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pp. 289-312
Launched on MUSE
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