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Aleida Assmann Transformations between History and Memory COLLECTIVE M EM O RY-A SPURIOUS NOTION? THERE IS NO NEED TO CONVINCE ANYBODY THAT THERE IS SUCH A TH ING as individual memory; m em ory attaches to persons in the singular. But does it attach to them in the plural? Although the term “collec­ tive m em oiy” has gained currency and a whole new discourse has been built around it that fills extended libraiy shelves, there are still invet­ erate skeptics who tenaciously deny the phrase has any meaning. It is of course easy to create a new term , but how can we be sure the term corresponds to anything in reality? Susan Sontag, for instance, is one of those who questioned and denied the m eaning of this term. “Photographs that eveiyone recognizes,” she wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others, “are now a constituent part of w hat a society chooses to think about, or declares that it has chosen to think about. It calls these ideas ‘memories,’ and that is, over the long run, a fiction. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memoiy.” And, she insists, all m em ory is individual, unreproducible—it dies w ith each person. W hat is called collective m em oiy is not a rem em ­ bering but a stipulating: that this is im portant, that this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds. Ideologies create substantiating archives of images, representative images, which encapsu­ late common ideas of significance and trigger predictable thoughts, feelings (Sontag, 2003: 85-86). social research Voi 75 : No 1 : Spring 2008 49 According to Sontag, a society is able to choose, to think and to speak, but not to rem em ber. It can choose w ithout a will, it can think w ithout the capacity of reason, it can speak w ithout a tongue, but it cannot rem em ber w ithout a memoiy. W ith the term “memory,” her license of figurative speech reaches its limit: m em ory cannot be thought of independently from an organ and organism. As part of the brain and its neurological networks, it is tied to individual lives and dies w ith each person. This commonsensical argum ent has its irrefut­ able evidence. The statem ent is certainly true, but, we may argue, it is incomplete. There is little dispute that autobiographical memories are w hat existentially distinguishes us from each other. Experiential memories are embodied and thus they cannot be transferred from one person to another. In stressing the experiential solipsism of individual memoiy, however, we disregard two im portant dimensions of memory: inter­ action w ith other individuals and interaction w ith external signs and symbols. Autobiographical m emories cannot be embodied by another person, but they can be shared w ith others. Once they are verbalized in the form of a narrative or represented by a visual image, the indi­ vidual’s memories become part of an intersubjective symbolic system and are, strictly speaking, no longer a purely exclusive and unalien­ able property. By encoding them in the common m edium of language, they can be exchanged, shared, corroborated, confirmed, corrected, disputed, and even appropriated. In addition to that, it is sometimes notoriously difficult to distinguish w hat one has experienced oneself from w hat one has been told and afterward incorporated into one’s own stock of autobiographical memories. Similarly, w hat we have expe­ rienced ourselves and what we have read about or seen in films can be equally difficult to disentangle. Oral narratives, texts, and photographs are im portant props of autobiographical memoiy, which explains why the boundary betw een individual m em ory and shared m aterial signs (such as texts and images) is not always easy to draw. Sontag would probably concede all these points, provided that we introduce the distinction between m ind and memory. “Mind” refers to the cognitive part of the brain, in which general concepts are built 50 social research up, where external knowledge, taken in through texts and images, is assimilated and reconstructed. “There is collective instruction,” Sontag affirms (85). Psychologists...