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Unit 3: What is cultural memory?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Protest by AIDS activists, USA, 1980s

History and memory are two distinct forms of knowledge of the past; but memory itself has a history, and the way we research and write history is shaped by memory in ways that we may not immediately recognise. This unit examines how historians and literary scholars have scrutinised memory, and looks at how works of history and literature contribute to the formation of ‘cultural memory’ as something distinct from individual, cognitive memory.

 

Week 11: Module re-cap and overview of units 3 & 4

Readings:

  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Queer and Now,” in Tendencies (1994, 20 pp.)

 

Week 12: Mediation

One of the major issues faced by scholars investigating memory is that of mediation. As historians we can never engage directly with memory itself, still less with the objects of memory: our knowledge of them must be derived from their expressions or manifestations in various media (including texts), each of which will leave their own imprint on memory. Indeed, as Bolter and Grusin point out in the introduction to their book Remediation: Understanding New Media (2000), contemporary societies demonstrate particularly intense forms of ‘remediation’ that seek to create a sense of direct engagement with their objects even as they extend our distance from them.

Readings:

  • John Guillory, 'Genesis of the Media Concept', Critical Inquiry 36:2 (2010, 42pp.)
  • Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, 'Introduction', in Remediation: Understanding New Media (2000, 13pp.)

Seminar questions:

  • What is ‘mediation’ (and ‘remediation’)?
  • How do we encounter mediation in Fun Home, and what is the effect of its presentation in the novel?
  • What roles do art and literature play in the characters’ lives in Fun Home, and what larger themes does Bechdel use it to devleop?
  • What bearing does the idea of mediation have on the way we understand historical knowledge of the past?
  • Does mediation fundamentally limit our knowledge of the past, or expand it – or both?

 

Week 13: Memorialisation

Lecture:

Lecture slides

One of the ways in which individual memory connects to larger social and cultural processes is through practices of memorialisation, which can range from the personal curation of objects and artefacts, the proliferation of which is explored by David Lowenthal, to the more obviously public and political forms of cultural memory that have attended AIDS activism and the gay (or queer) liberation movement(s). As Douglas Crimp points out, the possibilities of memorialisation are constrained by the regimes of power and normativity that govern a culture at a particular time and place, and changing those possibilities—through direct activism, literary creation, or scholarship—is a political act of potentially great significance.

Readings:

  • Dana Luciano, 'Nostalgia for an Age Yet to Come: Velvet Goldmine's Queer Archive', in Queer Times, Queer Becomings (2014, 30pp.)
  • Douglas Crimp, 'Mourning and Militancy', in Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (2004, 17pp.)

Suggested further reading:

Seminar questions:

  • How is memorialisation portrayed in Fun Home? Can we think of the novel itself as an act of memorialisation?
  • Given the subject matter of Fun Home, why is there so little mourning in the novel?
  • What are the distinctive features of the ‘queer nostalgia’ that Douglas Crimp discusses? Do we see such a nostalgia at work in Fun Home?
  • What does Dana Luciano mean by a ‘queer archive’ and ‘queer temporalities’, and how might we see these concepts at work in Fun Home?
  • Can the ‘attachment’ produced by the queer archive successfully overcome or avoid the distancing effect of mediation that we read about last week?
  • What differences with, or reforms to, traditional understandings of history are suggested by Luciano’s use of queer theory (particularly by the two concepts named above)?

 

Week 14: Inheritance

Lecture:

Lecture slides

The politics of memory are particularly evident when we examine various kinds of cultural inheritance, which include the so-called ‘invention of tradition’ whereby modern societies simultaneously encode and conceal their ideological operations. Pierre Nora’s celebrated study of ‘Lieux de Mémoire’ examines public sites of remembrance that (he argues) compensate for a loss of the more traditional forms of ‘memory’ that existed in pre-modern cultures. History, for Nora, is a way of ‘organiz[ing] the past’ that modern societies substitute for ‘real memory—social and unviolated’, placing history and memory ‘in fundamental opposition’. Benedict Anderson’s classic study of nationalism, Imagined Communities, offers another account of the place of memory in modern societies, examining the construction of a shared relationship to the past among widely dispersed populations who are formed into nations through the technologies and practices of literacy.

Readings:

  • Benedict Anderson, 'Introduction', 'Cultural Roots', and 'The Origins of National Consciousness', in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983, 45pp.)
  • Pierre Nora, 'Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire', Representations 26:2 (1989, 18pp.)

Suggested further reading:

  • Eric Hobsbawm, 'Introduction: Inventing Traditions', in Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (1983, 14pp.)

Seminar questions:

  • How is the nation as an ‘imagined community’ present in Fun Home?
  • What other ‘imagined communities’ are portrayed in the novel? How closely do these conform to Benedict Anderson’s definition of an ‘imagined community’?
  • How are public and private/ personal histories intertwined—and held apart—in Fun Home?
  • What is a ‘lieu de mémoire’, as Pierre Nora defines it? Are there lieux de mémoire in Fun Home?
  • How does Nora characterise the relationship between history and memory in his essay? Is it consistent with the presentation of history and memory in Fun Home?

 

Week 15: Trauma

The texts for this week contain material that some students may find challenging, including brief references to sexual harassment and assault. Please contact one of the module convenors if you are concerned about this.

Lecture (Prof. Susan Carruthers)

One form of memory that poses a particular challenge to historical knowledge is trauma, which we tend to think of as an essentially private, individual experience that is associated with an inability to offer a coherent narrative of the traumatic event. This might suggest that it would elude conventional historical research; but scholars have developed a range of techniques to bring trauma within the scope of history – including the distinctions between ‘absence’ and ‘loss’, and between structural and historical trauma, that Dominick LaCapra explores in his essay. The idea of ‘trauma’ itself can also be situated in history, as a way of defining and managing subjectivities that emerged in a particular time and place, amid historically-specific regimes of official and professional knowledge.

Readings:

  • Ruth Leys, 'Introduction' and/ or 'Freud and Trauma', in Trauma: A Genealogy (2000, 41 pp.)
  • Ann Cvetkovitch, 'Legacies of Trauma, Legacies of Activism: ACT-UP's Lesbians', in Loss: The Politics of Mourning (2005, 34pp.)

Suggested further reading:

  • Dominick LaCapra, 'Trauma, Absence, Loss', Critical Inquiry 25:4 (1999, 31 pp.)

Seminar questions:

  • What is trauma? Is it an example of a mode of subjective response that was historically possible only after it was named? (Cf. Ian Hacking in term 1.)
  • If trauma is characterised by an absence or failure of narrative, is it outside the scope of historical knowledge?
  • Do we encounter trauma in Fun Home?
  • How does Bechdel relate her personal history to the larger public histories of gay liberation and AIDS activism?
  • How does the ‘politics of mourning’ discussed by Cvetkovitch contrast with the presentation of mourning in Fun Home?