Finding Meaning in Memory: A Methodological Critique of Collective Memory Studies

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Abstract

The memory wave in the humanities has contributed to the impressive revival of cultural history, but the success of memory studies has not been accompanied by significant conceptual and methodological advances in the research of collective memory processes. Most studies on memory focus on the representation of specific events within particular chronological, geographical, and media settings without reflecting on the audiences of the representations in question. As a result, the wealth of new insights into past and present historical cultures cannot be linked conclusively to specific social collectives and their historical consciousness. This methodological problem is even enhanced by the metaphorical use of psychological and neurological terminology, which misrepresents the social dynamics of collective memory as an effect and extension of individual, autobiographical memory. Some of these shortcomings can be addressed through the extensive contextualization of specific strategies of representation, which links facts of representation with facts of reception. As a result, the history of collective memory would be recast as a complex process of cultural production and consumption that acknowledges the persistence of cultural traditions as well as the ingenuity of memory makers and the subversive interests of memory consumers. The negotiations among these three different historical agents create the rules of engagement in the competitive arena of memory politics, and the reconstruction of these negotiations helps us distinguish among the abundance of failed collective memory initiatives on the one hand and the few cases of successful collective memory construction on the other. For this purpose, collective memory studies should adopt the methods of communication and media studies, especially with regard to media reception, and continue to use a wide range of interpretive tools from traditional historiography to poststructural approaches. From the perspective of collective memory studies, these two traditions are closely related and mutually beneficial, rather than mutually exclusive, ways of analyzing historical cultures.

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