Memory and History: Understanding Memory as Source and Subject (2023)

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Memory and History: Understanding Memory as Source and Subject (2)Memory and History: Understanding Memory as Source and Subject (3)

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Memory and History: Understanding Memory as Source and Subject
edited by: Joan Tumblety
Abingdon, Routledge, 2013, ISBN: 9780415677127; 240pp.; Price: £21.99


Dr Adam Timmins


Dr Adam Timmins, review of Memory and History: Understanding Memory as Source and Subject, (review no. 1470)
Date accessed: 7 February, 2023

See Author's Response

Officially, the designated revolution that took place in historical theory since the Second World War is that of the so-called ‘linguistic turn’. But as the postmodernist era in historical theory begins to fade, one begins to wonder if the real revolution in post-war historical theory actually consisted of the rise of memory studies. As the editor of this collection points out in her introduction, ‘Memory is now as familiar a category for historians as politics, war or empire’ (p. 1). The rise of memory studies began at the turn of the 1970s, and the reasons for its rise are multifarious. The Holocaust and the idea of the ‘duty to remember’ undoubtedly played a part, as did some of the new social history of the 1960s; the decline of positivism’s standing in historical method and the ‘cultural turn’ must also be taken into account. One might say that, ‘taking all of the aforementioned factors together, that the ‘memory boom’ of recent years has been over-determined’ (p. 5). Nonetheless, regardless from whence it sprung, the point is that memory is now an inescapable feature of the historiographical landscape.

The collection under review is published as part of The Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources series; and unsurprisingly, the introduction argues that what distinguishes the volume from other introductions to history and memory is its focus on sources. The volume is divided into three sections, with the first looking at working with oral testimonies; the second deals with memorialisation and commemoration; while the third examines the intersections between individual and collective memory. A select bibliography is provided for all three areas at the end of the book.

One of the key critical issues in the area of memory studies is the reception of memory, with more than one commentator arguing that not enough has been done to address the issue. Most historical studies of memory ‘favour analysis of the textual, visual or oral representations of the past over the pursuit of evidence for responses to those cultural artifacts’ (p. 8). The issue of reception is touched upon in several of the essays in Memory and History. Polly Low looks at the use of inscribed monuments in Ancient Athens to examine not only what the Athenians were attempting to communicate with these monuments; but also whether their attempts were successful. However, the evidence for whether the attempts were successful is slim, and the answer to the question is left somewhat opaque; commemorative monuments ‘may well have been set up with specific intentions, but it does not follow that they were always or only used for those purposes’ (p. 81). In her essay on the role that photography plays in museums, Susan A. Crane asks ‘how did the inclusion of photographs in museums shape the way that diverse audiences, from curators to scholars to the visiting public, interacted with the visual presence of the past?’ (p. 123). But as with Low’s chapter on Athenian monuments, the essay by and large focuses on what those who exhibited the photographs intended them to portray, as opposed to how said photographs were received by their audience. Audience reception is only really addressed in the last two pages of the chapter. Finally, Jason Crouthamel admits on the second page of his chapter on the characterisation of ‘shellshock’ in the Weimar Republic that ‘individual memory proves to be more difficult to locate and analyze’ – although to be fair it should be noted that Crouthamel is more successful in trying to present the reception of memory than either Crane or Low (p. 144). Nonetheless, the impression one gets from Memory and History is that the gauging the reception of memory is a highly problematic affair which even the doyens of the field have struggled to get to grips with. In her introduction Tumblety states that the aim of the volume is to ‘animate and interrogate’ rather than resolve outstanding problems – but with regards to the reception of memory, animation seems thin on the ground.

A theme that runs throughout the entire collection – or ‘haunts’ the volume as Tumblety puts it (like a spectre perhaps?) – is the problematic notion of collective memory. In Lindsey Dodd’s chapter on French oral history during the Second World War (by far the best essay in the book), the author emphasises the importance of ‘cultural scripts’. If there is a gap between individual memories and ‘public’ forms of remembering, then the individual may be left feeling alienated as a result (p. 37). The Allied bombing of France during the Second World War has been described a ‘black hole’ with regard to French collective memory of the war: Dodd’s doctoral research found that it was fairly well remembered at a local/individual level, but a silence prevails at a public and institutional level (p. 37). On Dodd’s reading, public memory acts as a kind of ‘jelly mould’ that shapes personal memories; with no such mould to hand, the individuals memories will be shapeless, and in the case of Dodd’s interviewee, coalesce around other psychological landmarks.

Continuing the theme, Rosanne Kennedy’s essay ‘Memory, history and the law’ examines the role of the law in shaping collective memory. The Nuremberg trials chose documentation over testimony with regard to the evidence, and therefore did not significantly contribute to the collective memory of the Holocaust. By contrast, the trial of Albert Eichmann in 1961 was designed almost as more of an exercise in collective memory than as a trial (1); lead prosecutor Gideon Hauser allowed witnesses to present narratives – opposed to the usual courtroom fare of question and answer – and the trial was significant in ‘bringing Holocaust survivors, who had been marginalised in Israeli society, into the forefront of national consciousness, and making the Holocaust central to national identity and remembrance in Israel’ (p. 55). As Peter Novick has noted, ‘collective memory works selectively; it is a form of myth-making that is shaped by the needs of groups, and the formation of group identity, in the present’ (p. 57). A historical approach to the past recognises the complexity of events, whereas memory tends to simplify – shaping the past to fit within the jelly mould of a cultural script. I will return to the tension between ‘history’ and ‘memory’ shortly.

Another theme raised in this collection is the idea of visual memory. Franziska Seraphim makes the obvious, but nonetheless important point that images function differently from texts; ‘we see with memory … Images tend to tap into the habits of mind (as distinct from critical thinking) … to make sense’ (p. 98). Similarly, Joan Tumblety documents how the image of resistance fighters in post-war France was cultivated through films which were ‘often publically funded and controlled’ (p. 109). Such films functioned as historical sources ‘in the absence of much written material about that had been of necessity secret’ (p. 109). Tumblety also examines the written form of memory in her essay, through an examination of the challenge to official memory via the written memoirs of those ‘with an axe to grind about the present regime and its alleged manipulation of the past’ (p. 115).

The final essay deals with the idea of memory and materiality.(2) Susan M. Stabile puts it that a palimpsest is not only a material object, but also a metaphor for memory.(3) The original ‘inscription’ – the act itself – is erased and forgotten, and thus lived experience is deposited in memory, and reposited in narrative (p. 194). But memory changes with each iteration, ‘shaped by the moment in which it is recalled. That recollection will be overwritten at a future moment, shadowed by a new memory’ (p. 194). The past therefore, only exists as a fragment or ruin – or if you’re a fan of Hayden White, as synecdoche. But traces of the past survive in what has come to be known as a ‘cumulative palimpsest’. In the words of Geoff Bailey, ‘successive episodes of deposition … remain superimposed one upon the other without loss of evidence, but are so re-worked and mixed together that it is difficult or impossible to separate them out into their original constituents’ (p. 195). Stabile’s essay examines 19th-century antiquarian John Watson, and in particular his perpetuation of colonial ruins through a relic box. Material culture is a palimpsest – ‘the literal things that people leave behind…material culture embodies and evokes memory’ (p. 197).

I spoke above of the tension between history – as in academic history – and memory. The historian has often been sceptical of oral testimony; Anna Wieviorka makes the case that the Eichmann trial was crucial in legitimising testimony as an epistemically acceptable form of truth telling about the past – and that this had a negative impact on historical writing. The Holocaust thus came ‘to be defined as a succession of individual experiences with which the public was supposed to identify’ (p. 56). The problem is that this is not a particularly good foundation for writing history; D. J. Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners is probably the most high profile example of this. One can learn a lot from listening to personal testimonies – ‘but does one learn history?’ (p. 57). At the other end of the pendulum, Pierre Nora felt that history had been a bad thing for memory; ‘true’ memory has been obliterated by ‘modern’ memory – the latter consisting of ‘the practise of oral history, heritage, commemoration, archives and genealogy’ (p. 160). There are some commentators however, who occupy a position somewhere between these two poles, James Young feels that the distinction between history and memory – ‘history as that which happened, memory as that which is remembered of what happened’ – is somewhat forced (p. 58). Similarly, Hannah Ewence contends at the start of her essay that ‘Nora establishes between history and memory appear fabricated and unnecessarily provocative, overlooking the ways in which history and memory can, and do, successfully overlap and crossfertilize’ (p. 160). Even ‘atomized memory’ uses the materials and milestones of ‘official’ memory to construct and reconstruct the past (p. 161).

It is the tension between ‘history’ and ‘memory’ that provides the jumping off point for Ewence’s essay ‘Memories of suburbia: autobiographical fiction and minority narratives’. Ewence studies three autobiographical novels to not only make the point that history, memory and fiction share points of similarity; but also as a means of introducing the idea of the ‘spatial turn’ – ‘ideas about space and place are encoded with individual and collective identity(ies), memories and histories’ (p. 162). All three novels contain autobiographical elements, but their respective authors have resisted attempts to draw explicit parallels with their own lives – and the fact that they are not straightforward autobiographies is one of their strengths, as ‘Fiction alone has the capacity, perhaps the audacity, to challenge history … whilst autobiography typically prefers to “save face”’ (p. 169). In all three novels, a clear sense of space is ‘fundamental within their writing as a site for exploring history, memory and identity’ (p. 172). Fiction allows authors to explore and deposit memory, and readers can draw upon their own memories to evoke their own past experiences; and to an extent it allows the negation of power structures that determine what history can be told by whom in a way that sometimes oral history cannot.

One of the interesting things about this collection is the lack of reference made to those we might call some of the doyens of postmodernism. I recently had a rather spirited exchange with Alun Munslow in these pages over whether postmodernism was on the wane or not.(4) It could be argued that the absence of the likes of Derrida and Barthes from these pages might be taken as an indicator that the postmodernist turn in historical theory is on the decline. In a review of a similar work on memory a few years ago, Patrick Hutton noted that the ‘diminishing enthusiasm among historians for postmodernist theory’ might prompt a ‘return to the old and very practical historiographical problems of testimony, evidence, and interpretation’.(5) The approach and contents of Memory and History would suggest that this has indeed taken place.

Memory and History provides an interesting cross-section of essays from the front-line of memory studies; but its broadly based empiricist tone is both the book’s main strength and weakness, depending on your predilections in these matters. If you tend towards the view that historical theory should be aligned more closely with historical practice, then this collection of essays will be seen as a step in the right direction. If on the other hand, one inclines towards what we might call the Wulf Kansteiner/ Jörn Rüsen end of the spectrum, then there will be a woeful lack of theory in this one for your tastes, and a quick retreat to the pages of History and Memory journal may be necessary.

  1. I am aware of the anachronism of using the term ‘collective memory’ here.Back to (1)
  2. Although this is addressed tangentially in chapters one and four as well.Back to (2)
  3. For the uninitiated, a palimpsest is ‘Paper, parchment, or other writing material designed to be reusable after any writing on it has been erased’. Definition taken from the Oxford English Dictionary.Back to (3)
  4. See <> [accessed 3 June 2013].Back to (4)
  5. Patrick H. Hutton, ‘Memories of trauma: problems of interpretation’, History and Theory, 43 (2004), 258.Back to (5)

August 2013

Author's Response

Joan Tumblety

Posted: Thu, 22/08/2013 - 11:10

I would like to thank the reviewer for his close reading of the volume. It is not my intention in this response to take issue with any element of the review; rather to reflect on a few of the general comments made in it about the apparent wane of (postmodernist) theorising in the discipline of history. I agree with the reviewer that the edited volume is broadly empiricist in tone, as well as in method. And I think he is right to suggest that it will more readily satisfy those who like to see their theory closely aligned with historical practice. This is indeed deliberate, not least because Memory and History sits within the Routledge Using Historical Sources series, whose remit is not to exclude – if neither solely to address – an audience of undergraduate and post-graduate students, as well as non-specialist scholars working in the Anglophone university sphere, who may well turn to the book for pointers about how to approach the study of memory through extant primary material rather than for a theoretical Weltanschauung. That is why the chapters consider distinct genres of source – letters, photography, fiction, trial testimony, etc. – as well as disparate periods and places.

Yet, as the reviewer suggests, the request for some kind of systematic theorization within memory studies has been a common refrain in the scholarly literature. This is not necessarily a demand for theorising memory itself (although that has been common enough, especially where collective memory is concerned); rather, it is a conviction that getting a handle on the multiple, and perhaps interpenetrating analytical frameworks within which ‘memory’ of one kind or another has been, or can be, understood across a range of disciplines, enables a more rigorous and dialogic engagement among scholars.(1) And it has also been a plea for a historicisation of the notion of memory itself, as the introduction to the volume explores.

What strikes me about the most serious, systematic and – above all – influential attempts in English to theorize memory in this way, however, is that they have emanated from sociologists, or sociologically inclined historians – such as Jeffrey Olick and Wulf Kansteiner – who generally bypass the long-lived engagement within literary criticism and some kinds of intellectual history with (largely French) structuralist or post-structuralist theories of language. Thus while a few foundational works in the field draw in some measure on the work of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida (and these theorists find some echo in current scholarship), I would say that the loudest scholarly conversations in memory studies over the last two decades or so – precisely the period of the cross-disciplinary fight over the value of postmodernist approaches – barely mention them. (2) Instead, it is the significance for the field of the writings of early sociologists such as Maurice Halbwachs and Emile Durkheim that is stressed in the great volume of scholarly writing on memory. And although Marek Tamm has recently championed the semiotically inclined works of continental European writers on memory such as Astrid Erll, the central plank of his argument – that historians would do well to deploy a notion of ‘mnemohistory’ in their work; in other words to become attuned to ‘the two levels he [the historian] is simultaneously working on: the historicisation of the phenomenon of the past and the historicisation of his own work’ – does not depend overtly on post-structuralist insights.(3)

Clearly, one does not need postmodernism (or its component part, post-structuralism) in order to theorise memory. And neither does one need postmodernism, I would argue, in order to identify and to explain the impact of the so-called linguistic turn on the development of memory studies and on the historical discipline as a whole, however much scholars continue to conflate the ‘linguistic turn’ with ‘[t]he deconstructionist impulse of postmodernism’.(4) The epistemologically radical refusal of objective truth, so associated with post-structuralist approaches to language, is worlds away from the kind of linguistic turn made famous after the late 1960s by the outstanding historian of early modern political thought, Quentin Skinner, whose methodology drew instead on the ‘speech act’ theories of British analytical philosopher John Austin.(5) In any case, the generalisation within the discipline of the insight that our evidence is almost always in some sense rhetorically constructed – an appreciation that has undoubtedly nourished the scholarly memory boom – is as characteristic of what some postmodernist historians call ‘constructivist’ history writing as of ‘deconstructionist’ varieties.(6) It is not so much that postmodernism is on the wane in studies of memory, as that it never secured a foothold there in the first place.

Ultimately, I am in two minds about the value of systematic theorising. While rigour in the thinking and writing about memory – or any subject – should prevent the facile replication of buzz words wrenched free from any meaningful intellectual or other context, I sometimes wonder whether the drive towards systematisation that characterises some sociological investigation on the subject might not lead to a new positivism for the 21st century, something that in fact runs counter to the very scholarly trends that enabled the rise of ‘memory studies’ in the first place, at least among mainstream historians. Like the temptation to draw on recent discoveries in neuroscience as a potential arbiter of ‘what memory really means’, there is a danger that we permit a new essentialism to take hold.(7) Better, I would think, for historians to work towards a more conceptually reflective and robust kind of empiricism. This is what is offered by Neil Gregor in his recent social history of memory in post-war Nuremberg, an ‘empirically saturated study’ of grassroots memorial cultures whose immersion in source material that speaks to the words and deeds of those enmeshed in local networks, manages practically to collapse – and thus to resolve – one entrenched methodological divide in the field of memory, that between the representational and the experiential. (8)


(1) See The Collective Memory Reader, ed. Jeffrey K. Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy (Oxford and New York, NY, 2011), and especially the lengthy attempt to systematise what – and how – we know about memory in its introduction, pp. 3–62.

(2) Aleida Assmann, Cultural Memory and Western Civilization: Functions, Media, Archives (Cambridge, 2011 [orig. German edition 1999]) draws on Roland Barthes’ theories of the image and Jacques Derrida’s approach to the ‘archive’. In Caroline Wake, ‘Regarding the recording: the viewer of video testimony, the complexity of coprescence and the possibility of tertiary witnessing’, History and Memory, 25, 1 (2013), 111–44, the ideas of both Barthes and Derrida, despite being cited, take a back seat to the author’s engagement with the works of intellectual historian Dominick LaCapra and sociologist Shanyang Zhao.

(3) Marek Tamm, ‘Beyond history and memory: new perspectives in memory studies’, History Compass, 11, 6 (2013), 458–73; here 464. Tamm is consciously building on the approach of Jan Assmann, which in turn is in part derived from the philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer.

(4) Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, ‘A Looming crash or a soft landing? Forecasting the future of the memory “industry”’, The Journal of Modern History, 81, 1 (2009), 134. See also Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London, 1997), who seems to conflate postmodernism with what is often called the ‘new cultural history’, pp. 243–9, in his discussion of the work of Natalie Zemon Davis and Robert Darnton.

(5) Quentin Skinner, ‘Meaning and understanding in the History of Ideas’, History and Theory, 8, 1 (1969), 3–53.

(6) These are two of the main categories used to describe tendencies within historical scholarship in The Nature of History Reader, ed. Keith Jenkins and Alun Munslow (London, 2004).

(7) For engagement with neuroscience, see several contributions to Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates, ed. Susannah Radstone and Bill Schwarz (New York, NY, 2010).

(8) Neil Gregor, Haunted City: Nuremberg and the Nazi Past, (New Haven, CT and London, 2008), p. 20.


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