David Bunn/Cabinet Magazine
q&a / memory

Historical Amnesias: An Interview with Paul Connerton

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
PAUL CONNERTON: In some sense, memory studies is really a phenomenon of the last quarter century. One hundred years ago, there would have, of course, been studies of memory—by Freud, by Bergson, by Proust—but they would have been primarily interested in individual memory. What’s happened in the last quarter century has been a turn toward cultural memory. And because of this turn, the term memory studies has acquired currency.

The curious thing is this: although there has been an enormous proliferation of work on memory studies in the last quarter century—not only in English, but also in French, German, and Italian—it seems to me rather strange that no one has really set out to explain why exactly during this particular historical period, from 1980 or so on, there has been such an obsession with memory studies. I don’t think this can be understood via any single factor, but it could possibly be explained by the confluence of three powerful forces coming together. The first could be described as the long shadow of World War II, which continued to exert its impact even as late as the 1990s. Think for example of the celebrations in 1995 of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. Another factor in the emergence of memory studies has been what I would call “transitional justice.” And by that I mean to say that in the 1980s and 1990s there were transformations in various countries—in Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, South Africa, in the states of central eastern Europe—that had had a very difficult past, on the whole a totalitarian or authoritarian past, and had moved toward a more democratic form of government. Precisely because they had had a difficult past, they had to take up a position about it, they had to examine their memories. They had to think about what attitude they should take toward the previous perpetrators and victims of injustice. And the final significant factor has been the process of decolonization, which had very significant repercussions—not only for the previous colonizing powers, in particular Britain and France—but also for the previously colonized powers, in particular Africa and India, who have sought, so to speak, to reappropriate their own memories, whereas for the previous colonizing powers, what has emerged is what might be described as a politics of nostalgia
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