Although Susan Sontag famously argued that “there is no such thing as collective memory,” a recent article by Roediger (2009) considers the burgeoning field of collective memory and a number of oral history and other cultural projects are forming to “preserve” such memories.
Memories themselves are tricky and many social psychological studies suggest that we use a sort of “backward reasoning” when we recall memories such that we recreate them in nuanced ways to fit our current life situation. The recall of memories isn’t as perfect as say, flipping through a photo album. This was probably Sontag’s point, as she argues, “all memory is individual, unreproducible — it dies with the person.”
If that is the case then, what are the value of studies aimed at capturing and documenting collective memories? Sontag is again helpful in suggesting that what can be crafted is collective “instruction” and an understanding of what is important to a group. We see this most often in the way iconic images are forever associated with historic events.
A critical reading of colletive memory, however, would suggest that such memories are created often to serve a dominant discourse, such as one of patriotism. The collective memory of one country engaged in a war is bound to differ from the collective memory of the other, and vice versa. Roediger (2009) suggests as much in his recent article for the European Journal of Social Psychology. Roediger, however, approaches the topic from a much more cognitive standpoint and investigates the concept of memories and social “contagion,” a word-choice he acknowledges as problematic as it implies the way others can “infect” our memories.
Perhaps the larger issue is how we want to understand collective memories and the function they serve. While the memories may differ from fact, or may be built from fact but interpreted differently, we have to decide if that is the overall point of understanding them or, if the subjective experience of these memories is what is more (or just as) important. Collective remembering, as a task, can serve important coping functions. A recent article explores how this is happening with a memorial for Flight 93. It is also important to consider whose stories are featured in presentations of collective memories. A simple cognitive psychological concept suddenly takes on political implications when we consider this, as shown by such efforts as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.