Four propositions to study memory

My relationship with the notion of memory is a complex one, a true love-hate story (1). From my first passionate reading of Maurice Halbwachs, Pierre Nora, and Paul Connerton to my teachings of an “anthropology of memory” course, many times I felt the desire to throw in the towel. Too often associated with the literary turn and approached by way of the “power/resistance” paradigm, it seemed to me that the notion lacked conceptual clarity and that the social and cognitive mechanisms involved were habitually left in the shadow by anthropologists (Berliner 2005a, 2005b; Bloch 1998, Wertsch 2009). In this short post, I would like to highlight some avenues that I find promising in the pursuit of anthropological researches on memory and, in particular, push the discussion around four propositions:

Proposition 1: Dispersing the fog around memory.

It is (still!) time to clarify the conceptual fuzziness surrounding the label “memory” and to meticulously describe the multiple cognitive and emotional processes that lie behind it. What forms can memories take? And, once these forms are identified, how do we grasp them through ethnographical thick description? Is memory a mental faculty, a social practice, a form of narrative? I am struck by the vagueness of concepts such as “embodied memory” and “vicarious memory” used by anthropologists who often do not take into account the complex mechanisms that make mnemonic fixation possible. Yes, I am – again – calling for conceptual clarification and – why not in these narrative-centered times? – for typologies!

Proposition 2: The study of memory is about finding mnemonic mediations.

Once “remembering” is singled out, in order to explore its workings one needs to track its multiple and protean mediations: protagonists, institutions, gestures, interactions, places, ideologies, critical moments, smells, texts, silences, ordinary moments, sounds, emotions, objects, and technologies. The anthropologist interested in memory processes researches the media, the contexts, the types of actors, the emotional triggers, the mental processes, the interactions, the communicative facts, and the materialities which render such operation possible. Who remembers what and how? In which social networks and ideologies are such memories are produced?

Proposition 3: Remembering actually does something to the world!

A mental process hidden in the confines of the self, remembering is also socially performative. Therefore, anthropologists must investigate its pragmatic effects. What and how do memories “make act”? In some cases, they bond diverse categories of actors and constitute a source of mnemonic convergence. Such convergence remains relatively understudied by anthropologists, in favor of stories of clashes and misunderstandings between multiple pasts.

I have observed both phenomena in the course of my latest fieldwork in Luang Prabang (Lao PDR), where frictions about meaningful heritage opposed UNESCO experts and locals, even as a mnemonic community centred on nostalgia for the Indochinese past flourished among Western experts, expatriates, travellers and some Lao from the diaspora (Berliner 2012). And I follow Rosalind Shaw’s provocation here: As people’s remembering is not only past-orientated but also points towards certain visions of the future, expressing diverse hopes and fears about the kind of world that future generations will inhabit, it can be transformative, sometimes politically subversive, “a weapon” (to use Berdhal’s formula about nostalgia (1999)). For instance, Québec’s motto “Je me souviens” (I remember) conveys a patriotic desire to imagine a world able to resist linguistic homogenization and to preserve Francophonie in Canada.

Proposition 4: Memory is a key to understanding transformative durability.

Last but not least, some memories, in particular the traumatic ones (Argenti and Schramm 2009), are highly transmissible. This requires that anthropologists analyze the long processes through which these memories – i.e. bits of knowledge, linguistic interjections, emotional expressions, gestures, tones, and so forth – circulate between generations and peers, getting appropriated by individuals who actively acquire them in specific situations. Studying memory consists of scrutinizing these complex transmission mechanisms that bind individuals and enable what I term “transformative durability.” In his latest book, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, Bruno Latour advocates (as he has for a long time) for an investigation of such intrinsic properties of social life. How do entities persist in time, even as they undergo constant mutations? What generates continuity through perpetual alteration? Social analysis, for Latour, equates with the observation of a 100 meters hurdles, a continuous path made of discontinuities to be overcome. Although I tend to distance myself from his ontological relativism, I think Latour is absolutely right on this point. And I believe that the anthropological exploration of memory nurtures such a reflection upon the continuity of human societies in the face of the ruptures of history. Indeed, “memory” gives scholars the opportunity to consider the transmuted persistence of their objects of study. The notion is a witness to the fact that, beyond historical events and continuous change, the past does not evaporate, but rather persists, creatively, in multiple ways.

Finally and most importantly, exploring memory is a theoretical posture. At the intersection of several disciplines, it allows a number of important reconciliations: between the anthropological and the psychological, the continuous and discontinuous, the persistent and the mutable, the universal and the particular, but also between the past, the present, and the future.

(1) This article was first published in Fieldsights – Field Notes, Cultural Anthropology Online, September 25, 2013,

Works Cited:

Argenti, N. and K. Schramm, eds. 2009. Remembering Violence. Anthropological Perspectives on Intergenerational Transmission. Oxford/New York: Berghahn Books.

Berdahl, D. 1999. “‘Ostalgie’ for the Present: Memory, Longing, and East German Things.” Ethos 64(2): 192-211.

Berliner, David. 2005a. “The Abuses of Memory. Reflections on the Memory Boom in Anthropology.” Anthropological Quarterly 78(1): 183-197.

Berliner, David. 2005b. “An ‘Impossible’ Transmission. Youth Religious Memories in Guinea-Conakry.” American Ethnologist 32(4): 576-592.

Berliner, David. 2012. “Multiple Nostalgias: the Fabric of Heritage in Luang Prabang (Lao PDR).” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18(4): 769-786.

Bloch, Maurice. 1998. How We Think They Think. Anthropological Approach to Cognition, Memory and Literacy. UK: Westview Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2013. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. An Anthropology of the Moderns. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wertsch, James. 2009. “Collective Memory”. In: Boyer, P. and J. Wertsch, eds. Memory in Mind and Culture. Pp. 117-137. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.