I tend to read (& blog) about aspects of memory that are personal and, furthermore, take a scientific approach to the topic. This is, of course, not the only way to approach memory as a topic. Memory can also be communicated at the levels of (say) family, community and culture. (Although the mechanisms of communication must, if they are to be effective, intersect with the neurological mechanisms of individual memory.)
Communal or cultural memory is a whole field of study and I’ve noticed quite a bit of museological activity lately relating to museums and difficult or traumatic cultural memories. I don’t normally delve into this area but I have been reading an edited book of essays aimed at re-thinking Christian atonement theory, “Stricken by God? (Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ)”. The essays vary but a couple (so far) have been deeply grounded in social and political issues.
One essay, ‘Forgiveness, reconciliation and justice’ by Miroslav Volf (pp268-286), is very much about the social and political implications of communal memory in the wake of traumatic events (such as large scale political violence). Memory is an important part of reconciliation and Volf explores this. Part of his argument is that for both sides of any disputed moment, justice can only ever be partial. What becomes important is an acceptance of this fact and a move towards ‘embrace’. Embodied in the idea of the embrace is the idea that the memory of what has happened should not be obliterated but neither should it be held up until justice achieved. Rather the memory must be accepted and acted on graciously.
The essay is thoughtful, striking and well worth a read. Unfortunately, I can’t find a freely available version of the essay on-line to link to. Volf has also written a book on memory in a violent world.
Since reading this essay, I’ve listened to a couple of radio programmes within which it was possible to see Volf’s ideas working themselves out (or not). In the BBC World Service documentary, ‘Brazil: Confronting the Past’ different narratives about that country’s recent past continue to be politically fraught. Similarly, the final section of the Easter Sunday edition of ‘Sunday’ on Radio 4 dealt with the same topic as it is still playing out in Belfast. What was particularly touching/tragic about this latter example was the way that the 2 interviewees could not easily move from their positions about the recent past. Volf’s comments about the necessity about accepting the partiality of justice seemed particularly appropriate but the difficulty of doing so was equally clear. In both cases, it is not so much the memories as what is done with them that seems so significant.