Book Forum: Working Through Collective Memory

by guest contributor Asaf Angermann

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. The inaugural forum is devoted to Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016).

In efforts to conceive of the relation between the historical past in its “authentic” experiential immediacy and the consistency of its representation in our living memory, two questions arise which seem to contradict one another: can we ever gain access to an adequate, reliable concept of the past, the way it was “originally” experienced? And on the other hand, can we ever not seek, or even claim to have, such access—either cognitively or psychologically—to an “original,” “authentic,” even “primordial” lost history? What is the relation between the “authentic” immediacy of the past as it was experienced in “real time” and its conceptual, cultural, symbolic representation in contemporary consciousness? In Collective Memory and the Historical Past, Jeffrey Andrew Barash eloquently and convincingly argues for the inevitability of drawing a distinction between the two. “In designating the singularity of the remote past and its irreducible alterity in view of the present,” Barash aims “to deflate mythical claims concerning the scope of collective memory and to distinguish it from the historical past lying beyond it” (p. 216). Such distinction is necessary, for the historian and the philosopher as much as for contemporary society as a whole, in order to allow for critical reflection on the past and its meaning for the present as well as on the mechanisms that produce and reproduce such meanings. The illusion or myth that collective memory stands in some form of direct relation to the historical past, that it consists of adequate representations of the past “the way it was”—which allows for an “authentic” concept of past experiences—jeopardize the capability of critical disentanglement of life and myth, experience and representation. Put another way (to use the phenomenological terminology that is fundamental to Barash’s investigation), they disguise the disparity between the immediate “lifeworld” of original experience and its transfigurations in the symbolic order created in the public sphere by new forms of mass media.


University of Chicago Press (2017)

In order to gain a sustainable critical concept of collective memory, Barash maintains, one must depart from the idea of an adequate correspondence between collective memory and the historical past. As Sophie Marcotte Chénard noted in her forum contribution, “one might think that Barash completely rejects the [concept of] ‘historical past’”, only to realize that his nuanced critical approach actually aims to “preserve the specificity” of both.

A main question that arises—as I will argue along with a certain reservation—concerns such “preservation of specificity.” The immediacy of an original experiential lifeworld in the historical past, that collective memory, precisely in its intention to symbolically and communicatively represent, actually mystifies and mythologizes, a process which only the careful distinction suggested by Barash could counteract, namely to rescue the one from the other’s grip. The phenomenological terminology and methodology that Barash employs and extensively introduces in the historical-philosophical introduction and in the theoretical analyses of the book’s first part entails precisely this.

Commencing with Plato’s theory of reminiscence (“learning is reminiscence”), Barash provides a meticulous overview of theories of recollection, spanning the positions of Locke, Bergson, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and Benjamin. While the introduction primarily concerns itself with the relation between memory, recollection, and reminiscence on the one hand and personal identity and the historical dimension of human existence on the other hand, the book’s first part elaborates a specific phenomenological argument. The immediacy of original experience—Husserl’s phenomenological idea of a leibhafte Erfahrung, a first-order experience “in the flesh”—has a certain “primordial capacity” (p. 40), which can be remembered but defies mediation. Any second-order representation precludes “precisely the aura of a singular presence encountered in the plenitude of a surrounding ‘lifeworld’ (or Lebenswelt)” (41). It is remarkable that Barash here essentially interrelates Husserl’s late theory of “lifeworld” from his 1936 unfinished and posthumously published book The Crisis of the European Sciences and the Transcendental Phenomenology with Walter Benjamin’s central concept of aura from “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproduction” (written 1933-1934, published 1935). The immediacy of an experience “in the flesh” of either an historical or a personal event loses its unique aura while efforts are simultaneously made to preserve and recreate, commemorate and represent precisely this lost “lifewordly aura.” Collective memory in Barash’s account is based on a “network of embodied symbols” that aims to represent “a past that lies beyond all contemporary memory—the remote memory borrowed from the testimony of others and attested by their traces” (p. 50). It is a form of compensation for the lost immediacy, creating a surrogate aura for the lost “primordial,” “original” experience.


Edmund Husserl

In an impressively comprehensive and carefully detailed analysis, merging arguments from philosophy, historiography, literature, visual arts, and mass media, Barash proceeds to illuminate concrete articulations of such dialectics between the irrecoverable immediacy of the historical past and the attempts to reestablish it through symbolic—and often mythical, not least in the political sense—representations. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech of August 1963, a decisive moment in the formation of contemporary American identity, provides a crucial example in Barash’s account for discerning between its historical impregnation as “symbolic embodiment” (p. 57) in collective memory and its “horizon of contemporaneity” (p. 55), the immediate experience of its original “lifeworldly aura.” No symbolic representation, however coherent and accurate, can ever truly represent the lifeworldly immediate experience “in the flesh”: “the attentive silence of the forces of order, the casual apparel of many of the demonstrators, their enthusiasm and generally upbeat mood” during the historical speech (p. 53). All of these experiential contingencies are necessarily removed and reified in collective memory. Barash provides numerous thought-provoking examples for such discrepancy, in particular representations in painting, photography, and televised events. The inspiring treatment of these various forms of direct and indirect representations draws upon and simultaneously advances the phenomenological method of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Ricœur along with a critical theory of mass media following Benjamin. (Here I suspect that adding the sociological perspective developed by Alfred Schütz and Thomas Luckmann would introduce an interesting dimension to the discussion.)


Theodor W. Adorno

The distinction between the immediacy of experience in the historical past as well as the symbolic embodiments and transfigurations it undergoes in collective memory presupposes, however, that such original immediacy of “leibhafte Erfahrung” in the historical past was itself indeed free—“purified” in Husserl’s language—of any such “external,” “impure” representations. In the 1930s, Theodor W. Adorno worked on what he considered to be an “immanent critique” of Husserl’s phenomenology. His book on Husserl, On the Metacritique of Epistemology: Studies in Husserl and the Phenomenological Antinomies (Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie: Studien über Husserl und die phänomenologischen Antinomien; curiously translated into English as Against Epistemology with the original only published in 1956) unfolds the intrinsic antinomies, the paradoxes Adorno sees entailed in Husserl’s work. They predominantly concern the very idea of such a distinction as seems to me to be central to Barash’s argument on the lost immediacy of original experience. Adorno questioned the validity of such “primacy” or “originality” and contended that precisely what seems to be the most “primordial” and “pure” merely conceals its historical and social character: “[t]he search for the utterly first, the absolute cause, results in infinite regress,” since what we experience and cognize as “immediacy” is historically and socially mediated while seeking to conceal this mediation (Adorno, Against Epistemology; p. 29). “This illusion,” Adorno writes, “is a function of reality and historical tendencies. […] Reified thought is the copy of the reified world. By trusting its primordial experiences, it lapses into delusion. There are no primordial experiences” (p. 109). In other words, Adorno expresses radical skepticism concerning the very immediacy of experience that the phenomenological approach sees as given in the historical past, and which, according to Barash, can never be sustained as such in collective memory. The worry that we can draw from Adorno’s perspective concerns the concealed entanglement of historical past and collective memory, which may overshadow the inevitability of a distinction between them. If the historical past does not necessarily imply a “primordiality” or “authenticity” of lifeworldly experience, but rather mediated representations and transfigurations as the later collective memory, the distinction might blur rather than sharpen its critical function.

It seems to me that Adorno’s argument does not necessarily contradict, but rather complement Barash’s important critical objective, however. In his historical-political intervention, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past” (1959), Adorno addresses a different kind of gap between collective memory in post-war Germany and the historical past, and he warns against drawing a sharp distinction between them, raising another dimension of a “working through.” (Aufarbeitung: reprocessing, working up, cognitively dealing with). Beyond questions of responsibility and guilt, Adorno is troubled by its latent aspects: the infiltration of the unworked-through historical past, itself containing ideological and symbolic mediations which perceive themselves as “original” and “primordial” into collective memory, into the process of “working through”. “National Socialism lives on,” Adorno states in 1959, “and even today we still do not know whether it is merely the ghost of what was so monstrous that it lingers on after its demise, or whether it has not yet died at all” (Adorno, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” in: Critical Models; p. 89-90) According to Adorno, the mythical residues of a different form of “authentic,” “primordial” experience in the past, that of xenophobic sentiments and ethnic supremacy, carry on latently in the form of representations and symbolic embodiments into the collective memory of the present. “Working through” for Adorno is not measured by the authenticity of a lifeworldly experience; it is, rather, a conscious “turn toward the subject” (Critical Models, p. 102 ), critical questioning of the “authentic” sources of the self, whose undercurrent claim of “primordiality” undermines such conscious “working through.”

Can the culture of remembrance ever be free of ideological, political, material interests that claim to rely on authenticity, primordial experience, on being there “in the flesh”? In other words, what seems to be most subjective, immediate lifeworld experience, and ostensibly cannot be imported as such into collective memory, might indeed intrude it from underneath, subterraneaneously, creating the deceptive myth of a “primordial,” “in the flesh” experience to gain authority over the “true,” “authentic” mode of representation. Adorno’s political critique of phenomenology may therefore complement Barash’s impressively vital project. Alongside the importance of differentiating between historical past and collective memory, it may be as necessary for critical historical reflection to detect the undercurrents of entanglements and infiltrations between them: the modes in which the historical past still invades collective cultural memory in a reified, mythical, ghostly manner, potentially giving rise to a re-invention of “Holocaust centers.”

Asaf Angermann teaches in the Department of Philosophy and the Judaic Studies Program at Yale University. He is the author of Damaged Irony: Kierkegaard, Adorno, and the Negative Dialectics of Critical Subjectivity (De Gruyter, 2013, in German), editor of Theodor W. Adorno and Gershom Scholem, Correspondence 1939-1969 (Suhrkamp, 2015, in German; English translation in preparation for Polity Press), and translator of Theodor W. Adorno, Education to Responsibility (HaKibbutz HaMeuchad, forthcoming 2017, in Hebrew). He is currently working on a book about the philosophical interrelations between Adorno’s social critique and Scholem’s religious anarchism.]


  1. Dear Asaf, if we have in mind Aleida Assmann’s “Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit. Erinnerungskultur und Geschichtspolitik”, is there something new that this book brings? Sounds a lot like Assmann. All best. Milos Vojinovic


    1. Collective Memory and the Historical Past deals in some detail with the legends of Serbian epic poetry that concern the battle of Kosovo in 1389. Miloš Vojinović is a prominent figure in the cycle that precedes the Kosovo poems, and he is known for his role in the “Wedding of the Emperor Dušan”. You might be interested in my use of these poems as a means of illustrating the power of embodied and collectively remembered symbols over the centuries. If you read my book you will immediately notice the great difference between my conception of collective memory and its relation to the historical past and that elaborated by Aleida and Jan Assmann with whom I have had many exchanges since the period of my collaboration with them at the University of Konstanz in 2010. I deal with this theme in detail on pages 173-177. All best, Jeffrey Andrew Barash


      1. Dear Jeffrey, thank you for your reply and explanations. I will try to find and read your book, especially because of part about my namesake. All best, Miloš Vojinović.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Like Andrew and Sophie, Asaf brings up in a very rich and insightful manner the possibility of distinguishing history from collective memory. Here’s a few thoughts to build on what all three have said:

    What might be the difference between history and collective memory?

    I think there might be at least two possibilities:

    1: history recovers the truth understood as correctness through an immediate, uninterested access to the past, i.e. through the facts. In other words, history provides a final or certain account of the past based on factual evidence (whereas collective memory does not, i.e. it is not based on facts).

    2: history reveals the impossibility of arriving at a final or certain account of the past by stressing the historical contingency of any narrative about the past.

    The first possibility has been challenged at length by a number of critics of empiricism from Hegel to Sellars.

    The second possibility raises an interesting question. If the historian cannot reach a final, certain account of the past (i.e. if the “original” cannot be attained), then what might she be said to be doing? Adorno offers a compelling answer to this question in my view in his lectures on History and Freedom. He writes: ‘…history is possible only as the philosophy of history,’ and adds: ‘Moreover, any history, historiography, that denies this is simply unaware of itself and its own requirements’ (History and Freedom, 10).

    What I take from Adorno is this: any narrative about the past can be said to be based either explicitly or implicitly on a specific value or norm. This claim might concern empiricists who wish to maintain that the historian uncovers what really happened in an ostensibly neutral or value-free manner (a curious position that overlooks the normativity of language as Hegel notes in his discussion of Sense-Certainty).

    One worry of the empiricist seems to be the alleged threat of relativism. But this worry does not take into consideration the complexity of Adorno’s claim. The historian cannot interpret the past in any way. There are certain possible interpretations and not others. Moreover, if any narrative is based on a specific value or norm, then the critical capacity of history can be found precisely in examining and critiquing any given narrative by holding another value or norm constant as the basis of critique. And therein lies a possible distinction of history from collective memory: collective memory does not engage in critique to the extent that it believes in the absolute correctness of the interpretation or narrative about the past it puts forward.


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