By Nitzan Lebovic
When I was beginning my undergraduate studies in the mid-1990s, “collective memory” was all the rage. Back then, and it does seem like ages ago, new books about cases of collective memory were published en masse—Henry Rousso’s The Vichy Syndrome (1991), Richard Terdiman’s Present Past (1993), Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (1995), and of course Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux de mémoire (1990) all discussed in the book under discussion—as well as new journals such as History and Memory (est. 1989), were reframing the historical profession on the basis of memory studies. Much of this preoccupation with memory was a result of the Historikerstreit of the mid-late 1980s, which showed the need for a more nuanced understanding of the Holocaust and the ways in which its investigation depends on one’s perspective and sense of belonging. As the Friedlaender-Broszat debate demonstrated, the memory of perpetrators and memory of the victims were not the same, even if the testimonies related to the same events. The entanglement of narratives, forms of representation, memories and philosophies of history exposed historical methodology—and much of critical thinking with it—to a new set of questions. And for a while it seemed the philosophy of history had became fashionable again, not only among historians, but also among theorists of all kinds.
By the time I reached graduate school, at the end of the 1990s, collective memory was already suffering the corrosive effects of a wild neoliberal privatization of the public sphere. (If you can’t buy it, it’s not there.) 9/11 and its aftermath changed the discourse once again, and the earlier pluralism of voices and narratives were replaced with a demand for moral clarity and narrative unity. Plurality was fine, but only so long as it did not undermine an extra-juridical sense of sovereignty and a booming market. Unlike trauma studies—which continued to flourish in conjunction with psychoanalytical theory— historians gradually retreated from the critical engagement with representation and memory in favor of facts, social and economic data.
Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s new book is the first major philosophical attempt in two decades to adopt the concept of collective memory as its methodological focus. Barash brings the post-Holocaust discussions of collective memory into conversation with more recent theories of temporality to create a new theory of collective memory that can serve a more global sphere. It calls for theoreticians, interested in the philosophy of history, and historians to reexamine the notion of “living memory,” or “living generation,” for the sake of “experiential continuity that quickly fades when no living memory remains to recount past events” (Barash, p. 55), as the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1875-1945) argued. Broadly, Barash’s argument is that if known concepts of history, such as facts, truth, and testimony are necessary for a well-grounded examination of the past, then they must be weight against their immediate impact on collectives, institutions, and individual experience.
In Collective Memory and the Historical Past, Barash divides the notion of “collective memory” into three spheres: “the rhythms of habitual practices of everyday life, the periodic, socially organized… commemorative event, and the ongoing subsistence of group dispositions…that span generations” (91). In other words, memory weaves together the exceptional and the habitual, the individual and the group, the immediate and the longue durée. If the philosophical origins of collective memory are embedded in the neo-Kantian intersubjective, Cassirer’s symbolic forms (“all the forms assumed by man’s understanding of the world,” Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. 3, 13), Husserlian phenomenology, Dilthey’s living experience, Bergson’s durée, and Ricoeur’s hermeneutic, then the historical and literary roadmap of the book proves a strictly modernist tour that parallels Baudelaire and Proust’s themes of voluntary and involuntary memory (mémoire involontaire). It concludes with a clear Sebaldian melancholic tone, as Barash realizes that “attempts to obliterate the past… are no more feasible on the collective level than they are in regard to the personal past” (p. 209). From this angle, any attempt to disconnect the epistemic from the ontic and ontological is merely delusional.
Barash’s modernist discourse expresses an irrevocably humanist commitment. He takes the ineradicability of collective memory as an alternative to the skepticism of the linguistic turn, or “the decades following World War II” during which different philosophers—Hayden White is a case in point—interpreted “the facts of the past” as nothing more “than a linguistic existence’ and as such ultimately figments of the historian’s imagination” (p. 210). Instead, Barash asks his readers to use insights from theories of collective memory from Halbwachs’s broad identification of collective memory with the historical past to what Barash (following Koselleck) calls the “horizon of contemporaneity,” which concerns “not only an abstract capacity to recall given past events,” i.e. “not only data, facts, or circumstances…but primarily the temporal horizon itself” (p. 172). In other words, Barash strives to reunite the earlier social understanding of collective memory with the universal value of human finality.
This, to my mind, is Barash’s most innovative contribution to a philosophy of history in this populist and post-humanist moment: A contemporary reconsideration of history and memory, fact and imagination that moves with the human and its humanness to the point of no-return, yet where finality—the evident fact of our expected death—does not contradict chronology, continuity, or reality itself. One recalls here Barash’s earlier work on Heidegger and the stress on finality or “temporal intentionality” which enables “a unity of temporal continuity between a certain collective past and present” (p. 98). As Barash implies, without saying so explicitly, it is his (and our) project, to find a proper response to Heidegger’s understanding of existence (Dasein) as inherently final, on the one hand, and to his nationalist sense of belongness, on the other, without falling into a relativist or skeptical mode of thinking. In more explicitly political terms, it is to find an answer to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s provocative invocation to take hold “of the sacred rights of the collectivity in regard to its continuity” (quoted in p. 108). According to Barash, an open discussion of “collective memory” in philosophy, literature, and, finally, the mass media should help us in this task.
Barash’s argument ultimately leads to a short examination of mass media—mostly conceived as a set of televised news reports—at the book’s end. The stress here falls on the commercialized delivery of information as adapted to a mass audience. This is the most relevant part of the book but also its least convincing section: the commercialized nature of mass media—the “field of currency” in Barash’s terms— implies an “anonymous, decontextualized, haphazard, and continually updated mode of presentation [that] lends information a spatiotemporal pattern and logic that formats it for mass dissemination” (119). Barash seems to here imagine a CNN screen that hops from one disaster to another without examining the history or possible repercussions of any specific situation. Worse, it never accounts for its own method of telling. Rather, the screen is divided in such a way it stimulates our visual appetite, while the editing simplifies and digests images in order to spit them back out for an imagined appeal to the rating.
Barash is right in his critique of the media, of course, but what is to be done when this very “field of currency” is identified by so many with the sacred values of historic capitalism? What to be done, from a present angle, when this form of materialism becomes the last defense of democracy, fighting “fake news” and “post truths”? How might a collective symbolic order arise that cannot be manipulated by the pompous vacuities of politicians or that can compete with the narcissistic subjectivity of a facebook feed? The modernist tools out of which Barash constructs his theory of collective memory seem to falter here. The madeleine of the present does not stand for Proust’s nostalgic recollection anymore, but is reproduced as a pre-packaged, universally consumable image of ‘the good life.’ In this unprecedented contemporary social, political, and above all medial landscape, memory does not suffice—if it even obtains. One would need to analyze the mechanism that enables mass reproduction and bring this analysis into the social and political terrain. In the age of fake news perhaps not only the past is undermined, but the present and, as such, the future too. In fact, it is the very epistemological assumption that there is past, a reliable testimony for example, that could shape our collective memory. Three decades after the Historikerstreit the very ontology of the witness—perpetrator and victim alike—is undermined, and with it the conditions of possibility of a critical and historical collective memory.
Nitzan Lebovic is an associate professor of history and the Apter Chair of Holocaust studies and Ethical Values at Lehigh University. He is the author of The Philosophy of Life and Death: Ludwig Klages and the Rise of a Nazi Biopolitics (2013), which focused on the circle around the life-philosopher and anti-Semitic thinker Ludwig Klages. He is also the author of Zionism and Melancholia: The Short Life of Israel Zarchi (in Hebrew) and the co-editor of The Politics of Nihilism (2014), of Catastrophe: A History and Theory of an Operative Concept (2014), and of special issues of Rethinking History (Nihilism), Zmanim (Religion and Power), and The New German Critique (Political Theology).
Featured Image: Close-up of Paul Klee, ‘On the Edge’ (1930/1936).