Collective Memory: A JHI Blog Forum

Time to Remember—Is There a Future to Collective Memory?

by guest contributor Nitzan Lebovic

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.

In the twenty-first century, global theorizing, the anthropocene, and the biopolitical—in response to both good and ill—have left theorizing of individual and collective memory largely to the side.

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).

3 replies on “Time to Remember—Is There a Future to Collective Memory?”

Many thanks, Nitzan, for this perceptive and illuminating critique. I agree with many of your remarks, but there is one important point that requires clarification in regard to my interpretation of the mass media in chapter five of Collective Memory and the Historical Past. Throughout this work the concept of a “horizon of contemporaneity” refers to a dimension of remembered time. It must be carefully distinguished from Reinhart Koselleck’s concept of historical time, even if my interpretation does not contradict his theory.

How might the “horizon of contemporaneity” be distinguished from the categories of historical time that Koselleck elaborates in terms of the “space of experience” (Erfahrungsraum) and “horizon of expectation” (Erwartungshorizont) (cf. the detailed analysis in my book, pages 120-124). To briefly answer this question, a few words on the distinction I draw between the temporal frameworks of collective memory and of history may be helpful. Reinhart Koselleck, in employing the “space of experience” to interpret the historical experience of a given present, sought to account for the emergence of a typically modern way of relating present time to the past and future. According to his argument, the modern experience of historical time emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as history was perceived to be a self-sustaining, autonomous process that actualizes itself in a given “space of experience” and projects itself onto the horizon of expectation of an anticipated future, toward which it was believed this process was leading (Reinhart Koselleck, ‘Erfahrungsraum’ und ‘Erwartungshorizont’—Zwei historische Kategorien,” Vergangene Zukunft: Zur Semantik geschichtlicher Zeiten, p. 349–75; English translation, Futures Past, tr. Keith Tribe, p. 255-275).

As a dimension of remembered time, the “horizon of contemporaneity”, according to my interpretation, marks the time-span of overlapping, living generations in an everyday life-world. To this dimension of remembered everyday experience, I juxtapose what I term the “field of currency”, denoting the format in which the mass media symbolically configure information and lend it public visibility. As a temporal concept, the “field of currency” marks the ephemeral lapse during which news retains its novelty. What is given in the field of currency works back on remembered experience retained by living generations in the life-world. In the perspective of historical time, both the “horizon of contemporaneity” and the “field of currency” might be encompassed in the “space of experience” as Koselleck understood it. Indeed, for the historian, all contemporary history is set within what is, from the perspective of the collective memory of contemporaneous generations, a relatively long time-frame. There is, however, a more decisive difference between the temporal spheres of collective memory and history: the historical time-frame, indeed, provides for no specific temporal categories to delineate the interwoven networks of collective memory and its relation to publicly communicated information. Therefore, my primary focus concerns not general categories of historical time, orienting the ways in which a given present anticipates a corresponding future, but a plurality of temporal perspectives that, in a mass social framework, distinguish group orientations among overlapping generations. However uniform the decontextualized and constantly updated format of mass communication may be in a given field of currency, its interaction with the weave of remembered experience spanning successive living generations concerns not protracted categories of historical experience and expectation, but both shared and fragmented visions of different future possibilities that are mobilized in relation to a plurality of present group perspectives and divergent ways of remembering the collective past.
Finally, to the extent that such perspectives by no means exclude nostalgic or reactionary visions of a lost traditional past – and appeals to political mythologies as a means to its reactivation – my conception of the “field of currency” at the same time seeks to nuance theories of “presentism,” as developed, for example, by François Hartog, according to which we have entered a new era beyond Koselleck’s categories of modern historical understanding in which contemporary preoccupations are essentially submerged in present concerns.

Dear Jeffrey, I was very happy to read your kind and open response. You are offering, and rightly so, to further push the “conditions of possibility” of shared memory and historical experience. We do not disagree. However, what you read phenomenologically, I choose to read with a historico-discursive tone. I owe your book/argument the meeting of worlds, between mind and heart, or to use your own post-Koselleckish phrase, a shared horizon of expectations, which I want to try and push a little further myself, if I may. Briefly, I see a historical and discursive reading of these terms to be politically relevant.

In his text on Erfahrungsraum und Erwartunshorizont (“space of experience & horizon of expectations,” orig. pub. 1975; see English translation in idem., Future Past, 267-88) Koselleck engaged with Kant’s pioneering understanding of progress, on the basis of separation between future-oriented expectation (Erwartung) and past-oriented experience (Erfahrung). Kant, he explains, was the first to organize experience in accordance with the expectation that the future will offer new, unfamiliar, and “surely better” (und zwar besser) experiences. As Koselleck demonstrated in this critical reflection, Kant debated both Machiavelli’s and Hume’s understanding of history as a repetitive and indoctrinating model.

For Koselleck, Kant’s analysis established a new form of historical thinking, via the experience and expectation modes, but it also resulted in “a growing gap” between past experience or “space of experience” [Erfahrungsraum] and the future-oriented “horizon of expectation” [Erwartungshorizont]. Koselleck’s analysis is critical of Kant’s liberal thrust, then, identifying it as an arrow shooting straight with the winds of “progress” (“Kant is the instigator of Fortschritt”) at its back. Alas, as Jan-Werner Müller (A Dangerous Mind, 2003) and, more recently, Jakob Norberg (Sociability and its Enemies, 2014) pointed out, Koselleck did not wish or was not able to release himself either from the grip of the holy trinity of a Greek-Judeo-Christian frame of reference,– which Kant adapted into his future-oriented plea,– or from Carl Schmitt’s opposition between traditional experience and modern technology; indeed, Koselleck’s examples for the “space of experience” are taken from the Greeks, the Jewish bible and Augustine. Kant is the grand conceptualizer of its modern form. While referencing to Kant’s progressive temporality, Koselleck reminds us that revolution and crisis, not realized ideals, made the Western clock tick.

As you commented, your own book proposes a critical engagement, phenomenological at heart, with Koselleck’s space of experience. Taking into consideration Koselleck’s strong interest in the above, it takes issue—if only implicitly– with both Kant’s understanding of space and time, and the Schmittian critique of modernity, as Koselleck mediates them. But to what degree do both your query (as well as Koselleck’s) follow the terms set by the Kantian system and the Schmittian critique of modernity? To what degree might this model, committed as it is to reason and its negation, suggest a temporality that might expand the contracting attention-span of my students, or offer stability in the age of post-truths and fake news? Is Proust’s melancholic memory the cure for the quick succession of ten-seconds images on social media? Is phenomenology?

The phenomenological system is the product of the same period as Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte, and demonstrates a parallel attempt to cope with the growing gap between the individual and collective “space of experience.” I wonder whether phenomenological terminology, working with and against Koselleck, might not rehash the same Weltzeit and Lebenszeit utilized by Husserl and Blumenberg for the sake of a more integrative—democratic and individualistic— unity of life and experience; I wonder whether those worlds, plural and hopeful, could grasp well the faltering of temporal experience itself. (I am thinking here also of the films of Michael Haneke, or Christopher Nolan, for example, who try to depict an alternative language of depiction; both imagine the shape of our urban landscape in temporal rather than spatial terms:

Foucault and Deleuze propose, I believe, an interesting philosophical alternative to the spatial-phenomenological vision of experience, and a path more aligned with what Hannah Arendt portrayed as the “inability to understand facts as facts, to distinguish between truth and falsehood,” (Origins of Totalitarianism, 1976: 385) and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra as the “ill will against time and its ‘it was’” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1954: 252). If “truth is the daughter of time,” as Bacon argued, then a reality that negates the existence of shared truth must adhere to a different temporal order then Kant’s unity of the ever-maturing Erfahrung. What sort of World-time and Life-time do we imagine under the growing threat of mass flooding or populist politics? The condition of possibility should include a notion of shrinking space, next to Kant’s expansions.

Finally, a word about the terminology of “collective memory” and its own temporal condition: Halbwachs’s “circle of experience,” be it in the context of individual life, family, class, generation, or church dogma, is always grounded in a Bergsonian notion of duration that crosses and connects life/lives and mind/s. This ontological force of time fills the heart of every “intersubjective” engagement. As you noted, Halbwachs ties experience with living memory. Memory, individual or collective, is aligning here the present living experience (Erlebnis, élan vital) with a Kantian wish to see the marriage of measured experience (Erfahrung) and responsible agency. My question to you, or to the reader, is whether the present is moving in this direction, or in the opposite one, toward a dissolution of “agency” at the heart of collective structures and representational modes. If the latter, what language should be used to characterize it?

I do not presume to have an answer to those queries. I raise them as a follow-up to your own mode of investigation, which I am grateful for. Like you, I believe that an honest engagement with the present and the future cannot be done without a reconsideration of the conditions of possibility of our experience and expectation.

[…] In his highly suggestive and thought-provoking analysis of my interpretation, Lebovic finds that the chapter on the mass media “is the most relevant part of the book, but also its least convincing section.” Where he agrees with my critical appraisal of the mass media in its distance from the everyday life-world, Lebovic finds that in this instance the “modernist tools” of my theory of collective memory seem to falter. He concludes that in the “age of fake news perhaps not only the past is undermined, but the present and, as such, the future too.” […]

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