Skip to content

Response to Review of Memory and History: Understanding Memory as Source and Subject

I would like to thank the reviewer for his close reading of the volume. It is not my intention in this response to take issue with any element of the review; rather to reflect on a few of the general comments made in it about the apparent wane of (postmodernist) theorising in the discipline of history. I agree with the reviewer that the edited volume is broadly empiricist in tone, as well as in method. And I think he is right to suggest that it will more readily satisfy those who like to see their theory closely aligned with historical practice. This is indeed deliberate, not least because Memory and History sits within the Routledge Using Historical Sources series, whose remit is not to exclude – if neither solely to address – an audience of undergraduate and post-graduate students, as well as non-specialist scholars working in the Anglophone university sphere, who may well turn to the book for pointers about how to approach the study of memory through extant primary material rather than for a theoretical Weltanschauung.  That is why the chapters consider distinct genres of source – letters, photography, fiction, trial testimony, etc. – as well as disparate periods and places.

Yet, as the reviewer suggests, the request for some kind of systematic theorization within memory studies has been a common refrain in the scholarly literature. This is not necessarily a demand for theorising memory itself (although that has been common enough, especially where collective memory is concerned); rather, it is a conviction that getting a handle on the multiple, and perhaps interpenetrating analytical frameworks within which ‘memory’ of one kind or another has been, or can be, understood across a range of disciplines, enables a more rigorous and dialogic engagement among scholars.(1) And it has also been a plea for a historicisation of the notion of memory itself, as the introduction to the volume explores.

What strikes me about the most serious, systematic and – above all – influential attempts in English to theorize memory in this way, however, is that they have emanated from sociologists, or sociologically inclined historians – such as Jeffrey Olick and Wulf Kansteiner – who generally bypass the long-lived engagement within literary criticism and some kinds of intellectual history with (largely French) structuralist or post-structuralist theories of language. Thus while a few foundational works in the field draw in some measure on the work of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida (and these theorists find some echo in current scholarship), I would say that the loudest scholarly conversations in memory studies over the last two decades or so – precisely the period of the cross-disciplinary fight over the value of postmodernist approaches – barely mention them. (2) Instead, it is the significance for the field of the writings of early sociologists such as Maurice Halbwachs and Emile Durkheim that is stressed in the great volume of scholarly writing on memory. And although Marek Tamm has recently championed the semiotically inclined works of continental European writers on memory such as Astrid Erll, the central plank of his argument – that historians would do well to deploy a notion of ‘mnemohistory’ in their work; in other words to become attuned to ‘the two levels he [the historian] is simultaneously working on: the historicisation of the phenomenon of the past and the historicisation of his own work’ – does not depend overtly on post-structuralist insights.(3)

Clearly, one does not need postmodernism (or its component part, post-structuralism) in order to theorise memory. And neither does one need postmodernism, I would argue, in order to identify and to explain the impact of the so-called linguistic turn on the development of memory studies and on the historical discipline as a whole, however much scholars continue to conflate the ‘linguistic turn’ with ‘[t]he deconstructionist impulse of postmodernism’.(4) The epistemologically radical refusal of objective truth, so associated with post-structuralist approaches to language, is worlds away from the kind of linguistic turn made famous after the late 1960s by the outstanding historian of early modern political thought, Quentin Skinner, whose methodology drew instead on the ‘speech act’ theories of British analytical philosopher John Austin.(5) In any case, the generalisation within the discipline of the insight that our evidence is almost always in some sense rhetorically constructed – an appreciation that has undoubtedly nourished the scholarly memory boom – is as characteristic of what some postmodernist historians call ‘constructivist’ history writing as of ‘deconstructionist’ varieties.(6) It is not so much that postmodernism is on the wane in studies of memory, as that it never secured a foothold there in the first place.

Ultimately, I am in two minds about the value of systematic theorising. While rigour in the thinking and writing about memory – or any subject – should prevent the facile replication of buzz words wrenched free from any meaningful intellectual or other context, I sometimes wonder whether the drive towards systematisation that characterises some sociological investigation on the subject might not lead to a new positivism for the 21st century, something that in fact runs counter to the very scholarly trends that enabled the rise of ‘memory studies’ in the first place, at least among mainstream historians. Like the temptation to draw on recent discoveries in neuroscience as a potential arbiter of ‘what memory really means’, there is a danger that we permit a new essentialism to take hold.(7) Better, I would think, for historians to work towards a more conceptually reflective and robust kind of empiricism. This is what is offered by Neil Gregor in his recent social history of memory in post-war Nuremberg, an ‘empirically saturated study’ of grassroots memorial cultures whose immersion in source material that speaks to the words and deeds of those enmeshed in local networks, manages practically to collapse – and thus to resolve – one entrenched methodological divide in the field of memory, that between the representational and the experiential. (8)


(1) See The Collective Memory Reader, ed. Jeffrey K. Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy (Oxford and New York, NY, 2011), and especially the lengthy attempt to systematise what – and how – we know about memory in its introduction, pp. 3–62.

(2) Aleida Assmann, Cultural Memory and Western Civilization: Functions, Media, Archives (Cambridge, 2011 [orig. German edition 1999]) draws on Roland Barthes’ theories of the image and Jacques Derrida’s approach to the ‘archive’. In Caroline Wake, ‘Regarding the recording: the viewer of video testimony, the complexity of coprescence and the possibility of tertiary witnessing’, History and Memory, 25, 1 (2013), 111–44, the ideas of both Barthes and Derrida, despite being cited, take a back seat to the author’s engagement with the works of intellectual historian Dominick LaCapra and sociologist Shanyang Zhao.

(3) Marek Tamm, ‘Beyond history and memory: new perspectives in memory studies’, History Compass, 11, 6 (2013), 458–73; here 464. Tamm is consciously building on the approach of Jan Assmann, which in turn is in part derived from the philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer.

(4) Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, ‘A Looming crash or a soft landing? Forecasting the future of the memory “industry”’, The Journal of Modern History, 81, 1 (2009), 134. See also Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London, 1997), who seems to conflate postmodernism with what is often called the ‘new cultural history’, pp. 243–9, in his discussion of the work of Natalie Zemon Davis and Robert Darnton.

(5) Quentin Skinner, ‘Meaning and understanding in the History of Ideas’, History and Theory, 8, 1 (1969), 3–53.

(6) These are two of the main categories used to describe tendencies within historical scholarship in The Nature of History Reader, ed. Keith Jenkins and Alun Munslow (London, 2004).

(7) For engagement with neuroscience, see several contributions to Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates, ed. Susannah Radstone and Bill Schwarz (New York, NY, 2010).

(8) Neil Gregor, Haunted City: Nuremberg and the Nazi Past, (New Haven, CT and London, 2008), p. 20.