Memory and History: mapping some tensions and entanglements

P.S. – I added another point: We cannot access the ‘raw event’ of history; history is mediated. 31/10/2014. RC.

What do we mean by the terms ‘cultural memory’ and ‘history’?

Let’s start with ‘history’. In the article by Nora in the first week’s reading (putting to one side his thoughts on milieux de memoire and lieux de memoire), he flags up that the word ‘history’ itself includes different meanings:  ‘history’ as lived experience and events (the things that happened in the past), and  ‘history’ as the academic discipline of creating historical knowledge. In your brainstorm sheets on Monday you were intuitively referring to both aspects.

Let’s remain vigilant about any easy assumptions, however, that there is one form of ‘memory’ or ‘history’ that we can talk about. As Marita Sturken reminds us:

“It is unwise to generalize about the practice of history-making; the profession of history encompasses a broad array of methodologies, many of which are critical of traditional historiography. History can be thought of as a narrative that has in some way been sanctioned or valorized by institutional frameworks or publishing enterprises. One cannot say that history comprises a single narrative; many histories are constantly under debate and in conflict with each other” (1997: 4).

With this in mind, how are memory and history discourses and practices interrelated? Here are 10 main points to start thinking about…

1. History writing is shaped by cultural discourses and practices

By and large, the academic discipline of history is largely involved in understanding the events of the past: of weighing in and evaluating different claims and sources, and attempting to construct a picture of social, economic and political relations. As a discipline, history is guided by principles of objectivity – though this claim to ‘objectively’ has been questioned by scholars such as Hayden White who argued that historians themselves write history according to available cultural scripts and narratives. In this vein, there has been “discussions among historians – beginning as early as the 1970s – regarding the constructed nature, subjectivity, and perspectivity of all history writing” (Erll 2011: 25).

2. Historical studies involve the use and interpretation of memories

Memory has also become a sub-branch of historical work – they are not totally oppositional realms of knowledge production. Since the 1960s, autobiographical memory has been legitimised as a source for historical enquiry with the rise of oral history — which involves interviewing someone about their life and experiences, as a means to capture and record their ‘communicative memories’ (to draw on a phrase from Assmann). Oral history was largely geared at the beginning towards creating a ‘history from below‘, to create historical sources from testimony to supplement the gaps in the historical record (at the same time, recognising that memory itself is fallible and indeed malleable; the historian’s task in using autobiographical memory is to triangulate oral histories with other sources to explore their veracity).[We will explore the different epistemological orientations – that is, the ways in which ‘truth’ is constructed and seen to matter – in history and memory studies in Week 4 of the course].

To sum up, there are wider debates within historical studies as to the relationship between history and memory. As Astrid Erll suggests:

The debate centres around the question of whether historiography itself is not a form of cultural memory. After all, even historical sources are cultural artefacts which do not reflect a past reality, but rather re-construct it. In addition, the activity of historians by no means lives up to the naive ideal of objectivity which Halbwachs still posited as the basis of his polemical contrast between uninvolved history and evaluative memory. Historians are bound to their historical position and their personal perspective. They select certain historical events and exclude others; they transform the chronicle of events into a meaningful story by means of narrative structuring and rhetorical devices; and in doing so inevitably interpret it…In short, just like remembering, all history writing is a constructive, narrative process, deeply imbued with – often unacknowledged – patterns of culture and ideology.

(Erll 2011: 39)

3. We cannot access the ‘raw event’ of history; history is mediated

As Stuart Hall reminds us in his early conceptualisation of processes of encoding and decoding media messages:

A ‘raw’ historical event cannot, in that form, be transmitted by, say, a television newscast. Events can only be signified within the aural-visual forms of the television discourse. In the moment when a historical event passes under the sign of discourse, it is subject to all the complex formal ‘rules’ by which language signifies. To put it paradoxically, the event must become a ‘story’ before it can become a communicative event‘ (1980:129)

Think about a collective memory that you have – say, of 9/11. How do you remember this event? The ways in which you remember this moment could be tied up to the form of media technologies used to access the news reports, and the particular framings and visuals used in the coverage.

Historical events will also be shaped by processes of pre-mediation (existing social narratives that provide you (and journalists) with a set of interpretative resources with which to make sense of what is happening) and re-mediation (the particular ways in which mediated memories move across different media forms, with the public repetition of certain slogans, discourses, aesthetics etc meaning that some accounts of historical events will seem to ‘stick’ and become naturalized).

So what is ‘cultural memory’?

4. Cultural memory is concerned with the interplay of the past and present (and future!)

Memory scholars Astrid Erll  and Ansgar Nunning have an umbrella definition for cultural memory which is a good starting point for our class. They suggest that cultural memory refers to “the interplay of present and past in socio-cultural contexts” (Erll and Nunning 2010: 2).

5. Cultural memory is an umbrella term to refer to a variety of constellations of experiences, discourses and material practices

In this way, cultural memory can be considered a constellation of socio-cultural discourses – including historical knowledge, acts of imagination, communicative and technological transmissions, monuments and museums, social frameworks, and material and popular culture. Take for example, the Holocaust. What do we know about this atrocity? Our cultural memories might come from history lessons, family testimonies, films like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, through things we read in the paper, museum visits, commemorative events, and reading Anne Frank’s diary (in various editions and translations). As such, where does history end and cultural memory begin?

6. History forms a part of cultural memories

Erll argues that “Cultural memory is not the Other of history. Nor is it the opposite of individual remembering. Rather, it is the totality of the context within which such varied cultural phenomena originate” (Erll 2011: 7).

7. History and memory have different temporalities and frames of meaning/ ‘truth claims’

At the same time, cultural memory research is involved in something different to historical knowledge or historical studies per se: as cultural memory researchers we are most interested in what is happening in the present. We need historical discourses and knowledge to be able to trace the contours of what ever past event is being evoked and represented in the present – but cultural memory is more interested in exploring what those memories mean in the present — and what cultural/economic/political work they are doing –rather than if they are ‘true’ or ‘correct’.

8. Cultural memory circulates widely, moving beyond the realms of official historical discourse

Marita Sturken, in Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS epidemic and the politics of remembering, offers another useful definition of ‘cultural memory’. She argues that cultural memory is “memory that is shared outside of the avenues of formal historical discourse yet is entangled with cultural products and imbued with cultural meaning” (1997:3). So, memory, or shared articulations of the past, constructed and performed through newspaper articles,  songs, literature, art, photography, advertisements, commodities…

9. Historical consciousness, personal memory and cultural memory can blur and merge

Sturken suggests that we can distinguish between cultural memory, personal memory and official historical discourse on some levels; at the same time, both cultural memory and history are entangled:

Personal memory, cultural memory, and history do not exist within neatly defined boundaries. Rather memories and memory objects can move from one realm to another, shifting meaning and context. Thus, personal memories can sometimes be subsumed into history, and elements of cultural memory can exist in concert with historical narratives. For instance, survivors of traumatic historical events often relate that as time goes on, they have difficulty distinguishing their personal memories from those of popular culture. For many World War II veterans, Hollywood World War II movies have subsumed their individual memories into a general script. Because of these kinds of boundary crossings in what is remembered, true distinctions between personal memory, cultural memory, and history cannot be made.

(Sturken 1997: 6).

10. Strict binaries between memory and history can be questioned; instead, we need to look at how ideas of history and memory are discursively and materially produced in different contexts

In summary, Astrid Erll goes further than Sturken’s notion of entangled memory and history to argue that any assumption that history and memory are necessarily different is based upon a series of “fallacious oppositions”, which she includes as:

  • selective and appropriated memory vs the totality of ‘raw’ historical events
  • ‘authentic’, immediate memory vs mediated, ideologically fraught models, images or narratives of history
  • methodologically unregulated, identity-related, subjective and unreliable memory vs scholarly, ostensibly neutral, and objective historiography
  • memory as the layman’s pastime vs history as an academic subject
  • memory and its broad and heterogeneous groups of carriers vs the institutionalized guild of historians
  • memory as a private undertaking vs history as the official version of the past
  • memory as counter-memory and the victims’ version of the past vs the ‘grand narratives’ and the ‘history of the victors’

(Erll 2011: 44-45)

What do you think? What are the examples where memory is part of the ‘official version of the past’, is produced through institutions and experts, is made from the stories of the winners, is mediated? When does history involve counter-memories, the involvement of amateurs, is subjectively invested in and tied to identity claims?

Erll calls for us to abandon “the antagonism of ‘history versus memory'” and instead think of history as “one symbolic form of reference to the past”, which contributes to cultural memory and, in turn, is also constituted by it (2011: 45). We’ll be exploring these entanglements throughout the course…


Works cited

Erll, A. (2011) Memory in Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Erll, A. and Rigney, A. (eds) (2012) Mediation, Remediation, and the Dynamics of Cultural Memory. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Hall, S. (1980) “Encoding/Decoding” in Culture, Media, Language: Working papers in cultural studies, 1972-9, S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe and P. Willis (eds), London: Hutchinson, pp. 128-138.

Sturken, M. (1997) Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering. Berkeley: University of California Press.

11 thoughts on “Memory and History: mapping some tensions and entanglements

    • Disagreeing with Pierre Nora and Halbwachs, I understand that history and cultural memory are entangled and must be thought and analysed together, in order to optimize historical data.
      Considering that history is “official” or “objective” in some way and” memory and cultural memory” both can be considered more “subjective”, I was wondering of what history is actually based on, if not someone’s memory, even important or influential, at one particular moment?
      Can some memories, just because uttered by important people become “the official version of what happened”? – In the sense that someone or a group of people as historians, finally decided of a version of what happened.
      Because, if so, who will ever decide about the final and official history of the Israel and Palestine situation for example? For I imagine that both sides historians will not agree on even on “raw events”. To talk about the question, in this case, will the winner really decide on a “official history”? What about in the situation of no winners yet? No history?

      So, in the end, what is history based on? And is history only “raw historical events”, like “Washington and NY’s attacks by terrorists was on the 11th of September 2001”, for example? or is history, as Erll puts it: “one symbolic form of reference to the past”?

      If someone could clear that up for me, that would be great! 🙂


      • Hi Heloise, thanks for your comment. Yes, the “raw events” of history are incredibly contentious, especially when past events and historical appeals become imbricated in the very sources of ongoing political conflicts. Memories, histories, claims and injuries can all become the discursive materials – and justifications – of military strategies and insurgent responses, for example.

        In terms of your question, ‘what is history based on’, I would suggest that we leave this as an uncertain terrain – let this question continue to unsettle us.

        Or, perhaps, let’s flip this question on its head. Perhaps we could start to ask something else: how are particular narrations of history and social memories in specific contexts used to justify public actions? How do memory claims underpin political claims?

        We might not be able to establish definitive, trans-historic ‘truths’ in any contentious situation, but we can attempt to read historical accounts and memory practices off each other, in a productive tension. Rather than trying to create an unambiguous platform, we can raise questions about what aims and effects different uses of the past are being put to in contemporary society – and in whose interests.


  1. Thank you this summary!
    Putting it all on one page helps us see the contrast between the different ways people saw the relation between history and memory.

    There is one thing that I still didn’t understand. While I was reading Nora’s article, I got the impression that he’s sating that history is based on memories.
    According to Nora “[E]avh historian was convinced that his task consisted in establishing a … explicative memory”
    I thought that the idea of “lieu de memorie” as Nora mentioned is “a play of memory and history” in which memory fills the gaps in history.

    Going back to the questions. In my opinion, although that history might be written by the winners, the real story will continue to live through the memory of the people who lived it, It will be a communitive memory, when the elders tell the children about it. This would just make the memory live and maybe one day, if lucky, be written next to history.



  2. Reading this summary, I cannot help but remembering the enormous differences, both in “official” history and in recollection of memory, regarding the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), between Chile, Bolivia and Peru. This war is sensitive and relevant part of the national identity of these three countries, but all of them have a different approaches towards it, which can be easily acknowledged by looking at the different versions written for school textbooks in each of them, academic history books, or visiting local memorials and museums. Despite the fact that this confrontation took place more than 100 years ago, its outcome is still an emotional issue for the countries involved, and there are still hard feelings from both Peru and Bolivia over Chile because of this war.

    In this case, sensibility and emotion affect directly to both memory and history, making it extremely difficult to agree on an official version of the facts, which leads to multiple ways of incorporating the War of the Pacific into the history of Peru, Bolivia and Chile’s national history and identity. This three countries incorporate this war in their own personal discourses with feelings of triumph, longing, or resentment.
    In this case, at least though my perspective, history does not seem at all “cold” or “official”!

    For more information of the War of the Pacific, the Wikipedia article is quite complete!

    -Catalina Herrera-


    • Yes, in some ways emotion is the life blood of memories – we affectively invest in certain versions of the past and these emotions can be collectively curated (intentionally or in everyday, vernacular ways) – especially when they create any notion of ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinctions that can be held on to for identity purposes. And history-making is not be so ‘cold’ either…especially in its function as a legitimising discourse.


  3. The ‘fallacious oppositions’ proposed by Astrid Erll is very interesting! But I am still puzzled about the concept of ‘counter-memory’. Can anyone explain it to me? It would be great if you can also provide an example. Thanks! Tianxin


    • Hi Tianxin, we’ll be looking at the concept of counter-memory in week 7 of the course. But to give you a sneak preview, counter-memory is a concept that refers to intentional memory acts carried out by a group, or a person, trying to change what they consider as hegemonic renditions of the past. This might mean trying to uncover and publicly express “suppressed” and “marginalized” memories (which have been sidelined or buried by those with hegemonic power). Counter-memory might also involve different ways of telling and representing the past, as a way to challenge traditional records and narratives. We’ll be exploring this more in week 7, looking at some empirical examples, but I hope this helps! Red


      • Hi Red, thank you so much for your explanation. I think I’ve got the gist of it. Looking forward to the lecture on Week 7 ^ ^ Tianxin


  4. This course started at a time when my hometown, Hong Kong, was going through some major social and political instabilities. A few days after our seminar discussion on memory and history, the pro-democracy civil disobedience movement was launched officially. Tens of thousands took to the streets, occupying the central business district (and eventually other busy areas as well) and putting the city to a standstill. The protests are still going on, and have been dubbed the Umbrella Movement or the Umbrella Revolution – named after the humble household item that protestors used to protect themselves against the tear gas and pepper spray that the police deployed in the early stages of the movement. As our course progresses, one question keeps coming back to me: how will the Umbrella Movement be remembered in Hong Kong’s future history textbooks?

    Astrid Erll’s reflection on the “fallacious oppositions” between memory and history, as outlined in point 9 of this blog, feels particularly relevant when I see the sheer amount of instantaneous, instinctive documentations of the situation at home on channels like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and WhatsApp. Hong Kong people are causing, experiencing, recording, and mediating history all at once. The amount of globital memory produced is particularly striking in its extensity and velocity. These digital documentations, as Garde-Hansen et al note, become “the active, subjective, organic, emotional, virtual and uncertain production of the past and present at the same time.” (Garde-Hansen et al, 2009: 7) Within a few days, a projector has been set up in one of the prominent protest zones – through an online platform that engages with netizens worldwide, a live feed of supportive messages from various countries is projected onto a blank wall of a building. Our history, our local struggle, can now be immediately de-territorialised and re-territorialised in a matter of seconds.

    As the protests stretched on, low-tech creations also started to appear, and in turn, photos of them have gone viral in some circles. Artistic practices – from designing logos for the Umbrella Movement, to painting on umbrellas, to taking a creative spin on otherwise mundane street signs – are charged with politics and people’s strong desire to memorialise the event. Art objects and other innovative conversions of urban spaces, while mediating immediate memories, have also become a form of protest themselves by reclaiming capitalist, utilitarian spaces and expanding our society’s capacity for self-reflection.

    So how will later generations study this movement, and how are our present personal/collective/digitally shared memories (already) shaping our future? People often say that history is written by the victors. It is momentarily empowering to record and share our own history – telling our own stories is a way to exercise control. But I wonder how impactful our digitised memories can really be in the long run. After all, as with all hashtags and internet trends, the Hong Kong #umbrellarevolution will soon stop trending, but our political struggles will persist.

    (20-min programme on the art in the Umbrella Movement:
    Part 1:
    Part 2:


    • Cindy, these are really interesting comments and I like how you’re making connections between the Umbrella Movement and the velocity and vulnerability of memory assemblages. More questions seem to spill from this example: what happens after the media gaze dies down? What digital memories and traces will carry forward? How quickly will these protests be memorialized/institutionalized/erased, in what ways, and for whom? And what ‘victories’ do protest movements in general have to remember – the end result, or the process of resistance?


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