Memory and Identity: how societies construct and administer their past?

Specialized Theme 2

Estevão de Rezende Martins, Brazil


The main interest of the debate on memory and collective (social) identity is the historical one. The richness of the various continents the participants come from, with their complexity and differences, should permit our debate to take in account the variety not only of the European experience (traditionally linking society, nation and state together), but specially those of the emerging, complex, multicultural societies outside Europe's as well.

The major question put by our specialized theme involves the role of memory (and "cultivated" memory as well) in the historical constitution of social identity. Mainly in multicultural societies, the identity issues have taken an important position in the agenda of discussions. The question of identity by assimilation, negation, transformation of done inheritance or experienced (positive or negative) contacts is a major issue. The self-affirmation trend of groups and/or entire societies is often treated under literary, ethnological, anthropological and political points of view. Many so-called contemporary "affirmative actions" have interfered with the practical aspects of social life - and with their consequences for the way people construct and administer their understanding/explaining the(ir) past - in the last decades. The political and anthropological issues are widely known and discussed. This discussion entered more and more intensively the field of historiography. We consider now the role of history in the constitution of individual identity (historical consciousness) and social/collective identity (both the mention of historical roots of "people", "cast", "clan", etc., and the use of historical memory, remembrance, etc. and its content as an argument to sustain the specificity of this or this society or community on the long, middle or short run) as a reflected historical (re-)construction.

The power of identity is an acknowledged factor of life. Its importance is repeatedly asserted. Many specialists (mainly in the sociology and in the anthropology) but also - in an increasing way - historians have turned themselves to this question. The world in which we live, the lives we have in it, the way we consider time - past, present and future - are being deeply influenced by the conflicting trends of universalisation of experience and reflection and identity - personal or collective.

New forms of social organization reveal the strong degree of globality that is diffusing throughout the world. The traditional frame of culture and institutions are been rapidly transformed, creating new cultures, producing here wealth and there poverty, inducing innovation, and hope, but at the same time acting unmercifully towards weak society's groups and instilling despair. It is indeed a new world that has been produced since World War II. We experience, in the last twenty five years, the widespread surge of powerful expressions of collective identity that challenge globalisation and cosmopolitanism on behalf of cultural singularity and people's control over their lives and environment. These expressions are multiple, highly diversified, following the contours of each culture, and of historical sources of formation of each identity.

Identity is people's source of meaning and experience, as Ankersmit's contribution stresses. We know of no people without names, no languages or cultures in which some manner of distinctions between self and other, we and they, are not made. The founding act of self-definition is also done in contrast to 'root-experiences' that could be very remote in a almost sacral way - as Kumbhojkar analyses in the case of the Vedas - but also more recent although equally important, like the Holocaust for Germans and Jews (Rüsen, Zimmermann) or the war for Australians (Beaumont). Self-knowledge - always a construction no matter how much it feels like a discovery - is never altogether separable from claims to be known in specific ways by others, like Aguirreazkuenaga stresses it in the case of the Basque people.

Identity may be understood as 'process of construction of meaning on the basis of a cultural attribute, or related set of cultural attributes, that is/are given priority over other sources of meaning', as proposed by Manuel Castells. As Castells remembers, identity is to be distinguished from social roles. Identity is an integrative source of meaning, because the process of self-construction and individuation that it involves. 'Meaning' has to be conceived as the symbolic identification by an individual and by social actors of the sense of his/their past. The process of identification may also be a process of attribution of sense, on the basis of lived experiences or through the cultural assumption of inherited experiences inside or outside the social group one belongs to. Meaning is organized around a founding identity, an identity that frames the others and is supposed to be self-sustaining across time and space. It is no difficult matter to agree on the fact that all identities are constructed. The real issue is how, from what, by whom, and for what. The construction of identities uses building materials from many sources: history, geography, biology, productive and reproductive institutions, collective memory and personal fantasies, power apparatus, religious revelations, psychological experiences (traumatic ones, personal and collective, long lasting or eventually occurring). But individuals, social groups, and societies process all these materials, and rearrange their meaning, according to social determinations and cultural projects that are rooted in their social structure, and in their space/time framework. It is no exaggeration in proposing a first approach understanding of the process of constructing individual or collective identity, in which the operators of the corresponding interpretations and arrangements determine the symbolic of this identity, and its meaning for those identifying with it or placing themselves outside of it. At the first logical step such a construct tends to legitimise traditional identity within the social frame. In a second level it is possible do sketch a self-affirmation 'against' other's identity (as it comes out of Capelato's and Schwarzstein's contribution). A third step combines both aspects of the dialectics of identity and enounces a so-called projected identity, which is linked to the future realization of sense or orientation in society.

The discussion on the manifold comparative approaches to the theme we have to deal with will outskirt how history contributes with important - if not decisive - elements of the dynamic process of identity building.


Joseba Aguirreazkuenaga:
Memory of collective identity and law: On the category "historical rights" and their administration with respect to the political identity and the juridico-political law of the Basques.

The interpretation and administration of the past can come to form part of present-day juridico-political law. A European example might be that of Basque society, but also, in a broader sense, those societies that are governed by an historical constitution, such as the case of the United Kingdom. Memory is not only something that refers to the past but can also have its impact on contemporary culture, since contemporary societies can only define themselves in their historicity, as one of the differential and particular characteristic elements in the ensemble of universality inherent per se to every human collectivity. The rupturist distinction of time between past and future is being replaced by a continuous, constant flow in an uninterrupted circle, in which humans feel themselves to be heirs as well as creators. From this perspective, categories such as historical rights begin to acquire a greater plausibility, in particular for those peoples that have lived in an oral tradition, with barely any writings of their own or with late written codifications of their individual and collective rights. The oral tradition, which gives evidence of a mode of life and of the relations of a community with its surroundings, becomes a legitimate source for the rights of the community members in as much as they are the subjects of a collectivity. Recourse to memory becomes essential in all communities and individuals with a will for future projection, without any sense of determination by the past, because each community in each moment is taking decesions that involve individual self determination.
The administration of the past is directly related to the microphysics of power and in particular to the legitimation of a given power, whether dominant or adominant . Historically, appeal has been made to dynasty, to race, to religion, to language, to common history in the search for stable forms for the legitimation of an established power, for the organisation of political communities. Nowadays it is the unitary will, the daily plebiscite, that is appealed to, but this is not sufficient.
The new modernity in its critique of the XIX and XX centuries demands the inclusion of collective memory, the communitarian dimension of the individual subject endowed with universal rights.
In this contribution we will offer our view of what "the past" - its construction and administration - consists of in Basque society in the Pyrenees mountains. This society is at present politically divided; it forms part of Western Europe; it was incorporated for a long period of time within the two great Spanish and French monarchies or republics; and it was successful in its process of economic modernisation (it is a European region with an early industrialisation). At present in the Basque society of the Spanish state, one half of the population is caling for the widening of the self-government that it enjoys, as a continuation and updating of its historical power of self-government, "historical law", in order to exercise political sovereignty and it appeals to historical law and the right to self-determination. The other half is content with the self-government established by the Statute of Autonomy and the Spanish Constitution The First Additional Article of the Spanish Constitution protects the historical rights of the foral territories, that is to say of Vasconia. Interpretation of the past is risky and difficult in divided societies since it is also interpretation of the present.
Language and law are the constitutive elements of a collective identity. In this contribution we will try to set out how the interpretation of the past has been administered in the Ancien Regime and in the present day and with what consequences, since it is incorporated into the juridico-political law that is in force through the category "Historical Rights" ; a category to which the Basque provincial institutions appealed in 1917 in order to call for political autonomy in the framework of the Spanish state.

Maria Helena Capelato
The Brazilian and Argentinean Portrayed by Paulo Prado (1928) and Eduardo Mallea (1937)

The presentation has the objective to analyse, in a compared form, how both authors answered the following question: "Who are we?" and "how was our difference constituted?" The theme about the national identity is included in the works "Raízes do Brasil" by Paulo Prado, and "Historia de una pasión argentina" by Eduardo Mallea, based upon national character treated as responsible for the Argentinean and Brazilian societal problems and the suggestion of ways to overcome them. Both authors present a criticism to the cultural inheritance of the two countries and relate a sequence of subjective value as basic elements in the historical process. The question of modernity is in the back of their thoughts, but while Paulo Prado looks for ways to overcome the problems of modernity in Brazil, Eduardo Mallea understands modernity as responsible to the Argentinean society degeneration. I intend to point out common aspects and the difference that exists in the definition of Brazilian being and Argentinean being concerning the specific historical contexts in which the essays were produced.

Jörn Rüsen:
Holocaust-Memory and German Identity -Three forms of generational practices

The Holocaust constitutes German identity by a catastrophe. As a pregiven event to be dealt with the Holocaust belongs to those events of the past which have determined the life situation of Germany today. It is a part of a history which led to a complete defeat of the nation and to a destruction of large parts of the country, to a political division of Germany, to a loss of land and the expulsion of its people and to a mental burden of guilt, shame, horror, suppression, trauma, and responsibility. The pregiven temporal chain of generations is the channel through which this event is related to the external and internal circumstances under which the Germans have to live.

Dora Schwarzstein
Oral History in a Museum of Terror. Reflections on the representation of the past and the presentation of testimonies.

There has been an enormous production of texts on memory, commemoration and oblivion in the last decades. There has also been the creation of cultural artifacts and experiences that range from the vast expansion of museums to the gathering of old objects and personal memoirs. In these last years we were witnesses of an extraordinary growth in enthusiasm for the recovery of the past. This affects history as well as national traditions. This movement, a true preservation mania, has gone through all sections of national life generating a true memory obsession, (Memorabilia).


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