In anticipation of a post-memory boom syndrome.

Author:Beiner, Guy

It would seem that at any given moment an academic journal is publishing an article, perhaps even a themed issue, on memory. We are evidently witnessing what Jay Winter has aptly labeled a "memory boom" (2000). The number of publications is overwhelming. The ISI Web of Knowledge, which combines citation indexes in the social sciences and in the arts and humanities, yields over 11,800 references to collective/ cultural/social/public/popular memory, of which some 9,500 appeared during the last decade (1998-2008). It is reasonable to assume that these tentative figures fall short of the actual number of relevant publications, which span many disciplines and often do not use distinctive adjectives. Google Books lists 936 books published in the past decade alone with "social memory," "collective memory," "cultural memory," "public memory," or "popular memory" in the title (and 166 books with titles that refer to memory and narrative). Google Scholar lists over 41,000 items with titles that include one or more of these terms. There are two journals exclusively dedicated to this topic (History and Memory and Memory Studies), and numerous periodicals have devoted special issues to this theme. H-Memory, an online discussion network launched in 2007, features constant debate on what is now recognized as an interdisciplinary academic field in its own right: "... how humans remember and represent that memory, be it through literature, monuments, historical works, or in their own private lives". (1) All in all, the literature is extensive. How does one separate the wheat from the chaff?

Memory is a slippery term. Despite all that has been written, its meaning is not self-explanatory. Unreflective and uncritical references to memory inevitably induce banal conclusions. "Collective memory", conceptualized by Maurice Halbwachs (1925,1950) in the interwar period, remains, in the words of James Wertsch, a "term in search of a meaning" (2002, 30-66), and contemporary research displays discomfort with the vacuous ways in which it has been applied. In particular, scholars have deemed the connotations of homogeneity implied by the term "collective" to be problematic. In the early 1980s, a group based in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham developed a neo-Marxist model of "popular memory," which stemmed from two sets of dialectics: between popular and dominant memories and between private and public memories (Popular Memory Group 1982). A complementary study preferred the term "public memory" in order to signify the battleground between dominant and subordinate social frameworks (Bommes and Wright 1982). John Bodnar, whose study of American commemorations focused on the "intersection of official and vernacular cultural expressions", also employed this term effectively (1992, 13).

While these terms have persisted, other terms have also been added. "Social memory" surfaced in the late 1980s and has since gained currency (Burke 1989; Connerton 1989, 6-40; Collard 1989; Nerone and Wartella 1989). It was employed in a fruitful collaboration between the anthropologist James Fentress and the medievalist Chris Wickham, who sought to dissociate collective memory from a Jungian notion of "collective unconscious" and to redress what they considered to be an over-emphasis on group identities and a neglect of individual consciousness in the writings of Halbwachs and of his mentor, Emile Durkheim (Fentress and Wickham 1992). Calling attention to inequalities, shifting affiliations and social contestations, Elizabeth Tonkin's study of African oral history also preferred "social memory" (Tonkin 1992). Later in the 1990s, "cultural memory," originally...

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