Collaborative Memory

By Sara Jones, University of Birmingham

Central to three concepts structuring this discursive glossary – memory, migration and relationality – is the idea of the ‘transnational’, as defined by Vertovec: ‘economic, social and political linkages between people, places and institutions crossing nation-state borders and spanning the world’.[i] Memory scholars have in the last 15 years produced a number of new conceptualisations of how memory moves or is communicated across borders: as transnational, transcultural, global, cosmopolitan, agonistic, or multidirectional.[ii] Each of these conceptualisations contains within it the question of a relationship between different objects of study: national memory cultures in relation to one another, the national in relation to the transnational, atrocities remembered with reference to trauma experienced elsewhere in the world. Some studies address the concept of relationality explicitly. One of the earliest examples is Jeffrey Olick’s work on ‘process-relationalism’.[iii] Feindt et al. describe ‘the entangledness of memory, that is, its (inter-)relational character’.[iv] Most recently, Astrid Erll has developed the concepts of ‘mnemonic relationality’ and ‘relational mnemohistories’.[v] She argues that ‘writing mnemohistory through the lens of relationality promises to provide a sense of how all remembering is grounded in diverse forms of interrelation’.[vi]

Both Olick and Erll draw explicitly the field of relational sociology. In his ‘Manifesto for a Relational Sociology’, Mustafa Emirbayer juxtaposes the relational approach with the substantialist. In the substantialist approach, the focus is on isolated units; in the relational approach it is the relationships – or transactions – between those units that take precedence.[vii] The relational approach focuses on agency within structure, that is, on networks of relationships between individual actors. As the dynamics of human interactions are for relational sociologists that ‘which make and remake societies continually’,[viii] so are the dynamics of the collaborations between mnemonic agents – activists, institutions, artists, producers – that which make and remake transnational memory.

My concept of collaborative memory seeks to capture this complexity.[ix] Defined as the ‘the act of working with another person or group of people to create or produce something’,[x] the term ‘collaboration’ points towards the agentic nature of the relationships being described. And yet, at the same time, the concept of collaboration captures the interweaving of these different agencies and the ways in which those interconnections can be productive, in the sense of creating something new. Studying relations is not only about studying concrete relationships between individuals; rather, it is also about relations that are embedded within what Jan Fuhse and Sophie Mützel term ‘cultural blueprints or models for social relationships’.[xi]

In the study of transnational memory, this means considering the relations produced in discourses about East and West and North and South: that includes disputes between different cultures of remembrance within Europe, but also relationships of coloniality between the Global North and Global South. In order for a relationship to be ‘truly’ collaborative, both actors must be given full agency and both actors must be open to learning and change. For this to be the case, transnational collaboration between mnemonic actors must be underpinned by what Walter Mignolo has described as a ‘decolonial cosmopolitanism’.[xii] Actors from the Global North must provincialise their ‘memory standards’ that are underpinned by a human rights ideology deemed universal, but based on Western experiences, epistemologies and philosophies.[xiii]

The mode of remembrance produced by what was once constructed as the centre can then be put into dialogue with approaches to the past, rights and justice emerging from those places previously imagined to be at the margins. Such approaches might include: ‘Buddhist forward-looking values’ as exemplified in Kidron’s analysis of the descendants of survivors of the genocide in Cambodia;[xiv] holistic and relational understandings of justice over abstract and specific ones in the pan-African concept of Ubuntu;[xv] and the importance of social, economic and cultural rights as long-advocated by actors in the Global South.[xvi]

[i] Steven Vertovec, Transnationalism (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 1.

[ii] See, for example: Chiara De Cesari and Ann Rigney (eds), Transnational Memory: Circulation, Articulation, Scales (Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 2014); Lucy Bond and Jessica Rapson (eds), The Transcultural Turn: Interrogating Memory Between and Beyond Borders (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014); Eşref Aksu, ‘Global Collective Memory: Conceptual Difficulties of an Appealing Idea’, Global Society 23(3) (2009), 317-32; Aleida Assmann and Sebastian Conrad (eds), Memory in a Global Age: Discourses, Practices and Trajectories (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010); Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006); Anna Cento Bull and Hans Lauge Hansen, ‘On agonistic memory’, Memory Studies 9(4) (2016), 390-404; Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009)

[iii] Jeffrey K Olick, The Politics of Regret: On Collective Memory and Historical Responsibility (New York and London: Routledge, 2007), p. 116.

[iv] Gregor Feindt, Félix Krawatzek, Daniela Mehler, Friedemann Pestel, and Rieke Trimçev, ‘Entangled Memory: Toward a Third Wave in Memory Studies’, History and Theory 53 (2014), 24-44 (p. 27).

[v] Astrid Erll, ‘Travelling Memory in European Film: Towards a Morphology of Mnemonic Relationality’, Image [&] Narrative 18(1) (2017), 5-18 (p. 6).

[vi] Astrid Erll, ‘Homer: A Relational Mnemohistory’, Memory Studies 11(3) (2018), 274-286 (p. 279).

[vii] Mustafa Emirbayer, ‘Manifesto for a Relational Sociology’, The American Journal of Sociology 103(2) (1997), 281-317 (p. 287).

[viii] Nick Crossley, Towards Relational Sociology (London/New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 13.

[ix] For example, Sara Jones, ‘Memory Relations: Cross-border Collaboration between Mnemonic Actors in Germany, Central and Eastern Europe, and the MENA region’, Revue d’Etudes Comparatives Est-Ouest 51 (2-3) (2020), 225-259.

[x] Definition taken from Oxford Advanced American Dictionary:

[xi] Jan Fuhse and Sophie Mützel, ‘Tackling Connections, Structure, and Meaning in Networks: Quantitative and Qualitative Methods in Sociological Network Research’, Quality and Quantity 45 (2011), 1067-1089 (p. 1079).

[xii] Walter Mignolo, ‘Cosmopolitanism and the De-colonial Option’, Studies in Philosophy and Education 29 (2010), 111–127.

[xiii] Lea David, The Past Can’t Heal Us: The Dangers of Mandating Memory in the Name of Human Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[xiv] Carol A Kidron, ‘The Global Semiotics of Trauma and Testimony: A Comparative Study of Jewish Israeli, Cambodian Canadian, and Cambodian Genocide Descendant Legacies’, in Amos Goldberg and Haim Hazan (eds), Marking Evil: Holocaust Memory in the Global Age (New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2015), 146-70.

[xv] See Ray Nickson and John Braithwaite, ‘Deeper, Broader, Longer Transitional Justice’, European Journal of Criminology 11 (2014), 445-463 (p. 450)

[xvi] See, for example Makau Mutua, Human Rights Standards: Hegemony, Law, and Politics (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2016).

%d bloggers like this: