By Jenny Wüstenberg, Nottingham Trent University
Since it was first recognisable as a scholarly field, memory studies have been concerned primarily with how people use and understand the past as ways of making sense of their communal and national identities. In this context, elites – in governments, religious institutions, the arts, the academy – were viewed as the key determinants of what and how we remember and what gets “set in stone” in public space. This has recently changed in what has been termed the “activist turn” in memory studies (Chidgey, forthcoming). On the one hand, self-identified memory scholars have started examining systematically how grassroots actors help to shape collective memory, as well as how activists use memory politics explicitly to achieve political and cultural change in various places (see for example Reading and Katriel, 2015, Gutman, 2017, Wüstenberg, 2017, Holc, 2018, Chidgey, 2018, Rigney, 2018, Wüstenberg and Sierp, 2020). On the other hand, scholars of social movements are increasingly taking into account the role of memory practices in movement mobilization, the building of solidarity, and as a specific kind of collective action repertoire. Moreover, historians have been increasingly attentive to the nexus of movements and memory (Eyerman, 2016, Daphi, 2017, Kovras, 2017, della Porta et al., 2018, Daphi and Zamponi, 2019, Merrill et al., 2020, Berger et al., 2021).
This ramping up of attention has meant that the label “memory activist” has been applied to many different kinds of actors and actions, resulting in a lack of clarity: are we all talking about the same phenomenon? If states and protesters, historians and street artists can all be memory activists and everything from court rulings to building occupations are potentially memory activism, how new and useful is this for the purpose of comparison across time and space and to build cumulative knowledge? Yifat Gutman and I have argued that the “memory activist” should be defined carefully and relatively narrowly. In other words, “memory activism” is only useful as a concept if not everything that is controversial in memory politics is deemed “activist.” We therefore define memory activists “as actors (individual or collective), who engage in the strategic commemoration of the past in order to achieve or prevent change in public memory by working outside state channels” (Gutman and Wüstenberg, 2022, 2).
A little bit of elaboration might be useful here. Memory activists can be engaged in both collective action (as organised or spontaneous social movements would be) but also include individual activity. In fact, some of the most effective and affective memory activism has been undertaken by “lonely voices” calling for justice or remembrance. One example of this is “White Armband Day,” a commemorative action protesting the ban on public remembrance of atrocities committed in 1992 in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was begun by a lone activist, Emir Hodzić, by standing silently on a public square with a white armband in 2012. Shortly thereafter, the photo of Hodzić went viral and inspired thousands across the world to post photos of themselves with white armbands, resulting in a “transnational online memory network” (Fridman and Ristić, 2020, 74). Gutman and I also contend that memory activism is strategic (i.e. intentionally seeks to achieve particular objectives, even if not always successfully). Many processes that are crucial to how we remember the past, such as family remembrances, history writing and cultural production, are not automatically memory activism – though all of them could certainly be utilized in the service of memory activism. We also understand memory activists to be operating outside of (though not necessarily against) the state. When memory activist projects experience institutionalisation, they may still be influential for their cause, but they are no longer grassroots activism. Memory activism can be aimed at both transforming society and preventing change, and it can work both for “progressive causes” such as democratization and peacebuilding, and to conjure hatred or deepen divisions. This point is especially important: memory activism is a concept that can help us understand mobilization and repertoires of action right across the political spectrum.
In the context of the MeMiRe project, I would like to stress two aspects of memory activism research. First, the notion of the memory activist is a relational one; in other words, this designation only makes sense when you understand an actor in relation to others operating in the arena of memory-making. Gutman and I have developed a typology of memory activists, one dimension of which is made up of the roles that memory activists tend to adopt – including victims, heroes or resistors, “entangled agents”, and pragmatists. Building on Erving Goffman’s social interactionism, we argue that though biographical factors are inevitably important, they never wholly determine a memory activist’s stance in society. The “presentation of self is rooted in symbolic interaction, playing a role successfully depends on whether society accepts one’s choice and performance as legitimate or not and may change over time” (Gutman and Wüstenberg, 2022, 6). Thus, whether or not a memory activist can successfully achieve their objectives depends on how they manoeuvre in the networks in which they are embedded and through which they are recognised by others.
Second, memory activism scholarship is very much part of the “third wave” of memory studies that continues to be concerned with how memory can be understood as mobile, as driven by new kinds of actors, and as transcending various kinds of boundaries, including national ones. The third wave has brought with it a rich and varied array of work on the connection between migration and memory, as the MeMiRe project exemplifies. And migrants are, as it turns out, extraordinarily active and frequent memory activists, as several contributions to the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Memory Activism show (see Yildiz, Dekel, Dischereit, Mutluer, Woodley/Wüstenberg in Gutman and Wüstenberg, forthcoming). This may be because of migrants’ broad repertoire of collective and mnemonic action and knowledge, their mobile experiences, their often precarious situation, or their heightened awareness of mnemonic differences or conflicts. In any case, it is clear that thinking and practice in the area of memory activism can make important contributions at the intersection of memory, migration and relationality.
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