Hsc History And Memory Essay By Ralph

Posted: Thu, 22/08/2013 - 11:10

I would like to thank the reviewer for his close reading of the volume. It is not my intention in this response to take issue with any element of the review; rather to reflect on a few of the general comments made in it about the apparent wane of (postmodernist) theorising in the discipline of history. I agree with the reviewer that the edited volume is broadly empiricist in tone, as well as in method. And I think he is right to suggest that it will more readily satisfy those who like to see their theory closely aligned with historical practice. This is indeed deliberate, not least because Memory and History sits within the Routledge Using Historical Sources series, whose remit is not to exclude – if neither solely to address – an audience of undergraduate and post-graduate students, as well as non-specialist scholars working in the Anglophone university sphere, who may well turn to the book for pointers about how to approach the study of memory through extant primary material rather than for a theoretical Weltanschauung.  That is why the chapters consider distinct genres of source – letters, photography, fiction, trial testimony, etc. – as well as disparate periods and places.

Yet, as the reviewer suggests, the request for some kind of systematic theorization within memory studies has been a common refrain in the scholarly literature. This is not necessarily a demand for theorising memory itself (although that has been common enough, especially where collective memory is concerned); rather, it is a conviction that getting a handle on the multiple, and perhaps interpenetrating analytical frameworks within which ‘memory’ of one kind or another has been, or can be, understood across a range of disciplines, enables a more rigorous and dialogic engagement among scholars.(1) And it has also been a plea for a historicisation of the notion of memory itself, as the introduction to the volume explores.

What strikes me about the most serious, systematic and – above all – influential attempts in English to theorize memory in this way, however, is that they have emanated from sociologists, or sociologically inclined historians – such as Jeffrey Olick and Wulf Kansteiner – who generally bypass the long-lived engagement within literary criticism and some kinds of intellectual history with (largely French) structuralist or post-structuralist theories of language. Thus while a few foundational works in the field draw in some measure on the work of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida (and these theorists find some echo in current scholarship), I would say that the loudest scholarly conversations in memory studies over the last two decades or so – precisely the period of the cross-disciplinary fight over the value of postmodernist approaches – barely mention them. (2) Instead, it is the significance for the field of the writings of early sociologists such as Maurice Halbwachs and Emile Durkheim that is stressed in the great volume of scholarly writing on memory. And although Marek Tamm has recently championed the semiotically inclined works of continental European writers on memory such as Astrid Erll, the central plank of his argument – that historians would do well to deploy a notion of ‘mnemohistory’ in their work; in other words to become attuned to ‘the two levels he [the historian] is simultaneously working on: the historicisation of the phenomenon of the past and the historicisation of his own work’ – does not depend overtly on post-structuralist insights.(3)

Clearly, one does not need postmodernism (or its component part, post-structuralism) in order to theorise memory. And neither does one need postmodernism, I would argue, in order to identify and to explain the impact of the so-called linguistic turn on the development of memory studies and on the historical discipline as a whole, however much scholars continue to conflate the ‘linguistic turn’ with ‘[t]he deconstructionist impulse of postmodernism’.(4) The epistemologically radical refusal of objective truth, so associated with post-structuralist approaches to language, is worlds away from the kind of linguistic turn made famous after the late 1960s by the outstanding historian of early modern political thought, Quentin Skinner, whose methodology drew instead on the ‘speech act’ theories of British analytical philosopher John Austin.(5) In any case, the generalisation within the discipline of the insight that our evidence is almost always in some sense rhetorically constructed – an appreciation that has undoubtedly nourished the scholarly memory boom – is as characteristic of what some postmodernist historians call ‘constructivist’ history writing as of ‘deconstructionist’ varieties.(6) It is not so much that postmodernism is on the wane in studies of memory, as that it never secured a foothold there in the first place.

Ultimately, I am in two minds about the value of systematic theorising. While rigour in the thinking and writing about memory – or any subject – should prevent the facile replication of buzz words wrenched free from any meaningful intellectual or other context, I sometimes wonder whether the drive towards systematisation that characterises some sociological investigation on the subject might not lead to a new positivism for the 21st century, something that in fact runs counter to the very scholarly trends that enabled the rise of ‘memory studies’ in the first place, at least among mainstream historians. Like the temptation to draw on recent discoveries in neuroscience as a potential arbiter of ‘what memory really means’, there is a danger that we permit a new essentialism to take hold.(7) Better, I would think, for historians to work towards a more conceptually reflective and robust kind of empiricism. This is what is offered by Neil Gregor in his recent social history of memory in post-war Nuremberg, an ‘empirically saturated study’ of grassroots memorial cultures whose immersion in source material that speaks to the words and deeds of those enmeshed in local networks, manages practically to collapse – and thus to resolve – one entrenched methodological divide in the field of memory, that between the representational and the experiential. (8)


(1) See The Collective Memory Reader, ed. Jeffrey K. Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, and Daniel Levy (Oxford and New York, NY, 2011), and especially the lengthy attempt to systematise what – and how – we know about memory in its introduction, pp. 3–62.

(2) Aleida Assmann, Cultural Memory and Western Civilization: Functions, Media, Archives (Cambridge, 2011 [orig. German edition 1999]) draws on Roland Barthes’ theories of the image and Jacques Derrida’s approach to the ‘archive’. In Caroline Wake, ‘Regarding the recording: the viewer of video testimony, the complexity of coprescence and the possibility of tertiary witnessing’, History and Memory, 25, 1 (2013), 111–44, the ideas of both Barthes and Derrida, despite being cited, take a back seat to the author’s engagement with the works of intellectual historian Dominick LaCapra and sociologist Shanyang Zhao.

(3) Marek Tamm, ‘Beyond history and memory: new perspectives in memory studies’, History Compass, 11, 6 (2013), 458–73; here 464. Tamm is consciously building on the approach of Jan Assmann, which in turn is in part derived from the philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer.

(4) Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, ‘A Looming crash or a soft landing? Forecasting the future of the memory “industry”’, The Journal of Modern History, 81, 1 (2009), 134. See also Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (London, 1997), who seems to conflate postmodernism with what is often called the ‘new cultural history’, pp. 243–9, in his discussion of the work of Natalie Zemon Davis and Robert Darnton.

(5) Quentin Skinner, ‘Meaning and understanding in the History of Ideas’, History and Theory, 8, 1 (1969), 3–53.

(6) These are two of the main categories used to describe tendencies within historical scholarship in The Nature of History Reader, ed. Keith Jenkins and Alun Munslow (London, 2004).

(7) For engagement with neuroscience, see several contributions to Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates, ed. Susannah Radstone and Bill Schwarz (New York, NY, 2010).

(8) Neil Gregor, Haunted City: Nuremberg and the Nazi Past, (New Haven, CT and London, 2008), p. 20.

Every society has its collective memories. Greece has the Iliad and the Odyssey. The U.S. has, among others, Washington and the cherry tree, Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin and his inventions, Thomas Edison, and, if that could be counted as memory, Johnny Appleseed. China has, among others, the Great Wall that was a constant reminder of the Chinese border in the north and west historically and imparted different memories at different times; classics of history, literature, poetry, and philosophy that display layers and dimensions of Chinese thought, and technological inventions such as gunpowder, the compass, paper, and movable printing types that every Chinese child learns in their primary school history textbooks. Individual memories, of course, are in greater variety and complexity than collective memories.

Memory, Pierre Nora argues, becomes a subject of study especially when great changes take place in society and rupture the existent flow of events. (Nora, p.1) In the case of France, for instance, industrialization and its replacement of peasant culture led to the study of peasant culture as the repository of collective memory. It was this very rupture with the past that leads to a self-conscious quest of memory. One becomes especially conscious of changes that had taken place when they find that memories evoked in certain places (lieux de memoire) no longer correspond to the changed reality [for instance, the Versailles Palace, once the exalted residence of the king, still existed, but the association between it and the king it evoked no longer bespoke of the reality after the French Revolution]. The settings (milieux de memoire) in which memory is a real part of daily experience have changed.

I am sure every one has had moments when they are jostled into remembrance by changes around what used to be familiar to them. One example for me is those one story traditional Chinese houses in downtown Beijing, capital of China, where roofs with grey tiles that are curved upward sit on top of maroon colored houses. Low walls with similar roofs and color nearby still remind people that these current shops used to be part of the royal palace. The skyscrapers nearby accentuate the changes from what those imperial palace houses represented. The settings for those palace houses have changed. The emperor was long gone. Now these places become tourist attractions. On one of the streets where these houses run, there is a big sign that reads: big tour bus stop. This contrast between the traditional and the modern may produce memory or imagined remembrance even among non-residents of Beijing, perhaps a flash of wonderment of what life used to be like when these houses belonged to the emperor and his royal family. On top of Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace), the front gate of the Forbidden City where emperors and, lately, the Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung and others reviewed their people, it has now become a tourist attraction. Any one, with a purchased ticket and security checkup, can climb on top of Tiananmen, where souvenir shops take up two thirds of the space. I tried to find the exact spot where Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China, which to many Chinese marked the beginning of China's independence from foreign control. The absence of any markings to indicate that event simply accentuated how much China has changed from Mao's days (1949-1976). For me, it was simply another reason to review my memory of Communist China.

In the U.S., September 11 was also another rupture from the past that pushed many into the self-conscious pursuit of remembrance. The wreckage of the World Trade Center, or even the new construction on the site of the former World Trade Center, would evoke memories of the past that would be quickly and painfully corrected by the changes that have taken place there, and changes to American lives everywhere. This experience has pushed many Americans to ask questions about the past that they had taken for granted. The present interest in memory, among historians and non-historians alike, stem largely from the ramifications of Sept.11.

One may ask then, isn't history made from memory any way? While every society has its collective and individual memories, history is a more self-selective and conscious enterprise. Nora defines history as a means with which modern societies organize their past that they will otherwise forget because they are driven by change. (Nora, p.2) Societies have changed dramatically especially since the 20th century. Many traditional and tribal societies have given way to modern nation states, from China, Japan, Korea to the tribes in Africa. In the latter case, the tribes were first organized into colonies by European powers in the 19th century. These colonies were transformed into modern nation states largely by 1960. This quickening of historical events caused by factors external to the traditional societies also causes the loss of memory of these societies. Here, Nora defines memory as all powerful, sweeping, un-self-conscious, inherently present-minded, and a memory without a past that eternally recycles a heritage. (Nora, p.2). In other words, collective memory, being un-self-conscious, belongs to an earlier era of traditional and primitive societies, while history is the modern human being's collective memory.

History writing varies from country to country. In some countries, history is intertwined with building nationalism, hence there is a unified approach and interpretation of certain events. In the U.S., Nora argues, because of the plural American society, history is not so much associated with nation building, hence there are multiple interpretations to the same historical events. A critical study of history, Nora argues, shows that we no longer identify with that part of history. And it shows history consciously tries to extricate itself from the limitations of memory. (p.4) This critical study of history, or the study of historiography, shows conscious human efforts to differ from the past.

In the writing of history, ideology plays an important role. For instance, from the 1870s to 1933, French nationalism, in the competition between France and Germany, played an important role in shaping French history. The breakdown of that union in the increasing importance that society and different social groups played in history as society became more democratic led to more diverse historical narratives. (Nora, pp.5,6)

Even though memory has now largely been replaced by reconstructed history, historical locations still evoke a sense of the past. And despite that the old framework of nationalism [that requires the construction of only one narrative of the state] does not quite work any more, that old framework still is useful in some ways and has provided valuable understanding of the historical past. (Nora, p.6). To Nora, this simply shows that despite that humans have abandoned their spontaneous memory for conscious construction of history, they still instinctively cry out for memory, that live, spontaneous experience. Museums, monuments, etc., for Nora simply show the contrast between the past they represent and the present societies. Visiting them has to take conscious efforts, like rituals, in an otherwise ritual-less society. (Nora, pp.6-7) Collective memory, Nora further points out, is a deliberate effort, such as in the form of holidays, national anthems, as well as monuments and other means to commemorate the past and prevent it from slipping away from our memory. (p.7) The need for memory, or this kind of collective memory, is actually a need for history. a conscious reconstruction of the past. (8)

This need for history/reconstructed memory has a modern conundrum: too much paperwork. With the proliferation of raw materials for history came the democratization of history writing: in the past, the church, the state, and great families composed history. Nowadays any one can write history and store historical materials. The proliferation and confusion of documents is something Nora disapproves of. (9-10)

The proliferation of memoirs, genealogies, and autobiographies by ordinary individuals, to Nora, is the inevitable result of the transition from rural to industrial societies. Traditionally, memory in rural France rested with the soil. With the decline of rural life, memory was traced more to the self, and to psychology, hence the growing individualism and individuation of historical memories. (Nora, 11) This kind of individualized memory also calls on the individuals to keep it alive, e.g. in the conscious transmissions of family genealogies. This individuation of memory contrasts with the vast, and almost purposeless, collection of sources in the archives, another form of memory construction. The latter form of memory collection seems purposeless because it is oriented toward the future. Since the archivists do not know what questions the future holds for us, they put anything and everything into the archives.

In an age of the loss of a collective root for memory (e.g. the agrarian setting in France) and confusion over what the future holds, there has been, for Nora, a proliferation of interest for recreated memory that resembled as closely as possible to real memory. Hence the job of the historian is not just to catalogue and record events, but to recreate them so they come alive, as if they were lived memory, hyper-reality. The historian becomes the memory man, or link of memory (Nora, 14).

Links of memory, or lieux de memoire, are both natural and constructed. In many ways, they help serve as the transition from the past to the present, by embodying change and incorporating traditional elements in them, such as the new calendar during the French Revolution that employed both new and traditional French names.(p.15) Similarly, the same history textbook good for French school children in 1877 that glorified the French nation might not be the most suitable history textbook in the 1930s when other concerns took over. Hence the links or locations of memory changed with time, to suit the need of the time in question. History books can serve as links or locations of memory when they reshape people's memories of the past. (17)

Nora also identifies certain lieux de memoire as dominant ones and others as dominated ones. The dominant ones are usually sanctioned and patronized by the state. One is summoned to them. They and the others are certainly the result of historical reconstruction.(p.19)

What Nora tries to argue in this essay is that the pursuit and study of memory is often caused by change. Changes in society, politics, mode of life, religion, etc., all cause people to attempt to grasp the past. The historical constructs, or links/locations of memory, on the other hand, are based on both historical facts and human reconstruction, to satisfy intellectual, emotional, and other needs. Therefore the study of history, or links/locations of memory, is not just to study the reality, but very much the study of reconstructed reality and, along with it, why people recreate the reality in certain ways, to satisfy what purpose.

Reflected in this course, even though Nora's essay is about French history, it can be applied to many areas of Chinese studies. China is a country that witnessed vast changes in the past 150 years. It changed from an empire to a republic (1911), fought a war with Japan (1937-1945), which was the Asian phase of World War II, became a Communist country (1949), and went on to execute capitalist style reforms in 1978. These changes brought about constant reflections of Chinese memories. The study of Chinese historical memory, therefore, is also a study of how the Chinese perceived their changes in history, and how they explained/justified/resisted these changes. Growing up in Communist China, I grew accustomed to having one Communist clique denounce another, only to be denounced by its successor. Heroes of one era became villains of another, and heroes again of yet another. This constant reinterpretation of history could be a mind boggling experience if one lived through it for very long. It eventually numbs some people to historical interpretations, rendering one very cynical and resistant to any attempt to assign meaning to history.  On the other hand, this historical reflection on memory of the past is also a good source to understand what people think at present.

In this course, we start from the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), and more specifically, a particular event during that war, in December 1937 to January 1938, when in a matter of weeks, tens or hundreds of thousands of Chinese were slaughtered in the city of Nanjing (Nanking). We look at the memory or examination of the historical memory from the Chinese side and the Japanese side, and from their studies of their respective memories of the Nanjing Massacre, we try to understand the historical and particular forces that shaped the Chinese and Japanese approaches to the study of their historical memories.

To facilitate this course, I am giving a very brief outline of modern Chinese history below. Please also check out the Modern Chinese history online text that I have provided through a separate link right after this. That text should provide the background you need to situate the events discussed in this class in historical perspective. Always feel free to ask questions, though, to me or fellow students.

1. Definition of Modern China

2.China before 1840

. China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

4. Trajectories of modern development:

    5. Definition of modern Japan

    Like in China, Japan had an imperial system.  But unlike in China, after the 13th century, with the imminence of foreign invaders such as the Mongols, the ruling dynasties were largely military aristocrats and the emperor was overshadowed.  The last military aristocratic dynasty (1603-1868) was established by Tokugawa Ieyasu.  Tokugawa Japan saw steady development of government, economy, and commerce.  But like China after the 1500s, the country was increasingly closing itself up to the outside world, especially the Western world.  Overseas trade was banned by the government.  The only Europeans allowed to be in Japan, the Dutch, had to live on a small island off the four main islands of Japan.  The Tokugawa government led to a new round of introduction of Chinese learning, including the idea of meritocracy and a social hierarchy.  It was a military government, led by a military general (shogun), who gave fiefs to his followers (daimyo), and he himself as well as his daimyo had many retainers (samurai).  It was a system that resembled European feudalism.  Like in Qing China, around 1850, the West requested Japan to open up for trade.  The Tokugawa government's wavering over this led to its overthrow by the pro-emperor forces.  The end of the Tokugawa era led to the so-called restoration of the emperor to the center of politics.  Unlike in China where the imperial system was overthrown, in Japan the emperor was judiciously kept to maintain a sense of continuity.   

    6. Japanese trajectory of modern development:



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