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Pierre Nora “Between Memory and History”

Nora, Pierre 1989. Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire. – Representations 26: 7-25

With the appearance of the trace, of mediation, of distance, we are not in the realm of true memory but of history. […] Memory and history, far from being synonymous, appear now to be in fundamental opposition. Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. […] History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer. Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past. Memory, insofar as it is affective and magical, only accommodates those facts that suit it […] (8) History, because it is an intellectual and secular production, calls for analysis and criticism. (8-9)

At the heart of history is a critical discourse that is antithetical to spontaneous memory. History is perpetually suspicious of memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it. […] History’s goal and ambition is not to exalt but to annihilate what has in reality taken place. (9)

History’s procurement, in the last century, of scientific methodology has only intensified the effort to establish critically a “true” memory. Every great historical revision has sought to enlarge the basis for collective memory. (9)

With the advent of society in place of the nation, legitimation by the past and therefore by history yields to legitimation by the future. One can only acknowledge and venerate the past and serve the nation; the future, however, can be prepared for: thus the three terms regain their autonomy. No longer a cause, the nation has become a give; history is now a social science, memory a purely private phenomenon. The memory-nation was thus the last incarnation of the unification of memory and history. (11)

What we call memory today is therefore not memory but already history. What we take to be flare-ups of memory are in fact its final consumption in the flames of history. The quest for memory is the search for one’s history. (13)

Modern memory is, above all, archival. It relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image. […] The less memory is experienced from the inside the more it exists only through its exterior scaffolding and outward signs – hence the obsession with the archive that marks our age, attempting at once the complete conservation of the present as well as the total preservation of the past. (13)

What we call memory is in fact the gigantic and breathtaking storehouse of a material stock of what it would be impossible for us to remember, an unlimited repertoire of what might need to be recalled. (13)

No longer living memory’s more or less intended remainder, the archive has become the deliberate and calculated secretion of lost memory. It adds to life – itself often a function of its own recording – a secondary memory, a prosthesis-memory. (14)

The passage from memory to history has required every social group to redefine its identity through the revitalization of its own history. The task of remembering makes everyone his own historian. The demand for history has thus largely overflowed the circle of professional historians. […] The decomposition of memory-history has multiplied the number of private memories demanding their individual histories. (15)

In the last analysis, it is upon the individual and upon the individual alone that the constraint of memory weighs insistently as well as imperceptibly. The atomization of a general memory into a private one has given the obligation to remember a power of internal coercion. It gives everyone the necessity to remember and to protect the trappings of identity; when memory is no longer everywhere, it will not be anywhere unless one takes the responsibility to recapture it through individual means. (16)

In addition to archive-memory and duty-memory, a third aspect is needed to complete the picture of this modern metamorphosis: distance-memory. […] our relation to the past, at least as it reveals itself in major historical studies, is something entirely different from what we would expect from a memory: no longer a retrospective continuity but the illumination of discontinuity. (16)

Just as the future – formerly a visible, predictable, manipulable, well-marked extension of the present – has come to seem invisible, unpredictable, uncontrollable, so have we gone from the idea of a visible past to an invisible one; from a solid and steady past to our fractured past; from a history sought in the continuity of memory to a memory cast in the discontinuity of history. (16-17)

But the loss of a single explanatory principle, while casting us into a fragmented universe, has promoted every object – even the most humble, the most improbable, the most inaccessible – to the dignity of a historical mystery. (17)

We could speak of mirror-memory if all mirrors did not reflect the same – for it is difference that we are seeking, and in the image of this difference, the ephemeral spectacle of an unrecoverable identity. It is no longer genesis that we seek but instead the decipherment of what we are in the light of what we are no longer. (17-18)

The historian’s is a strange fate; his role and place in society were once simple and clearly defined: to be the spokesman of the past and the herald of the future. […] But with the disintegration of history-memory, a new type of historian emerges who, unlike his precursors, is ready to confess the intimate relation he maintains to his subject. Better still, he is ready to proclaim it, deepen it, make of it not the obstacle but the means of his understanding. (18)

As historiography has entered its epistemological age, with memory ineluctably engulfed by history, the historian has become no longer a memory-individual but, in himself, a lieu de mémoire. (18)

Lieux de mémoire are simple and ambiguous, natural and artificial, at once immediately available in concrete sensual experience and susceptible to the most abstract elaboration. Indeed, they are lieux in three senses of the word – material, symbolic, and functional. (18-19)

Lieux de mémoire are created by a play of memory and history, an interaction of two factors that results in their reciprocal overdetermination. (19)

For if we accept that the most fundamental purpose of the lieu de mémoire is to stop time, to block the work of forgetting, to establish a state of things, to immortalized death, to materialize the immaterial […] all of this in order to capture a maximum of meaning in the fewest of signs, it is also clear that lieux de mémoire only exist because of their capacity for metamorphosis, and endless recycling of their meaning and an unpredictable proliferation of their ramifications. (19)

As for “great events”, only two types are especially pertinent, and not in any way as a function of their “greatness”. On the one hand, there are those minuscule events, barely remarked at the time, on which posterity retrospectively confers the greatness of origins, the solemnity of inaugural ruptures. On the other hand, there are those nonevents that are immediately charged with heavy symbolic meaning and that, at the moment of their occurrence, seem like anticipated commemorations of themselves; contemporary history, by means of the media, has seen a proliferation of stillborn attempts to create such events. (22)

The founding event or the spectacular event, but in neither case the event itself: indeed, it is the exclusion of the event that defines the lieu de mémoire. Memory attaches itself to sites, whereas history attaches itself to events. (22)

Contrary to historical objects, however, lieux de mémoire have no referent in reality; or, rather, they are their own referent: pure, exclusively self-referential signs. This is not to say that they are without content, physical presence, or history; it is to suggest that what makes them lieux de mémoire is precisely that by which they escape from history. In this sense, the lieu de mémoire is double: a site of excess closed upon itself, concentrated in its own name, but also forever open to the full range of its possible significations. (23-24)

History has become the deep reference of a period that has been wrenched from its depths, a realistic novel in a period in which there are no real novels. Memory has been promoted to the center of history: such is the spectacular bereavement of literature. (24)

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