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Pierre Nora “Between Memory and History”

December 29, 2011 Leave a comment

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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Pierre Nora “General Introduction” [to “Rethinking France”]

December 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Nora, Pierre 2001. General Introduction. – Nora, Pierre (ed). Rethinking France: Les Lieux de Mémoire. Volume I – The State. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press: vii-xxii

[…] the history of the present was not simply the temporal extension of traditional history but was governed by another system of historicity. This new form of history was dominated by the notion of the „present“, which called for different ways of connecting with and describing the past. (x)

Historical time of the revolutionary type is informed by the desire for rupture. The devaluation of the notion of rupture that accompanied the decline of the revolutionary idea [since 1970s] restored legitimacy to the idea of tradition. Not a tradition of which we would be the heirs and sustainers (as in the revolutionary mode), but a tradition from which we would be forever separated, one that would thereby become precious, mysterious, and imbued with an uncertain meaning, which was our task to recover. The meteoric rise of the cult of national heritage has no other source. Its secret? The disappearance of historical time dominated by the revolutionary idea restored to the past its freedom, its indetermination, its stature – both material and immaterial. (xiii)

In sum, there is a collective national history on the one hand, private memories on the other. […] It was on this division that traditional French identity was constucted and developed for a century, and this was the mold that cracked. It cracked under a double movement: the internal collapse of the myth that bore the national project and the emancipation that liberated the minorities.

This double movement burst forth in the crucial decade of the 1970s, when France experienced a key transformation. The emergence of a sovereign, tyrannical, and almost intrusive „national memory“ was tied directly to the transition from a historical consciousness of self to a social consciousness; national identity was replaced by social identities. (xiv-xv)

What in France is now called the „national memory“ is nothing other than the transformation of historic memory, which has been invaded, subverted, and flooded by group memories. (xv)

[…] our present is being enslaved to memory, that is to the fetishism of signs, an obsession with history, an accumulation of the material remains of the national past, and to the infinite ways of expressing the national life – not only its history, but also its landscapes, its traditions, its ways of eating, and its long-gone methods of production. Everything is historical, everything is worth remembering, and everything belongs to out memory. (xviii)

Pierre Nora “Recent History and the New Dangers of Politicization”

December 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Nora, Pierre 2011. Recent History and the New Dangers of Politicization. – Eurozine. (http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2011-11-24-nora-en.html)

This term should not be taken to mean a ferocious politicization of historians themselves but as the inevitable process of transforming what they produce into an ideology, of transforming the world in which historians work and with which they have to deal into an ideological system, just as once they had to deal with the discovery of their own historical authenticity.

In fact, it is the present that has, essentially, become the province of history and it is the present that has even extended its methods to interpretation of the distant past. It is a present that is being written by and beneath the gaze of those involved in it: the living, witnesses, or victims. It is a kind of history which, by the same token, is reawakening the age−old rivalry between memory and history.

It appears that, on the morning after the battle, the historian is called upon to be a witness for the witnesses.

It is historians’ own relationship with the object of their study and their commitment to it that is changing completely.

This downwards shift in history’s centre of gravity has prompted what the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has called “public use of history”, and what Jacques Revel and François Hartog have frankly translated as “political use of history”.

There has been an increase, too, in the number of “customers” for history: those who distribute, produce and consume it. […] The “age of the witness” proclaimed by Annette Wieviorka has become what I call “the age of commemoration”.

With the traditional kind of history, based on exploration of the past and exclusion of the present, the historian had a monopoly on the past. The weight of contemporary witness has robbed him of that mastery. And by the same token, the past has ceased to be a body of knowledge and has become an issue.

The Annales type of history was, in France, the embodiment of an opening up to the world, to social sciences, a history purged of the distractions of political turns of events, dedicated to exceptional individuals. Down, it cried, with narrowly political and national history as typified by the struggle against history based on events. Yet, as Krzysztof Pomian demonstrated in his article on “L’Heure des Annales” (“The Time of the Annales”) in Les Lieux de mémoire, the national preoccupation never abandoned the Annales historians. When one sums it up, what one ends up with is a national history that was totally renewed by the fact that it drew on the social sciences.

The very foundations of the profession of the historian have changed. Historians are no longer part of or borne by the historical continuity for which they used to be both agents and guarantors. They have lost their certainties and magisterial status. On the other hand, as interpreters and experts in social demand, as a bulwark against political and public pressure, they are more necessary than ever.

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