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June 15, 2010

Aldermaston Ethnography: Activism Identity section

This is the activism Identity section of my ethnography I did in March after the Aldermaston trip. The actual ethnography itself is well over 9,000 words, so I thought this section is the most self contained. 

I will need to cut it down, but at this stage I don't know by how much, as I'm not sure how much space other articles will take up. I will cut it down to act as a gaps filler to make up the 12 pages, so please do make comments, but understand it will end up being a lot shorter possibly.

The bring-and-share meal

As was touched upon in the previous section, the bring-and-share is a lynch pin of student activism. Members of the Aldermaston affinity group frequently joked about the pulling-power of the bring-and-share over and above any sense of social duty or conviction. Facetiousness aside though, the act of sharing a meal that everyone has in some way contributed towards is a tangible and enjoyable example of the anarchist principle of reciprocity and mutual aid.[1] All but one member of the Aldermaston group was vegetarian, and among those a significant minority tend to live on a vegan diet. This is fairly common amongst activists, either for ethical reasons or environmental reasons[2], or a combination. In the case of the latter particularly, a vegetarian/vegan diet is an example of reflexivity and the day-to-day application of politics.

Last year’s S0.21 sit-in coincided with ‘Go Vegan Month’, and the arguably difficult transition to a vegan diet –most beers, snack foods, and even meat substitute products contain animal produce- was made easier by the support of an entire group which shared the responsibility for cooking good vegan food on a massive scale. The bring-and-share lunches in the Gaia space offered, on a smaller scale, the same support. Whilst members of the group bought some foods from Gaia, a significant number of dishes were home made, including risotto, falafel, salads, and vegan cakes.

Perhaps the most notable food combination connected with activism is pitta bread and humous. This, along with falafel is a staple part of any bring-and-share. Evidently neither originate from Western Europe; the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine suggests a cultural import possibly associated with the pro-Palestinian ethos of many activist groups. This is an unsubstantiated claim, but arguably not without some merit. Humous was voraciously consumed by the Aldermaston group to such an extent that one group member brought twelve pots with her on the outward journey!


The act of smoking amongst activists is something that has been covered in David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography, and whilst only two members of the Aldermaston group were regular smokers, it is still worth mentioning how the idea was often mooted that support roles for non-arrestables should include rolling cigarettes –all three arm-tubers would be incapable of doing this themselves with at most one free arm.

Language and humour

By no means are all of Warwick’s student activists studying for degrees in politics, sociology or history, however the use of certain vocabulary indicates at least a passing acquaintance with these fields of study. Conversation often includes esoteric terminology. Frequent reference to ‘prefiguration’, ‘reflexivity’, and ‘heteronormativity’ is a distinctive trait of Dissident Warwick, and the collective that produces it. This type of language’s use in everyday speech is perhaps more remarkable. It is also fairly problematic. One of the Warwick anarchist group –and broader activist community’s- oft-voiced concerns is how many people perceive it to be a revolutionary vanguard. The common usage of academic and esoteric language seems to perpetuate this perception.

Perhaps aware of this, or at the least aware of how bizarre the straight-faced use of the above terms in a social environment is, the use of academic language has begun to inform the humour of the group. In an equally perplexing and exclusionary fashion, the group’s humour has become largely self-referential. For reasons all but forgotten –though usually cited as originating during the Faslane preparations in 2007- the group finds great amusement in suggesting actions or protests that take place ‘in waves’.

Another saying that has become commonplace in the last few years is the disparaging remark, “X has/have no analysis”; mostly used to decry the ‘reformism’ (another black word) of the moderate left.

In reference to the group’s constant use of compound phrases like ‘anarcho-feminism’, ‘anarcho-pacifism’, ‘post-Marxist’, ‘neo-liberal’, such prefixes are used to describe seemingly incongruous nouns. ‘Neo-laddish behaviour’ and ‘post-sexist’ can be understood without the prefix, which is solely used to denote the fact that a member of the group is doing or being it in a facetious manner.

Drawing more directly from the PAIS degree programme, a mock-credence is given to J.S. Mill’s notion of ‘lower pleasures’ and hedonism. If someone wishes to make fun of another person in the group, accusing them of preferring ‘lower pleasures’ will suffice.

This should not be understood as a permanent or embedded aspect of activist identity. As we have explored, affinity groups at university are inherently transient, and so to are the stylings of its humour.

Arguably more analytically important is the prominence of foreign languages –most particularly Spanish- in activism. A number of the chants, slogans and songs most associated with socialism, communism and anarchism aren’t in English. The Internationale (French), and Bella Ciao (Italian) are both notable, deriving, in the case of Bella Ciao particularly from the anti-fascist struggles of the twentieth century.

Spanish is the predominant influence however. ‘Compañero’ is used among the Warwick group interchangeably with ‘comrade’, and in written form the male-centric grammar that gives primacy to the masculine in a mixed address (compañeros) is rejected in favour of the gender-neutral ‘compañer@s’.[3] Four members of the Warwick affinity group (although not of the Aldermaston group) have spent around a year in Latin America, two of whom spent the majority of their time in Chiapas, Mexico, visiting the Zapatista liberation movement. As a result, eight out of 24 pages in the latest issue of Dissident were given over to studies of the Zapatista struggles for autonomy and in gender issues.[4]

Clothing and symbols

The rejection of capitalism and the unjust relations of production that capital entails means that activists’ clothing tends to reflect this. The collusion of many high street labels in sweatshop labour has been both the focus of campaigns, and informs the dress habits of the community. Most recently in early 2009, Russell Corp, a subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom, sacked over 1,000 workers in its Honduran factory for attempting to unionise. Fruit of the Loom are a major provider of apparel to universities. A pan-Atlantic universities boycott, including support from People and Planet in the UK eventually led to the reinstatement and compensation of the sacked workers.[5]

In terms of identity, the Aldermaston group’s clothing tended to reflect the politics or musical taste of the wearer. In this respect there is no profound distinction (in using clothing to express your identity) between the activist community and anyone emblazoning a Top Shop design across their t-shirt.

Briefly returning to the notion of a pro-Palestinian ethos mentioned in the bring-and-share section, the keffiyeh is a common accessory in the Warwick group, and the activist community internationally. This is hardly a recent import, but it is less and less a distinct marker of activist identity, or as an identifier of sympathy with Palestine. The keffiyeh has been increasingly co-opted by high-street shops as a generic fashion item. The name keffiyeh has been shed in favour of the anglicised ‘desert scarf’. According to Amazon.co.uk’s webpage, the desert scarf is ‘stylish and versatile…[a] must have fashion accessory for both girls and guys- 8 colours available’.[6] For the activist at Warwick then, authenticity and foreign origin seem to be the crucial distinguisher (along with referring to the keffiyeh by its ‘proper’ name), now that the identity marker has been diluted to include any fashion-conscious person.

In a final digression about the co-opting of once potent symbols of resistance or radical politics by the capitalist system[7], one of the Aldermaston group was canvassing for support on a new green initiative on campus in late 2009. In spotting a student wearing a t-shirt with a large CND ‘peace’ logo he approached her, expecting to find a kindred spirit. The girl, looking perplexed as to why he would walk across the entire length of the Piazza to speak to her, told him that she had “no interest in politics”. Our group member apologized, explaining how he had made an assumption about her based on her t-shirt. She cited the logo’s fashionableness and continued on her way.

In summary then, whilst there are some markers that the activist community continues to identify with after a decades-long history, the continued depoliticisation and marketisation of some of these symbols and items of clothing by capitalism has led to a nuanced reinvention of the identity marker, be it through the language used to describe the item (as with the keffiyeh/desert scarf binary), or its authenticity. Is it perhaps an understandable response to the alienation of many identity markers that certain elements of activist identity, such as the use of overtly political language in everyday speech, have been emphasized, as if in compensation?

Activist Identity: conclusion

It seems fitting to finish this section with a brief look at the politics of identity in relation to activism. In The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey puts forth a dichotomy between the ‘politics of being’ and the ‘politics of becoming’. Whereas liberalism, Marxism, and particularly anarchism are exercises in the politics of becoming –where the focus is less about what you are than what you can become; they all see themselves as universal, and not applicable just in a particular time and space- the predominant trend now, Harvey argues, is the politics of being, which, conversely is less about becoming anything than what you are. It is a form of identity politics located exclusively in the present tense, where geography, ethnicity and language are particularly relevant.

In the postmodern world, where so much is in a state of flux, he posits that the politics of being, and the often sectarian identity politics that this entails, has risen in prominence to counteract increasing casualisation and fluidity in the labour market, and social relations, and in doing so, provide some much needed psychological stability.

When we consider the above sections on activist identity through Harvey’s analytical standpoint I believe we can show that despite immediate appearances, the activist community is still within the framework of a ‘politics of becoming’. Whilst some traits of activist identity might indicate an exclusionary or vanguardist community, as with the use of language or the perceived fundamentalism that an anti-capitalist stance comes with, others, such as the bring-and-share, are the epitome of mutual aid and an inclusive community. Indeed, the ‘prefigurative’ politics of most activists (where the ‘modes of organization and tactics undertaken…accurately reflect the future society being sought by the group’[8]) are inherently forward looking. The simultaneous feminist, green, and LGBTUA+ agendas that particularly define Warwick activism are the politics of emancipation, tout court.

[1] Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism: a Collection of Revolutionary Writings, (New York, 2002), p. 79.

[3] Puneet Dhaliwal and Sarah Reader, Zapatista Caracoles and Indigenous Emancipation in Chiapas, Mexico, (unpublished, 2009), p. 6

[7] The most ubiquitous being Che’s image.

June 14, 2010

Calais –Nomination for European City of Shame, 2010

This is Dariush's article:

Calais -- nomination for European City of Shame 2010

Sometimes a place -- it could be a town, a camp, a crossing, or some
muddy field -- becomes a concentration point, a sink, a trap, for all
the latent evil of the system of power that surrounds it. Calais is
not just a symbol of the brutality of the European border regime, of
the violence of colonialism turned inwards and compressed by "Fortress
Europe". The repression and misery here is very real, every day.

Calais is the only town where the French police division called the
CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité), dedicated riot police with
a vicious reputation, is on permanent duty. The policing strategy here
is simple: harass migrants, terrorise them away from Calais and the
France/UK border with the constant threat and reality of arrest,
beatings and detention. Like an occupying army, CRS companies are
based in barracks and rotated through Calais on three week tours.

There are somewhere around 300 destitute migrants living in Calais.
They come here in the hope of making it across the 26 miles of water
to the UK. There used to be several times that number, but the
clampdown has been at least partially successful. (Though the
political ambiguity here: does the repression shift the migrants away
from the border; or only make them try harder to get across?) Since
the closure in 2002 of the Red Cross run Sangatte refugee camp,
migrants have lived in whatever squats, shacks, tents, ruins "slums
and holes in the wall" they can find. Last September the Pashtun
migrants' "Jungle" was evicted in another show of state force. The
remaining Pashtuns currently live in a camp of disused train stock not
far from the old site.

I spent most of my recent two week stint in Calais with the mainly
Sudanese, Somali, Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants who live in the
squat called "Africa House". This deserted factory has been occupied
by different groups of African migrants for a number of years now.
When I arrived at the start of April, the CRS were raiding Africa
House early every morning. Every morning: beatings, and more
sans-papiers arrested, "controlled" and fingerprinted, and either just
held for a few hours or overnight, or the unlucky ones taken to the
detention centre at Coquelles. In the daytime, they patrol the streets
in their white vans, picking up migrants on the way to the charity
food distribution point, or by the water pumps, or at the phoneboxes,
or in the park catching a moment of sunshine. Calais without papers --
no safety nowhere.

Fear compounded with deprivation. In bigger raids the CRS are followed
by council workers who take away everything, blankets, tents, even
firewood. Drinking water poured into the sand. Sans-papiers have no
recourse when their personal belongings -- phones and money, or photos
and momentos -- are stolen by the men sent by the mayor who has
promised to "clean up the city".

"Calais, Calais, it's a horrible town." While I saw some solidarity
from locals who gave warning of police raids, I also saw how shops and
cafes in Calais are routinely "closed for a private event" whenever a
black face appears at the door. On goes everyday life, above and
below. Shopping malls, booze runs, Friday night on main street,
sunshine in the park ... beatings, detentions, humiliations,
fingerprintings, cataloguings, photographings, questionings, controls,
paper checks, "disinfectant" sprayings. Swastikas found scrawled on
the wall in soap after a police raid. The same shitty charity food
every day handed out in a blank open space surrounded by barbed wire.
The morning CRS wake-up call: allez allez - degage degage! (Go Go -
get out get out).

There are other nominees -- Brussels, Ceuta and Melilla, Lesbos ... --
but personally I'm backing Calais as clear frontrunner for European
City of Shame 2010. Some Darfuri refugees said -- "the police here are
worse than the Janjaweed. In Darfur you die in a moment and it's over.
Here they kill us slowly, day by day."

It's true, where there is power there is resistance. Power in Calais
is biopolitical, remorseless drip of control and deprivation.
Resistance, too, is small scale, everyday. Our morning patrols,
roadblocks or just trying to give a bit of early warning, are
sustained by cups of sugary tea brewed over pallet wood fires.
Smashing wood, carrying water, cleaning a wound, gifts of friendship,
gifts of words, Arabic words Amharic words English words, smiles and
gestures of welcome, phone numbers, morsels of information, music as

I did morning watch in Africa House every morning, in the afternoon I
taught English classes, in the evening I walked with my friends to get
food and water. Teachers and students will come and go, this is a
transient place, but we can share some useful information that should
help those who make it across. The lesson I'll always remember was on
the future tense, we each wrote on the board one sentence about a
world we would like to live in. "One day we will live in a world with
no borders and no governments." "There will be no wars." "There will
be no police." And one friend wrote: "we will all live together like
we do here in Africa House." Sharing firewood and sugar, welcoming
newcomers, keeping watch together, learning each others' languages. My
friend, one day soon I'll see you here in England, inshallah, and make
you welcome, as you made me welcome in Africa House.

Calais is a shameful place. But in the holes, in the cracks, adversity
creates courage, warmth, sparks of resistance, seeds of the future.
Against the searchlights of the CRS -- the firelights of travellers.
Calais gave me a new meaning for old words: "We have always lived in
slums and holes in the wall ... We are not in the least afraid of
ruins ... We carry a new world here, in our hearts." (Buenaventura

Activists are always needed to work with Calais No Borders: both on
the ground, and back in the UK. We have had a constant presence in
Calais since the No Borders camp last June. Apart from police patrols
the work can include first aid, opening squats and social centres,
film-making, assistance for the many unaccompanied minors in Calais,
supporting migrants arriving in the UK, solidarity demos, exhibitions
and infonights ... and much more.

For more information see our blog: http://calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com/
Email: calaisolidarity@gmail.com
UK phone: 07534 008380.

October 20, 2007

new address

this blog has moved to a new address: http://rethinkingtheseventies.splinder.com/

October 14, 2007

Welcome to DissidentWarwick

Welcome to DissidentWarwickEdit. Authors can login at the top right-hand corner to submit articles and edit. Readers - our frontpage blog is http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/dissidentwarwick, there you can read past issues and comment on articles.

October 08, 2007

Rethinking the seventies

Thirty years after the violent student protests in Italy, the collective memory of this period is still dominated by the image of the so-called 'leaden years'. On the other side many younger generations tend to idealize the 70s. So what do these years actually mean to us today? How to interpret them? - Let's stop condemning, or celebrating, and start rethinking.


A 30 anni dagli scontri violenti del marzo 1977, a Bologna soprattutto ma anche in altre città italiane, nella memoria collettiva prevale l'immagine della violenza. Gli anni di piombo. C'è anche un'altra interpretazione però che tende piuttosto a idealizzare questo periodo. Allora che cosa significano gli anni settanta in fondo, per noi oggi? Qual'è la via di mezzo? - Né condannare, né celebrare, ma ripensare.

August 22, 2007

Academic Conference: Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image, Identity


28th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies, Fordham University, New York City: March 29-30, 2008

Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image and Identity

Plenary speakers: Jonathan Riley-Smith (Cambridge).
Jaroslav Folda (UNC-Chapel Hill), and Geraldine Heng (UTexas-Austin)

For more information visit: http://www.fordham.edu/mvst/cfp_crusades.htm

Send an abstract and cover letter with contact details by October 20, 2007 to Crusades Conference Committee at medievals@fordham.edu,or fax to (718) 817-3987, or mail to Center for Medieval Studies, Fordham University, FMH 405B, Bronx, NY 10458.

Conference Abstract

Few events in European history generated as many textual, artistic, and intellectual responses as the conquest of Jerusalem by the armies of the First Crusade in 1099. This expedition, and those that followed it, were resonant events which became inscribed in the collective memory of communities directly or indirectly affected by the crusades, whether in Europe, Byzantium, North Africa, or the Near East.

In order to spotlight new directions in the study of the crusades and the perception of the past in medieval societies, the Center for Medieval Studies invites scholars of all disciplines to participate in a conference to be held at Fordham University on March 29-30, 2008. We welcome proposals for papers (twenty minutes in length) on any topic relating to how the crusades were remembered. Topics might include, but are not limited to: (1) the memorialization (or suppression) of individuals or events associated with the crusades by contemporary observers and subsequent generations; (2) the negotiation and production of crusading images and memories; and (3) the role of these images and memories in shaping both the crusading movement itself and the identities of communities affected by crusading

We look forward to joining with like-minded scholars from across the field of medieval studies in what promises to be a very lively academic discussion on this important subject.

February 02, 2007

Memory, Trauma & Violence in South Asia

Conference Stream on ‘Memory, Trauma and Violence in South Asia’ at the British Association for South Asian Studies (BASAS) Annual Conference and AGM, St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, UK, 28-30 March, 2007.

See conference link at: http://www.staff.brad.ac.uk/akundu/basas/conference07/basasc07.html

For more information, contact panel organizers, Guari Raje and Srila Roy: gauriraje@yahoo.com S.Roy@warwick.ac.uk

January 11, 2007

Centre for Popular Memory

Centre for Popular Memory

Here is a research centre at the University of Cape Town, South Africa that readers will find of interest.

Below is an excerpt from their web-site, which can be found by visiting:

The Centre for Popular Memory(CPM) records peoples’ stories.

Our four main areas are:

*Researching projects about popular memories and identities.

*Training students in memory studies, oral history and methodology.

*Archiving oral, visual and audio-visual forms of memory.

*Disseminating memories and stories to various audiences.

The Centre is based at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. We focus our activities both on and off campus and we are committed to using oral history, visual history and digital archiving to contribute to social development and democratization.

Why Popular Memory?

People have the right to be seen, heard and remembered. For marginalised individuals and groups who have felt the pain and the joys of the past these needs tend to be acute. Storytelling through various media can play a small but significant part in meeting these needs.

We believe that the term ‘popular memory’ encompasses individual and collective forms of memory such as community, politics, culture, family and gendered memories. We are not an exclusive Centre and we acknowledge that there are different sites of popular memory throughout the African continent. Given that memories are especially shaped and conserved by relationships between people, we aim to facilitate dialogues across generations and sites of popular memory.

August 31, 2006

The Memory Experience BBC Radio 4

The Memory Experience BBC Radio 4

The Memory Experience is a new series of programmes all about memory that is currently being broadcast weekly on BBC Radio 4. Follow this link to listen and learn more about The Memory Experience: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/memory/
Hit tip to Nat Smith for this link.

About The Memory Experience
Our memories define who we are
Radio 4’s Memory Experience will be the network’s largest season in 2006, encompassing science, documentary, drama, comedy, entertainment and history programmes, along with a major online site, a survey and a memory test. It’s a chance to get to know how well your own memory works as well as share your memories with others.

As a forerunner to the season, visitors to bbc.co.uk/memory can take the memory challenge. The challenges include: remembering sequences of numbers; spotting differences between images; replicating patterns and remembering everyday objects. The test will collect data for Professor Robert Logie at the University of Edinburgh to ascertain how memory is affected by lifestyle, location, age and sex.

As part of the Memory Experience, the Share section of this site, together with the Leeds Memory Group, launches an ambitious online survey to explore our national identity by collecting and sharing autobiographical memories from the public. The survey – the largest ever to look at the nation’s memories – will run till early 2007.

Professor Martin Conway of Leeds University will be keeping us up to date with his findings and at the end of the survey there will be a run of programmes analysing the results of the experiment and reflecting the public events listeners have nominated as their key memories for each generation.

There will also be a one-off BBC1 programme, How To Improve Your Memory, on 9 August as part of the Memory Experience.

June 14, 2006

New Journal – Memory Studies


Memory Studies will examine the social, cultural, political and technological shifts affecting how, what and why individuals, groups and societies remember. The Journal will probe and challenge proliferating public and academic discourses on the nature, forms and consequences of memory in the contemporary era and will provide paradigmatic strength and direction to the emerging field.

Areas of dialogue and debate will include:

– everyday remembering

– social, collective and public memory

– media, mechanisms, archive and amnesia

– biography and history

– schema and narrative

– cosmopolitanism and globalization

– cultural memory and heritage

– catastrophe and trauma

– nation and nostalgia

– oral history and the culture of the witness – the politics of identity.

Electronic Access:

Memory Studies will be available electronically on SAGE Journals Online at http://mss.sagepub.com

See here http://www.sagepub.co.uk/journalsProdDesc.nav?prodId=Journal201801 for free online trial to Volume 1.

June 13, 2006

Rembering Revolution



The memory of violence that I am going to explore in this paper raises some fundamental questions about what falls under the category of violence – do all forms of violence acquire the same symbolic status when recognized as violence? What counts as violence and what, on the other hand, is rendered invisible or unnameable as violence?

Revolutionary movements (such as the one my research is on) mirror a wider politics of naming violence, which legitimates certain kinds of violence while rendering others invisible. Much like the state, revolutionary movements confer legitimacy upon their own acts of militancy, thereby effacing violence in the rhetoric of liberation. In the face of the ‘extraordinary’ violence of armed struggle around which cultural memory is woven, forms of violence that fall outside a totalizing category of ‘political terror’ are also rendered invisible. Within progressive revolutionary politics world over, stories of internal strife and oppression have often been perceived as a threat to internal political solidarity and have thus been misrecognised, denied, or ‘willfully forgotten’ (Das 1995). These forms of violence, locatable in the politics of everyday life, often threaten the codes of internal solidarity and are subject not simply to forgetting but to active repression. Women, the bearers of tradition, invariably emerge as the custodians of oppositional or ‘risky’ memories that require disciplining. Placed upon a continuum of violence, forms of regularized and cumulative violence that are internal to a political community occupy the lowest position in terms of visibility and social recognition.

In this paper, I want to focus on the ways in which violence is structured in the memory of one such radical movement – the late 1960s Naxalbari andolan/movement in Bengal. In so doing, I explore how some forms of violence are more easily remembered, grieved, or even valorized than others, at the level of the individual and a culture, and the gendered dynamics of such forms of remembrance. For those of you who don’t know, the Naxalbari andolan began as a peasant uprising in northern West Bengal in 1967, led by a dissident group of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Members of this group and their sympathizers came to be known as Naxalites. The Naxalites declared a ‘people’s war’ against the Indian state structured on the Maoist model of protracted armed struggle. Armed with a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, middle–class students, who formed a wide base for the movement, left the city in order to ‘integrate’ with the peasantry and become ‘de–classed’.2 The political line of khatam or the individual annihilation of ‘class enemies’, first instigated against landowners in rural areas, escalated into what has often been referred to as an orgy of violence. Small guerrilla units primarily of men indiscriminately killed anyone from traffic policemen to local schoolteachers as representatives of the state. The movement was finally crushed in 1971 under severe state repression and partly due to the political misgivings of the Party. Stories of young idealist men being brutally tortured and shot by the police have been the most sustained component of the Naxalbari legacy. Although contemporary Naxalite and Maoist groups operate in other parts of India, Bengal has never seen a resurgence of Naxalite violence after the events of the 1960s–70s. Yet this movement forms an intricate thread of the lived memory of the city of Calcutta, and continues to be one of its dominant legends.

The larger project, on which this paper is based, I should mention, concentrates on the urban experience of the movement, drawing on the narratives of middle–class men and women activists, and ‘official’ and popular ‘sites of memory’. I will not go into details about sources or methodology here; we can always talk about these later.

I shall begin with the memory of ‘revolutionary violence’, key to the formation and persistence of an imaginary community of martyrs and heroes. The official memory of the movement, including the writings of its key ideologue, Charu Mazumdar, is, on the whole, fairly conventional in its propagandist overtones and revolutionary fervour. The rhetorical and narrative strategies that it deploys scripts a predictable tale about the necessity of violence, the inevitability of victory, and an inauguration of the proverbial ‘new’ (man, age, nation). The consolidation of Naxalite violence as a righteous, revolutionary form of ‘good’ violence split–off from the ‘bad’ violence of the enemy is accomplished within this war–like logic of necessity. What makes revolutionary violence legitimate is the illegitimate violence of the Other, primarily the state. The state, as the only agency that can legitimately deploy violence (c.f. Weber) is, for the Naxalites (as for most radical groups), criminalized. Its use of violence is rendered unjust, illegitimate, and immoral. This is the fundamental discursive strategy that the revolutionary employs to justify his acts of violence as against those of the anti–hero who is reviled as contemptuous, unjust, and criminal. On the other hand, the violence of the hero is a locus of positive attributes – of heroic, sacrificial action, of a vision of a just and egalitarian future. The violence of the revolutionary is thus shorn of all its horror, and presented, within historiography, as ‘infantile adventurism’, and within the community, as idiomatic martyrdom. It is memorialized, indeed idealized as a form of ‘good’ violence, split–off from those characteristics that are projected onto a denigrated other, namely the state. These twin processes of idealizing the self and demonizing the other lie at the heart of a triumphant fantasy of revolutionary class struggle. They enable, as Dawson (drawing upon Melanie Klein) has noted of narratives of nationalism, a coding of ‘our’ atrocities as righteous and divinely sanctioned whilst ‘theirs’ are named as atrocities alone (1994:37).

What I am suggesting here is that the discursive transformation of violence into ‘revolutionary violence’ enables a disavowal of the violence of the self, and its projection onto an Other. The psychic operation of projection whereby unwanted feelings are purged from the self and placed upon others enables one to hurt the other with impunity. The imagining of revolution and its heroes enables, in this manner, a coercive misrecognition of the violence of the self. More significantly, it also enables a denial of one’s own pain which is recast in heroic light. At the heart of a romantic narrative of revolution is an emphasis on its heroic aspects and a concomitant denial of its less exciting, less glorious, and harsher realities. When state repression was at it height in 1970s, Charu Mazumdar called for more martyrs to come forward in a public valorization of revolutionary violence. His unflinching faith in ‘our’ victory and ‘their’ losses even when the ground reality was appallingly different can be read as a defensive strategy to counter the real threat of defeat and destruction. A story of romantic revolution could not afford to include unsettling images of betrayal, torture, and death that had become a daily occurrence in the life of the movement from the mid–1970s. As Dawson explains in relation to war narratives, the phantasy of war as romantic adventure provides a degree of psychic defence in the face of the tensions and terrors of real–life combat. In the context of Naxalbari, narratives of glorious struggle and sacrifice for the cause enable a denial of feelings of fear, trauma, and anxiety in the face of possible death.

The clearest instance of such a denial can be seen in the present–day commemoration of state repression undertaken by ex–activists and various splinter groups who broadly align to Maoist politics. Such a splintered political community commemorates the repression of the 1970s as a testament to the brutality of the state, and to the valour of those who were martyred in its wake. In public acts of commemoration and in ‘official’ speech, the brutality of violence and death is transformed into glorious martyrdom. However, in accepting the myth of self–sacrifice rather than the reality of death, remembrance becomes a way of forgetting violence, and of domesticating trauma. Such a ‘sacrificial memory’ is endemic to the myth of the nation–state in which death in war is, for instance, reinscribed as a glorious sacrifice to the nation (Edkins 2003). It is through such a sacrificial memory that the state co–opts the bodies of dead soldiers, and produces closure. These modes of public remembrance have significant implications for the possibility of individual mourning.

In the context of Naxalbari, practices of commemorating the dead as martyrs reinforce an imagined community held together by a comforting collective fantasy of revolution. In providing us with a romantic tale of sacrifice for the greater good, official and popular forms of memory diffuse past trauma. The possibility of mourning the individual is also one that is necessarily delayed or even lost as the myth of the revolution takes precedence over ‘the question of personal loss and bereavement’ (Edkins 2003:94). Individual pain is left unacknowledged; individual life itself can no longer be mourned. The human cost of self–sacrifice is also obliterated from collective memory.

Thus far, I have suggested that the valorization of ‘revolutionary violence’ in official discourse relies upon a disavowal of the violence exercised by the self on the other, and equally, a denial of one’s own wounded subjectivity. Beyond this, the public valorization of violence is intimately linked to the lack of recognition or to the ‘forgetting’ of the violence that was internal to the revolutionary community – those ‘little violences’ and acts of betrayal that structured everyday relationships within the movement. From my interviews with male and female activists, it was possible to map a broad taxonomy of violence – everyday, political, sexual, ‘public’ and ‘private’ – as structuring the everyday life of activists within the movement, especially in the space of the underground where the revolutionaries took ‘shelter’ in the homes of peasants, workers, or middle–class sympathizers of the Party. It was within such a space of refuge and safety that female activists, in particular, faced multiple forms of threat and not at the hands of the enemy alone. These ranged from routinised acts of violence and interpersonal aggression experienced in the shelter, to acts of male sexual violence at the hands of one’s comrades, to the political betrayals that contributed, in no small measure, to the eventual dissolution of the andolan. In women’s narratives of everyday life in the underground, the ‘spectacular’ violence of the state and of armed resistance disappears in the face of a daily, unspectacular gendered vulnerability.

At the same time, the research overwhelmingly demonstrates how these memories of violence and betrayal could not always be articulated as testimony, not at the time of the movement, and crucially, not even today. Instead, they were and continue to be articulated in the context of a normative silence; subject to collective denial, misrecognition, and ‘forgetting’. These forms of interpersonal and everyday violence (that were deeply gendered) are thus rendered invisible in the cultural memory of Naxalbari; they do not ultimately ‘count’ as violence. Acts of sexual violence committed against women activists by male comrades/sympathisers are paradigmatic of a form of ‘bad’ violence that demands ‘forgetting’. The inability to publicly testify to sexual violence lies, for me, at the heart of the cultural practices of remembering Naxalbari that glorify some forms of violence while eliding (and normalizing) the experience of others.
I use the term sexual violence to capture the range of abuses and threats that women faced both as women and as sexual objects within the political field. These included acts of physical assault, rape, acts that stopped short of rape, unwanted gestures, sexually inflected and sexist comments, and domestic abuse. The spaces of violence, for women, were not confined to the ‘public’ domain of political conflict but included normatively ‘safe’ spaces of shelter and refuge. The threat of sexual violence can be located precisely at the interface of these spaces – the ‘private space’ of the underground/shelter and the ‘public’ space of armed struggle. At the same time, the very ‘extraordinariness’ of political conflict (including the construct of a rapist state) transformed the space of the underground (and the shelter) into one of safety, thereby rendering invisible the structures of power and vulnerability that constituted these spaces.

Krishna Bandyopadhya (2001) and Supriya Sanyal’s (2001) short published memoirs of the movement detail the particular forms of gendered violence that structures their experience of underground life. Other women that I interviewed equally bore witness to the sexual and domestic abuse suffered at the hands of male peasants, Party leaders, and even ‘political’ husbands. Several of these testimonies to violence (including published ones) are, however, voiced in the context of a coercive silence. This is demonstrated by the emphatic need of most of these women to remain anonymous. The need for anonymity signals, for me, the failure of an oppositional story of the movement that can validate (rather than abject) the ambiguities, politics, and traumas of women’s lived experience. It also indicates that an affective community of listeners who can bear witness to women’s experiences of wounding has perhaps not come into being, in the thirty years that have passed since the dissolution of the movement. These thirty years have seen the flourishing of several alternative discourses and speech communities, including feminism that can potentially re–write the past. Several ex–Naxalite women are, in fact, members of these more recent communities, and have taken up a feminist vocabulary to critique the gender blindness and sexism of the radical left. Krishna is, for instance, one of the few women who has publicly condemned male sexual violence in writing and in speech (see Bandyopadhya 2001). At the same time, Krishna has been accused, even by other women activists, of trying to ‘destroy’ the image of the movement by doing so.

Female testimony to sexism and sexual violence becomes, in present times, an act of betrayal. It is perceived as a threat to an imagined political community, and thus discouraged from public discourse. In the face of the movement’s dissolution, ‘the discourse of unity [has become] even more compelling, if not purely coercive’, in the name of which internal conflicts and betrayals are silenced (Motsemme 2002:649). It is thus not surprising that even when women tell a different, often traumatic story of the past, they (must) remain anonymous. Just as the privileging of a triumphant narrative of the movement mitigates the possibility of individual mourning with regard to political violence, it also forecloses the possibility of identifying acts of betrayal and violence that were internal to the community. The memory of sexual violence is a particularly risky memory that blurs absolute moral distinctions between victim (the movement) and perpetrator (the state) in moving closer to Primo Levi’s (1988) conception of a ‘grey zone’, a sphere of moral ambiguity in which the revolutionary becomes a coward.

The collective repudiation/misrecognition of sexual violence can, thus, be fairly straightforwardly linked to the repressive nature of political cultures that silence stories of internal strife and coercion. For me, the more interesting and difficult question throughout this research was: how and why women themselves were invested in these acts of misrecognition/denial, even against their own experience of abuse. Women, my research suggests, routinely disassociated themselves from sexual victimization, downplayed, disavowed, and denied male sexual violence, defending the Party against accusations of complicity. Although time prevents me from presenting some of these narratives, I want to finish by raising the following question: how can we understand women’s investments in not naming violence, even while bearing testimony to acts of abuse as some of the women I interviewed have? This question raises larger issues to do with the politics of subjectivity, and its relation to cultural practices of memory and forgetting.

One way of doing so (as suggested by feminists; see Kelly 1988) would be to recognize denial and contradiction as part of a coping strategy in the face of a traumatic past. Feminists have also suggested how women’s acts of denying or minimizing abuse can be seen as a form of resistance to a discourse of victimology, generally understood to be profoundly disempowering. The associated risk is that of rendering violence against women invisible or even normalizing male sexual violence (Jackson 2001).

Another way, in the context of the movement, would be to situate women’s repudiations of sexual violence in their continuing identifications with, and investments in fantasies of heroic selfhood; and the attendant costs of these forms of identification. Identifications, we know from psychoanalytic and poststructuralist theories, are multiple and contestatory, and our identifications always entail the loss of alternative selves that are disavowed for the sake of fashioning a coherent and unitary self. Identities are thus produced in and through practices of repudiation and abjection, and even through a disidentification with or a ‘forgetting’ of certain pasts. What is forgotten is not simply abandoned or lost but is the means through which subjectivity is itself produced. Subjectivities are thus constituted as much through forgetting as they are through remembering.

A fantasy of glorious revolution offered women powerful points of identification in idealized images of heroic resistance. The ‘taking up’ of such subject–positions entailed, however, the active and affective disidentification and disavowal of certain experiences, especially those that were rooted in more fragmentary and vulnerable aspects of the self. These experiences were abjected or expelled from the borders of a normative self, given the threat they posed to its coherency. The abject, for women, included that which was coded as feminine within primarily male fantasies of heroic self–sacrifice. However, sexual violence disrupted individual women’s identifications with masculine fantasies of class struggle and heroic martyrdom by reinscribing feminine otherness, and together with it, feelings of acute vulnerability. As I have argued in more detail elsewhere (Roy, work in progress) the threat of sexual violence sharply underscores the gendered limitations of masculine cultural imageries that are structured through the very repudiation of the feminine and a distancing from the domestic.

In women’s narratives, an identification with a triumphant narrative of heroic resistance thus entails a loss of alternative identifications including the possibility of identifying oneself as a wounded subject or as a subject in pain. The repeated repudiation of one’s own wounding (in sexual violence) is the cost of articulating oneself in the (masculine) image of the self–abnegating martyr, rooted in an imagined community of heroes and revolutionaries. In the context of Naxalbari, identification with ‘good’ revolutionary violence seems to foreclose the possibility of identifying both the violence of the self, and its fragility under trauma. The politics of identification/disidentification are particularly evident in the case of sexual violence, resolutely borne by women.

While the trauma that women suffered within the community is actively repressed, their victimization at the hands of the state finds ready appropriation by a collective discourse of political injury. The ‘untellability’ of stories of sexual violence suffered within the revolutionary community must then be linked to the ways in which stories of state terror (including rape) have become highly tellable, and have assumed a preeminent role in the cultural memory of Naxalbari. However, this ‘tellability’ of women’s experience of political violence in testimony does not guarantee the alleviation of individual pain. On the contrary, radical political movements often rely upon an instrumental usage of female suffering in order to construct an imagined political community. To return to one of the earlier points made by this paper, an ‘official’ narrative of heroic self–sacrifice can marginalize subjective experiences of wounding even as it renders them visible by remaining tied to the demands of political solidarity and not to the need for individual mourning.

This paper’s discussion on revolutionary and counter–revolutionary, legitimate and illegitimate, and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ violence should make it clear that not all events or experiences come under the sign of violence; and what is and is not violence, as Jeganathan (2000:64) usefully reminds us, is always governed by politics. In the case of Naxalbari, I have shown how certain experiences of pain and violence are valorised (and thereby domesticated) while others remain shrouded in silence, subject to collective disavowal and constant repudiation. Some forms of violence become constitutive of a heroic identity while others are purged for the sake of living with a damaged subjectivity. These reflections raise more fundamental questions that pertain to what ‘counts’ as violence within oppositional political cultures, and how the idealizing of some forms of violence rest upon the ‘forgetting’ of others, the burden of which is invariably borne by women. Questions such as these have, I believe, been inadequately posed and engaged with within the feminist critique of the radical left, at least in India. A feminist reappraisal of the revolutionary left will have to grapple seriously with the ways in which transformative politics rely on certain abject zones and silenced spaces in order to compose a utopic future. The compulsion to invest in such a future should not blind us, as feminists, to its cost.

*References *
Bandopadhyay, Krishna (2001) ‘Abirata Larai’, Khonj Ekhon, No I. May

Das, Veena (1995) Critical events: an anthropological perspective on contemporary India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press

Dasgupta, Rajarshi. (2003) Marxism and the Middle Class Intelligentsia: Culture and Politics in Bengal 1920s–1950s, Unpublished D.Phil Thesis: Oxford University.

Dawson Dawson, Graham (1994) Soldier heroes: British adventure, Empire and the imagining of masculinity, London: Routledge

Edkins, Jenny (2003) Trauma and the memory of politics, Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press

Jackson, Sue (2001) ‘Happily Never After: Young Women’s Stories of Abuse in Heterosexual Love Relationships’, Feminism & Psychology, 11(3): 305–321

Jeganathan, Pradeep (2000) ‘A space for violence’ in Partha Chatterjee and Pradeep Jeganathan (eds.) Community, Gender and Violence: Subaltern Studies XI, New Delhi: Permanent Black

Kelly, Liz (1988) Surviving sexual violence, Cambridge: Polity

Levi, Primo (1998) The drowned and the saved, tr. Raymond Rosenthal, London: Joseph

Motsemme, Nthabiseng (2002) ‘Gendered Experiences of Blackness in Post–apartheid South Africa’, Social Identities, 8 (4): 647–673

Sanyal, Supriya (2001) Biplaber Sondhane ek Sadharon Meye, Monthon Patrika, November–December

Weber, Max (2002) ‘Politics as a Vocation ’in Catherine Besteman (ed.) (ed.) Violence: a reader, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

1 Draft of paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the AAS at San Francisco, 6th April 2006. Comments welcome but please don’t cite without author’s permission.
2 The idea of ‘declassing’ the self in order to revoke the ideological distance between the ‘intellectual’ and the masses has a long–standing tradition in middle–class Bengali Marxist politics. Becoming ‘de–classed’ meant, for the bhadralok Marxist, the sacrifice of customary material privileges and aspirations, beginning with the abandonment of domestic life and responsibilities. See Dasgupta 2003.

Biographical note:

Srila Roy is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick where she teaches on gender/sociology. Her PhD research explores issues of cultural memory, gender and violence in relation to south Asia. Her work is forthcoming in Feminist Review.
Homepage: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/staff/research/srilaroy/

Telling Stories: Theories & Criticism

Telling Stories: Theories and Criticism
20 April 2007
University of Loughborough, UK

Website: http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/ac/mainpages/Research/staff%20groups/arts.htm

Deadline for Abstracts: 31 July 2006

New modes of critical writing are challenging conventional expectations of meaning and objectivity through narrative/counter–narrative, authorial presence, style, language, and rhetoric. This development is also present in the visual arts. Writings, which offer alternative forms to synthesis, and the linear and conclusive, challenge the boundaries between theory and literature and between the rational and subjective. Speakers are invited to explore the performative exchange across verbal and experiential disciplines.

This conference forms part of a series that will examine the manner and structure of narration across a range of contemporary practices (e.g. art object, film, photography, criticism). Keynote speakers include:

  • Martha Buskirk (Montserrat College of Art)
  • Yve Lomax (Royal College of Art)
  • Jane Rendell (Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL)
  • John Kear (University of Kent)

Proposals for 20 minute papers / presentations based on new research (with a view to publication) are now invited

Contact: Jane Tormey
tel +44 (0)1509 228966
Contemporary Art Theory Research Group, Loughborough University School of Art & Design, Leicestershire, LE11 3TU

(Check the event website for latest details.)

June 02, 2006

Collective Memory & the Uses of the Past: an Interdisciplinary Conference

Collective memory and the uses of the past: an interdisciplinary conference
Date: 7 – 9 July 2006

Description: Proposed papers or panels are invited for this interdisciplinary conference which deals with social memory; literacy and oral culture; memory and material culture; memory and gender; custom and tradition; the representation of the past; remembrance and commemoration; war, trauma and memory; memory and landscape; oral history and memory; myth, folklore and legend; memory and political identity; memory and social class; peasant memory; antiquarianism and the sense of the past; the politics of history teaching.

Details: http://www.uea.ac.uk/his/events/

Conference organisers: Andy Wood and Nicola Whyte

Venue: University of East Anglia

Contact: Andy Wood

Email: andy.wood@uea.ac.uk

Address: School of History, University of East Anglia, Norwich, NR4 7TJ

Tel: (+44) (0)1603 592666

Fax: (+44) (0)1603 593519

Deadlines: submission of papers (call for papers): proposals for papers by 31 October 2005; registration for conference place: March 2006

February 09, 2006

Cultural Memory Seminar

Cultural Memory Seminar 2005-06

Saturdays 11.00 am-4.00pm

Organizers: Richard Crownshaw (Goldsmith's, London; richard.crownshaw @gold.ac.uk) and Carrie Hamilton (c.hamilton@rus.roehampton.ac.uk); and Susannah Radstone (University of East London; s.radstone@uel.ac.uk) from January 2006
Organised jointly by the IGRS and the Raphael Samuel Centre, University of East London

This seminar builds on the programme for the Institute’s MA in Cultural Memory. It aims to bring together students, researchers, academics and cultural practitioners in order to share ongoing research and broaden horizons. In particular it aims to provide the impetus and models for work across national and disciplinary boundaries.

In 2005–06, the seminar will hold three meetings: 3 December 2005 Revisiting National Memories; 18 February 2006 'Revisiting' Holocaust memory (see below for programme) and on 13 May 2006 (topic to be confirmed).

18 February 2006 : 'Revisiting' Holocaust memory


This seminar is organised in conjunction with the Universities of Salford and Manchester.
Chair: Rick Crownshaw (Goldsmiths College)

11:00 – Bob Eaglestone (Royal Holloway), "Rethinking perpetrator testimony"
12:15 – Lunch (own arrangements)
1:30 – Sue Vice (University of Sheffield), "False Testimony"
2:30 – Anthony Rowland (University of Salford), "Tadeusz Borowski and the Anti-lyric"
3:30 – Discussion
4:15 – Close

Please email igrs@sas.ac.uk phone 020 7862 8677 to confirm details and to be added to the mailing list

More information can be found by visiting http://igrs.sas.ac.uk/events/sem_cultmem1.htm

October 30, 2005

The 4th International Conference on Memory

The 4th International Conference on Memory, Sunday 16th-Friday 21 July 2006, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

ICOM-4 will bring together scientists and practitioners from around the world. The tone of the conference will be set by keynote addresses from internationally renowned memory researchers including:

  • Alan Baddeley
  • Fergus Craik
  • Eric Eich
  • Robyn Fivush
  • Marcia Johnson
  • Jay McClelland
  • Morris Moscovitch
  • Henry L. Roediger III
  • Daniel Schacter
  • Endel Tulving

For more information visit the conference homepage at:

Narratives of Survival

Narratives of Survival, Friday 27th and Saturday 28th January 2006, University of Warwick

This conference aims to draw together people working in a wide range of academic fields to explore how we record, remember and commemorate the major traumatic events of the 20th century (from the Boer wars to the massacres in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia), and what are the long-term social, cultural and political consequences of the tragic events that involved large numbers of people.

Keynote speakers include:

  • Gunnar S. Paulsson (author of Secret City: Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1939-1945. Yale University Press, 2002)

  • Vieda Skultans (author of The Testimony of Lives. Narrative and Memory in Post-Soviet Latvia. Routledge, 1998)

  • Janina Struk (author of Photographing the Holocaust. I.B.Taurus, 2004)

Registration for the conference (keynote speeches, papers, accompanying events, tea and coffee) will cost £50 (£35 for those attending for one day). For more information about registration visit http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/ctccs/news/conferences

Contribute to Memory & Narrative

Memory & Narrative welcomes your contributions.

In order for Memory & Narrative to be success we need people to regularly visit, write, and respond to articles and comments posted on our blog. Contributions to Memory & Narrative do not have to be the 'finished article' but can and should include things such as:

  • Synopses of work-in-progress (and to promote your research via the web)
  • Drafts of paper’s/talk’s prior to publication/delivery (with a view to receiving constructive feed-back)
  • Informal reflections/thoughts on a topic (related to memory/narrative)
  • Announcements of forthcoming symposium/conferences (that you may be involved in) and might be of interest to others
  • Or simply, as the University of Warwick's promotional blurb for blogging puts it, to ‘publish small writings, odd writing, leftover writings, lazy speculations, half-formed hypotheses… to publish all the things that I think have some value but not enough to constitute legitimate scholarship’.

    Contributions should be prepared in standard Word format and should be sent, via e-mail, to Mike Brennan at M.J.Brennan@warwick.ac.uk

About the Popular Memory & Narrative Study Group

The Popular Memory & Narrative Study Group (PMN Study Group) is a new initiative that provides an informal network of discussion for people wishing to explore a wide range of issues connected with the social production and function of remembering and forgetting. It meets occasionally providing a forum for:

  • discussion of readings chosen by the group
  • presentation of work-in-progress
  • invitation of guest speakers
  • informal debate of theoretical, methodological and epistemological interest on issues memory and narrative

The group’s web blog facilitates a ‘virtual’ community, providing a forum for those interested in memory and narrative, allowing the group to ‘meet’ regularly throughout the year wherever its members are.

A guiding principle of the study group is to explore the relationship between memory and narrative – the linguistic vehicle through which memories are summoned, shaped and made meaningful. It assumes an interdisciplinary approach to the social and cultural dynamics of memory, combining sociology, psychoanalytic social theory and cultural studies. Membership is open to staff and post-graduate students from across the faculty of social studies.

Focusing on various aspects of memory, from the everyday to the traumatic, it will pursue a number of inter-related and overlapping questions of thematic relevance. Chiefly, what is the function of memory and narrative in the construction of social identity and the creation of a sense of self? How are individual memories related and reflective of wider social collectivities? How, and in what ways, can personal memory be seen to be porous – permeated by social, political and cultural processes seemingly ‘external’ to the individual? What role is played by the unconscious imagination in the transformation of personal memory? Can we ever have access to ‘pure’ memory untainted by cultural ‘artefacts’ – of visual media and the stories of others? What are the social, cultural and sensory apparatus through which memories are summoned and shaped?

Selected Readings

Andrews, M. et al (eds) (2000) Lines of Narrative: Psychosocial Perspectives. London: Routledge.
Antze, P. and Lambek, M. (Eds) (1996) Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory. London: Routledge.
Butler, T. (ed) (1989) Memory. Oxford: Blackwell.
Clare, M. and Johnson, R. (2000) ‘Method in our Madness: Identity and Power in a Memory Work Method’, in Radstone (2000).
Haug, F. (1987) Female Sexualisation: A Collective Work of Memory. London: Verso.
Langer, L. (1991) Holocaust Testimony: The Ruins of Memory. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Linden, R. (1993) Making Stories, Making Selves: Feminist Reflections on the Holocaust. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
Misztal, B. (2003) Theories of Social remembering. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Popular Memory Group (1998) ‘Popular Memory: Theory, Politics and Memory’, in Perks, R. and Thomas, A. (eds) Oral History: a Reader. London: Routledge.
Radstone, S. (ed) (2000) Memory and Methodology. Oxford: Berg.
Sebald, W. G. The Emigrants. London: Harvill

October 12, 2005

Introducing the Popular Memory & Narrative Study Group: Mike Brennan

This is an edited version of a talk written to launch the Popular Memory & Narrative Study Group


Today’s Agenda

I want to start by saying something about the running order of this the first meeting of the Popular Memory and Narrative Study Group.

Want to do 3 main things (in this order):

1. Flesh out the parameters of the study group: say something about what I have mind as its aims and objectives; about what – I think – a study group like this is for, and where we go from here.

2. I want to give a short talk on memory and narrative, saying something about my use and interest in this burgeoning area of inter–disciplinary academic interest.

3. And finally I want to open discussion up by:

a. Agreeing – as a collective – how we move forward with the study group (in terms of what we can hope to ‘achieve’) and what we actually ‘do’ when we come together

b. Also want to open discussion up further by asking everyone to say a little bit about their own work and interest in memory and narrative and use it as an opportunity for people to ask questions about the things I/we’ve covered today.

1). Aims, Objectives and Practice of the Study Group

My idea for a study group was, I suppose, influenced, and is modelled on, the BSA study groups – albeit at a local (rather than national) level.

I hope that the study group will provide an informal network of discussion and support for people interested in the social aspects of memory and narrative.

– All too often we beaver away individually but don’t seem to ‘come together’ as a group, with mutual interests, as often as we might to share with each other things we’re doing in our own work.

This ‘coming together’, to my mind, should also be used to share intellectual (theoretical, methodological, epistemological) ‘problems’ or challenges in our own research.

It might also be used to share with others ‘break–throughs’ or ‘insights’ we’ve had recently in our own thinking; or just to discuss (and recommend) ‘readings’ (and I use this in the broadest sense possible to mean also films, journals, television et cetera.) of potential interest.

In essence, then, I’m hoping the study group will provide an informal network of discussion for people to explore a wide range of issues connected with the social production and function of remembering and forgetting.

My intention is that we use it to ‘meet’ occasionally as a forum to discuss all sorts of issues connected with memory and narrative. I say ‘occasionally’ because I appreciate that, what with teaching and research workloads, we perhaps can’t meet as often as we would like.

One suggestion I want to make is that – other than just meet in a conventional ‘embodied’ or face–to–face sense – we use the technology available to us to meet – in a ‘virtual’ sense on–line. I’ve set up a web blog – and we can do several things with this. We can:

• use it for discussion and issue/problem raising

• post links to books, articles and conferences of mutual interest

• use to present work–in–progress and to ‘float’ new ideas (getting constructive feed–back before taking a new idea/paper to a wider audience)

• post minutes or text of talks given to or by members of the memory group

• use it for discussion of theoretical, methodological and epistemological interest

The web address for the blog, which I’ve called, ‘Memory and Narrative blog’ is: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/pmnstudygroup/

As yet the web blog has not content but I’ll be posting the talk from today’s meeting on there shortly.

As a collective I’m hoping we can take joint ownership of this blog, using this space productively to write/comment on things connected with memory and narrative. Postings on it don’t have to be the finished article – far from it.

Indeed, this to my mind is precisely what a blog like this is for: allowing us to ‘publish’ our work and ideas in a quick and responsive way and to garner and incorporate other people’s comments/suggestions back into our own work.

If, also, after today’s meeting, people could e–mail me, then I can create a mailing list. My e–mail address is: M.J.Brennan@warwick.ac.uk

I want the study group, then, to be more than just a reading group (and that’s not being disparaging to reading groups). As well as using it for a discussion of readings that we’ve chosen to look at as a group (or things we’ve been reading individually and want to share with others), I want to use it as forum that provides support for people working on narrative and memory.

And on a slightly more ambitious note (depending on whether the group is a success), we might – at some point in the future – use it for:

• Doing collaborative work together (with a view to publication)

• And for the invitation of guest speakers (from within or outside of the university). We wouldn’t obviously have the funds to pay expenses for guest speakers but that shouldn’t be an obstacle to us inviting speakers from other department’s or local universities.

One thing I think we can start doing right away after today’s meeting – as a collective – is begin by drawing upon a reading list. I don’t expect that this will be exhaustive (shouldn’t be/can’t be) but should include things we’ve read and that we think are seminal to the study of memory and narrative (I’ve seen other groups do this sort of thing: Jonathan Tritter’s ‘Sociology of Cancer study group, for example).

Find this at: www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/cancer/readings/

Thought we might also establish a list of ‘members interests’ – research interests that is. This and a reading list are also something that can go on web blog in the first instance.

2). Memory and Narrative

I want to move now to give a short talk on memory and narrative. In particular I want to begin by raising some questions (and hopefully providing some answers) on the connections between memory and narrative.

First set of questions I want to raise relate – in part – to the name I’ve chosen to give the group. Not unreasonably one might ask, why, and what do I mean, by ‘popular’ memory and narrative?

i). Why ‘Popular’ Memory and Narrative?

a). Oral History: When I use ‘popular’ I’m thinking of a tradition of oral history (or histories) in which the memories of ordinary people are valued as highly as the memories of the ‘great and the good’ (all too often the memories of people lower down the social hierarchy have been ignored).

– Can think here of important contributions made in field of oral history in 1970s by Luisa Passerini, and more recently, in the 1980s, by Popular Memory Group at CCCS Birmingham.

b). Power and Politics: By popular I’m also thinking in terms of relationships between power and self–representation. The means of communication – especially the power of widely disseminated written communication (books, newspapers et cetera) – has traditionally been the preserve of those highest up the social hierarchy.

– Genres of history writing and biography have been favoured by these groups, in part because they afford the opportunity to carefully edit and (re)construct the past (personal or social) in a light most favourable to them.

A digression, but one I think worthwhile making, is that social groups without access to the means of communication have had to rely (often unfavourably) on others for representation. These groups are less likely to write than be written about and thereby relinquish the power of self–definition.

– Foucauldian social theory, of course, has argued that the power of self–definition is key to realising one’s subjectivity. Powerful social groups have been able successfully to deny others this right and have instead exercised and maintained power through an inverse process of ‘objectification’.

– Drawing on just such a Foucauldian analysis, Patrica Hill–Collins reminds us that verbal forms of story–telling have been central to Black women’s experience (although systematically excluded from ‘malestream’ white culture: from the public and cultural public sphere, including academia).

c). Popular as ‘Ordinary’ and ‘Mass’: By popular I am also thinking in terms of memories and narratives that are widespread, not confined to a minority or priviledged few.
I’m thinking of the (social) value (to sociologists, historians, theorists of cultural studies) of studying the ‘ordinariness’ of everyday memories, and narratives; indeed, of everyday lives (I’m thinking in particular here of Raymond Williams’ essay ‘Culture is Ordinary’ – as foundational to (British) contemporary cultural studies).

This focus on the popular, then, rightly draws on a rich tradition of scholarship and activism. It reflects shifts within academia: ‘revolutions’ and ‘turns’ in Theory, culture and language; as well as changes going on outside the walls of academia, in which – after centuries of silence – voices of class, gender, ‘race’ and sexuality have come increasingly be heard.

d). Another dimension, for me, that makes memory and narrative popular are ways in which both bear an intimate relation to popular culture (and are taken–up in various genres of book, film, television, music).

This relation, for me, between lived relations and various media forms through which they’re refracted is clearly a symbiotic one.

– Richard Johnson’s model of a ‘cultural circuit’: of production, (re)presentation, consumption, and lived relations is instructive here.
One side/aspect of this ‘circuit’ is media production, which draws upon memories (individual and/or collectively experienced) and narratives – i.e. of lived relations – and represents (or re–presents, as Peter Redman puts it) them in a different medium or form.

At another stage of the circuit, consumption, these (re–)presentations are taken–up and become part (again) of lived relations.

And on we go in this endless cycle through which memories/narratives; media representations, and lived relations are subject to a process of unfolding transformation.

ii). Why Memory and Narrative?

I’ve lumped memory and narrative together because I think the connection between the two is key.

a). Narrative is the linguistic means by, and through which, individual memories are summoned, shaped and relayed to others.

b). It’s narrative – as a vehicle of inter–subjective communication – that helps transform individual remembering into a social as well as cultural enterprise.

– Without narrative memories would remain interiorised; stuck solely at the individual level, without any outward expression.

c). Narrative also provides a ‘coherence’ function, helping to organise what are often a jumbled mess of memories into a linear or sequential order of events.

1). This, I think, works at both the inter– and intra–subjective levels, helping us to ‘get things straight’ in our own minds.

i). Our constant internal narrations, that’s to say, intra–subjective dialogue, is a central means of achieving ‘coherence’. In fact, it’s often a ‘dress rehearsal’ for relating our memories/stories to others.

ii). This also reminds us of Ken Plummer’s work on narrative as performance, especially repertoires of story–telling that help the realisation of marginalised – especially sexual – identities.

iii). I think we can extend this by suggesting that it’s often through repeated tellings that certain ‘memories’ come to acquire a life of their own, and often eventually bear little resemblance to the original memory itself.

2). Hannah Arendt has also claimed that without narrative, in which memories are organised into discrete and meaningful episodes, our stories – and to this end, memories – would be nothing but an ‘unbearable sequence of sheer happenings’.

Another dimension of memory as ‘popular’ is that it can be seen to be shared by a wide or large number of people – as collective experience: that particular memories have a resonance and purchase on the social, cultural and psychic imaginary; and that popular memory (and memories) influence both present and future.

I’m hoping, then, that the Study Group will assume an interdisciplinary approach to memory and narrative, combining sociology, psychoanalytic social theory and cultural studies (memory and narrative cannot be contained within any one of these disciplinary domains).

In terms of general themes we might look at:

• The commodification or ‘fetishization’ of memory (Christopher Lasch, for example, came to regard nostalgia as the absence of memory)

• We could focus on the relationship between trauma and memory: on traumatic or traumatised memory – whether first–hand or mediated, focusing on case–studies or ‘limit cases’ (as Dominick LaCapra puts it) of memory

Obvious examples that spring to mind are: Holocaust memories or those connected with high profile/highly mediated trauma – 9/11, the Hillsborough disaster, Asian Tsunami, and various other genocides and episodes of ethnic cleanising

• In fact, very idea of mediated or mediatised memory in itself makes for interesting discussion

• It might also be interesting to look at the functions and dynamics of remembering and forgetting: from a social, psychological and cultural perspective
• From a Freudian perspective, for example, forgetting is not pure accident but belies some deeper unconscious motive or desire

• Having looked at the exceptional, we could (and should) look at commonplace memory and narrative – as of no less importance in the making of selves.

• Here we’d need to look at narrative as a vehicle and site of memory; and of memory as a site of social identity

ii). My Interest in Memory and Narrative

Want to finish by talking briefly about my own interest in memory and narrative – want to a give brief ‘route map’, if you like, of how I ended up using memory and narrative in my research.

1). My Ph.D explored the social, cultural, political and psychic economy of mourning (especially ways in which these are inter–related). And I did so by using the public mourning surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and the Hillsborough soccer stadium disaster as case studies.

2). I found that the theoretical tools with sociology – as conventionally constituted – were inadequate for exploring these themes and:

a) I moved towards an inter–disciplinary approach that, in the main, comprised social theory, cultural studies, and psychoanalytic social theory.

b). this inadequacy – which I won’t go into here – centred on conventional sociological approaches that are overly ‘sociologistic’ and which neglect key aspects of human interiority (or the ‘sociological private’) that include memory and mourning.

3). A key ‘moment’ for me in this transition from a background rooted in conventional sociology involved adopting a Freudian reading of mourning. And from here a number of premises follow(ed):

a). that mourning is inextricably bound up with other elements of our psychic/mental apparatus – including memory, identity and our capacity for language

b). and that mourning is not simply (as sociology has tended to approach it) a social ‘artefact’ – i.e. an outward display of emotion following death. Instead, I began to conceive mourning in a much broader sense: that it could be for a ‘thing’ (an ‘ideal’ or something abstract, such as one’s nation) as well as a person.

c). In fact, it became clear to me that mourning for people and ‘things’ are often inserted one within the other; and that they are often so bound–up together as become almost indistinguishable.

4). This focus on a Freudian psychoanalytic reading of mourning, then, led (inevitably?) to a focus on memory and narrative.

a). in the first instance mourning can be seen both as an exercise in remembering and forgetting.

i). Loss it seems (whether of a person or ‘thing’, such as being exiled from ones ‘home’) triggers memories of what once was. These it seems come to us without our conscious willing (from ‘behind our back’s’ if you will).

– On the other hand, the memorial function of mourning is the deliberate and conscious staging of memory: of calling to mind people and places gone before.

ii). At the same time, mourning, in the psychoanalytic sense, is also an exercise in forgetting.

– The degree to which a person is said to have fully mourned a loss is the extent to which s/he is perceived to be no longer beholden of (over–bearing) memories of a person.

– The Other of mourning, is the melancholic tendency to repetition; to remain wedded to the past and to memories of a lost love–object; in other words, the inability to ‘move on’ and to begin to repair the grievous pain of loss.

b). in the second instance – of narrative – we can see that narrative is the linguistic carrier of meaning: the vehicle by and through which memory is relayed to others.

i). Freudian psychoanalysis – as the ‘talking cure’, has, of course, from its inception, been interested in narratives: in analysing ‘slips’ and ‘silences’ in the analysand’s recollection of past events, including dreams.

ii). Lacan has also re–iterated (in a semiotic reading of Freud) the intimate relationship of language to the unconscious by an insistence that it is ‘structured like a language’.

5). Finally, then, I became interested in memory and narrative as sites of social identity:

i). In particular I was introduced (by Peter Redman) to the method of ‘memory work’ developed by Frigga Haug.

For anyone unfamiliar with this method, it’s akin to the Freudian technique of ‘free association’ (memories are recorded rapidly in writing and are then subject to textual – usually collective – analysis).
The difference, however – and this is crucial – is that rather than analyse the individual patient (as in psychoanalysis), it is the text itself which is subject to analysis. In other words, it’s discourse itself – by and in which we both speak and are spoken, master and slave – that comes under scrutiny.

ii). Narrative too, much like memory, has, until relatively recently, been neglected by sociologists.

– Although, of course, sociology has long been implicitly interested in story–telling (usually in the form of interviews and usually other people’s stories. Only relatively recently have sociologists begun to think reflexively and to turn the spot–light on their own narratives and themselves!)

What in particular interested me in narrative was its tendency towards reversing the focus of both traditional sociology, and particular versions of structuralist Theory.

– the starting point for sociology, almost by definition, has been ‘society’ and its ‘institutions’; whilst in versions of structuralist social theory the individual has been something of a vanishing point, disappearing without trace under a deluge of language and discourse.
Instead, a reinvigorated focus on narrative begins with individual stories, memories and life–histories and traces these outwards (and upwards) to the social structures and collectivities of which individuals are a part.

iii). This focus on memory and identity is what interested me in applying these tools to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict: where, in deeply traumatised conditions of violence and conflict, memory (and history) seem to be experienced as ‘burden’.

a). A particular focus on memory, and the narratives through which they are (re)told, it seems, is absolutely essential to understanding ways each communities’ identity is constructed, indelibly indexed to memories and stories of exile, catastrophe and displacement.

b). Perhaps memory and narrative in this context are also a means of exploring each community’s fear of the Other.

iii) Open up Group Discussion

– I want to use the time left an opportunity for other people to introduce themselves and their interest and/or use of memory and narrative in their research

– Go round group individually

iv) Finish


a). Mailing list : e–mail me.

b). Start by putting my talk on web blog and also by use working towards a reading list/list of members interests.

c). Date of next meeting January/February 2006 TBA will aim for Gillian Rose seminar room. By that time we should hopefully have the web blog fully up and running.

d). I’ll make any announcements about next meeting via web blog and mailing list.