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.

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