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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.

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:

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:

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:

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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  • This is most interesting to me. I am keen to follow developments and now subscribe via RSS Independe… by Kate Hillier (Miss) on this entry
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