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Debate About Collective Memory

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    One of the most distinguishing aspects in Maurice Halbwachs’ discourse in social frameworks of memory is the strong association of memory with cultural perceptions. Through various examples, Halbwachs illustrates the existence of collective memory and social memory frameworks. He goes further to assert that our personal thoughts reside in these social frameworks which actively play a role in the process of recollection. We are able to remember things more vividly and with a higher degree of clarity when parents, friends, or fellow members of our society recall them for us.

    The associative ability of our memories largely relies on our cultural surroundings. Clifford Geertz maintains that our expectations are conceptualized through our general stock of theoretical concepts as defined by our cultures. In this view Geertz is in agreement with Halbwachs’ concept of social frameworks of memory. In response to his critics, Michael Foucault invokes Halbwachs’ social frameworks by asserting that theories are results of “established regimes of thought” (Halbwach 38).

    He attributes criticism against him to features and events that have been socially accepted by virtue of our being in contact with them repeatedly. He calls the recalling and accepting of these virtues “a return of knowledge” (Foucault 81). His description of these virtues that form culture is in agreement with Halbwachs’ social frameworks of memory. Halbwachs maintains that individuals should be considered as isolated beings as most psychological treatises try to portray. Such arguments demand that in order to understand human mental operations we first have to sever all connections of the individual with the society.

    He calls this an erroneous process since the individual derives a large part of his or her memory from the society. It is from the society that they are able to “recall, recognize and localize their memories” (Halbwachs 38). All our daily recollections in any day are the result of our direct or indirect association with other members of the society since we appeal to our memories to answer questions that have been asked or we believe they might have asked us. In providing answers we put ourselves in the same social context as the other people in order to be properly understood.

    Our memory is therefore subjected to the kind of society we are in. Michel Foucault recognizes the social framework of memory while describing the phenomenon of insurrection subjugated knowledges. He describes subjugated knowledges in two ways. The first way is as “the historical contents that have been buried and disguised in a functionalist coherence or formal systemization” (Foucult 81). Secondly, subjugated knowledges refer to the historical content of the society that would help us discover who we truly are from where we came from but are disguised.

    Subjugated knowledges can thus be defined as blocks of historical contents that make it possible for us to keep on rediscovering the adverse effects of the struggle between our true selves and the norms imposed on us by the functionalist or systematic mental disguise. The mental disguise he is referring to is the social framework of our cultural memory. Foucault states that criticism thrives well when people have lost the perception of differential knowledge which does not rely on unanimous acceptance but instead rely on local popular knowledge to disqualify the truth.

    This opinion lends credence to Halbwachs’ viewpoint of the society being the determinant of how concepts, items, and other phenomena are called to memory. While describing the relationship between memory and language, Halbwachs renounces the idea that our pasts are stored in our memories like cabinet drawers. He argues that people living together in a society are held together by the use of words they find to be commonly intelligible. This is a major condition is for collective thought. Every word that they use brings a recollection of an item or idea.

    All words are accompanied by appropriate recollections such that a word that does not call to mind a specific event, item, idea or person is considered to be alien in that particular language. It is described as un-understandable. On the other hand, there are no recollections that come without corresponding words to describe them within the society. “We often speak of our recollections before calling them to mind” (Halbwachs 173). These words make up the language we speak therefore it is language in combination with a host of many other social conventions, that give us the ability to reconstruct past events.

    The function of language as a social framework for memory is an issue that Clifford Geertz includes in his definition of culture as a complex whole. He uses Clyde Kluckhohn’s definition culture in eleven ways that are all in agreement with Halbwachs social frameworks of memory. Geertz gives Kluckhohn’s definition of culture as “the total way of life of a people” (Geertz 4). This definition implies that culture relies on the unifying concepts that people can conceptualize through memory to agree that they are indeed one community.

    The conceptualization is only achieved through similar recollections of common values, beliefs, social systems, events, and any other aspect of life that they share. This conceptualization therefore relies on social frameworks of memory and recollection. Another definition is about culture being “the social legacy the individual acquires from his group” (Geertz 4). This description of culture calls to attention Halbwachs’ association of memory with cultural perceptions where an individual’s thoughts reside in social frameworks that actively play a role in the process of recollection.

    It is in the same way that one would ask how our recollections are stored. Halbwachs describes this phenomenon of locating recollections by stating that it is done “with the help of landmarks that we carry within ourselves, for it suffices to look around ourselves within the social frame work to retrieve them” (175). Geertz also describes culture as “a way of thinking, feeling, and believing” (Geertz 4). This definition is similar to Halbwachs’ assertion about the associative ability of our memories largely relying on the way we think and believe as members of one society.

    When Geertz talks about the definition of culture as a storehouse of learned attributes pooled together, he is borrowing from Halbwachs’ argument on memory being subject to the kind of society we live in such that all learned attributes are defined by the social recollection. For example, a hot-dog is a type of food eaten in most western cultures and is therefore a cultural attribute. However, a person from a different culture will have to learn what it is before he or she can recollect what it is whenever it is mentioned. The meaning of the term resides within the storehouse of that community.

    Anyone from outside might misconstrue the real meaning and end up recollecting visions of a hot canine. Halbwachs addresses the question of how we can with a degree of certainty confirm that our recollections as individuals and as members of a society are actually as a result of social schemes or frameworks. How are we able to achieve the colorful representations of our recollections? To answer this question, he first considers the relationship between an image and a concept. The image is considered as being independent of intellectual significance while the concept is considered to be devoid of the image.

    This makes it possible to reconstruct memory-images without having to pull out tangible images. The concepts on the other hand can be recollected on an intellectual level without the need for tangibility. While writing about nationalism, identity, ethnicity, and revolution among other subjects, Geertz assumes a similar outlook on life as Halbwachs does about images and concepts. Geertz takes a stand against sociological aestheticism and concentrates on separation of biological and physical entities from political and economical realities in order to place such issues in a comprehensible and meaningful frame.

    He takes a symbolic dimension on social action like art, morality, and ideology to show that the function of “interpretive anthropology is not to answer our deepest questions but to make available to us the answers that others, guarding other sheep in other valleys, have given” (Geertz 30). This argument can be equated to Halbwachs’ position on the social frameworks of memory where an individual relies on the other members of the society to recollect issues and events from his or her natural surroundings.

    Works Cited

    Foucault, Michel. “Power/Knowledge.” Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Ed.Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980. 78-108. Print.

    Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books, 1973.Print.

    Halbwachs, Maurice. The collective memory. New York: Harper & Row Colophon Books, 1980.Print.

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