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One person's memory as history: A Things We Forgot To Remember podcast

Updated Saturday, 18th November 2006

It's said one person can change history. It's certainly true that just one person can change how things are remembered.

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A journal kept by Lost In Anywhere



Chris Williams:
Welcome to The Things We Forgot to Remember podcast. My name’s Chris Williams from the Open University and consultant on the Radio 4 series. In the making of this Radio 4 series we’re supporting, we’ve heard about the role of individual memory in history. To discuss this, I’ve got with me from the Open University Dan Weinbren, who’s a social scientist, Clive Emsley, Professor of History, and Jovan Byford, who’s a psychologist.

I’d like to start our discussion with a clip from our programme that dealt with British society’s changing view of the First World War according to historian Dan Todman.

Dan Todman (clip):
Here is this terrible, awful conflict, which is inflicting terrible damage on Britain in many different ways, but at the same time it’s a war whose purpose does seem valid and which provides people sometimes with a set of emotions which they can engage with very strongly - comradeship and social purpose - and these are things which are powerful motivating factors I think. They’re not all equally easy to remember or to communicate.
I think if we take one thing away from our study of the First World War it’s got to be just how complex and varied those reactions were, and actually how quickly they're simplified reduced down to a smaller stock of big words on which people can agree - sacrifice and futility - and some of those, particularly the ones that are used between the Wars might be more positive, they might talk about sacrifice, but then there’s an undercurrent which I think becomes much more dominant after the Second World War which is about futility and hover and uselessness.

Chris Williams:
So Dan Todman’s talking about the evolution of collective memory of the First World War. But what’s the relationship between individual memory and collective memory? Jovan, can I begin by asking you that question?

Jovan Byford:
Yes, it is very interesting how sometimes when we have surviving veterans of the First World War, we have a situation where something that is for us very much an object of collective or historical memory is for those people an object of their personal memory. And, in fact, the relationship between individual memory and collective memory is a very complex one and a very interesting one. There is a general tendency, both in scholarly literature and everyday conversations about collective memory, to use psychological jargon and to make parallels between collective memory and individual memory.

For instance, it is not uncommon to talk about societies repressing certain aspects of their past that they don’t want to remember. We talk about collectives suffering from amnesia as they tried to repress certain memories. Or we also talk about traumatic events happening to a nation which are then forgotten. And although these parallels between individual and collective memory are convenient, they also divert attention from very important differences that exist between the ways individuals remember and collectives remember.

The most important difference is that for individuals, regardless of whether we subscribe to the, for instance, psychoanalytic perspective or traditional psychological perspective, we assume that people’s memories are stored in their brain, and certain whether it’s cognitive processes or psychodynamic processes happen in a person’s head. In the field of collective memory, we don’t have a place that acts as a repository for memory. What we do have are activities of remembering.
And that is why I think it’s more pertinent to talk about individual memory and collective remembering because there isn’t a memory as such as a store, what we have in the field of collective memory is we have certain ways of talking about the past, and whatever is not spoken about, whatever is not commemorated, whatever is not spoken about, whatever is not discussed in the media, etc, tends to be forgotten.

Chris Williams:
Do we remember things in the same sort of way, or are certain events remembered or referred to in ways that are entirely different from others? Is it all one process, Clive?

Clive Emsley:
I think one of the interesting things is how people at times will use psychological explanations to describe something which in retrospect they find impossible otherwise to understand. And a good example of this would be the way some historians, perhaps less now but certain sort of ten, twenty years ago, were using pathological explanations to describe what happened in Nazi Germany.

This was something which didn’t fit it seems into their mental perspective; therefore, they had to describe an entire society having somehow acquired some sort of schizophrenia. How else do you explain not just one concentration camp guard but a whole, you know, thousands of concentration camps guards behaving in a way that just seemed completely irrational and, I suppose for want of a better word, evil. There is no other way of explaining it except in using psychology.
And, similarly, perhaps today when a mugger is described in the press, his actions are motiveless, and yet presumably they’re not really motiveless. You sit down at your word processor, or you read your paper, and you say, “Yes, that’s a motiveless act,” but in fact there’s a, or it’s motiveless violence, inexplicable violence unless you stick motiveless on it, and yet that individual is acting in that way for almost certainly reasons which make perfect sense to him or to her at that moment.

Chris Williams:
So we need to be careful as to how we’re discussing this sort of issue, don’t we? We can’t use labels deriving from psychology of individuals just to apply for large collectives. So if we describe that a nation went mad, we’re not really explaining anything at all, we’re just saying something. But what about on the individual level, say for example we’re talking about how individuals remember the big events in their own life histories. When it comes to memories of big events, Jovan, does our mind play tricks on us?

Jovan Byford:
I think there is an important dimension where individual memory and collective memory are in fact quite similar, and that is that they always reflect the present. Ever since the 1930s in the work of the British psychologist, Frederic Bartlett, there was this notion that memory’s always constructive. We don’t have a video of events that we witnessed in our heads, but whenever we recall events from our past, we need to construct them, and this is usually done in terms of certain things that we consider important from the present perspective.
And we heard in the clip that when veterans of the First World War remembered the past over the years, they remembered things differently immediately after the First World War, in the ‘30s, after the Second World War, etc. So our personal memory, just like the collective memory, will always reflect the particular concerns, ideological commitments, changing circumstances of the present.

Chris Williams:
Right, so the past is not a fixed thing in our heads either, just as historians are rewriting the past, according to rules of evidence, so our own memory of the past, as we look back at it, isn’t replaying the same tape over and over again. Instead it’s trying to make sense of things into a narrative to make a story, so we don’t make things up, but we change emphasis.

Jovan Byford:

Chris Williams:
Right, okay. Is there a certain direction that this emphasis moves in? So, for example, what about the idea of nostalgia in the lost Golden Age? Clive?

Clive Emsley:
I think people regularly look back on a golden age, construct a golden age in the past when their work practices didn’t have, or they liked to think that their work practices didn’t have so many targets and other things impinged on them. The sort of work that I’ve been doing on the history of the police demonstrates this. The police have a golden age, or individual policemen have a golden age, it’s very difficult to identify that in the past, but when you talk about them they’ll say the job isn’t what it used to be. And I’m sure everyone looks back on their job and thinks it isn’t what it used to be. I know I do.

Chris Williams:
How does our memory of the past change and coalesce as we get older? Dan, how do our collective memories, our communities memories I should say, influence the way we see the past?

Dan Weinbren:
Well I suspect that we have a burnished image of ourselves in the past so that golden ages are partly related to when we were younger. Also I think there are dominant or preferable versions of events so that just as historians for their own and other good purposes categorise events, disparate activities, so that they categorise the scientific revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the French and the Russian Revolutions as revolutions, so we tend to see the First World War through the prism of wars that would happen subsequently, particularly the Second World War.

And if people who are active in both will sometimes collapse the two together, so that gives them a sense of constructing their own understanding of where they are, how things have shifted during the courses of their lifetimes. Perhaps what we’re doing with our memories is editing them or organising them so as to make ourselves feel comfortable with where we are, in the same way that perhaps - not that you would ever do this of course - people edit their CVs when they’re coming up for a job.

Chris Williams:
Thanks very much, Dan. We’ve talked about a lot of the ways that the individual changes the way that we remember history, and I think one thing, I think the most important is the way we must always bear in mind individuals and collectives but never try and confuse the two. My thanks then to Dan Weinbren, Clive Emsley and Jovan Byford. Join us next time when we’ll be discussing how communities remember history.

To find out more about the Radio 4 series, The Things We Forgot to Remember and history in general, visit our website at I’m Chris Williams, the Producer was Mercia Goodway, and this is a BBC Worldwide production for the Open University.





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