Collective Memory and Forgetting

Theory, Culture and Society 22 (6):53-72 (2005)
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This article explores the cultural form of the obituary as a contribution to ‘collective memory’. In order to assess the value of viewing the obituary through this lens, it is necessary to look at how memory and collective memory have been conceptualized in various authors, especially in the classic works of Bergson, Halbwachs and Benjamin. Tension emerges between those who think that such social forms of memorizing, like tradition, are declining across the board and those who think that they are still alive but contained in new media such as the newspaper. For the latter, including the present author, these mosaics of tiny testimonies can shape collective memory. The cultural form of the obituary is undergoing an internal transformation. Although there is still considerable evidence of the material and social privilege of these subjects, the contemporary obituary is not restricted to the memory of the ‘dominants’. Obituary editors in national newspapers aspire to include all those who have significantly shaped the modern world, including figures hallowed in popular memory and even counter-memory. Moreover, obituaries have now branched out, beyond the arena of heroes and villains, into depictions of a more nuanced or contradictory world of tragedy and paradox. A key element of such memory is the public realm of producers. However here ‘heroes of production’ (workers or industrialists) figure much less frequently than those who have left distinguished cultural and scientific works for the collective inheritance. The article finally asks how the democratization of the form might be further advanced while also recognizing its inescapable foundation in the scarcity of distinction.



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