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Politics of Memory - Conceptions and perceptions on ‘the past and ‘history’ –Part two

Politics of Memory - Conceptions and perceptions on ‘the past and ‘history’ –Part two

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Published by Dilshan Boange
An article written to the Sunday Observer in Sri Lanka
An article written to the Sunday Observer in Sri Lanka

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Published by: Dilshan Boange on May 11, 2011
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05/12/2014

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Politics of Memory - Conceptions and perceptions on ‘the past and ‘history’ –Part two
By Dilshan BoangeContinuing from the previous week’s article of what conceptions can be analysed of MilanKundera’s
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting 
on memories of the ‘past’ and ‘history’, thediscussion now looks at aspects such as ‘individual memory’ and ‘collective memory’ and alsothe concept of ‘official memory’ which takes highly political dimensions. British novelist andshort story writer L.P Hartley’s words “The past is a foreign country” seems to resonate how the past can be viewed as ‘a place’ which man possibly yearns for, but has become estranged fromhim as a result of not being part of his material/physical present. But ‘the past’ is activated to the present through memory, as Elizabeth Jelin points out, and therefore the space which weconceive as ‘the past’ can be understood as a space of memory.
‘Individual memory’, ‘Collective memory’ and ‘Official memory’
In discussing politics of memory the idea of ‘individual memory’ and ‘collective memory’should be looked at for the differing dynamics and potentials they may possess. The idea of collective memory as discussed by Jelin gives different perspectives on the matter.
“…[T]he collective aspect of memory is the interweaving of traditions and individual memoriesin dialogue with others and in a state of constant flux”
While a certain social element or basis is brought in to play in the above extract in grounding‘collective memory’ Jelin’s cites the views of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur in her academicarticle to trace attributes/features that are incorporated in history as being a basis on which‘collective memory’ can be understood. Following is an excerpt of what Jelin has cited of Ricoeur.
“[C]ollective memory simply consists of the set of traces left by events that have shaped thecourse of history of those social groups that, in later times, have the capacity to stage these sharedrecollections through holidays, rituals, and public celebrations.”
 
In this respect one could argue that memory is a basis on which history is built. And it isinteresting to note how the idea of history construction through affecting memory is indicated inthe very opening of 
The Book of laughter and Forgetting 
, by presenting what the author expresses as a landmark event in the history of Prague. This very section is discussed in Jelin’sarticle in relation to voids/gaps in memory which take on the facet of representing ‘the absent’ or the oblivion as Jelin calls it. Following is an extract from
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting 
which demonstrates how the idea of how propaganda machinery of a regime first perpetuatesmemory through historicizing an incident. -
“In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of aBaroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old TownSquare. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia…Gottwald was flanked by hiscomrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s headThe propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, fromseeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.” (P.3)
The fact that the ‘propaganda section’ made the photograph almost a site to mark an event whichKundera marks as the initiation point of communist Bohemia, shows how a state agency cancreate ‘documents of history.’ And this ‘document’ becoming commonly known as a marker of history, contributes to the citizenry’s memories of this event. Though witnessed it as individualsthey would each hold a similar memory verified by a corroborative ‘document’ which can beinterwoven into each individual to create a ‘collective memory.’ Yet one could argue whether the individuals who carry a memory of the event by virtue of seeing a photograph of that eventwould in fact have an experience of having ‘lived it’ personally. Here once again one canobserve how (mass) media methods come into play. It is very much the media that dictates to themasses of what can be made memory worthy and what is forgettable. Subsequently Kunderashows how documents of history devised by the state authorities can be manipulated to suit political ends. And thereby ‘official memory’ is manipulated to rewrite the past. In the followingextract Kundera demonstrates how ‘absence’ can be created and made to serve political ends.
 
Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda sectionimmediately made him vanish from history and of course, from all photographs. Ever since,Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palacewall. (P.3-4)
The disappearance of Clementis from the photograph shows how political machinery would actto manipulate documents of history, and reinterpret events which are sought to be reshaped asofficial memory. In such a case history would obviously be rewritten and official memory canalter to suit the ‘historicity’ which suits the historian. Therefore, an absence can be political.Referring once again to Kundera’s words on the character of Mirek-“Mirek rewrote history justlike the communist party, like all political parties…”(p.30) History is apt to be written andrewritten in the will of an authority. And the past’ it appears is a space that needs to becontrolled for the formulation of history.
Memory entrepreneurs
In the academic essay “Political struggles for Memory” Jelin speaks of ‘memory entrepreneurs’,who are rebels of sorts against the regime and carry on a struggle over memories presentinginterpretations and narratives of their own of the past. These individuals may be seen as creating‘alterity’ to the established narratives of history and official memory of the past. Is Kundera’snovel an act of memory entrepreneurship? Jelin in her essay says of the nature and motive of thememory entrepreneur-
“We will also find them engaged and concerned with maintaining and promoting active andvisible social and political attention on their enterprise.”
Taking in to consideration what is said in the above extract, once again the question can be asked-is Kundera a memory entrepreneur?The fact that Kundera in his novel delivers a voice against communism posits his novel as awork which calls attention to a narrative outside the master narrative of the state. And throughhis analysis of what state machinations are found in the production of documents of history thatreinterpret ‘the past,’ Kundera seems to be critical of the regime’s politics over memory and

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