“Everyone has a human right to his or her memories…”

I see Arkiv are going for the Economist model of naming the writing staff (or founding team) but eschewing bylines… Anyhoo, I suspect, given the thoughtfulness of the output on their blog, their submission to Haass is well worth the time to read.

In the meantime, with the vexed issue of local troubles related historiography in mind, this quote from the German sociologist Aleida Assmann in particular caught my eye…

…nothing is gained by discarding lived experiences merely because they do not conform to a broader historical perspective. Everyone has a human right to his or her memories. That, however, does not exclude the necessity to place such memories that have been articulated and recognized on a wider horizon. As contextualized memories, they lose the taint of irreconcilable solipsism. Only by retrospectively placing them in a larger context can they be made compatible with other memories.

This is a critical factor to take on board when even beginning to consider how we handle the past… In particular, as Archiv notes nearer the beginning we have a particular problem which Assmann talks about in the context of post war Europe:

Psychologists speak of ‘screen memories’ that suppress other memories and serve to protect a positive self-image. To put it another way, one remembers something in order to be better able to forget something else.

Assmann goes on to outline how this occurs politically: ‘When applied to the realm of national memory, this means that one recalls one’s own suffering in order to avoid being reminded of one’s own guilt’.


Assmann urges a movement from exclusion to inclusion of memories. ‘Memories that support a collective identity,’ she argues, ‘are not only selective but also tend toward uniformity. One memory grows in size to crowd another out’.

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  • FuturePhysicist

    The basic argument here is that articulated memories have a higher stature to non-articulated memories, that almost unwittingly justifies a hubris that there is a buyer’s market on the past. I am not sure if solipsism ends simply by outward communication, or that the most vocal victims no matter their vices or virtues are the most relevant.

    In terms of context there is context switching, the context a republican militant might see Ann Travers’ memories superimposed upon Paul Kavanagh’s memories is not the same context someone outside that sphere of republican militancy would see it. No bridge will ever be forged between these two extremes in the past, whether there is guilt or grief it will be the thoughts on the future not the memories of the past that allow both victim and victim makers (whether they are victims or not) that allow each other to move forward.

  • cynic2

    I dont think I agree with you.

    I see her key argument as being that individual memories “are a human right” (which I don’t buy if they are utterly false or wrong) and that context is absolutely critical

    In my experience, especially as i grow older, memories are very fallible. We lay them down on the basis of what we knew or perceived at the time. They depend on instant interpretation when we lay them down – which may simply be wrong. We see a small part of the big picture

    In psychology and business the risks in this are well recognized. We all experience cognitive simplification and cognitive dissonance processes where we trim and shape ideas (and memories) to make them fit the real world and selectively filter facts that disrupt our world view or might reflect badly on our self image (Gerry take note)

    Over the years memories are then shaped and reformed by events – often traumatic – TV , other information from third parties and the sheer fallibility of neurons to hold an image coherently over 40 years.

    In short today’s memories may not be a true reflection of what we remembered 20 years ago but a much more modern polished and tailored composite.This also means the can be plain wrong

    In that context, I think there is a case for different records of memories to have different levels of reliability. But how do we then reconcile what people WANT to believe and are convinced is true with the wider evidence of reality

  • FuturePhysicist

    They are a human right, and of course a right with human hubris. What I really mean is tackling silopism requires listening to the ones we don’t want to hear from. If we were to criticise an IRA person for only having a selective memory because in their memory they did justify what we might term unjustifiable, but they would not, how would they ever be able to expected to provide honest memory with regards to the Dissapeared? The same has to be asked of ex paramilitaries making demands of Victims with regards to matters such as protests and the SPAD bill.

  • cynic,

    You’re right about the fallibility. Recent research has shown that every time you remember something, the memory is rewritten and is influenced by things that have happened to you since you last recalled the event. That’s why no two people will remember an incident in the same way. That might explain “Always look on the bright side”.

  • Mick Fealty

    The whole thing is worth reading, but this is worth retreiving..

    If commemoration and politically loaded memory-work is taken as a surrogate for the historical record then we risk, paradoxically, a surplus of memory being used to construct a political and historical reality that has more to do with the cult of violence than the actuality of hurt. Judt frames this idea as a basic political and moral principle: ‘Human suffering should not be calibrated according to the goals of the perpetrators’.

  • cynic2

    Hence self justification?