Thursday, July 31, 2014

Notes on the life and writings of Maurice Halbwachs

Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945) was a French sociologist and student of Émile Durkheim and Henri Bergson whose foundational works on social memory studies establish a relationship between individual memories and collective processes of memory.  His first work Social Frameworks of Memory (Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire) was published in 1925.  The Collective Memory was published posthumously and includes his essays from the 1930s and 1940s.  Lewis Coser’s volume On Collective Memory includes sections from Social Frameworks of Memory.  Halbwachs died in Buchenwald after being detained by the German Gestapo.  He died of dysentery on March 16th 1945 shortly before the camp was liberated on April 11th.

Buchenwald concentration camp, Germany c. April 1945
Lewis Coser’s edition of Hallbwachs’ On Collective Memory
Halbwachs' primary thesis in On Collective Memory is that human memory functions within collective social frameworks, particularly those of family, religion, and social class.  It follows then that different social groups adhere to different collective memory frameworks.  Furthermore Halbwachs asserts that collective memory is not merely a passive compilation of individual memories, but that personal recollection is socially determined: “Collective frameworks are, to the contrary, precisely the instruments used by the collective memory to reconstruct an image of the past which is in accord, in each epoch, with the predominant thoughts of the society” (40).  According to Halbwachs, memories, whether individual or collective, are not simply recollections, but rather reconstructions evoked by present day situations and contexts: “…we appeal to our memory only in order to answer questions asked of us, or that we suppose they could have asked us” (38).  For Halbwachs, collective memory functions to position private memories within a meaningful social framework.  As Halbwachs posits, “remembering” is part of a group identity (40).  In this light it becomes understandable that questioning the memory associated with a space can be perceived as a betrayal of one’s community. 
**Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory.  Chicago, University of Chicago Press,
1992.

The Collective Memory (essays)
Halbwachs ideas on the individual versus society foreshadows another French theorist, Guy Debord’s, thinking in Society of the Spectacle (1967).  Halbwachs questions an essential individual awareness, consciousness or memory.  When people think that they are identifying with something in the cultural production or spectacle, Halbwachs argues that they are actually projecting or echoing the hive mind.  He doesn’t call it the hive mind, but he does seem to suggest that there is a collective social consciousness or some kind of social spectacle.  Like Debord, Halbwachs doesn’t believe that individuals exercise absolute freedom.  Instead people always are obedient to external social influences (141).  Even memories that seem personal emerge only when the collective social context is ripe for them to emerge.  Individual variations come only from the individual recipe for mixing social frameworks.

Halbwachs considers memory more representative of society than history because it does not contain anything artificial.  Memory only exists because it is relevant today.  Social memory erodes at the edges as older members of the group become isolated and die (148).  It does not exceed the boundaries of the group.  

I wonder if this opposition between history and memory can be linked to Diana Taylor’s concepts of archive (history) and repertoire (collective memory).
**From The Collective Memory essays from the 1930’s and 40’s in Olick, Venitzzky-Seroussi, and Levy’s The Collective Memory Reader

WJT Mitchell — Notes on Picture Theory

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