Here's a review I wrote of the book How Societies Remember by Paul Connerton. I am reminded of how important this book is for the times we are living in.
In How Societies Remember, Paul Connerton seeks to answer the question: “how is the memory of groups conveyed and sustained?” (1). Breaking with the idea that memory is solely an individual faculty he, along with Maurice Halbwachs, Zygmunt Bauman, Eric Hobsbawm and others believes in what he calls “a collective or social memory” (1). Connerton however differs from these thinkers “as to where this phenomenon, social memory, can be found to be most crucially operative” (1). Throughout the rest of the book he systematically explores this idea by embarking on an “analytic quest” (4) which forms the three sections of the book: social memory, commemorative practices and bodily practices. The structure of the book is laid out in short sections which are easy to follow, carefully constructed, and present his arguments in a clear and systematic way. However, as I will outline below, an area that in my opinion forms a central part of Connerton’s thesis, namely the intersection of myth and ritual, suffers as a result of the books brevity in its lack of engagement with the potential power of myth in the ritual performance of commemorative ceremonies.
Social memory is the idea that we do not just constitute ourselves in the present by simply cognitively recalling the past as an ordered set of mental images. Rather we recall knowledge of the past, and perform knowledge of the past by sustaining what he calls “(more or less ritual) performances” (4). It is the performative nature of “commemorative ceremonies” enacting “social memory” through habitual practices of “bodily automatisms” that offers, what at the time of publishing in 1989, was a new an radical way of accounting for social structure. This more holistic approach, rejecting the reductionistic tendencies of Descartes, Wittgenstein and post-structuralist semioticians who turn the body into an “etherealised form”, with a tendency for “a markedly cognitive tilt” (104), brings the “human body as an object domain” (104) back into social theory. Working within the boundaries of hermeneutic theory from Schleiermacher to Gadamer via Heidegger, we are reminded that we are always someone, somewhere, saying something to someone. That we are new historical beginnings that are “absolutely new [and] inconceivable” 6). That in “all modes of experience we always base our particular experiences on a prior context”.
And, that we are always already basing our “particular experiences on a prior context” (6), and to do otherwise would render them unintelligible. Yet, there are moments when the historical rupture of significant magnitude breaks into the existing context and quickly become part of the social consciousness through performed, habitual, commemorative ceremonies and bodily practices, assuming “the status of a modern myth” (6). For Connerton there is no better example than the French Revolution where, very quickly after the historical event, bodily practices in the form of dress codes, certain ways of wearing clothes and even ways of walking became powerful political, social and ideological performances enacting a remembrance — along with formal state ceremonies — of the event of the revolution. This learned “concrete, coherent manner of living” (11) as an act of social memory served to establish a new historical beginning. Unlike “personal memory claims” which serve to bring to remembrance acts which take place in ones own personal life, or “cognitive memory claims” which “covers uses of ‘remember’ where we may be said to remember the meaning of words, or lines or verses, or jokes, or stories” (22), it is “habit memory” (25) or “social habit-memory” (36) that is the “essential ingredient in the successful and convincing performance of [the] codes and rules” (36) of personal and cognitive memory. Breaking with the idea of a cogito-centric Cartesian anthropology, Connerton proposes that “our memories are located within the mental and material spaces of the group” (37). It is here, through many differing expressions, that social memory is formed. But it is through commemorative ceremonies and bodily practices that the ritual element of societal remembering is, for Connerton, best displayed.
Through the reenactment of commemorative ceremonies an act of remembering takes place. A past event incarnates though performative ritual action, but this is more than just ritual. Commemorative ceremonies of this kind, be they state, religious or personal, while involving the ritual use of symbols — flags, music, uniforms etc, — are not simply the continual re-appropriation of certain symbols, they are “felt” (44). They are “felt by those who observe them to be obligatory” (44), and therefore to stop someone form enacting a certain commemorative ceremony, or force them to “pay lip-service to an alien set of rites, incompatible with their own vision of the ‘truth’”(44), is to devalue them. For, “rites have the capacity to give value and meaning to the life of those who perform them” (45). Connerton proposes that this value and meaning comes not by simply forging a connection with the past through their repetition, but by positioning the participants in continuity with the event being commemorated, thus playing a “significant role in the shaping of communal memory” (48). For Connerton, central to understanding commemorative ceremonies as an act of remembering is to make a move away from the psychoanalytic, sociological and historical ways of understanding ritual. He sees these as putting too much emphasis on the symbolic nature of ritual. That which seeks to try and “understand the hidden ‘point’ that lies ‘behind’” (53) the ritual act. To go behind ritual is to understand the form of ritual as a performative act, constituting the community and bringing to memory the “fact of its constitution”. There are echoes here of Foucault and the disciplining of the body through certain gestures and acts. Here memory is not simply a hidden neurological chemical flow, but is an incarnated act present in the “substance of one’s body” (59).
Key to understanding Connerton’s idea of ritual is how he is careful to distinguish between the structural difference of ritual and myth. It is the excess of meaning, the “reservoir of meanings” (56) inherent in myth that Connerton appears to see as having a fluidity that ritual does not. Thus, over time, myths may develop and change, but ritual practices centred around performative utterances, like the Catholic Mass change very little. As in the historical view of ritual, it is obvious that rituals are “invented at some point” (57) — although this for Connerton is not how we get behind them to their hidden meaning — but they change “only very slowly” (57). This is where ritual gains its power. If one reads myth as plastic, containing a surplus of meanings, that over time, through narrative re-telling may change then it is easy to see why a structural separation between myth and ritual is necessary. If though we understand certain myths as being more sedimentary, changing less, or as having settled after a period of time, as Connerton himself admits is possible, then it would have been helpful to see a more in-depth analysis of the relationship between the two. Although he doesn't explicitly define what he means by myth, given the examples that are given, we can assume that myth, as meant by Connerton, is a kind of narrative that remains part of the consciousness of a person or community over a sustained period of time, shaping and forming that community.
Alternatively with Roland Barthes, we could say that myth is a kind of speech (Barthes, 2009: 109), a ‘something’ going on behind the narrative, furnishing our daily lives with additional layers of meaning. Barthes’ most famous example of this, is the magazine image of the black solider, looking patriotically towards the french flag (Bathes, 1792: 125). On the surface we can see how the meaning of this image can be easily decoded. “On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on the fold of the tricolour” (1972: 125). But there is something going on behind the image, a deeper level of meaning. All France’s sons, “without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag … there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors “(1972: 125). It is this subterranean level of ideological meaning that Connerton doesn't account for, which should form an important part of his argument. For the props that he talks about as playing an important role in performative, ceremonial, ritual acts of commemoration, are potentially powerful symbols that mediate myth into the very fabric of the ritual act of commemoration. The importance that flags, colours and images have played and continue to play in, for example, Northern Ireland are an example of the symbolic mediation of myth in the form of ritual performance. The Union Jack or the Irish Tricolour, when used as part of ritual commemoration, represent certain sedimentary myths, that are deeply imbedded in the structure of the ritual and are not separate from it. It would be unthinkable for certain commemorative ceremonies to take place without these symbols as the myths that they tarry are deeply integral to the ritual acts of remembering.
In the final chapter of How Societies Remember, Connection using the ideas of Michel Foucault introduces maybe the most interesting idea in the book; that “the past, as it were, [is] sedimented in the body” (72). When reviewing a book, first published over fifteen years ago, we of course have the benefit of hindsight. It is certainly interesting to see how the idea of embodied memory, central to the work of thinkers like Lacan, Foucault, Freud and then Connerton, has begun to find its way into therapeutic practices such as counselling through the work of Dr Daniel Siegel and others.1 The question for Connerton though is one of social practice: what are the practices that we perform as acts of ritual remembering. Connerton distinguishes between two different types of practices: “incorporating practice” (72) and “inscribing practice” (73). Incorporating practice being “a smile or a handshake or words spoken in the presence of someone we address” (72). These are ways of communicating; messages, “occurring only during the time that” the bodies of the one acting are present (72).
Secondly, inscribing practice is the use of certain devices for recording or transcribing information that is not necessarily dependent on a person being present to transmit that information. Connerton gives a detailed analysis as to how these two types of practices are different but also how they intersect. The kind of analysis that would have been helpful with his distinction between myth and ritual. There are two important points to mention here. Firstly, how a culture transmits its memories is of great importance. “When the memories of a culture begin to be transmitted mainly by the reproduction of their inscriptions rather than by ‘live’ tellings, improvisation becomes increasingly difficult and innovation is institutionalised” (75). And secondly, what is being learnt in an inscribing practice, such as writing, is itself a practice of incorporation as the one being taught to write is having their body positioned; muscles strengthened; movements coordinated; in such a way that the practice of inscription is inseparable from the practice of incorporation.
In a logocentric culture Connerton reminds us that we are ‘here’, we are present, and are present not just as Platonic Cartesian flesh negating mind-sponges. We “must not lose sight of the human bodies as an object domain” (104), not just an object domain upon which social forces are at work in a Foucauldian sense but that our “bodies are culturally shaped” in their “actual practices and behaviour”(104). How Societies Remember provides a clearly written, systematic, analytic provocation: not to forget; to remember; we are creatures who remember with more than our brains.
Barthes, Roland, and Annette Lavers. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print. Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Print.
Siegel, Daniel J. The Mindful Therapist. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. Print.