The Trouble with Amnesia: Collective Memory and Colonial Injustice in the United States
Political Creativity: The Mangle of Institutional Order, Agency and Change, Gerald Berk, Dennis Galvan, and Victoria Hattam, eds., University of Pennsylvania Press, Forthcoming.
31 Pages Posted: 1 Jun 2013
Date Written: May 31, 2013
This essay will show how important collective memory is to the contemporary politics of historic injustices, to state-building, and to the production of nationhood, all of which involve placing politics in and out of time. To this end, the first section of the essay challenges the popular notion that the failure to address prevailing injustices is a result of collective amnesia, of a forgetting of the past. Instead, I argue that the persistence of colonialist and racial injustices is a consequence of collective disavowal and as such a particular production and presence of memory, rather than a lack of memory. To explore the politics of collective memory at greater length, the rest of the essay focuses on the calendar. I see calendars as forms of evidence for understanding politics because they are products of the mutually constitutive relationship between collective memory and the production of political temporality. Calendars thus have epistemological value as public documents of state-building, of nationhood, and of resistances to both. The second section of the essay looks at the politics of calendars in theoretical and historical terms, setting out their importance for state-building, nationhood, resistance, and revolution. The final section of the essay then considers the contemporary U.S. context, looking at examples of political resistance and elite consolidation that take as their target the mnemonics of the calendar. I turn first to address what I call the mis-diagnosis of collective amnesia.
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