Transnational memory

> By Rigney, Ann
   Utrecht University
> Published on : 21.04.2015

The term “transnational memory” has recently emerged in memory studies as part of the larger critique of methodological nationalism that has crossed through the Humanities and Social Sciences in the last decade (Wimmer & Glick Schiller 2002; Vertovec 2009; Quayson & Daswani 2013). In line with this critique and resonating with studies of multidirectionality (Rothberg 2009) and cosmopolitanization (Beck, Levy & Sznaider 2009) the term “transnational memory” refers to an analytic lens that investigates the movements and entanglements of collective memory across and outside the borders of nation-states (for an extensive account, see De Cesari & Rigney 2014, 1-25).  Starting point is the observation that stories migrate along with individuals as well as through the mobility of media and the arts (Erll 2011; Rigney 2012); that these movements lead to the multi-sited emergence of new, entangled perspectives on the past; and that this in turn generates the possibility of affiliations between hitherto unrelated actors and the creation of new imagined communities, be this is beyond the national framework (Landsberg 2004; Assmann 2014) or as part of its internal dynamics (as in the case of Turkish immigrants’ engagement with Germany memory culture; Rothberg & Yildiz 2011; Glynn & Kleist 2012). The concept of transnational memory has thus recently emerged in tandem with efforts to create a broader archive of memory practices and to develop new ways of conceptualizing memory better fitted to a world of advanced globalization, regional integration, mass migration, and of new communication technologies that are radically changing traditional calibrations of distance and proximity.

Historically the nation has been a key “framework” (Halbwachs 1925) of collective memory in the modern period and has accordingly figured largely in memory studies as the prime locus for negotiations of collective identity. This is especially the case in the discussions emanating from Nora 1984-1992; less so in the tradition emanating from Holocaust Studies where individual testimony and family memory have been key (Hirsch 2008). Working against this primacy of the national, the term “transnational” takes as its point of departure the fact that the nation-state (with its presumed isomorphy between culture, territory, state; see Leerssen 2006) is not the only framework within which memories are produced, preserved, and transmitted. The national framework is in fact increasingly under pressure. But just as the “postcolonial” marks a break with colonialism while recognizing its enduring legacy, so too does the transnational include an awareness of the resilience of national narratives and of nationalized memory institutions, including their importance as the focus of critical engagement from actors seeking to formulate alternatives. National institutions continue to play an important role in the promotion of particular nationally-specific narratives, then, but they do so within a complex and dynamic field in which the generation and circulation of memory narratives, on the one hand, and national frameworks (as idea and as material reality), on the other, are in a state of friction.

Transnational memory studies is underpinned by the dynamic and generative understanding of memory and its production that has come to inform memory studies in the last decade (see Rigney 2008; Erll 2011). It follows the production and circulation of memory narratives and of models of remembrance across linguistic, ethnic and cultural borders. It looks at how stories and practices originating in one part of the world are picked up elsewhere, and how they interact multidirectionally with local memories. The idea of multidirectionality has proved very fruitful in opening up new perspectives on the vectors and modalities by which stories and icons move across space, time, and social groups. It clarifies how apparently unconnected memory narratives can end up resonating with each other in mutually illuminating ways. Transnational memory goes beyond cultural analysis as such, however, by linking the narratives which are the outcome of such entanglements and encounters to the memory actors involved in their production, dissemination, and appropriation. In this way, transnational memory provides a conceptual frame with which to study in an integrated way the cultural production of memory (cultural memory studies; see Erll & Nünning 2008) and the social impact of shared memory (collective memory studies; see Olick et al. 2011). It focuses in particular on the role of memory narratives in negotiating identities and in creating vectors of affiliation and solidarity in a complex and conflicted global arena.

As suggested above, the “transnational” recalls and at the same time challenges the presumed congruence between culture and state formation implicit in the idea of the nation-state. As such it invites analysis of the interactions between cultural production, the exercise of power and agency, and material conditions. More than the related term “transcultural memory” (Crownshaw 2013; Bond & Rapson 2014), the transnational crucially challenges us not only to examine the circulation and transformation of stories but to do so in relation to social action and the exercise of power on the part of state and non-state actors. In keeping with this concern, the “transnational” affords attention both to the flow of memory across (linguistic, cultural, national, religious) borders and to the blockages (occurring along fault lines of class, religion, gender, nationality) that mark the limits of understanding and solidarity. “Borders” in this model are not just thresholds that can be easily crossed, but also potential obstacles impeding movement between different (imagined) spaces. Following from this interest in boundaries, a key concern of transnational memory studies is with the points of articulation (Hall 1986) between narratives and with those “memory knots” (Rothberg 2010) that connect as well as divide mnemonic communities. One can think here for example of how  memories of the entangled past of colonial violence only slowly emerge from the very different recollections of victims, perpetrators, or implicated bystanders (Rothberg 2010; also Bijl 2014); alternatively, of how diasporic communities negotiate their identity at the intersection of two memory cultures (Hirsch & Miller 2011). Rather than suppose that entanglements always lead to consensus or reciprocity, however, the transnational lens considers frictions, dissensus, and misunderstanding along with convergence and cross-cultural understanding as key elements in understanding the dynamic interplay between cultural memory and social formations in a complex global arena (De Cesari & Rigney 2014).

Because the transnational approach extends the scale on which the cultural production of memory narratives is observed, it also shares points of overlap with recent studies that have emphasized the “global” level upon which the memory of the Holocaust operates and feeds into a global “memory imperative” based on respect for Human Rights (Levy &  Sznaider 2010). However, transnationalism as an analytic perspective resists the tendency to universalize memory. In the same way, it contests the assumption that globalization involves a unidirectional increase of scale in a seamless and increasingly convergent world. Instead, it supposes a multiscalar world in which memories are formed at multiple levels of aggregation and at different locations. The intimate, the familial, the local, the urban, the regional, the national, the macro-regional: these are all sites for the production of memory, each offering a different social framework for the generation and sharing of stories.  Although this list, stretching as it does from the intimate to the global, might suggest that each framework is embedded in the manner of a Russian doll, the principle of multiscalarity does not assume the existence of a natural hierarchy (Pratt & Rosner 2012). On the contrary, it considers these various levels to be equally legitimate as a subject of analysis since they feed back into each other as well as diffract each other as part of a multi-layered dynamic. Transnational memory as an analytic lens thus opens up new possibilities for calibrating different scales of memory production and for linking in a new way the study of individual testimony and family postmemory with that of collective narratives, be these based on nationality, regionality, ethnicity or some other principle.

Transnational memory studies stands at the intersection of several scholarly initiatives aimed at providing a better account of the generation, production and impact of memory practices in a “global age” (Assmann & Conrad 2010; Levy & Sznaider 2006) where the nation-state has lost its primacy.  Behind many of these initiatives is the normative belief that transnational practices of memory should be encouraged, since they help foster social justice based on a new international morality derived from Human Rights (Levy & Sznaider 2010), from critical cosmopolitanism (Beck 2009; Gutman & Sodaro 2010; Bond & Rapson 2014) or from a commitment to peace and reconciliation (Assmann 2014). As an analytic perspective and research methodology, transnational memory studies also assumes the urgency of finding new ways of conceptualizing collective memory and of critically engaging with memory practices in the contemporary world; but it is not by definition idealistic. The archive of transnational memory practices is rapidly being expanded with recent studies. Unexpected practices of memory, so it seems now, have been creating articulations between hitherto unconnected actors along trajectories outside and across the borders of nation-states. However, research has also shown that there are not only grounds for celebration (see De Cesari 2014; Kirn 2014; Kapralski 2014). The transnationalization of memory and of memory studies does not remove the need for ongoing critical reflection on the uses of memory in mechanisms of exclusion and occlusion under these new conditions

[The conceptualisation of transnational memory presented here is greatly indebted to my collaboration with Chiara De Cesari (see De Cesari & Rigney 2014).]

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