On Collective Memory

The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities at The University of Tulsa is pleased to continue its series of blog posts from the fellows of the 2018-19 academic year. The fellows are engaged in wide-ranging creative and research activities surrounding the idea of memory – a topic the center will explore through lectures, symposia, public debates, readings, writing, films and exhibitions.

This post was composed by Liz Blood, a freelance journalist and writer whose work focuses on place, contemporary art, indigenous peoples, immigrant issues, and the environment.


“On Collective Memory”

I have a recurring memory: Our cohort of ten Oklahoma Center for Humanities fellows are circled around a large wooden conference table in the University of Tulsa’s Tyrell Hall. It is dark outside and we are deep in discussion. Someone in our group uses the phrase “collective memory.” Some of us nod. Others—myself included—furrow our brows and puzzle.

“Collective memory” is a term that engages and confuses me. And for the last nine weeks or so that we have been studying memory, I can’t seem to let it go. It makes sense that a group, the collective, shares a memory—say, a family’s memory of the birth of the first grandchild—and individuals in the group can each recall it. On the other hand, I am concerned that collective memory is only possible for the living. The ancestors of that family can’t recall this memory and those born after this first grandchild won’t be able to recall it, either.

And what about a larger group, like the citizens of an entire state, or country? Are they able to recall things through which they did not live?

“The memory of a society extends as far as the groups composing it,” writes French sociologist and philosopher Maurice Halbwachs (1877–1945), who contributed to the study of collective memory through his book of the same name. Halbwachs believed the collective did have a memory separate from that of the individual, and that the individual’s understanding of the past was bound up in the group’s consciousness. But he also believed collective memory and history to be ultimately opposed to one other. “If history is restricted to preserving the image of the past still having a place in the contemporary collective memory,” he writes, “then it retains only what reminds of interest to present-day society—that is, very little.”

As I’ve been reading Halbwachs and tripping over these ideas, I was happy to see my colleague, Dr. Jennie Ikuta from TU’s political science department, discuss collective memory on a national scale, as it pertains to Monticello and its remembrance (or not) of slavery.

“If there exists such a thing as an American collective memory, then Monticello—the estate of Thomas Jefferson—is presumably part of it,” Ikuta writes. “In visiting Monticello, we as Americans are invited to remember something about our national past. But what exactly are we remembering?” She goes on to explore how, when the keepers of a place like Monticello cause its visitors to recall only pieces of that history—such as the good and not the bad, the remembrance is incomplete.

Here’s Halbwachs again: “General history starts only when … the social memory is fading or breaking up. So long as a remembrance continues to exist, it is useless to set it down in writing or otherwise fix it in memory. Likewise the need to write the history of a period, a society, or even a person is only aroused when the subject is already too distant in the past to allow for the testimony of those who preserve some remembrance of it.”

If history is a break in the continuity of memory—in other words, those learning the history were not those who experienced it happening—then the collective cannot truly recall what it did not directly experience. So what is the experience Ikuta describes? She begins her post with a built in question: “If there exists such a thing as an American collective memory.” I believe it does exist, I’m just not sure about the mechanics of it.

Historical places like Monticello, or memorials like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., require of their visitors a more imaginative kind of remembering—learning and recalling the facts of history, imagining experiences through which they did not live, and then potentially engaging with a kind of prospective memory, or memory focused on the future and what might be done differently in times to come.

“With respect to collective memory,” Ikuta writes, “…the question cannot only be whether or not we remember certain morally problematic features of our history—although that is certainly important—but also, how we do so.”

That how seems to have everything to do with making collective memories not only accurate, but also complete, as in a kind of repair or re-build. As a nonfiction writer, I’m interested in how my own work and that of others—whether visual, literary, performative, etc.—might influence the way a culture remembers by reconstructing in the present fixed memories of the past. Halbwachs believed the living continuously did this, based on their present needs and desires.

According to Mary Douglas, who introduces the English translation of The Collective Memory, Halbwachs’ concept was of “social segments consisting of live individuals who sustain their common interests by their own selective and highly partial view of history.” History, Halbwachs writes, “is a collection of the most notable facts in the memory of man,” but it is selected, combined, and evaluated “in accord with necessities and rules not imposed on the groups that had through time guarded [the events] as living trust.”

In our current situtation, it is no wonder that public spaces of remembering–like Monticello, the former Robert E. Lee Elementary here in Tulsa, and various institutions, monuments, and memorials around the country–are being publicly (you might say collectively) reevaluated in new ways.

I think of the collective memory Ikuta writes of as something always in the making. Individuals do the living, experiencing, and remembering. How we are taught history, what we are taught, what we teach, and what we remember becomes just one facet of collective memory.


Halbwachs, Maurice. The Collective Memory. Translated by Francis J. Ditter and Vida Yazdi Ditter, Harper & Row, 1980.