On Memory and Methodology

 Academic historians have a favorite question for me. I wish I could say that it is irrelevant to my interests and concerns. However, it actually does matter quite a bit, though it matters differently for me, I think, than it does in the way the askers intend.

 The question is always a very polite and well-intentioned attempt to ask me if I missed the memo that tells historians that memories are untrustworthy as sources of historical information.  "You do know that you aren't supposed to trust memories to be descriptive of actual events, right? Right? OK.  As long as you know."  

"Memory is a poet, not an historian."

Historians tend to criticize the practie using of remembrance as a source for interpreting the past.  Without other corroborating sources, it is OK to discuss people's remembrances and recollections of the past only as long as one does not suggest that those recollections relate in any meaningful way to what actually happened.  Memories are partial, subjective, always in flux, in motion.  People misremember.  They embellish.  They reorder events and their significance, sometimes to align with others' memories, often to make the present make more sense.  

As a result, it can be challenging to assess how memories relate to the verity of historic events.  As a result, many historians tend to believe that memory can only be engaged in a couple of ways.  One is as an illustrative, hopefully colorful, anecdote.   A recollection adds texture, feeling or flair to an otherwise prosaic narrative that is nonetheless substantiated in a variety of diverse sources. Meaningful window-dressing.  

It is kind of endearing --- this trust that other sources are somehow closer to what actually happened than those that chart discourse ---  that police officers, court stenographers, tax collectors, census collectors and all the other authors of sources historians regularly use are not also always interpreting and narrating experience through their distinctive, subjective lenses.  Which sources are objective?  Hard to say.

But one may also, increasingly, discuss expressions of memory  as a window into how historical actors make/made meaning of the past in the present. Memories recalled, then, are like speeches, pamphlets, exhortations, cultural tastes --- they offer insight into people's interior lives.  This, though, is bumpy, unfriendly territory.  While historians are not inclined to discount discourse, charting its relevance to historic change is thorny because it is difficult to prove its role in contingent processes --- how someone saying something, or someone hearing something, or people having a conversation, actually effected change --- let alone to show how it did.  It's not easy to chart historic change through memory.

Historians of memory will tell you that it is worth the effort, that remembrance is a window into the thoughts, feelings, concerns & worries, hopes & dreams of the present.  Acts and expressions of memory are always about the present as much as they are about the past (if not even more so.)  The things an individual, community or society remembers and commemorates tells us more about them than it does about the past that is being remembered.

But here's another wrinkle. Historians who rely on memory (through oral history or via investigation of myriad acts and expressions of memory that occur to different degrees and in different contexts)  are often trying to gain insight into the thoughts, ideas, emotions and interpreted experience of people and communities who did not leave many written records or material traces behind.   The unremarkable maintain memory just as the rich and powerful.  The transient hold onto recollections even when they leave behind little else to mark or illuminate their lives.  The poor own their memories even if they own little else.

So historians of memory often find themselves in an odd position.  While rooting around evidence of remembrance, we often find information about the past that we haven't found elsewhere.  While looking for insight into one historical moment through its memorial practices, we discover acts of recall  that themselves provide new information about an earlier era that hasn't made itself visible elsewhere.   

A sticky situation.  We examine recollections on the one hand as windows into the present moment in which the rememberer narrates.  In the same body of work, we might then use the same recollection to shed light into the historic past itself.  We employ the memory as a fragmented historical source about the past to which our interlocutor refers.  It is a kind of double-dipping in that one interrogates the same source to gain two different kinds of information about it and reference two distinct historical moments.

In my talk last week,  the civil rights movement in Derry was on the table.   I quoted from Derry legend Paddy Bogside Doherty's recollections about two old gentlemen playing chess on the Craigavon Bridge in the middle of a civil rights protest. OK, so that would be fine as long as I stick to memory  --- and as long as I don't suggest that two old fellas ever played chess on the Craigavon Bridge.  (In this situation I am annoyed with myself for not saying that I actually have a picture of two grey-haired men playing chess on the Craigavon Bridge in the middle of a civil rights protest.)

Now, remembering chess on the bridge  tells us about so much beyond the fact of  chess on the Craigavon Bridge.   But here is where my own methodology got messy and I didn't clarify my aims well.  My focus for the talk was the civil rights movement and memory's role in framing the events that were taking place, giving them meaning, shaping response to the intense, heady days of '68 in Derry.  I brought up chess on the bridge as a performed memory --- for the purposes of the talk, it was what mattered.  I wanted my audience to understand that even in the height of the civil rights movement, people were drawing on an older way of being, drawing on the memories of their community ---  memories lived, breathed, performed in daily acts. 

 But I was using a later memory, a deeply contextualized memorial expression, to do so.  I was using one act of memory to talk about how memory was shaping history.    The misstep was simple, actually.  I should not have invited my audience into the act of recollection for Paddy Bogside  -- I had other evidence of the old men and other evidence of similar scenes from '68 that did not rely on memory alone.   But I, ahem, cut and pasted from a different chapter --- using resources from one discussion about memory to shed light onto an altogether different discussion.  I should have allowed the recollection to stand on its own, as evidence, without qualifying it as a remembrance.  

(In case you are curious, Doherty was remembering the chess players from a moment in the late 1980s.  The Troubles were very much on. The memory work with which he was engaged was about trying to locate a period of cohesion and coherence before rupture and confusion.)

The experience made me more conscious of how skeptical historians are of memory, something I conveniently forget.  (A follow-up question I got had to do with how much time I "spend in an archive.") But the question made me think about how I mine the hefty bundle of Derry memories I've collected in an effort to tell different stories about different periods -- and to different audiences for different purposes.  

It's made me more aware of framing evidence and why using a memorial frame stylistically because it is convenient actually is a disservice to my argument. So the question, heretofore seen as the teeniest bit contemptuous of memory, actually has helped me quite a bit to think about how to present evidence and how to substantiate and engage information I encounter while sifting through memories.


  1. Well said. I especially like your pointing out of the fallibility of archival sources, something I certainly saw first hand in looking at documents relating to Euro-Canadian state encounters with aboriginals in Canada during my professional life.

  2. This: "My focus for the talk was the civil rights movement and memory's role in framing the events that were taking place, giving them meaning, shaping response to the intense, heady days of '68 in Derry" has me thinking that I'd really like to see a study that explicitly uses/explores memory and frame theory, the latter a la Goffman, Benford & Snow, etc. I don't know if it would work or be productive, but conceptually they are fellow travelers.

  3. Yes, Michael, thanks. Some pretty sophisticated thinking has been done on that front.....same ideas as historical memory and historical consciousness but more nuanced language and more specificity for sure.


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