22 April 2006

576) Memory and history

Nineteen historians who objected to the laws and other decisions passed by the parliament in France on historical issues such as colonialism, the slave trade, the Algerian War and the transfer of Armenians have stressed yet again the “memory and history” dilemma.. Remembering the tragic events of the past is important, especially to honor the victims. Nevertheless, the victorious side is inclined to forget about such tragedies. That brings us to the concept of 'the duty of memory,' that is, the concept of not forgetting, or, to put it differently, remembering. But what exactly are we not to forget?

Gündüz Aktan

Nineteen historians who objected to the laws and other decisions passed by the parliament in France on historical issues such as colonialism, the slave trade, the Algerian War and the transfer of Armenians have stressed yet again the “memory and history” dilemma. Remembering the tragic events of the past is important, especially to honor the victims. Nevertheless, the victorious side is inclined to forget about such tragedies. That brings us to the concept of “the duty of memory,” that is, the concept of not forgetting, or, to put it differently, remembering. But what exactly are we not to forget?

The problem stems from the fact that parties concerned would have different memories of a given tragedy. Then the “memory duty” requires creation of a collective memory related to the tragedy. In this context the history/memory relationship gains importance.

In this article I want to dwell on the differences of memory and history between the Turks and the Armenians regarding the 1915-1916 Armenian incidents, inspired from the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur's renowned article, “Entre la memoire et l'histoire.”

According to Ricoeur, history and memory both deal with the “representations” in our mind of an event that is a thing of the past, that is, something that has been lost. Both start to take shape during the time the incident is unfolding. In other words memory takes shape simultaneously with archival material along with the emergence and development of the event. In the writing down of history memory is a major factor; however, in the shaping of memory the history written afterwards takes secondary importance.

The memory focuses on the pain suffered by the “victim” of the “great crime.” History, on the other hand, places that event into a much wider perspective. It compares it with similar other incidents, tries to find common characteristics and analyzes the complex relationship between the events. The historian adopts a cold and objective approach, looking at the incidents from a distance.

Being one of the social sciences, unlike mathematics and the natural sciences, history does not lend itself easily to experimentation, modeling and verification. As Carlo Ginzberg suggested, history is a semiotic activity that involves examining and interpreting historical documents and presenting them to experts so that they could be debated. Therefore, this is the kind of knowledge about the events of the past that is indirect, conjectural and probable. For that reason it is legitimate, natural and even necessary for historians to debate incidents of the past. It would be impossible to write the history of an event that cannot be debated. The historian refrains from adopting a judgmental attitude since he focuses on understanding the events of the past rather than on passing judgment on them and hurling accusations.

Unlike memory, history has a method. History is a narrative based on that method. The aim of the method is to unveil the causality behind the events and see whether the tragedies recurred and were cyclical. While doing that it classifies the phenomena into categories such as social, political, economic and cultural and studies the interaction among these. Rather than verbal history, autobiographies and memoirs, it gives priority to archival materials.

Memory, on the other hand, maintains the “unique,” “unprecedented” and “incomparable” nature of the pain on which it focuses, and it fears that history would destroy that memory. It adopts a selective approach to the events. Unless weeded out by psychoanalysis it tends to display a deviation caused by the pain. Memory needs to make the tragedy public and to attribute guilt to one side. In other words, it needs judgment. In this respect history is fact-oriented whereas memory involves identity.

The Holocaust has not caused a problem between memory and history. The Armenian incidents, on the other hand, are causing a major conflict between the two. Today the Armenian memory is based on memories of the actual events that have been transmitted down to four, even five, consecutive generations. As in the case of news traveling along the grapevine the things being narrated become more and more distanced from the historical facts in the course of this process. The Turks' sufferings are being ignored altogether. The Armenians forget all about the fact that their side had aimed for independence and that armed Armenian groups had committed murders of Turks for that goal. Their memory is geared to blaming the Turkish side and seeking revenge. Thus the Armenians are building history on a memory that is distanced from historical facts.

Even more grave is the fact that the transmitted memory grossly exaggerates what happened to the Armenians (as in the case of the film “Ararat” that we saw on Kanal Türk television network) while portraying the Turks as inhuman monsters, thus acquiring a racist quality. And, in order to get rid of the pathological identity crisis it wallows in, it needs to gain recognition as “genocide” for what this “monster” had done to it.

Can this conflict be resolved anywhere other than the courts?

http://www.turkishdailynews.com.tr/article.php?enewsid=41076

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