I recently got around to reading Pierre Nora’s classic paper about history and memory, which archivists like to cite because of his claim that modern memory is archival (Nora, 1989). The paper is actually an English translation of the introduction to his massive three volume work Les Lieux de Mémoire. I thought I’d include the full quote here to make a few comments:
Modern memory is, above all, archival. It relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image. What began as writing ends as high fidelity and tape recording. The less memory is experienced from the inside the more it exists only through its exterior scaffolding and outward signs–hence the obsession with the archive that marks our age, attempting at once the complete conservation of the present as well as the total preservation of the past. Fear of a rapid disappearance combines with anxiety about the meaning of the present and uncertainty about the future to give even the most humble testimony, the most modest vestige, the potential dignity of the memorable.
It’s an interesting idea because of the way it implicates technology (photography and sound recording) in our ideas about memory and the archive. Nora is writing in 1989, after almost 200 years of development in photography and recording technologies that led to television. In that same year Tim Berners-Lee is taking his first steps at creating the World Wide Web at CERN. Nora is interested in how technologies leave traces, which are records that we feel we must keep. At least this is the leap that he claims we make, from trace to record, which leads to an anxiety of the archive. I would argue that this anxiety about collection existed well before the advent of photography and sound recording. The technologies of text and print, which made the traces of speech recordable inevitably led us to worry about what documents need to be preserved…or to unquestioningly record the words of the powerful. One technique archivists have developed for easing this anxiety is through the practice of appraisal.
Anxiety about record production actually masks another kind of anxiety, which Nora doesn’t quite speak to explicitly here. It is an anxiety about who records – or whose traces are to be made archival. As the means of trace production have become widely available so has the number of people that are peripherally engaged in archival work. The camera enabled the generation of boxes of photographs, and albums, which are in effect miniature archives which may find their way into larger ones. The Records Continuum, and specifically post-custodial archival theory (Upward, 1996 , 1997), allow us to examine this production and movement of records in a way that generously enlarges, or even democratizes, the scope of archival work. This enlargement works to ameliorate the anxiety about the archive by allowing archival processes to extend out into the world.
But Nora isn’t interested in the archive here as much as he is in the topic of lieux de mémoire or places of memory. It’s the subject of the three volumes he is introducing. As an example of a place of memory he examines the French Revolutionary Calendar, which was an attempt to remove royalist and religious influence in the calendar. Nora points out that the calendar itself was a failure, because France is still using the Gregorian years. But some events are remembered for their placement on the calendar … and so the calendar becomes a place of memory.
But places of memory are not simply collections of traces or records that have survived over time–agency or the will to remember is what distinguishes simply a collection of traces, from a lieux du mémoire.
What is the essence of this quintessential lieu de mémoire– its original intention or its return in the cycles of memory? Clearly both: all lieux de mémoire are objects mises en abîme. It is this principle of double identity that enables us to map, within the indefinite multiplicity of sites, a hierarchy, a set of limits, a repertoire of ranges. This principle is crucial because, if one keeps in mind the broad categories of the genre–anything pertaining to the cult of the dead, anything relating to the patrimony, anything administering presence of the past within the present–it is clear that some seemingly improbable objects can be legitimately considered lieux de mémoire while, conversely, many that seem to fit by definition should in fact be excluded. What makes certain prehistoric, geographical, archaeological locations important as sites is often precisely what ought to exclude them from being lieux de mémoire: the absolute absence of a will to remember and, by way of compensation, the crushing weight imposed on them by time, science, and the dreams of men. (p. 21)
It is this will to remember which is what allows places of memory to exist. Memory sites are not something that technologies, records or media do alone – they require interpretation by people. Memory is social. Nora is stressing the role of people in memory, and trying to disabuse us of the idea that memory can be found in physical traces alone. When distinguishing between true memory and historical memory in the lead up to the quote about all memory being archival above he says:
Of course, we still cannot do without the word [memory], but we should be aware of the difference between true memory, which has taken refuge in gestures and habits, in skills passed down by unspoken traditions, in the body’s inherent self-knowledge, in unstudied reflexes and ingrained memories, and memory transformed by passage through history, which is nearly the opposite: voluntary and deliberate, experienced as a duty, no longer spontaneous; psychological, individual, and subjective; but never social, collective, or all encompassing. How did we move from the first memory, which is immediate, to the second? (p. 13)
Honestly, I find this distinction Nora is making hard to grasp. I read a translation, so perhaps returning to the French would provide some insight into what is going on here. But what Nora seems to be saying is that memory is embodied and made part of social practices, whereas modern memory, or archival memory, is formulaic, and technocratic. This seems out of place with todays technologies of trace production, namely the web where records are highly dynamic and social. Nora’s perspective on archival memory seems much more concerned with traditional mass media technologies such as newspapers and television which intentionally push particular narratives and framings, than with social media where stories can be shared, commented upon, and made part of conversation–pushed and pulled (Brown, 2010). However these systems of conversation are still designed and governed by structures that allow particular actions, but prevent others. In many ways Nora’s idea of lieux de mémoire acts intervenes into the arhivalization of everything, by suggesting that our traces need to be made social to become sites of memory.
Would Nora think that Facebook was a site of memory? Or would it be something else? Hoskins (2018) sees social media sites like Facebook not as a memory site, or as collective memory, but as the memory of the multitudes:
The new economy of attention or distraction–the multiple and often simultaneous modes of being hyperconnected: the new modus operandi of everyday communication–the link, like, message, tweet, email, text–are archived into a chain of media-memory. The archived self alters the constitution of the social, anchoring the prsent in a “deep now”: a now with unpredictable and often invisible and unimaginable trails and connectivities. The memory of the multitude is thus made from human-archival entanglements of communication through digital devices and networks. For better or worse, such entanglements are today irresistibly part of what it means to be social. (p. 86)
Hoskins emphasis on the sociotechnical reality of memory seems apt now, but also seems apt for 1987 when Nora is writing. It is the distinction that Nora seems to be making between the human and the non-human world of technology that bugs me the most. This position seems at odds with perspectives that put the human and non-human into relation, rather than putting them into a hierarchy. I’m thinking about Actor Network Theory here (Latour & Woolgar, 1979). Still the idea that there are sites of memory, and even objects of memory, and that they are rendered such through social interaction still seems like a useful and valuable insight. I just think Nora downplays the degree to which institutions like archives, and document traces, have social lives.
Brown, J. S. (2010). The power of pull. Basic Books.
Hoskins, A. (2018). Digital memory studies: Media pasts in transition. In A. Hoskins (Ed.) (pp. 85–109). Routledge.
Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1979). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. Sage.
Nora, P. (1989). Between memory and history: Les lieux de mémoire. Representations, 7–24.
Upward, F. (1996). Structuring the records continuum (series of two parts) part 1: Post custodial principles and properties. Archives and Manuscripts, 24(2), 268.
Upward, F. (1997). Structuring the records continuum (series of two parts) part 2: Structuration theory and recordkeeping. Archives and Manuscripts, 25(1), 10.