Collective Memory and Cultural memory (Draft)

collective memory Das Boot

Chapter 3 Draft 1.1a
Collective Memory (include Cultural Memory?)
Chapter Introduction (Draft)

Collective Memory Das Boot internal
Das Boot German anti-war film

The previous chapter defined prosthetic memory and through case studies expanded upon the memory concept of prosthetic memory in film. In this chapter on collective memory, I will expand upon the definition of collective memory and how this relates to prosthetic memory. Collective memory is important as many of our memories are shared memories of events that we may have directly experienced in groups or as prosthetic memories, prosthetic memories not directly experienced but also gained through a shared experience in groups. The effect of mass media recounting events in history and shared in for example films and Cinema.
Halbwachs considered how we remember; he states that remembrance, how we remember is through other people who recall these events to us. He goes onto say “Even in those instances when others are not physically present and we evoke an event that had a place in the life of our group, it might be granted that we can speak of collective memory because we once envisaged
that event, as we still do now in the moment we recall it, from the viewpoint of this group.” (Halbwachs, 1980: 16)

Collective memory is narrational: Memory must be structured within a familiar cultural pattern. In most cases, it takes the well-known narrative form, including a storyline featuring a beginning, a chain of developing events, and an ending, as well as protagonists who are called upon to overcome obstacles and so forth. Moreover, the adoption of a narrative structure enables creators of accounts that address the past to charge these tales with lessons and morals that guide and instruct mnemonic communities in the present. (Neiger, Meyers and Zandberg, 2011)

Collective Memory In Which We Server (1942)
In Which We Serve (1942)

Collective memory can be defined as a memory that is a shared memory with others, family groups, unrelated by this I mean social groups for example a cinema audience formed of people. This audience could be of any size including a national and international audience of events that people have experienced either directly or not directly (as a prosthetic memory). However, this definition needs to be expanded upon.
Halbwachs was, without doubt, the first sociologist who stressed that
our conceptions of the past are affected by the mental images we employ to solve present problems, so that collective memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past in the light of the present. (Levine and Janowitz, 1992: 34)

Halbwachs argues that the individual calls recollections to mind by relying on the frameworks of social memory. In other words, the various groups that compose society are capable at every moment of reconstructing their past. (Levine and Janowitz, ed, 1992: 182) This quotation appears to tie in closely with my previous statement by Halbwachs of how people remember events through the recall, retelling of their memories of events from a group within society.
Maurice Halbwachs is generally recognized as the father of collective memory research. Halbwachs developed the concept of collective memory, arguing that individual memories are only understood within the context of a group, unifying the nation or community through time and space. (García-Gavilanes et al., 2017: 1)

Maurice Halbwachs was a sociologist, and a student of Durkheim, in his book “On Collective Memory” (Halbwachs, 1992). He argues that all our personal memories are recorded through the filter of our collective and social memories. This implies that our collective memories are remembered in the form of a narrative and therefore may be inaccurately remembered and as such, unreliable. Consider how collective memories may be unreliable collective memories because these memories may be formed as a narrative, sourced from multiple sources, for example, the media; indirectly passed on from multiple sources, augmented, embellished, and forwarded on essentially as truth.
In contemporary memory studies, the focus falls not only on individual, private memory, but on historical, social, cultural, and popular memory, too. Theorists speak with apparent ease indeed, of the collective or social domains of memory. (Radstone and Hodgkin, 2003: 2)

Cross Of Iron

Radstone argues this concept of collective memory as a collection of memories formed by individuals, cultures and within the social domains of the people this memory by this I mean a collective memory may be formed from a cultural and nationalistic viewpoint, for example, the winners of a war get to write the history. Cinema has a special place in the formation of collective memories as I have previously argued, cinema enjoys a privileged position with regards to memory. The spectator watches a film, a non-fictional account of an event, or even a dramatisation of a past or cultural event, but cinema can represent all of these presented and perceived as reality. The Cinema environment specialises in the representation of fiction as reality with the suspension of disbelief one of its prime aims, encouraging the audience to believe in its own version of reality. Halbwachs developed the concept of collective memory influenced by the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim. Durkheim developed his theories of “collective effervescence” and social memory, and while these theories are not directly attributed to the notion of collective memory Durkheim did subscribe indirectly to the concept of Cinema and its influence in stating that “… that history does not consist of a series of discrete snapshots, but rather of a continuous film in which, even though other images usually appear, the shots hang together and form a continuous stream of images…” (Levine and Janowitz, 1992: 26) This appears to tie in with the argument that Cinema through the many versions of films can represent many versions of past events, for example, consider the Western genre the films a fantastical setting and retelling of myths. In the early westerns, Hollywood studios typically present the good and the bad, but where good always wins. While this worked for early western films, in contemporary Westerns, which tend to have a grittier feel, and reveal a life of hard work and where the good do not always win, a more realistic version of life is depicted. However, each version regardless of which decade they are produced adds to the collective memory of the historical/mythical events represented in these films. Neither version is probably accurate and has any relationship to reality, yet people form collective memories of America and the wild west from the scenes and scenarios depicted in these films. As in most of these historical events, no one is alive from these times and there can be no direct experience, no direct memory, just a combination of historical records, and fictional narratives which can over time be far from reality, and difficult to reconcile with the limited factual records. Collective memory by definition means a shared memory of events, but this memory is independent of truth or reality, it is just a shared memory of an event or events either experienced directly or not in social groups.
“Just as prosthetic memories blur the boundary between individual and collective memory, they also complicate the distinction between memory and history.” (Landsberg, 2004)

Collective Memory Dunkirk 2017
Dunkirk (2017)

Collective memory and prosthetic memory are directly related to each other as collective memories can be formed from prosthetic memories. Landsberg argues that memory and history and the distinction between them is complicated by how we remember. History is recorded through the multiple forms of mass media in the same way that prosthetic memories are formed. When it is impossible to have lived these historic events, the memories of these events can be formed from a variety of historical sources including films, documentary and film dramatisations, photographs, and written accounts. In the case of our collective memory of these historic events, these are also formed through the consumption of these historic records, for example, formulated from archival film and film dramatisations. This appears to tie in with as I argued in the previous chapter on prosthetic memory, memories of past events are formed from mass media and other sources, for example, television and cinema. These forms of media, which reach thousands indeed millions, these mass audiences will form collective memories of these events regardless of truth and reality depicted through televised programs and film. Cinema as I previously stated can promote fiction as reality using the combination of imagery and narrative, projected to the screen in this unique environment, films of historic events through dramatisation. From this a Cinema audience will form a collective memory of events some will remember this as a recounting of reality and others a narrative of possible events, half-truths, and pure fiction, from this viewpoint it should be made clear that as individuals they may not have the exact same memories even though they were collectively consumed.
Cinema, in effect, seems to evoke the emotional certitude we associate with memory for, like memory, the film is now, to a greater extent than before, associated with the body; it engages the viewer at the somatic level, immersing the spectator in experiences and impressions that, like memories, seem to be burned in. (Grainge, 2018: 223)

Emotional response to collective memory is important, we are inclined to believe where we emotionally have some investment and attachment to an event, an example would be a positive representation of an event in history from a unique cultural viewpoint. This could be represented in a War film where the army of your own nation wins the battle and/or succeeds in their challenge. Annette Kuhn discusses collective memory and cinema in the journal “Memories of cinemagoing and film experience” which includes research by Annamaria Dutceac Segesten and Jenny Wüstenberg (2016: 9) which identifies film, media, and communication studies as among the ‘prominent fields’ within the discipline. This is not surprising, given that over the past century collective memory has been crucially informed by all forms of mass media, including and perhaps especially audio-visual media like cinema and now includes social media and video hosting platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo. She states that “Memory studies is a multi- and at times the interdisciplinary area of inquiry that takes as its objects the processes by which collective memory is shaped in different cultures; the ways in which societies institutionalize collective memory through commemorations of the past in museums, festivals, and so on; and the part played by these activities in producing various forms of social and cultural identity.” (Kuhn, Biltereyst and Meers, 2017: 3-4). This links into the concept of cultural memory where the cultural perspective and associated collective memory may well differ from the cultural perspective. For example, in war films, for example, the German cultural perspective in the film Das Boot (1981) and Cross of Iron (1977). The despair depicted in these film examples as Germany begins to lose the submarine war in the Atlantic and its armies defeat in Russia. This compared with the positive viewpoint depicted in films such as, In Which We Serve (1942) and Dunkirk (2017) from the British perspective. However ironically in both British films, defeat is shown in from a positive cultural aspect, the warship In Which We Serve is sunk by a German submarine and its crew in flashback relive the commissioning of the ship and their survival to fight again, while the film Dunkirk depicts the desperate evacuation of the British army from its defeat by the German army in France only to live and fight again.


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Grainge, P. (2018) ‘Memory and popular film’, in Memory and popular film. doi: 10.1111/j.1537-4726.2004.141_16.x.
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