Memory in the Public Realm: The Political Importance of Commemoration

Dissertation, University of Georgia (1998)


Collective memory has recently emerged as a major field of study. Researchers currently explore the relationships between collective memory and individual memory, collective memory and its social representations, collective memory and history, and collective memory and politics. This dissertation explores the relationship between collective memory, in the form of public commemorations, and politics. The following questions guide the research: What is the nature of commemoration? What legitimate. roles, if any, can commemorative performances play in the political realm? ;The following theses are defended. First, commemorations are public performances in which a community imaginatively emplots elements from its collective memory, heritage, and history as a social narrative. As such, commemorations are neither an expression of a society's unreflected collective memories, nor are they simply fictional stories about the past. Instead, commemorative performances are social narratives in which a community expresses its basic beliefs and values about itself to itself. Second, given the nature of these social performances, they can serve at least three important political functions. First, commemorations serve as a public forum in which a community can celebrate the historically significant deeds and achievements of its predecessors. Second, through these public performances the memory of those who have suffered can be preserved. Third, public commemorations allow the present community to free itself, to a degree, from the past by providing a public forum in which political agents can request and receive forgiveness for transgressions, both their own and those of their predecessors

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