Memory book and the politics of remembering

October 26, 2018

By Frederick Blichert

November 11, 2018, will mark not only Remembrance Day but also the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. “Lest we forget,” we repeat, from year to year, memorializing the very act of remembering the horrors of war, and the sacrifices made.

Jumping off from this occasion, the editors of a new collection of essays ask readers to consider the role and function of memory: how we conceive memory, how we record and transmit it, how we’re affected by it, and how we deploy it, whether strategically or instinctively.

The book, Memory, brings together diverse voices from multiple academic disciplines to explore memory from many angles. The book is published by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, in partnership with UBC Press.

“I’m a big fan of milestone anniversaries. They focus public attention and public consciousness on important questions,” says co-editor Philippe Tortell, who kickstarted the project. Tortell is a professor in the departments of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, and Botany at the University of British Columbia, as well as the director of the Peter Wall Institute.

Tortell’s co-editors are Mark Turin, an associate professor in the department of Anthropology and First Nations and Endangered Languages, and Margot Young, a professor in the Peter A. Allard School of Law.

If those seem like unrelated fields, that’s really the point. Thinking about memory transcends individual disciplines. The concept matters in broad and diverse ways.

The individual essays in this collection reflect great diversity, “not only in terms of the disciplines represented but also in terms of the individuals penning the essays themselves,” says Young.

“We were committed to soliciting contributions from emerging scholars,” adds Turin. “And to ensuring that the collection was balanced in terms of discipline and gender, including some powerful Indigenous voices.”

That diversity speaks to contemporary narratives around memory. Memory offers us tools to right wrongs, as with Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and can shine a light on dark histories we often prefer to forget out of convenience or shame. The uncertainty of the current political and social climate has led many to reach for familiar historical analogies. The #MeToo movement, as well, relies on the accrediting of memories to inspire solidarity and ensure accountability in the face of widespread abuse.


VIDEO: Meet the editors and contributors behind the Memory book 

Of course, there are advantages that come with forgetting as well. “It’s easy for me to say that I have a bad memory,” says Turin. “In so many ways, that’s a privilege I have on account of education and access to memory tools, such as digital calendars and computer notifications. But such ‘memory aids’ are not evenly distributed across the globe, and in traditionally oral cultures, memory through other mechanisms is extremely important.”

And sometimes we forget in order to survive. Shannon Walsh, author of one of the book’s essays, suggests women often refuse to actively remember acts of violence and misogyny for self-preservation.

“We spend so much time thinking about the importance of accuracy in memory, then Walsh reminds us of the value of healing through forgetting for some survivors of violence,” Young explains.

Memory isn’t always so fraught. It can come to us instinctively, UBC zoologist Anthony Farrell reminds us in his essay about salmon, who rely on memory in their yearly migration routes. Salmon, as a species, simply can’t forget as a basic tenet of their survival.

While there’s an academic basis to the work in Memory, the book is neither a textbook nor scholarly survey. It’s instead aimed at interested readers who are both inside and outside the academy.

“If this had been an academic book, the essays would have been entirely different,” says Tortell. “They would have been longer, they would have been much more difficult to read, much more technical.”

“We wanted the essays to be something you can read in one sitting and that you can read easily,” adds Young. “The thoughts in the essays are not simple; they’re actually complex ideas that the authors present in ways that are engaging and quite easy to comprehend. Neither the language nor the argument of the essays requires specialized expertise.”

The editors worked with the writers to achieve that balance: on the one hand, accuracy and academic rigour, on the other, accessibility to a general audience.

There’s also another important way that the book will be accessible. Unlike most scholarly writing that requires a subscription, university affiliation, or purchase, Memory is available as a free e-book, via the academic digital library JSTOR. Alongside being able to buy the book for yourself or as a gift, you can also download it for free.

The availability of the e-book also means you won’t have to remember where you left your copy.