Criticism 37.1 (1995): 175-177.
Commemorations. The Politics of National Identity, by John R. Gillis, ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. Pp.xii + 290. $35 (cloth).
[Reprinted with the editorial permission of Criticism]
The introduction by John R. Gillis to this volume of essays provides a succinct orientation to the subjects subsequently examined while also whetting the reader's appetite to pursue immediately the different directions outlined. These studies' common goal is deceptively simple: given the status of memory and identity as political and social constructs and of their relationship as historically situated, "the record of that relationship can be traced through various forms of commemoration," i.e. various modes of coordinating "individual and group memories, whose results may appear consensual when they are in fact the product of processes of intense contest, struggle, and, in some instances, annihilation" (5). Providing historical as well as socio-cultural foci, these essays span several centuries (from early modern Europe to the present) and societies (from the Middle East to North America), and Gillis's remarks situate the development of the memory/identity nexus through the overlapping phases of the "pre-national" (up to the late 1700s), the "national" (end of the eighteenth century to the 1960s) and the current, "post-national" phase.
Some of the points that Gillis emphasizes are: the shifting class and fixed gender and race specificities of commemorative initiatives from one phase to the next; the struggles that occur between social groups when challenged by proposed commemorative events; the move from commemoration of the dead to the living and the consequent change of rituals; and above all, the role that "concerted forgettings" play in all processes of remembering (7-18). Underscoring the political stakes in the memory/identity relationship, Gillis argues that it was not until the 1960s and their aftermath that "a new iconoclasm" develops resulting in the search for "usable pasts capable of serving the heterogeneity of new groups that had become active on the national and international stage: racial and sexual minorities, women, youth, and dozens of new nations and ethnic groups aspiring to sovereign status" (19). However, the "democratization of memory" for those groups developing new identities becomes "profanation, or, what is worse, cultural suicide" for other groups invested in the sacredness of the nation-state (19). Hence, the battle lines are drawn on political, cultural and even commercial fronts, but Gillis maintains that in this transitional "era of plural identities," the publicizing of memories and identities is more necessary than ever in order to ensure "the democratic processes by which individuals and groups come together to discuss, debate, and negotiate the past and, through this process, define the future" (20).
The two essays constituting the volume's first section (entitled "The Problem of Identity and Memory") provide a solid basis from which the three subsequent sections can proceed. Richard Handler's opening "Is 'Identity' a Useful Cross-Cultural Concept?" raises suspicions about this fundamental term as both a scholarly and cultural construct since its seeming "naturalness" belies the distinctive trait of "identity" as constituted within entirely situated contexts. Following recent scholarship that has emphasized various modes of constructing "identity," Handler argues that groups are best understood not as "bounded objects in the natural world . . . [but as] symbolic processes that emerge and dissolve the particular contexts of action," a perspective requiring a language "other than the discourse of identity in order to be able to comment creatively upon that discourse" (30). From his examination of both non-Western and recent Western conceptions (e.g. in Jane Austen's novels) of individuality and social collectivity, Handler concludes that not only is our twentieth-century conception of "identity" inadequate for application to other periods and cultures, but also that "identity" contributes little to scholarship on "nationalist activism, historical preservation, and the creation of tradition" (37). He recognizes, however, the politically delicate problem raised by this latter objection since groups who frequently turn to such identity claims (e.g. ethnic leaders, ministries of culture) do so for legitimate political reasons, however hegemonic and ideologically oppressive such claims may ultimately be. Thus, Handler argues that the focus of scholarly critique should be on mainstream, and usually unchallenged, identity claims while constructively pointing out to minority groups the consequences of promoting homogeneous cultural constructs without due reflection (38).
David Lowenthal pursues similar lines of thought in the second
chapter, "Identity, Heritage and History," stating that
the title's first two terms currently "swim in a self-congratulatory
swamp of collective memory" (41), an attitude often fuelling
rivalry and conflicts. Having traced the submission of selfhood
to collective consciousness in past memoirs, Lowenthal suggests
that "heritage," once referring only to the attributes
of the elite, now is a popular link, "distill[ing] the past
into icons of identity, bonding us with precursors and progenitors,
with our own earlier selves, and with our promised successors"
(43). While remaining "metaphorically ancestral," says
Lowenthal, heritage today functions mainly "to confirm the
identity and boost the solidarity of nations and self-assured
ethnic groups" (44). Heritage categories now become homogenized
due, in large part, to global interdependence, and tend to exclude
other groups' claims to virtue, civilization, and comparable worth.
And the requirement that socially binding traditions be accepted
on faith, not by reasoning, now distinguishes heritage from history:
"Heritage thus defies empirical analysis; it features fantasy,
invention, mystery, error" (49), through diverse modes of
memorialization -and- amnesia. To the current rise of nationalist
claims also corresponds the rise of extreme tension and conflict,
as the evening new drives home daily, in the form of rivalries,
disputes, and rhetorical bombast. Lowenthal concludes that comparison
between heritages, rather than myopic insistence on exclusivity,
can contribute to quelling such conflicts: "National
heritage emerges from linkages (and rivalries) among all the identities that inhabit us" (54).
In order to highlight properly the different modes of commemoration constitutive of identity, memory and heritage, each subsequent section develops a particular (yet quite broad) focus:
In part two, "Memory in the Construction of National Identities," David Cressy considers the role of dynastic and church authorities in shaping popular understanding of early modern England's national memories and commemorations; John Brodner studies the debates over (official vs. vernacular) public memory with special focus on the stages of commemoration during this century in Cleveland, OH; Eric Davis examines the museum as form and site of social control of both "high" and "low culture" in modern Iraq; and Yael Zerubavel juxtaposes the overlapping discourses of "history" and "legend" in Israeli commemoration of the (1920) Tel Hai battle.
In part three, "Memories of War and Wars over Memory," Kirk Savage defines the strategic functions of the Civil War memorial for recasting commemoration away from black emancipation and toward national reconciliation and harmony; Thomas W. Laqueur describes the "new era of remembrance" brought about through "naming" the European war dead as a process of memorialization following World War I; G. Kurt Piehler examines the United States government's strategy of creating the Gold Star Mother following World War I as a means to identify motherhood, and a certain kind of woman's identity, with the selfless sacrifice of their sons in defense of the nation; and Daniel J. Sherman studies the World War I monument in France as a site for conjoining "a variety of discourses and practices: local and national, commercial and artistic, high and low, and ultimately perhaps, history and memory" (187).
In part four, "Politics of Memory and Identity," Rudy J. Koshar considers the role of, and contradictions within, historic preservation of buildings and towns in Germany as a privileged mode both of memorialization and of coping with forms of nationalist insecurity; Herman Lebovics situates the cultural and political debates around the vexed and shifting questions of the "essential France" and authentic French heritage, focussing on cultural wars in the 1930s and 1960s; and Claudia Koonz examines the struggles of memorialization and historical amnesia related to concentration camp memorial museums in post-World War II Germany, East and West.
With these brief summaries, I mean merely to orient readers to what these essays might offer quite generally, leaving it to each reader, depending on his/her own interests, to pursue the in-depth process of discovery. I hope to have made clear the common effort by all the contributors to follow the broad lines of inquiry established in the introduction and opening chapters. In each of the cultural contexts examined, the contributors emphasize the diverse processes by which identity and memory are reciprocally constructed through commemoration and, concomitantly, how these constructions are variably exploited within particular socio-political and economic circumstances. Far from being rabidly relativist, however, the contributors draw conclusions based on very sound historical data succinctly presented. Yet, in doing so, they also avail themselves of many critical insights that have arisen from recent debates on the relationship of history to narrative and discourse theories. Hence, this volume offers not only an array of analyses of specific socio-historical practices, but also important examples of an unselfconscious and highly productive approach to cultural studies.
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University