Social Memory, Social Order

“Concerning social memory in particular, we may note that images of the past commonly legitimate a present social order.  It is an implicit rule that participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.  To the extent that their memories of a society’s past diverge, to that extent its members can share neither experiences nor assumptions.  The effect is seen perhaps most obviously when communication across generations is impeded by different sets of memories.  Across generations, different sets of memories, frequently in the shape of implicit background narratives, will encounter each other; so that, although physically present to one another in a particular setting, the different generations may remain mentally and emotionally insulated, the memories of one generation locked irretrievably, as it were, in the brains and bodies of that generation …

… images of the past and recollected knowledge of the past … are conveyed and sustained by (more or less ritual) performances …

I believe, furthermore, that the solution to the question posed above — how is the memory of groups conveyed and sustained? — involves bring these two things (recollection and bodies) together …

If there is such a thing as social memory … we are likely to find it in commemorative ceremonies; but commemorative ceremonies prove to be commemorative only in so far as they are performative; performativity cannot be thought without a concept of habit; and habit cannot be thought without a notion of bodily automatisms.”

— Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember, 3-5.

Connerton’s observations, further developed throughout the rest of the book, raise interesting questions about the kind of social order that the personalization and digitization of memory yields.  If Connerton is correct in his claim that a social order rests upon shared memory and that this memory is fundamentally embodied in a quasi-liturgical mode, what becomes of the social order when the memories we most obviously sustain are strictly personal and digitized?

As Connerton also notes in his introduction, this is not merely a technical question, it is also a political question.  If social order hinges on social memory, then, to paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre, it is worth asking, “Whose memory, which order?”

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