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excerpts from Paula Hamilton’s discussion of the relationship between memory and history

Hamilton, Paula ‘The Knife Edge: debates about memory and history’, Memory and History in 20th Century Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994

excerpt one

In company with many of the recently published explorations of historical memory I want to argue for an integral relationship, an essential interdependence between memory and history, despite claims of great tension and conflict. Luisa Passerini asserts that the research work in oral history reveals that each one forgets ‘crucial aspects of the society’s pasts’ and therefore ‘reciprocal critique and elaboration is essential’. Memory is gradually lost and here the historian steps in to tell the stories that people forget–the ‘gaps’ in the collective remembering. Just as the people do remember what the historians forget. In any society therefore the historian’s role is an ideological and political one, as Starn and Davis eloquently remind us:

The explosive pertinence of a remembered detail may challenge repressive or merely complacent systems of prescriptive memory or history; memory like the body, may speak in a language that reasoned inquiry will not hear.

The case of Australian historiography and indigenous peoples provides an illuminating example here. One of the most powerful myths that dominates the Australian historical landscape is that this is a new country (the corollary of Britain as the old country, home); and that we have such a short history. Indeed, travellers to Australia from the nineteenth century onwards would often comment that they perceived it as a place without history. This idea of a historical tabula rasa is of course a settler story, a British migrant story, told by several generations of English and European migrants to each other. Memories of invasion and death of indigenous peoples could more easily be erased, or at least attenuated, by the migrant experience. Those who came were not ‘burdened by the past’; they saw opportunity afresh, an empty landscape, lives that could be renewed.

But in the last thirty years there has been a huge shift in our understanding of what constitutes an Australian past, aspects of which are now fairly well outlined. We have begun to perceive organised structures of forgetting in relation to the Aboriginal people, structures which the historians both helped to erect, and many years later, to break down. Jacques Le Goff, a French historian, says that where societies are predominantly oral, the shift to the written collective memory offers the best chance of understanding the struggle for domination over remembrance. For the purpose of this discussion, the importance of Le Goff’s observation lies in the complex interplay between an oral and a literate culture to contest the dominant historical narratives, and an even more complicated weaving of memory and history. There is, for instance, the sustaining of Aboriginal memory through community and culture (despite attempts to break it down); we also see its re-invention through memory writing and other cultural forms–autobiographies, novels, reminiscences, films. In addition, oral histories have been significant, particularly to both black and white historians, anthropologists, linguists: and so has the music and Songs of Aboriginal singers. One of the dominant motifs in the urban Aboriginal memory in particular has been the taking away of children by the State authorities. The separation of families in a systematic policy of racial destruction did not end in some States until 1969. These actions provide a focus of considerable emotive power for the politics of memory in contemporary Australia: ‘They took the children away’ sings Archie Roach in a popular ballad; the repeated images of children sent away stands in for the painful loss of a heritage, the journey now to re-unite the families, find the past.

Here memory and history have ‘nourished each other’, as Le Goff would say. In this instance, memory has successfully challenged history and in the process of that challenge a white Australian population repeats again and again ‘we had no idea’–a rhetoric of revelation, a shift in historical consciousness. In some, the search for a new authenticity leads to the finding of Aboriginal forebears (in the same way that many searched for a convict ancestor in the 1970s); somewhere in a personal past they search for a black heritage that makes them not all white, not all oppressors. The Prime Minister, Paul Keating, has decided to adopt a policy which internalises a shameful past, and his use of pronouns in the speech to launch the 1993 International Year the the World’s Indigenous People is pertinent:

We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases and the alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion... Imagine if non-Aboriginal Australians had served their country in peace and war and were then ignored in history books.

This speech was written by Keating’s speechwriter, the historian Don Watson, and it is instructive for the way in which memory has transformed the public discussion about an Aboriginal past. Many now accept the destruction of Aboriginal society as the dominant narrative of Aboriginal history, though accepting responsibility and mourning is another matter. Certainly in this instance memory has successfully ‘unsettled the past’, leaving the questions unanswered about what else has been strategically ‘forgotten’.

excerpt two

In 1993, partly as a reponse to the public emergence of the POW experience, Prime Minister Keating opened a new memorial to Australian prisoners of war who died in North Borneo. At the opening ceremony he said:

Australia should know the truth about its history. A nation is stronger for its knowledge of shared experience and the experience of these men should be engraved in the national memory.

This is a tacit acknowledgement that the POW experience had previously been ‘forgotten’ as part of Australian history. However, also part of the reconciliation rhetoric in the speech is the idea that shared experience’ should be part of the ‘national memory’, despite our knowledge that it was a traumatic experience, but not in fact shared by all of us. Who then, is the ‘we’ of the nation? How do I relate to a ‘national memory’?

Defining groups or nations always necessitates a dual process of inclusion and exclusion and remembering the past is a central mechanism of that process. Many have noted that forgetting is one of the most powerful forces that shape national remembering. This socially organised amnesia is not a problem peculiar to Australia. The transmission of memories in countries such as the United States is, as Michael Kammen says, problematic in a society which values modernity and all things new, rather than tradition. The recent revelation that Alex Haley’s literary story of black heritage, the race memory called Roots was in fact ‘invented’, does not deny its political importance in a climate that needed to reinvent a past previously suppressed, or carried on only in oral form. It reveals the need to create a continuity backwards from a present where the politics of identity are central.

The American historian Kammen has identified several features relating to the politics of memory at the national level. Though there is a struggle for memory in all countries, it will emerge as contested in different countries at different times. Also, within each country various versions of the past circulate simultaneously on varying scales and levels. As Kammen says, ‘We arouse and arrange our memories to suit our psychic needs’. But the study of memory often reveals, for instance, a tension between local and nationalist traditions. In each country, Kammen identifies factors which affect the specificity of the process and the form that the remembering takes. The first is the role of the government as the custodian of public memory. In the United States, for example, no Ministry of Culture exists, unlike Australia, where there is increasing centralisation and a tradition of strong government involvement in many areas of national activity. On the other hand, various American government education authorities have at times had an active censoring role in the interpretation of the past, and how it is remembered in the schools, just as they have in Japan. In Australia, the various States have differing, school programmes and there is no national curriculum.

A second factor is the extent of discussion about the contemporary politics of culture and the degree to which historical issues are publicly contested. This will to a certain extent involve the role of the press and the cultural authority of the ‘memory specialists’ such as historians and journalists who bring discussion and debate to public attention. In Australia of the 1990s, the Prime Minister employs a historian as his major speech writer and both have attempted to use collective memory for political advantage, facilitating a sense of historical self-consciousness in order to work towards becoming a republic. The recent claim by Prime Minister Keating for example, that during the Second World War Britain had ‘abandoned’ Australia to the war in the Pacific, attempted to draw on popular myth and anti-British feeling rather than any formal interpretation of events. In fact, this issue is a matter of debate between historians and judging by the heated public controversy which ensued, it is also clearly a matter that remains unresolved in popular memory. Thirdly, the degree of centralisation affects negotiation over memory. There is often a tension between local memories and a public nationalist rhetoric, a tension heightened if the national ‘imagined community’ becomes too circumscribed. Gillis calls the conflict that arises between the local and national traditions a ‘diaIectical’ relationship. For example, local communities may appropriate the material forms of national commemoration such as war memorials but not necessarily the content, bending the expression of memory to local concerns. 

Reproduced with the permission of the author, Paula Hamilton.


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