Cultural Memory

One concept that is particularly relevant in terms of diaspora studies is that of ‘cultural memory‘.  Within the field of interdisciplinary research, many critics recognise a distinction between ‘national memory’, and  ‘diasporic memory’. It is important to pick apart this idea, particularly taking into account alternative perspectives on the concepts of ‘culture’ and ‘memory’. Generally, in regarding diaspora as an analytical category of practice, culture can be recognised definitively as an non-prescriptive term, culture with a little ‘c’ as opposed to Arnold’s canonical hierarchy of Culture, which could be said to reflect the colonial obsession with civilisation and culture as the highest point in learning and thinking Western knowledge, set in distinct opposition to the practices of the noble savage.

It is important to consider whether a diasporic writer (or indeed, any diasporic individual) has the moral and ethical duty to preserve cultural memory, and thus whether there is a  'burden of responsibility', certainly on the part of an author who claims diasporic heritage; perhaps, moreover, this is one of the factors that constitutes diasporic identification- the sense of the need to preserve the past. Although prevalent in every process of constructing identity, most evidently through the practice of storytelling, perhaps this burden is more keenly felt by diasporic individuals by virtue of their belonging to a marginalised and/or traditionally dispersed group. Yet when any such proposition is advanced,  it seems to suggest homogeneity of (narrative) voice that distinctly overrides any recognition of hybridity in diasporic identification or postcolonial experience. It could almost be seen as running in parallel terms to the more disturbing attempts to present an Orwellian history of national identity in some of the more recent dictatorial regimes. For a fascinating discussion of the production of national memory in despotic regimes, I recommend the a BBC World Service episode of the Why Factor program in which participants discussed the concept of cultural memory in relation to the concept of collective narrative, memory and trauma, and the issues surrounding silence and omission:

 Indeed, to draw on recent events as an example, the death this week of Margaret Thatcher has led to the perpetuation of two observable narratives as if there was only this dichotomy of thought available : the canonization of, as the Daily Mail put it, ‘The Woman Who Saved Britain’, and the throwing of death parties by Thatcher’s children, inheritors of a legacy of disenfranchisement, set up as a majority history vs. counter narrative, the one distinctly patriotic and the other defiantly anti, with no room in-between. Such a residual binary distinction is problematic not only for the articulation of nationalist projects, but could be explored for many so-called ‘victim’ Diasporas in relation to trauma, in which ‘remembering’ takes on a parallel political role albeit from an alternative ‘point of dispersal’. In the case of the African diaspora, for example, Larson suggests that memory and trauma are inextricably linked. He writes that:

‘Most ethnic minorities anchor their collective identities in the remembrance of past and present victimization. Victims of social trauma and their descendants often engage in purposeful and explicit remembering as a form of empowerment and identity formation.’(335)

Research within the field of diaspora studies starts from the perspective of group identification. The parameters of a Diasporic group must be established, or at the very least  a working knowledge of its historical context, prior to conducting any field or textual research. The danger here, then, is that researchers themselves assist in producing or reflecting a singular hierarchy of cultural memory.

Memory itself, or the act of remembering, is evidently not a homogenous and linear experience. Salman Rushdie writes that his narrator in Midnight’s Children makes the natural mistakes of a ‘fallible memory’ and thus, has a ‘fragmentary vision’(10)  of India. But Rushdie rejects the idea that such a ‘broken mirror’(11)  is wholly flawed: he argues, in fact, that the discontinuity of separation from a homeland may intensify and thus heighten the experience of remembering, writing that, for Rushdie in his own exile from India, ‘shards of memory acquired greater status, greater resonance, because they were remains; fragmentation made trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquired numerous qualities’ (12).

He makes an interesting link to archaeology, which shifts the burden of responsibility from the idea of the preservation of a cultural narrative to a focus on the uncovering, partial exposure or re-articulation of ‘fractured perceptions’ (12) as a valuable representation of a diasporic identity that is, by its very nature, fractured. Rushdie addresses this question of the diasporic role as preserving a cultural memory – in this sense, not of a homogenous diasporic group and its history of departure and migration, but as the preservation of the homeland (as a vital part of constructing a collective exilic group identity) and asks the question, who has the right to speak once they live, always ‘outside’? And yet, his emphasis on the fractured plurality of experience reflects my own misgivings about this concept of ‘cultural memory’, or indeed, ‘national memory’, as he asks: ‘how can culture be preserved without becoming ossified?’ (17). He stands against the enactment of ‘cultural frontiers’ (19) through the ritual of delineating historical narrative and claiming authentic voice, for fear of replicating exclusionary boundaries of identity.

The parallel Rushdie draws between the practice of ‘remembering’ and archaeology is valuable here, and it is worth drawing on the work of Jan Assman, for whom cultural memory is a stock of reusable texts (Wiedergebrauchstexte). These archives are thus not static but a source of dynamic, reenacted and generative artifacts. Assman defines cultural memory as two different though occasionally overlapping concepts, "memory culture" (Erinnerungskultur) and "reference to the past" (Vergangenheitsbezug). The former is the preservation of generational continuity through the maintenance of collective memory, and the latter is the creation of a shared past through a collective historical consciousness. As both collectivity and transience are configured in this ambiguous interpretation of cultural memory as a distinct category of practice, it could be said to reconstruct this burden of responsibility as a collective endeavour with a focus not on the preservation of a singular narrative of the past in aspic, but rather in emphasis on identity-making practices in the present.  This shift reflects a wider trans-disciplinary move from understanding ‘history’ (to which cultural transformations were a subset) to interpreting representations of history which occurred broadly across the twentieth century.

And yet, it seems that there is a prevailing  reaction against this embrace of more pluralistic, ‘fractured’ perceptions of cultural memory, in, for example, criticisms that diasporic writers who do not fully understand the contemporary socio-political context of their homeland should not lay claim to any diasporic connection: they should not write about their country of origin as their knowledge is only partial; in suggestions diasporic writing can only ever be read against a ‘national literature’  in what seemed to be a return to theories of grand narratives; in the suggestion that a researcher can only ever be outside the reproduction of cultural knowledge due to their ethnic disparity; and in the frequent reflections on the authenticity of authorship or opinion within a specific diasporic group. The stubborn resistance of this perception of cultural memory as a homogenous and linear ‘after-effect’, either a sub-branch of national memory, or a counter-narrative that is diametrically opposed to national memory, perhaps reflects the persistence of the perspective of the researcher as an archivist, and the delineation of diaspora studies as part of the process of preserving a form of cultural memory, without recognising either an inevitable complicity in that pluralistic process of ‘remembering’ or its role in highlighting the artificiality of narrative and the tenuousness of memory.

There are three important questions confronting any researcher working on the concept of cultural memory in the context of diaspora studies today, which trouble their positionality and raise questions about the ongoing interpretation of diasporic categories of practice. These are, namely:

  • What role do researchers  have in the preservation or articulation of diasporic cultural memory?
  • How do trans-generational memories of trauma trouble implications of belonging?
  • How is silence recognised and interpreted  in the collective production of cultural memory?

Further reading:

  • Vijay Agnew (ed). 2005. Diaspora, Memory, And Identity: A Search for Home. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Jan Assman. 1995. Collective Memory and Cultural Identity. New German Critique 65 (Spring): 123-133.
  • Matthew Arnold. 1960. Culture and Anarchy. The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. Ed. R. H. Super, Vol. 5. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P.
  • Paul Larson. 1999. Reconsidering Trauma, Identity, and the African Diaspora: Enslavement and Historical Memory in Nineteenth-Century Highland Madagascar.  The William and Mary Quarterly 56 (2): 335-362.
  • Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen. 2009. Memory Is Another Country: Women of the Vietnamese Diaspora. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO
  • Salman Rushdie. 1991. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. London: Granta Books.
  • Robert Young. 1995. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Culture, Theory and Race. London and New York: Routledge.


This entry derives from issues encountered in the discussion following Session 6: Temporality: Memory, Generation, Historical Change. Northampton, CoHaB Summer School. 23rd March 2013.

Recommended reading included the following:

  • Andreas Huyssen. 2003. Diaspora and Nation: Migration into Other Pasts. New German Critique 88 : 147-164.
  • Toral Jatin Gajarawala. 2011. Some Time between Revisionist and Revolutionary: Unreading History in Dalit Literature. PMLA 126, 3: 575-591.
  • Paul Antze and Michael Lambek (eds). 1996. Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory. New York and London: Routledge.