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Cultural memory and identity in the context of war: Experiential, place-based and political concerns

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2019

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Remembrance of war and conflict exposes the intricate interweaving of cultural memory and identity. Nations commemorate war to link narratives of the past with the present. This linking creates shared national narratives that temporally reinforce identities across the geography of the nation and among diverse citizenry. In this paper, the authors turn their attention towards the experiential and place-based concerns of the politics of memory within the context of war. It is argued that through attentiveness to individual experience we can better understand how cultural memory is enveloped into constructions of identity and critique such constructions alongside official narratives.

Memorials, museums and cultural property: How to remember?
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Nation-based memories of war have long been linked to articulations of national identity, to patriotism and to efforts to sustain the importance of the past, both in a nation's present and in future-oriented notions of cultural and collective identity.Footnote 1 War and conflict so often punctuate the continuity of a nation's memory timeline and leave memories of wounding, trauma and suffering, regardless of victory or defeat. These wounds are “felt” both in the material structures of a nation – in its buildings, artefacts and cityscapesFootnote 2 – and in its psyche, or its sense of identity, its capacity for recovery and its empathy towards those who lost their lives. In cases of territorial subjugation, such wounds are particularly pronounced and often have extended longevity. Here, one need only think of the extent of post-socialist renaming of streets and towns or the public removal of statuary in the former Eastern Bloc to see our point.Footnote 3 Yet beyond such impulses to remove material and physical reminders of occupation, intangible wounds remain inevitable. As Drozdzewski et al. argue, such memories of place, and the etching of identity in, on and to those places,Footnote 4 seem always to simmer and potentially provide fuel for further conflict, as was the case in the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. Such examples make it clear that memory matters to our individual constructions of identity, as well as to constructions of collective national identity.

In this paper, the nuanced ways in which cultural memory “matters” in different national contexts is explored. Drawing from the work of Astrid Erll, the authors treat cultural memory as encompassing notions of collective and social memory. Here, the “cultural” serves to embed memory in the practices, stories, myths, monuments, events, rituals and other configurations of cultural knowledge that weave together past and present amid their “socio-cultural contexts”.Footnote 5 In a rapidly changing world, where the incidences and implications of conflict show no sign of abatement, it is crucial to continue to probe at the nexus between memory and identity, and to interrogate not only how memory is used for political purposes but also how it extends far beyond normative materialities of memory, exemplified by monuments, memorials and museums.

Such explications are crucial not only for conceptualizing the nation, but also for becoming part of that nation and feeling a concomitant sense of belonging. Indeed, nations rely on memory to assert collective identity and strengthen national resolve. In other words, if “memory makes us what we are”,Footnote 6 one needs to look closely not only at the way national identities exercise elasticity and stretch, but also at how they are deliberately plied. Amid the (frightening) global momentum for nations to look inward and exclude difference, and for fear of the other to predicate how national identities are evolving in an era of global mobility, studies focused on memory tell us about much more than who we were in the past. This paper contends that such studies tell us what we can be in the future, why, and what political decisions and resources can be mustered to support different visions or versions of identity. Moreover, how calls to action that use memory are framed, the terms in which memory is manifested and described, and the empirical and conceptual location of memory can all shape what cultural memory means, how it matters and what it does.

From the perspective of geography, memory is understood as being firmly grounded in its links to place and identity, but also to the role of power in representations of memory. By attending to the politics of memory, we can apprehend not only how power impacts and influences the experience of representations of memory, but also how it affects the (re)production, maintenance and performance of identity. While explorations of the politics of memory are hardly new, this paper's orientation towards the experiential, sensory and emergent distinguishes it from other scholarship investigating the nexus of memory and identity. By focusing on memorial sites, events and the everyday, the authors show how a focus on how people experience, understand and make sense of the narratives promulgated by the State can illuminate where these narratives might likely be transformed or used to particular political ends. In short, the paper argues that by attending to experience, we can gain new insight into how memory and identity fold together, with a fresh perspective on the resulting political implications.

Following an introduction to the politics of memory, three thematic sections will present an assemblage of viewpoints through an experiential lens. First, the location of memory will be explored through an examination of the official memorial sites associated with Pearl Harbor in the United States. Building on this, the article will touch upon the event of memory by exploring ceremonies that commemorate conflict, drawing out a range of experiential aspects that shape how societies make sense of these moments. The penultimate section focuses on memory's spatiality, paying particular attention to the everyday landscapes of memory that intersect with daily routines. The sections below investigate the ways in which memory becomes a part of our experiential worlds, illustrating the details of how memory is expressed, felt and experienced.

Memory and its politics

Tosh has argued that moments chosen as symbolic to the nation work to confirm both self-image and group aspirations.Footnote 7 Instrumental in this process of “choosing moments” are attempts to connect the past to the present by creating a milieu of shared historical consciousness through which representations of the past are deemed of importance to the collective present. Further, Osborne has argued that public monuments often act as “consensus builders”, thereby becoming “focal points for identifying with a visual condensation of an imagined national chronicle rendered in heroic symbolism”.Footnote 8 Such focal points are important sites from which national identities are scaffolded; they are not merely the material and everyday backdrop of the urban facade but are an integral part of a nation-building agenda. Ewa Nowicka-Rusek and Ayur Zhanaev provide a clear example of this in the form of contemporary nation-building by the Buryats (Siberia), who draw heavily on the figure of Genghis Khan in public monuments, films, TV series and songs to communicate a sense of strength and cultural maintenance.Footnote 9

Accordingly, memories of nation are stories of the past specifically chosen by the State to impart a certain version of a nation's past to the public. Because these State-led memory narratives are not experienced by all individuals in the same way, the State uses prompts to create, and then invoke, memory narratives of nation-based events; for example, specific dates and the form of commemoration for a historical event are chosen (such as Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom), and streets are named for significant people, places or events (such as those named for Martin Luther King in the United States). Decisions about such symbols are executed by people in power and, as they are often not made without a struggle, comprise a politics of memory.Footnote 10 Rusu has argued that a politics of memory involves the use of political strategies to come to terms with the past.Footnote 11 The use of memory in national discourse also builds continuity: memory links past to present because, as MacDowell argues, “without memory, a sense of self, identity, culture and heritage is lost”.Footnote 12 Moreover, as Graham Smith contends, “[c]ontinuity is the socially constructed sense that a group has a relatively consistent connection between its past and present”.Footnote 13 This sense of continuity, whether real or imagined, is a key component of the politics of memory.

Critically, processes of identifying or creating national memories invoke the senses. This aligns with approaches in memory studies that identify how important sensorial cues are for making memories stick with us. As Drozdzewski et al. have argued, “a smell, a familiar touch, an image, a sound once heard before can transport us not only to different times but also different places”.Footnote 14 At a routine level, then, memory is “a highly important element in the account of what it is to be a person, as it is the central medium through which identities are constituted”.Footnote 15 These intimate experiential memories become part of how we define not only ourselves, but where we have been and with whom. Via similar sensorial prompts, memory narratives championed by State authorities permeate public spaces and everyday lives to shape how national identity feels as much as how it is understood.Footnote 16 This experiential, sensory “everyday nationhood” is evidenced in the sight of national buildings or monuments, the sound of music such as national anthems or public broadcaster themes, and the flavours of cuisines identified as specifically national.Footnote 17 Conflicts over the latter in relation to their inscription on the Representative List of UNESCO's Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage are a case in point – fierce disputes over national ownership have ensued, for example, between Turkey and Armenia due to the inscription of the dish keşkek, prepared from meat and crushed wheat, on behalf of Turkey in 2011, despite opposition from Armenia, which also claims links to the dish's origins.Footnote 18

Remembering in place

Many types of memoryscapes can, and often are, captured within the rubric of “heritage”. These include burial sites, battlefields and memorials dedicated to wars, as well as other events such as those created at the perimeter of Ground Zero, Manhattan, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.Footnote 19 While numerous memoryscapes are created to commemorate or celebrate a sense of achievement, many are established to honour, remember or justify political acts, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, or the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. These places might be referred to as sites of “dissonant” or “difficult” heritage, as places that open up dark or painful histories and foreground the politics of the past in the present.Footnote 20 Much has been written about such places and the connections they have with cultural memory and identity, particularly from post-structural perspectives.Footnote 21 Such scholarship has done important work in uncovering the relations of power implicated in any attempt to represent the past, and in revealing implicit political meanings and associated processes of marginalization. Relatedly, this literature has also explored the many instances in which memorials and heritage sites have been mobilized to invoke agitations against domination, such as in post-conflict struggles over recognition and reconciliation. Clear evidence of this can be seen in the flurry of active memorial-making in post-Soviet Mongolia, or the purging of Soviet monuments following the collapse of communist control in places like Georgia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.Footnote 22 Other examples within this mix are official locations of remembrance such as national museums, memorials and monuments.

As Jay Winter has argued, these sorts of sites, often located in symbolic settings, are “places where groups of people engage in public activity through which they express ‘a collective shared knowledge’ … of the past, on which a group's sense of unity and individuality is based”.Footnote 23 Moreover, such places of memory are key materialities in the wider processes of nation-building.Footnote 24 Dealing as they do with collective memories, or “what remains of the past in the lived experience of groups”,Footnote 25 such memorials and museums are necessarily imbued with messages and meanings that are social in origin and are embedded in a range of cultural, political and economic contexts. The memories they trigger and produce are thus also inflected with, and influenced by, language, rituals and commemorations, and perform in a variety of processes that make past events meaningful in the present.

Memorial landscapes such as Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and the Pearl Harbor memorial complex form a particular variant of this sort of “dissonant” or “difficult” heritage, in that they narrate the trauma of war in places that are built around the residual or material remains of conflict – memories literally etched into place. As reminders of pain and destruction, such sites, as Curti argues, are “always performed and felt between, in and through bodies and thus always work through entangled forces of emotion, affect and memory”.Footnote 26 As such, they hold particular sway in the imagination. Their evocative power lies in the links they are able to make between the physical spaces in which visitors stand and what is known to have happened there. The way such sites are officially framed and represented plays a significant part in the overall memorialization process, signalling at least part of the range of responses one might have when reflecting on the horrors of conflict and war.

However, as Curti claims, there are other responses at work too, and these are often more personal. Such responses are not immediately expressible but are deeply felt, physical and visceral, and emerge as visitors react to atmosphere and a sense of haunting in situ. The physicality of many heritage sites thus acts as an anchor between “now” and “then”, and is perhaps best understood as a vector for feelings of identity and belonging, through which historical events come to have an enduring impact on our emotions and understanding. Such processes may be referred to as “embodied remembering” and point to the “experiential dimensions of memory”. At the same time, it is important to be mindful of the risks of presentism in prioritizing the immediacy of the “here and now”, which can, if left unchecked, diminish the importance of past experiences.Footnote 27 Indeed, as Bergson has so powerfully argued, “[t]here is no perception which is not full of memories. With the immediate and present data of our senses, we mingle a thousand details out of our past experience.”Footnote 28

The heritage of Pearl Harbor

To explore these processes in the context of war and cultural memory, one need only look to the memorial sites associated with the attack on Pearl Harbor of 7 December 1941. This case provides a powerful example of how some objects, people and places can grow “sticky” or saturated with affect, to borrow from Sara Ahmed – or, in other words, charged with meaning due to their associations with significant events.Footnote 29 It is an example that also has strong echoes with Trigg's work on the memory of place, in which he considers the various ways in which materiality, or the incision of a monument within a landscape, interacts with “the making of memories” and the placing of “our own selves within relation to that past”.Footnote 30

The memoryscape of Pearl Harbor beautifully illustrates the pulsing relations between war, cultural memory and identity in its changing orientation to national memory. Pearl Harbor, as a memorial complex, is an important site of memory in the US context, where it has become the end destination for a significant secular pilgrimage. In this regard, it has an incredible spatial reach. A National Historic Landmark, with parts still operating as an active military base, the Pearl Harbor memorial complex is comprised of the Pearl Harbor Visitor Centre and USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, the USS Missouri Memorial (affectionately named “the Mighty Mo”) and the Pacific Aviation Museum. In addition, the complex includes a number of mooring quays that formed part of “Battleship Row” within the Harbor itself, six historic chief petty officer bungalows, the USS Utah Memorial and the USS Oklahoma Memorial, all of which are located on Ford Island. The narratives associated with Pearl Harbor draw explicitly on the Japanese attacks that mark the entry of the United States into the Second World War in 1941. On the morning of 7 December, just after 8 a.m., 183 fighters and torpedo bombers targeted the 185 vessels of the US Navy that were moored in Pearl Harbor, including seven battleships clustered together close to the eastern shoreline of Ford Island on “Battleship Row”. Five of the battleships sank, and the other two were badly damaged. One, the USS Arizona, sank in nine minutes but burned for two days: 1, 177 servicemen died, leaving 337 survivors.

The first stirrings of an interest in preserving elements of the complex as a mode of remembrance emerged in 1949, with the establishment of the Pacific War Memorial Commission, which was followed by a Congress-endorsed authorization to build a memorial to the USS Arizona almost a decade later.Footnote 31 Its centrepiece, the 184-foot USS Arizona Memorial, designed by architect Alfred Preis to straddle the ship's sunken wreck, was opened to the public in 1962 – at the height of the Cold War.Footnote 32 Initially operated by the US Navy, this early iteration of the memorial complex revolved around water transportation to and from the shoreline and the USS Arizona Memorial. In 1965, the naval base at Pearl Harbor was designated a National Historic Landmark, and from that point onwards visitor numbers steadily increased. The visitor centre opened in 1980, at which time the Navy handed over the management and organization of the site to the National Park Service, though it retained control over transportation to and from the USS Arizona Memorial. Shortly thereafter, in 1981, the USS Bowfin submarine arrived, effectively developing into the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park by 1987. Just over a decade later, in 1998, the USS Missouri, recently decommissioned and struck from the Naval Vessel Register, was donated to the museum complex. In 2006, a final historic site was added with the Pacific Aviation Museum, which includes two of the original aeroplane hangars and the Ford Island Control Tower, all three of which were in operation in 1941. There is no shortage of remains left in place at Pearl Harbor that may serve as reminders of trauma.

The authors’ interest in Pearl Harbor lies in its ability to illustrate the power of places to “gather, attracting people, memories and affects” around them, or to operate as what Gaston Gordillo has described as a “bright object”.Footnote 33 In using this term, Gordillo is referring to the ability of some things, people or places to “attract because of the way they relate to other subjects”.Footnote 34 Pearl Harbor offers a clear illustration of the way an object of war can, and often does, become an object of memory, not only because it has a resilient gravitational pull and affective intensity, but because it is also used to define the meaning of other objects and events in its vicinity.Footnote 35 For instance, Pearl Harbor's “brightness” may have diminished in recent years were it not for the occurrence of 9/11, which brought renewed focus – nationally and internationally – to American wartime history and memories. Significantly, these two events represent the only times the nation has been attacked on its own soil, such that the 9/11 attack prompted those places associated with the Pearl Harbor attack to re-emerge as key reference points for both the media and the public.Footnote 36 The release of the Hollywood blockbuster Pearl Harbor in 2001 similarly pierced the popular imagination, working to ensure that visitors would continue to actively seek out its memorial spaces, which currently attract some 1.8 million visitors a year.

In addition to their ability to “pull” other objects and meanings to them, memorial sites like Pearl Harbor have the benefit of allowing visitors to see and feel history in context and on site, which is an important component of the war/memory dyad. However, this pull factor is not a nod to the importance of “authenticity”. Rather, it inflects and references a site's ability to conjure up feelings of “being there”, or put another way, authentic feelings. At Pearl Harbor, the ability to enter the USS Bowfin submarine is vitally important, as is standing above the USS Arizona or gazing down on the Surrender Deck of the USS Missouri – all three examples give a sense of space, confinement, touch, silence, claustrophobia and helplessness. Interestingly, the USS Bowfin was not moored in Pearl Harbor during the attacks themselves – it was launched into service precisely one year later. But the opportunity to board a submarine that was in service during the war, one that is now moored within the historic memoryscape of Pearl Harbor, is for many visitors a crucial experience. The concept of “authenticity”, then, plays a fluid and changing role in processes of memory: the materiality of the submarine is “real”, but the location itself is something of a necessary surrogate.

This observation allows us to extend our thinking towards affective capacities – what a body is capable of feeling and doing. This is a notion positioned somewhere in between human and non-human agents, and it effectively blurs the boundaries between them. The memoryscape of Pearl Harbor provides an illustration of the way memory-work is contingent upon a visitor's own histories and memories, the nuances of their personalities, social positions, cultural affiliations and ethnic backgrounds, and the discursive realms within which they operate and to which they respond. But it also confirms that such processes of memory-making are contingent not only on the human. The affective capacities of the Pearl Harbor memorial complex push forward a narrative of the past that is almost entirely American and based on narratives of warfare and nationalism. In this, the memorial becomes a clear component of a wider political project: its narratives are consumed by an overwhelmingly American audience, a significant portion of which, as research has shown, feels compelled to visit Pearl Harbor as a way of performing their own individual national duty.Footnote 37 In other words, they have the capacity to be affected in very particular ways, and thus come to know and connect with the nation through their visit in ways that revolve around acknowledging sacrifice and subsequent military action or service. This ability to know and remember the history of Pearl Harbor is particularly expressed in an apparent contradiction: the unimaginability of the attacks together with the violence, suffering and visceral horror, and at the same time the idea of a connection, or an identification of the subjective experience that is activated and energized by the affective and emotional motilities that the non-human site and its human event engender together.

The relative “brightness” of sites such as Pearl Harbor lies in their ability to speak to, and in many cases (re)affirm, a sense of both personal and national identity. Moreover, it is the process of “being there”, in place, coupled with the visceral sensations of pride and honour that are produced there, that particularly thickens the site's capacity to move and affect, which in turn lends it the ability to “weigh on” and intersect with a variety of visitors as they move around the complex. In the next section, these relations are explored through the act of commemoration.

Commemorative events

Given that heritage sites such as those associated with Pearl Harbor play a vital role in how the relationship between memory and collective identity is understood, the regular use and animation of such places through commemorative events is crucial. In this section, the authors consider memory and identity by way of regular commemorative events, and the collective and experiential analytical orientations that investigating them affords. These are rituals on a predictable, often annual schedule, of which many people have foreknowledge and previous experience, and that are intended to reinforce particular narratives of group memory and renew the connection of individuals to those narratives and to each other. Moreover, these events often carry particular sensorial and material aspects that are central to how they are experienced and what meanings they carry. Memorial or heritage sites, as discussed above, are spaces redolent with representative symbols, which also often invite or compel us to engage with them bodily in particular ways, such as tilting our heads to look up at their statues or displays or walking quietly through their hushed, reflective spaces.Footnote 38 When these sites are activated by a commemorative ritual, elements such as music, artificial and natural light, weather, gatherings and the recitation of well-known texts temporarily transform them into significant and atmospheric places which do particular forms of work in terms of memory and identity. Accordingly, in this section the authors will focus on commemorative events’ regular nature, which builds accreted foreknowledge and anticipation for individuals whilst also reinforcing the events’ importance in the public imagination. Next, the opportunities such events provide for widespread reflection, conversation and debate about group identity, as well as their inherently collective character, will be explored.

Wagner-Pacifici speaks of a reimagined version of the event in which commemoration can be thought of as a “provisionally congealed moment” of the occasion that it seeks to reinforce in collective memory.Footnote 39 In her example, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States must be understood as having subsequently moved “beyond the initial stage of incoherence, rupture, and surprise” to be sedimented in official forms that include memorials and that have become “part of the event itself as it lives on in intermittently tamped down and restless modes”.Footnote 40 What is important about the relationship between memory, identity and how they are taken up and understood by way of experience is her point that in remembering events, we must grapple with their restless and mutable nature – the fact that they come to take on new meanings and change in significance over time.Footnote 41 This point is pragmatic because, as will be discussed below, a focus on commemorative events demands that not only their regular rhythms and familiar discursive elements are attended to, but also their contingency, their particularity and the diversity of engagement that participants have when participating in them. Moreover, attending to the specific detail of memory events and sites helps to see not only how they work, but also the extent of their reach and the fixity (or not) of who they might be able to include. Such attentiveness to place and event becomes important politically when we consider who is rendered as “other” in memory narratives and what may be the implications of this “othering”, for example in questions of social justice, post-conflict reconciliation, multicultural inclusion or the political transformation of the State. For example, in Australian military commemorative events, the formal recognition of Indigenous service people has only recently begun to occur, demonstrating how narratives can be transformed, but also how hard-fought and delayed such recognition can be.Footnote 42 Accordingly, four aspects of commemorative events and the way they are related to the politics of memory and identity will be further explored, with an emphasis on the importance of empirical approaches that attend to the specificities of place and event.

First, as part of annual calendars of national events, commemorations reinforce specific narratives through regularity and the repetition of particular elements from which they are comprised. The opening notes of familiar music, for example, or sounds that punctuate the rhythm of events, such as gunshots or murmured speech, signal when the visitors are engaged in a ritual and lead them forward from moment to moment. These rituals are enacted by way of bodily gestures – gathering, standing, bowing, placing hands over hearts – that layer their meanings into physical memory.Footnote 43 Particular days may be looked forward to or dreaded, because the same day on previous years could have conditioned the understanding of the event in general. Anticipation is one way to understand how commemorative events are articulated and interpreted. For example, in the case of Anzac Day, the annual day of national remembrance in Australia, and its ceremony of Dawn Service, “anticipation is built publicly in the days leading up to [the event] with an increased intensity of media coverage, and at a personal level by the preparations and bodily experiences of collective movement to memorial sites immediately before the commemorative ritual”.Footnote 44 The emotional terms in which the event is remembered in previous years – perhaps as moving, sad, boring or annoying – coalesce to form part of how it is understood in general, and are often imbricated in visitors’ stances towards the narratives it promulgates. These regular, bodily performed rituals act to connect participants together in commemorative moments, and provide a sense of connection to people they imagine have performed or will perform the same ritual in the past or future. Those points of connection are crucial in the formation and maintenance of (imagined) national communities.Footnote 45

The peculiar temporal effect of these events’ repetitive nature, however, is not limited to how they build foreknowledge and anticipation each year. It also shows how commemorative events are as much about the future as they are about the past. They are a way for the State and participants to speak forward to other people who will come in the future and experience what is thought to be significant in the present. Middleton and Brown suggest that this focus is akin to thinking about “imaginary futures in the past”.Footnote 46 The necessity for forward thinking helps us to understand why governments invest in memorials, museums, repeated rituals, education and many other forms of national historical representation and experience in order to reinforce and protect particular memories and particular ways of remembering. Linking the past to the present and having the populace connect with that narrative reinforces the collective adhesiveness of national identity narratives – the so-called “stickiness” mentioned previously. Official remembering is a way to reach into the future, to try to legitimate certain perceptions by making them difficult to forget and by leaving material and immaterial remains to shape the understandings of others. This organized remembering includes the rhythms and material and sensory elements of regular commemorative events.

The second notable aspect of commemorative events is that they provide an opportunity for public reflection on matters of shared identity. To that end, they are usually accompanied by widespread media coverage. These are moments in which chosen memory narratives are certainly used to buttress national identity, but there might also be openings for challenge, contestation or transformation. For example, journalist Paul Daley treated Anzac Day 2016 as an opportunity to point out what was not remembered during the “carnival of commemoration”.Footnote 47 Daley emphasized the silence on many aspects of conflict, such as the death or disfigurement suffered by combatants and others and the large sums spent reinforcing commemorative narratives. Most notably, Daley and others have pinpointed the politics of memory of Anzac narratives and how they obscure national recognition of the frontier wars and violence against Indigenous people that was and is at the heart of the Australian colonial project. Historian Mark McKenna, for instance, has argued that Anzac Day is a form of political displacement which salves public unease and distracts from the unresolved and ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their land.Footnote 48 Relatedly, Drozdzewski and Waterton have questioned how and whether the Anzac narrative is elastic enough to stretch to encompass Australia's increasingly diverse population.Footnote 49 Yet, they also point out that deviation from the accepted public narrative is scarce and that vilification ensues from such dissonance. Thus, the regular commemorative moment of Anzac Day enables an ongoing debate and shaping of public engagement with historical narrative in Australia.

A third aspect is the way in which commemorative events draw together and invite people to participate in a collective practice. This collaborative remembrance happens in two distinct ways. The first is the knowledge that many others are commemorating the same event. For example, Anzac Day in Australia occurs every year on 25 April, when Dawn Service events are held around Australia and the world. The coming together of citizens is demonstrated and made visible by rolling coverage on the national public Australian Broadcasting Corporation network, which begins with the local metropolitan Dawn Service and the official national ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in the capital city of Canberra. Coverage continues throughout the day, following the rising sun at Australian memorial sites in Gallipoli (Turkey) and Villers-Bretonneux (France), and various locations in Southeast Asia. This span of coverage means that Anzac ceremonies are on television from 5.30 a.m. to around 3 p.m., contributing to a sense of collectivity made manifest through collective participation and/or spectating of the ceremonies.

A final aspect of collectivity that requires attention takes place at the ceremonies themselves. The experience of gathering in the pre-dawn light, standing in a large group waiting for the ceremony to begin, and murmuring the same words or singing the same songs with a crowd that can number into the tens of thousands is powerful for many people.Footnote 50 At these moments, the imagined national community is immediately evident and visceral, with groups of people around the country sharing experiences that are made more significant through their collective nature. Scenes of this connection are beamed nationally via media broadcasts. However, at the same time, the bodies of others can diminish or complicate the rhetorical impact of the event, for example as their umbrellas block the view or the rustling of their coats or their murmured conversations make it difficult to hear the speeches. The point here is that because State-sponsored commemoration is so often experienced collectively, the particular affordances of being in a group must become a part of the understanding of conflict and trauma and how commemoration matters to people and influences particular configurations of perception.

Commemorative narratives are often understood in the abstract in relation to feelings of pride or grief, narratives about individuals that come to symbolize whole groups, or exemplars for so-called national characteristics. Cumulatively, however, they are always experienced as a particular set of material, sensory and discursive conditions. Commemorative events blur State-sponsored memory and narrative with the particular, lived conditions of which they are comprised. Mitchell identifies an implication for the politics of memory and identity related to this when she remarks:

The repetition engaged in various commemorative events and rituals … is crucial in blurring the differences between individual interpretations of events, and creating a single, highly idealized, composite image. This image then forms the generalized social framework for future recollections, and through time, individual memories tend to conform and correspond with this composite.Footnote 51

When visitors attune to the bodily and sensory experience of memory sites and events, certain meanings can be parsed in terms of individual experience, an approach that opens up potential for them to be reimagined. This experience then “shows how both the representational and the more-than-representational are important elements in the creation and maintenance of national identities, and recognises this as related to the interaction between people and their built environments”.Footnote 52 For example, while Anzac Day might be presented in terms of its invocation of a particular historical discourse, the experience of actually attending a ceremony can be chilly, uncomfortable and tiring. As the experiences of such events have shown, there might be moments of reflection and of engagement with collective memory, but there are also cold feet, tired eyes and sore backs from waking early and standing for an hour in the pre-dawn autumnal weather.Footnote 53 Thus, the connection between memory and identity might not be as determined and monolithic as the State would sometimes have us believe, but instead is conditioned and intertwined with the fleshy, affective and individual engagement of the people through whom it is meant to do its work. This engagement becomes even clearer if one looks beyond official and State-sponsored memory sites to those of the everyday.

Remembering and the everyday

In scrutinizing the relationship between memory and identity, the authors have thus far focused on official locations and events of memory. In both cases, the spatiality of memory, or the “a-where-ness” of memory, is paramount.Footnote 54 The place of memory, its physical locale linking memory to territory, and the metaphoric and atmospheric places of memory created through the performance and practice of commemorative events rely on the bounding of memory to specific geographic places.Footnote 55 Routine commemoration and official designation imbue these places with significance to the nation through things like monuments, memorials and historical plaques.Footnote 56 Such places often rely on official and State-led designation to coordinate large-scale and ongoing acts of remembrance, testifying to the importance of what is being remembered about the nation, as much as where it is being remembered. In this final section, the authors shift their focus to the everyday, which encompasses the places, landscapes and spaces of our daily routines, and can include streets, commercial areas, parks, public squares and playgrounds. These are locations where we work, live and recreate; we also move between, in and through them, sometimes at speed while we are hurrying from one daily task to the next. They are also the types of spaces and places that we innately and intimately know − we can navigate them (almost) without thinking because we rely on our memory of them. Memory resides in such spaces and places, often without us realizing the extent of our vernacular expertise. Because movements and thoughts in these spaces and places are often directed not towards commemoration or remembrance but towards our daily routines and tasks, the operation of a politics of memory may not be necessarily apparent or overt. Yet, the streetscapes, parks and public spaces that we traverse daily nonetheless portray the nation's memories.Footnote 57

Overlaying a consideration of the everyday as a location where memory and identity share a symbiotic and intricate relationship is a focus on small-scale acts of commemoration. Small-scale commemorations may include, but are not limited to, street names, plaques affixed to buildings or into the pavement, remnants of war and conflict such as bullet holes or shrapnel, and candles and flowers. Thus, our everyday focus permeates not only the type of space but also the implicitness of the form of commemoration and remembrance in those spaces. Indeed, the representation of the nation's past in the everyday matters, a point vividly evidenced by the recent eruption of violence in response to attempts to remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia.Footnote 58 In other words, memory intersects into our everyday lives; it has longevity and adhesion. The politics of identity prompt further questions, such as how the use of memory in everyday spaces and places may express political hegemony, and whether there are spaces of/for resistance. In addition to considering these provocations, examples of material commemoration “need” to be visited and/or actively remembered to maintain their impact. In theorizing sites of war-related memory, for example, Jay Winter has argued that such activities and performances are “crucial” for maintaining the force and meaning of such sites, along with the related impulses to present and conserve them.Footnote 59 Similarly, James Young contends that without processes of socialization, “monuments are of little value, mere stones in the landscape”.Footnote 60 As an example, it is useful to consider whether passing a memorial on a daily basis qualifies as activity, particularly if one does not stop to look at the memorial, but nevertheless knows that it is there.

In investigating small-scale memorialization in the everyday streetscapes of Warsaw and Berlin, for example, it was found that residents of those cities would not necessarily stop at the memorials, but they did note an “a-where-ness” of their location and what was memorialized there.Footnote 61 In arguing that “memory is always ‘available’ but only made ‘accessible’ when faced with sensual cues”, Muzaini suggests that active remembrance may take many forms, and that these can be unspoken, affective and internal.Footnote 62 Moreover, he contends that “everyday practices [of remembrance] often take place at the confluences of multiple subjectivities, multiple affects, multiple temporalities”.Footnote 63 Similarly, in his examination of how memories of war intersect with the identities of young Falkland Islanders, Benwell has argued that an assemblage of memory mediums (post-war landscapes, school curricula, dialogues with adults and formal commemorative events) work together to transmit national identity.Footnote 64 At Victoria Dock, a residential development in Hull, United Kingdom, Atkinson has also shown how a focus on everyday markers of memory, in the form of maritime street names, ship anchors and pavement mosaics, enabled a “rethinking of memory as a less bounded and continually reconstituted process”.Footnote 65 Taken together, these scholars show that engagement and experience matters in how we interact and continue to interact in everyday spaces and places.

What these studies contribute is their consideration of memory beyond representation, which is precisely what we, and other authors, argue for in our orientation towards experience.Footnote 66 Atkinson has conceptualized this more-than-representational leaning as a movement towards a “topology of memories … [that is] continually reconfigured by new eruptions of memory”.Footnote 67 Thinking about the (re)production and transmission of memory through an everyday lens decentres a more orthodox tendency to fix memory to particular events and days, encompassing certain activities of remembering. Rather, remembrance and commemorative practice in the everyday streetscape may be simultaneously discreet, contested, multiple and exemplified through multi-level performances. For example, speaking about the Tchorek Tablets (commemorative plaques embedded in the walls of buildings in Warsaw) that commemorate Polish victims of Nazi aggression in Warsaw during the Second World War, one study participant noted that the Tablets “are more connected to the reality/everyday life. It isn't a place where we go to visit a certain monument, but we pass next to it every day, it's slightly different feeling.”Footnote 68

Key to the argument here is that an apparent lack of activities to signify remembrance does not and should not necessarily equate with the devaluation or forgetting of memory, since remembrance and its performance(s) may differ depending on place. If, then, memories of war in the everyday landscape can be experienced, (re)produced and maintained with and without coordinated collective ritual, what are the implications for a politics of memory and identity in this context? Markers of a nation's past selectively represented in everyday streetscapes can be “ostensibly visible, quintessentially mundane, and seemingly obvious”.Footnote 69 In their recent book The Political Life of Urban Streetscapes, Reuben Rose-Redwood et al. comment that “a site of everyday routines and fleeting encounters, the ‘street’ can also become a place of memory”.Footnote 70 Think, for instance, how many streets in Italy are named Via Garibaldi; in Poland, Aleja Armii Krajowej; or in Australia, after the Anzacs. The naming of these streets after important battles, armies and wartime heroes is no coincidence. Further, the placement of these street names, often as large thoroughfares in and out of the city centre, testifies to the overt use of a politics of memory.

In the post-war renaming of streets in Kraków, Poland, most of the inner city's street names reverted from their wartime German names to their pre-war Polish names. However, the newly installed Soviet regime chose to rename seven streets within the Krakow Old Town and its ring roads.Footnote 71 The common intention of these new names was to explicate fascist failure and German's subjugation of the Poles, but the choice of location of these renamed streets, in the Old Town, expounds the usefulness of both name and location. For example, a large section of the ring road around the perimeter of the Old Town, along which trams and buses traverse, was renamed May Day (Święto Pierwszego Maja) – an important date in the Soviet calendar instituted to reinforce the collective experience and identity of workers in the socialist-controlled Soviet territories. This example shows how “decision-making procedures and the wider re-planning of the political geography and semiotic order of the city” influences the likely level of exposure to certain street names through their spatial positioning.Footnote 72 When city inhabitants think about the transportation route they will use daily, they recall that street name, understand the significance of that name to the nation's history and repeat it (verbally or mentally). This repetition is part of a process of naming as norming, of what Azaryahu describes as the “ability [of street naming] to make a version of history an inseparable element of reality as it is constantly constructed, experienced and perceived on a daily basis”.Footnote 73 The astuteness of the spatial positioning of a certain street name can amplify how often that name is repeated, so one must also look past the discursive and structural in the everyday streetscape (that is, the production of naming the streetscape) and towards the (re)production and performative capacity of the everyday to implicitly reinforce certain political agendas and how they shore up consensus for a particular version of the nation's past.

Yet, strategic placement of a street name does not necessarily guarantee repetitive performance of that name. Part of the process of attuning to the experiential includes considering how people in those spaces receive and possibly also resist attempts to inculcate memory into the streetscape.Footnote 74 An often-cited example of resistance to naming is Meyers’ study of Zanzibar, in which he outlines how “under colonialism, many sardonic [place] nicknames became official” because few colonial officials spoke Swahili.Footnote 75 He points out that the names must be vocalized and heard in order to understand their full cultural meaning.Footnote 76 This experiential component, not deducible from map reading or archival research alone, allows for the detection of derision and apathy in audible cues. Kearns and Berg also explore speaking as a form of resistance in the pronunciation of the names of Maori places in New Zealand. They contend that “pronunciation can potentially be a form of resistance” because “speaking, in almost all circumstances, is a social act”.Footnote 77 The oral repetition of Maori place names, encompassing a diversity of “politically correct versions of pronunciation”, may therefore have the cumulative effect of bolstering support for Maori identity politics in New Zealand. Duminy's Durban-based study provides a further example of resistance to the (re)inscription of street names after colonial subjugation. Interrogating the concept of symbolic resistance, Duminy summates that activities of resistance to street name changes in Durban, which included removing new street signs, the continued use of original street names and the generation of media discourse concerning the location of new names, were limited and thus demonstrated acceptance of the State's right to change names.Footnote 78

At this point in the discussion it is useful to think through the acceptance of the right of the State to mark public space with markers of the nation's past. The power of the everyday setting, unlike specific commemorative locations and events that very obviously demarcate a specific narrative line, is that in linking national identity to cultural memory, the parks, streets and place names of local neighbourhoods have greater potential to slip under the radar as spaces and places of political purpose. For example, in the major Australian cities of Sydney and Melbourne, where the authors reside, numerous street and place names commemorate colonial history. Elizabeth, William, George and Victoria are all popular toponymic markers of colonization. For the most part, these names remain unquestioned because they appear largely unequivocal. Likewise, statues of James Cook, Lachlan Macquarie and Arthur Philip are common; yet, there is a nascent discourse among non-Indigenous Australians about these men's role in the decimation of the Indigenous population's post-European arrival in Australia.Footnote 79 The resonance of such voices remains minimal in a political landscape where discussions on republicanism have failed to gain political currency, and where Australia's largest symbolic wartime commemorative event still narrates the heroic birth of a nation on the foreign battlefield of Gallipoli, while failing to narrate as loudly the tactical British decision to send Anzac troops to a doomed battlefront. Significantly, the democratic birth of the nation took place thirteen years prior to that battle at Federation.

Marking physical public space, combined with the domination of certain political agendas in everyday discourse, provides political elites with access to the populace in seemingly mundane and ordinary spaces and places. In these settings it would seem that dissenting voices occupy very small corners of the discussion, which is otherwise dominated by an unwitting or indifferent acceptance of the instituted norm.


The selected representations of a nation's past, displayed publicly, are mediated and remembered through the contexts of the societies in which we now live, but also through their histories. Halbwachs argued that remembering is an inherently social process: we not only recall a certain event, place or person, but also contextualize that memory within a certain time, with groups of people or places.Footnote 80 Most crucially, when we remember, we recall from our position in the present, and present-day contexts have the ability to influence what is recalled and the relevance and/or importance of a specific memory. When it comes to the concept of the politics of memory, the portrayal of national narratives through memorials and monuments should not be conceived merely as a “material backdrop”Footnote 81 from which a story is told; rather, public representations of memory should be perceived as an integral part of a nation's story of remembering, commemoration and identity-making. In addition to its particular social and temporal aspects, “commemorative activity is inescapably political”,Footnote 82 which means that it always includes and excludes people, and has always been a powerful means of defining the “other” in national terms.

In this article, the authors have sought to situate their perspective in the encounter between the material and discursive artefacts of shared memory and the individuals who do the remembering. As such, when State-sponsored memory comes to “matter”, there is a need for attention to the experiential. This approach, supported by the authors, is fruitful precisely because it allows us to step beyond the well-trammelled representative and discursive aspects of the memory of war, or its “material backdrop”, and to see how the society perceives and makes sense of it in a range of settings. This aspect often goes unexamined in the bulk of accounts that attend to structural or discursive factors, even though, as Marshall remarks, “we use our senses to forge connections with our physical environment and develop our sense of place …. Remembrance, because it is experienced through the senses, is one such embodied state.”Footnote 83

Concurrently, however, it is not argued that such official modes of remembering as monuments, museums, and commemorative days and events should be disregarded, because they are powerful and often well-resourced anchor points for narratives regarding conflict and nation that circulate widely. In attending to the individual and experiential in official sites and events, as well as in more banal everyday settings, there is a need to show how such narratives are actually taken up in complex ways that do not somehow sit apart from other aspects of our lives. Put differently, memory is integral to how we understand ourselves and our worlds, and this includes those aspects that might overlap with State interests. It follows that in order to fully grasp the impact that nation-based and collective memories of war might have in cohering people socially and culturally, there is a need to see them as entangled with our sensory, experiential, idiosyncratic and quotidian individual lives. This could provide a route to understanding how one might feel a part of the nation, and come to have a sense of belonging to it – and also how conventional or existing understandings might be changed or resisted. In their account, the authors have attempted to locate the nation in how societies feel about and feel in it,Footnote 84 and how this exceeds the limits of the discursive vocabulary that official channels provide. This may help us to reimagine how memory “matters” when it comes to national belonging, and where the politics of memory might be disrupted, challenged or transformed to adopt more inclusive and just forms.


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