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Commemoration and memory

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The OU is celebrating its 50th birthday! This is of course a big event for everyone involved with the university. As the official message puts it, 'In our anniversary year, we will tell our story and create moments that inspire pride, unity and involvement.' This kind of commemoration is also of interest to psychologists, and especially social psychologists, because of the complex connections between remembering and the telling of memories. In this week's blog for DD317 and social psychology, Stephanie Taylor discusses some of the issues involved.

Most people are aware that remembering doesn't operate as a kind of mental 'video replay' of the past. They may have experienced doubt about their own memory of an event like a family party, wondering if they recall the actual occasion or just what they were told about it subsequently. Discursive psychologists are interested in the construction of memories. This is not an argument that all memories are false but a suggestion that two questions need to be asked about anyone's account of what they remember. The first is 'Why are you talking about this (memory) now?' and the second, 'Why are you talking about it in this way?'.

The point of the first question is that a story about the past fulfils functions in the present, for instance, in the case of a commemoration, to inspire pride and encourage unity. The point of the second question is that a story about the past is always just one possible version. There could be a different telling, if only because memory is inevitably partial. Otherwise, as the psychologist Jens Brockmeier has put it, 'completely recalling one's life would take as long as one's life itself' (2002 p.23). Total memory is impossible, so we should recognise that any account of what is remembered is a selective construction, with a purpose.

Unsurprisingly, the OU's commemoration has already prompted discussions about the best stories to be told. What version of the university's history should be presented? Which events and people should be selected for recall? It is all very enjoyable. One of my own top choices would be a story from the valedictory lecture of Steven Rose, the OU's first Professor of Biology. He recalled the first ever OU biology course. Every student was sent, in the post, a package of study materials which contained a live goldfish, to observe, and a pickled sheep's brain, to dissect.

Some serious issues around commemoration were raised at a recent seminar organised by the Culture and Social Psychology (CuSP) group. The occasion was a presentation by Dr John E. Richardson, on his research on the commemoration of the Holocaust. He discussed how the remembering of these horrific events is changing with the passing of time, especially now that few survivors remain to present their own memories. Richardson analysed accounts presented at the UK's Holocaust Memorial Day, showing how the sombre commemorative speeches by contemporary politicians, although respectful, were carefully crafted to fulfil present purposes in line with government and party priorities.

The presentation and the discussion produced strong responses in the seminar audience. One view was that the contemporary speeches were betraying the commemoration of the Holocaust. The discursive explanation of inevitably selective construction seemed inadequate. The seminar even discussed the extreme argument that the commemoration should be discontinued entirely, to prevent its further exploitation. But there is an alternative, more positive conceptualisation that is also informed by social psychology. This involves considering commemoration in terms of sociocultural actions. According to this, the speeches and even the stage managing have value as social practices that acknowledge the past and engage new generations in marking its significance. Viewed in this way, commemoration has many parallels with religious rituals, so it is not a coincidence that it often borrows language and other details from organised religion. The commemorative event as a whole requires individuals to obey rules and limit any claims for personal attention. This interpretation is linked to process psychology. It also takes us back to discursive psychology, but to the first of the two questions, not the second: 'Why are we talking about these memories now?'. The answer, of course, is that we consider that they continue to be so important and the events that they refer to must never be forgotten.

The OU's commemoration is obviously a different set of actions appropriate to a different purpose, although there are also some connections in the value that is being placed on education and understanding. The OU's 50th birthday is about the past and the future, about changes that have occurred (including in teaching materials) and also the values we want to hold onto. We are expecting to hear some good stories about people's memories.

 

           Jens Brockmeier (2002) Remembering and Forgetting: Narrative as Cultural Memory. Culture & Psychology 8(1): 15-43.

 

You can read about future CuSP events here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/emergence-a-cusp-meeting-in-collaboration-with-uel-psychology-and-social-change-tickets-53432330539

If you are interested in the Level 3 Social Psychology module, you can find more information on OU websites and you can do this short course available on Open Learn: DD317_1 Social psychology and politics: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/social-psychology-and-politics/content-section-0


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