Cultural memory and new media

My research is carried out in collaboration with the Cork Folklore Project (http://www.ucc.ie/en/cfp/), in particular working with the Cork Memory Map (see www.cork.storiesofplace.org). This is an oral history online map, and memory lies at the heart of the oral historian’s work:

The oral historian, broadly speaking, asks people questions to discover four things: what happened, how they felt about it, how they recall it, and what wider public memory they draw upon. At the heart of this lies memory. (Abrams 2010, 78)


While I am now in the my final year of work, writing up (and tidying up loose ends), some of the early years of my PhD were spent exploring memory theory. Although I may not explicitly use this as I write up, it has nevertheless had an impact on the progress of my PhD. In particular, the points where cultural memory and new media theory intersect.  I am using 2 texts:

  • Assmann, A. (2008). Canon and archive. In A. Erll & A. Nünning (Eds.), Cultural memory studies an international and interdisciplinary handbook (pp. 97–107). Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Chun, W. H. K. (2013). Programmed Visions: software and memory (Paperback). Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: MIT Press.

I’m going to start with ideas about cultural memory and in particular with the idea of canon and archive, as written about by Aleida Assmann. Assmann talks about the idea of memory as something that is intrinsically linked to culture, and she sees culture as linking past, present and future. She discusses active and passive forms of remembering AND forgetting – with cultural institutions and organisations fitting into the active forms of remembering; organisations are deliberately collecting cultural memory, and Assmann sees the actively circulated cultural memory as being the “canon” (as contrasted to “archive”).

Cultural memory contains a number of cultural messages that are addressed to posterity and intended for continuous repetition and re-use. (Assmann 2008, 99).

The Cork Folklore Project  is actively collecting cultural memories in oral histories (these are items of canon, or items that have the potential to be canon). But it is also the creation of an archive (a public oral history archive) and therefore passive; Assmann describes the archive as “passive dimension of preservation” (p.103).

The archive is the basis of what can be said in the future about the present when it will have become the past. (Assmann 2008, 102).

Assmann’s idea is that canon and archive, as aspects of cultural memory, are both dynamic: things in canon can recede from cultural memory and fade into the background and the opposite is also true in archive, items can be rediscovered, re-used and become more active. She refers to the archive as cultural memory’s “lost and found office” (p.106).

So my work with Cork Folklore Project is with an archive, and we are using items from the archive in new media, which is also seen by new media theorists as an archive: this is one of the ideas behind the idea of digital preservation…so new media saves the past and, “By saving the past, it is supposed to make knowing the future easier” (Chun 2013, 97). Wendy Chun says that memory (both cultural and personal/individual) is a “major – if not the major – category of new media” (Chun 2013, 97). But my work with the Cork Folklore Project and the new Cork Memory Map is not about digital preservation, but instead I am using new media in conjunction with a more traditional archive and, taking Assmann’s theory about cultural memory, what I am doing is “re-discovering” items from the oral history archive and putting them up online as excerpts is a way of making this archival material more ACTIVE.

And then this is then where a tension between the ideas of cultural memory (canon and archive) and new media. Because Assmann’s theory of canon and archive, is that in cultural memory is that memory is as important as forgetting. However, one of the functions of new media is that the technical memory of new media means that it “hardens information…It seems to make digital media an ever-increasing archive in which no piece of data is lost…” (Chun 2013, 97). Most considerations of this aspect of new media tends to be about personal memory, e.g. concerns about “the legion of students with compromising Facebook entries who seem oblivious to the fact that potential employers can check these entries” (Chun 2013, 98). But the long-term impact of this on cultural memory remains to be seen (and theorised).

References
Abrams, L. (2010). Oral History Theory. Abingdon: Routledge.
Assmann, A. (2008). Canon and archive. In A. Erll & A. Nünning (Eds.), Cultural memory studies an international and interdisciplinary handbook (pp. 97–107). Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter.
Chun, W. H. K. (2013). Programmed Visions: software and memory (Paperback). Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: MIT Press.