Paul Connerton – How Societies Remember


Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember, Cambridge UP, 1989.

Connerton’s main question in this book is “how the memory of groups” is “conveyed and sustained”(1) which can be explained in the dimension of both political power and psychological mechanism. For him, collective memory of society (social memory) is organized and legitimated through two social activities: commemorative ceremonies and bodily practices. Both of them are deeply related with each other in the sense that commemorative ceremonies are embodied form of rites performed by the participants and without bodily practices there would be no particular type of acquired symbolic capital which will be demonstrated through ceremonies. As he simply put, “commemorative ceremonies prove to be commemorative only in so far as they are performative; performativity cannot be thought without a concept of habit; and habit cannot be thought without a notion of bodily automatisms”(5).

Why does social memory matter here? Connerton asks whether our present society can be established on a radically different, if not completely, social conditions of the past, and tries to prove that the absolutely new social order is impossible. Since “all beginning contains an element of recollection” and “our mind is already predisposed with a framework of outlines, of typical shapes of experienced object”(6), even when a revolutionary event would occur and it is perceived as an historical rupture, we are not free from the bodily practices and the formal structure of commemorative ceremonies: “The attempt to establish a beginning refers back inexorably to a pattern of social memories”(13). For Connerton, the memory is not only personal and cognitive but also socially habitual. Thus, whether in a ritual performance or in everyday bodily practices, we tend to think and act, following automatically what is incorporated in our bodies as a (social) habit.

This view on socially embodied memory reminds me from the outset of Deleuze’s concept of the “image of thought” by which we are captured and from which we need to escape in order to begin a new form of thinking. Though Deleuzian image of thought might be regarded as an inscriptional practice which holds information and which works on philosophical dimension, it also predetermines the conditions of real experience. Thus, the “thought without images” can be achieved only through the involuntary encounter with signs (as something that we have to interpret and learn them) severed from the presuppositions of representational thinking. This is also related with Rancière’s question on how we can renew the forms of subjectivity (politics) through the modification of the mode of sensory perception (aesthetics). While Deleuze and Rancière think that a new beginning is potential (and thus possible), though not actual yet, Connerton does not consider the possibility of a new beginning. Even though he argues that the body is socially constituted and that social structure is based on cumulative social memory as inscribing and incorporating practice, he does not inquire into the possibilities of a contingent confrontation with a new meaning, sense, and body.

One comment

  1. gratianec

    This is an awesome comment to which I subscribe entirely. I read about his performative memory and felt the sme as you, but did not know about Deleuze. Well said and nicely written!!!

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