Guarding the Limits: Voices & Memory in an Age of Narrative


March 16, 2016 by Andrew W M Smith

Historians aren’t meant to see the future, though sometimes it feels like we’re expected to. We all know the adage that it’s meant to repeat itself, and know also that it doesn’t. Sometimes, however, the present can seem out of kilter with the past, or even over-whelmed by it.

Debates about memory seem to confirm that the growing importance of ‘Identity Politics’ (which as a Scot, I feel intuitively in debates on nationalism), is somehow in contest over detail and reality. If, as some contend, this is an era of “post-truth politics”, are we entering an Age of Narrative?[1]

Piecing together voices and memory in an Age of Narrative

Piecing together voices and memory in an Age of Narrative

It feels like an unusual moment, not just in Britain, but also in the US and in France (the three countries to whose political systems I’m most exposed). It’s a strange sense, this feeling that something’s about to happen: a sensation like the itch at the top of your mouth before you sneeze. I can’t quite tell if it’s the surge of political outsiders (from Trump and Sanders, to Corbyn’s rise and the FN’s offensive in France), the fact that Leicester City are top of the Premier League in March, or the simple fact the UK is edging towards an important referendum. To quote the Manic Street Preachers, as my poor students will confirm I’m prone to do, “I don’t wanna be a prologue to history”.

This has made me think about ideas of memory and the way that popular discourse shapes itself. Perhaps it’s just the events I’ve attended recently, though voices and memory seem acutely relevant in their conversation with the present moment. On Monday, I heard an excellent paper on the memory of British and French Colonialism given by Itay Lotem. That followed the previous Wednesday when I spoke at a consultative event about building a memorial to the 7/7 attacks in Tavistock Square.

At both events, the ideas of memory were front and centre. Likewise, in both cases, we spoke openly about how contests over memory can shape the way we live our lives and frame the political realities of the present. At the 7/7 event, Sam Merrill spoke about Michael Rothberg’s work on “multi-directional memory”, and how it provided a means of understanding memory as a multi-layered text that can speak in concert with competitors, rather than operating as a totalising or binary competition.[2] At the IHR, Itay spoke about Benjamin Stora’s work on the memory of the Algerian War. In particular, he discussed the frameworks of “memory agents” and “memory wars”,[3] and the way that these actors jostle for prominence in the national narrative.[4]

Between these two topics, I think there is a healthy tension, and an open dialogue to be had about the way that memory influences contemporary action. Is there a limit to the flexibility of public discourse?[5] Rothberg says no: it should be understood as “productive and not privative”.[6]

Does this sense of living in an Age of Narrative change the way we approach these debates on memory? Are we ourselves ramping up the intensity of these conflicts with a sort of unconscious millenarian glee? It’s difficult to say, though certainly holds some fruit. Reinhart Koselleck explored the idea of crisis and how it is perceived in history, settling on a meaningful definition that included “a historically immanent transitional phase”.[7] Perhaps that sense of immanence explains my nagging sense that something’s unusual? Is it ‘crisis’, or at least some broad approximation, that moves our pens?

This seems an interesting idea to look at in the context of contemporary public discourse. As competing “memory agents” pursue legitimate and meaningful explorations of our historical past, there has been a large degree of push back. Here, I’m thinking particularly about the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in the UK and their attempt to forcefully encourage the consideration of Britain’s past as a corrective to our understanding of the present.[8] It’s become a media cause celebre with predictable advocacy and attacks of equally vociferous conviction; for what it’s worth, I feel that Timothy Garton Ash’s piece was an excellent reflection on the main issues and the need to decolonize our present.

In my work, part of my biggest interest in the odd group of militant winegrowers I studied was how far they could go. What would people let them get away with? One interviewee called them the gardiens des limites (guardians of the limits), that pushed back against attempts to change and reform in order to shape the processes they faced and “accent change”. This seems a lot like a Gramscian ideal of how groups respond to crisis, in which uncertainty breeds battles to control the speed and direction of events.[9] In this model, gardien des limites are independent voices though prone to appropriation by “men of destiny”. This is pronounced in political discussions; as Rothberg reminds us “the borders of memory and identity are jagged”.[10]

Border-struggles in discussions of memory and identity are not hard to find at present. I’m thinking of very mild pieces (like that by David Mitchell), to rather more impassioned rejections of the key issues. In particular, I’m thinking of several currents in French thought. Chief amongst these discordant voices, referred to as the New Reactionaries, is Michel Onfray whose concerns have been freely voiced and explored in a difficult climate in France. His weighing of “micro-peuples” (‘micro-peoples’) against ”le peuple” (the people) worries that minority voices subsume larger debates, and that narrative is hijacked by the contemporary desire to accommodate all.[11] Unsurprisingly, this has been controversial, and Onfray has been criticised as making the bed for the Front National.

Another sense of this was the recent furore around Kamel Daoud, which I found fairly surprising. I loved The Meursault Investigation, and found it a meaningful post-colonial exploration of many of the assumptions in Albert Camus’ The Outsider, itself a rite of passage for many. His challenging piece on ‘The Sexual Misery of the Arab’ in The New York Times set out a vision of cultural conflict between Islam and the West which smacked of the civilizing mission and gave succour to unsavoury fellow travellers. Again, Daoud had met with controversy for confounding a binary narrative.[12]

These dissenting voices are the gardien des limites, and not the populist rejection of debate. Much as I might challenge these ideas, or bristle at their implications, I can recognise that they represent a different category from the rhetoric of Trump in the US or the Front National in France. Yet, dissenting voices can fuel this populist response, by allowing a narrative to be framed that endorses the same conclusions. In this context, narrative rides roughshod over its outliers, as loud voices drown out a spectrum of memories. Nuance becomes binary by its non-conformity.

At present, if I’m honest, I’m more concerned about the demolition of the Calais camps than about the demolition of statues. Yet, I understand explicitly that they operate in dialogue with each other. We cannot separate one from the other. The legacies of colonialism are etched into the memorial landscape of Britain, as their scars are etched on the liberated peoples of the world. So too in France do the borders of contemporary memory and identity overlap with legacies of exploitation and national glory. But in the temptation to dismiss one as more pressing than another, is the trap of Raymond Cartier’s putative legacy (the idea came to be known as ‘Cartierisme”):  Why, he asked, was France wasting money on Empire, when it could support more important causes closer to home?[13] Why should we worry about statues when there are other crises to attend? Such questions assume a finite field for public discourse, and imply that voices and memories in competition can exhaust the public’s readiness to tolerate them.

In the tension between voices and memory, we must work assiduously to build a narrative that allows us to discuss both, and not to offer competing ‘memory wars’ that stretch public discourse.[14] There will always be gardien des limites jostling to shape debates and accent change, though there will also be predatory populist voices that vaunt self-interest as virtue and convulse in shallow reactions to the present. If we are to avoid validating the negative assumptions of identity politics, then we must be conscious of the future of the past.

How we build narratives needs to be both responsible and impassioned. Perhaps historians aren’t meant to see the future, but with the narratives we build, we just might shape it.




[1] In particular, I would recommend this excellent piece by Ian Jack which looks at how narrative has overtaken fact in recent political campaigns.

[2] M. Rothberg, Multi-directional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford University Press, 2009)

[3] See especially Benjamin Stora, La guerre des mémoires : la France face à son passé colonial (Éditions de l’Aube, 2007).

[4] For a sense of Itay’s work, see this excellent short piece – ‘A decade after the riots, France has rewritten its colonial history’, The Conversation, 26 January 2016.

[5] By way of an aside, this set hares running about a couple of different points. It reminded me of the erstwhile titled French Book Project at St Andrews, now the Universal Short Title Catalogue, which lists every book printed between the invention of printing and the end of the sixteenth century. This totality is as much a testament to an enormous research project as it is indicative of the profusion and multiplicity of knowledge. Who could claim now to have read everything ever written? Again, I had a hazy memory that some historical wag had made such a claim, and on searching found discussions in The Guardian and on Reddit about various claimants.

[6] Rothberg, Multi-directional Memory, p.3.

[7] R. Koselleck & M. Richter, ‘Crisis’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 67:2 (2006), pp.371-372.

[8] For a report on the recent events in Oxford, see here, or engage on twitter @RMF_oxford

[9] A. Gramsci, ‘Observations on Certain Aspects of the Structure of Political Parties in Periods of Organic Crisis’, A Gramsci Reader (New York University Press, 2000), pp.217-221.

[10] Rothberg, Multi-directional Memory, p.5.

[11] This relationship with the FN has been a hot debate in the French press, and was explicitly discussed in the Figaro. There has also been a lot of engagement, which has nuanced and discussed the way that Onfray’s critiques have been looked at. See here in Liberation, and here from Jean-Pierre Chevènement.

[12] For an English language discussion of the controversy, see this BBC report.

[13] It is worth noting that Cartier didn’t coin the famous phrase ‘the Corrèze before the Zambèze’, but rather it was Jean Montalat (Deputy for the Corrèze), who cited Cartier and used the phrase in a discussion in the National Assembly in June, 1964. He cited it as one which had been popularised elsewhere: “As we are discussing the aid which France gives to underdeveloped countries and certain neighbouring states, the temptation is great for me as Mayor of Tulle, according to a short and sweet slogan from the streets, to think about “the Corrèze before the Zambèze”, and remind you of some old arguments. I won’t do it. But allow me say today, and to my eyes the articles of  Mr Raymond Cartier in Paris-Match put it best, that we need to remind the French people that in many areas – alas ! – France is itself an underdeveloped country.” Journal Officiel,débats parlementaires Assemblée nationale, session of 10 June 1964, pp.1777.

[14] There was a useful discussion of this by Jean-Noël Jeanneney, Jürgen Kocka and Peter Mandler at the Institut Francais last year, which I covered on my blog.


One thought on “Guarding the Limits: Voices & Memory in an Age of Narrative

  1. […] that we’ll look back on some day for clues as to how we got here. Whether it’s a new ‘Age of Narrative’, as I’ve fretted in the past, or a more cyclical movement away from the liberal consensus I’ve […]

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