In “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity”, Jan Assmann explores the work of Maurice Halbwachs on social memory – marking a difference between communicative and collective memory that is often collapsed in the Halbwachs school of thought but is valuable for illuminating how things go from states of liminality to social aggregation.
Communicative memory, for Assmann, involves everyday communication that takes place within specific domestic confines. In other words, it is characterized by shared memories and experiences of a small, close-knit group and is generally disorganized and formless. These are memories that are still socially mediated and relational to the group but on a very small scale with little relevance to the larger social context. The group is comprised of specific individuals who “conceive their unity and peculiarity through a common image of their past.” Minorities or groups excluded from mainstream or normative society tend to develop communicative memories around which to orbit in order to give their stories meaning in the greater narrative of larger society.
Various tools of communicative memory can be forged by these groups and can include the develop of unique cultural elements including linguistic or visible markers of group membership and “territorializing” memory by establishing small monuments or sacred places of significance that hold social currency only with that group. As numbers of the minority group increase, whether through an influx of their population or awareness raising, their voice tends to get louder and better able to petition the existing social order – albeit through existing channels of criticism and petitioning. Eventually, when the population gets big enough or their voice gets loud enough, parts of their communicative memories (or self-prescribed identities) might make their way past liminality or peripheral social positions to be included in the greater collective memory.
According to Assmann, while communicative memory is characterized by its proximity to the everyday, collective memory is similarly construed by its distance from the everyday. Points of collective memory become figures or sites of memory around which culture starts to revolve as they acquire “mnemonic energy.” This results in the crystallization of individual or group communicative memory and brings with it the following characteristics: the concretion of identity, the capacity to reconstruct the contemporary situation, transmission in the culturally institutionalized heritage of a society, organization and formalization, the creation of obligations and normative values or roles, and reflexivity.
What is important to note for our purposes is that the internet has become a vehicle for connecting liminal, minority groups – for communicative memories to develop in peripheral forums and for connections to be made across geographically disparate spaces. What we are seeing is a dramatic increase in critical awareness for a variety of minority issues – and a territorializing of these groups’ memories on an exponential basis daily. The result is an influx of posts, videos and pages devoted to the causes of those marginalized in regular society. Almost immediately, people in positions of privilege have criticized these movements as minorities being overly-sensitive, rolling their eyes at the proliferation of trigger warnings, or jumping to defend those who have been brought to justice by bringing their injustices to light online. What these individuals don’t realize is three-fold:
- These oppressed people have always been around you. They just have a larger collectivity now because of the internet and their voice is much louder because of the heavy use and reliance on this technology today.
- Oppressed people who cannot find justice in their everyday lives will use every means at their disposal – outside of the collectively prescribed methods – to achieve their justice.
- If you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Challenging the arbitrarily-legitimate and hegemonic-heteronormative social order is what the internet does best. If you don’t like the sound of rallying cries from all directions of oppressed society – you’re probably part of the problem.
To those issuing the calls-to-action in the name of justice for those held down by oppressive society, know this: the only thing you need to keep in mind is that those who challenge the order run the risk of becoming the order. When a communicative memory is aggregated into the collective, a major disconnect starts to happen: those originally involved in the creation of small groups of meaning in the greater societal ocean, tend to have their stories lost in the mix. In On the Uses and Abuses of History, Nietzsche examines the monumental method of history (ie. When something is aggregated into collective memory) and notes that in monumentalization, the group conducting it is concerned more with cohesion while keeping a heroic vision of civilization across temporal boundaries. The items that a monument brings together are largely unrelated and end up being overgeneralized to the point that “reality” is violated. Nietzsche argues that “history” then suffers. In my construction and understanding, the term “communicative memory” or individuals and individual sites of memory can replace “history” and serve Nietzsche’s point much better. When memory becomes collective and crystallized (particularly in the form of a nationally-endorsed monument), it will necessarily be corruptive of the communicative memor(ies) which originally informed it.
When the oppressed finally achieve recognition, their communicative, everyday memories tend to be distorted in the name of their collectivity, which ultimately has little need for the individuals in this new memory form. This raises further questions about the meaning and even the possibility of true social aggregation, meditations on which will have to be left for another time. For now, keep wailing that hammer.
 Assmann, Jan and John Czaplicka “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity,” in New German Critique, Vol. 65, Spring – Summer 1995, p.126-127.
 Ibid, p.129.
 Ibid, p.129-132. It should be noted that reflexivity here refers to three primary types, including practice-reflexivity (the interpretation of common practice through rituals, proverbs etc), self-reflexivity (in that a collective memory draws on itself to explain and interpret) and reflexivity of its own image (in that it reflects the self-image of the group through a preoccupation with its entire social system).