Review of Memory in Motion: Archives, Technology, and the Social
Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, NL, 2016
332 pp. illus. b/w. Trade, € 99.00
Memory studies in general and archive studies in particular are an overcrowded section in recent scholarship on culture and cultural heritage. In the wake of Maurice Halbwachs’s first reflections on collective memory (1925), the landmark book series of Pierre Nora (1984-1992) on the “lieux de mémoire” (sites of memory), a short-cut for the collective effort to compensate for the loss of traditional, embodied memory and cultural transmission in what he called “milieux de mémoire” (communities and practices of memory), has foregrounded the constructivist dimension of memory (the idea that traditions can be invented has now become commonplace). Since the breakthrough interventions of authors such as Allan Sekula and John Tagg in the 1980s, a lot of attention has been given to the political and ideological biases that structure all archives, a key example of a site of memory. The work of philosophers as Jacques Derrida, media archeologists such as Friedrich Kittler and media theoreticians such as Wolfgang Ernst or Bernard Stiegler has further contributed to challenge the still wide-spread vision of memory as recollection of the past and the archive as one of the privileged instruments of this effort by either individuals or groups. What has come to the fore in their work is not only the importance of technological mediation, but also the productive and performative aspects of the archive, which has achieved real agency in memory processes, now often framed in the context of actor-network approaches.
The editors of this collection, all affiliated with Scandinavian research centers on memory and archive studies, clearly aim at building on these insights, while also opening new ground for theories on collective memory (it is tacitly assumed by them and all other contributors of this book that the difference between individual and collective memory is currently not very interesting to study). The conceptual shift they defend is based as much on theoretical discussions (throughout the book the work of Wolfgang Ernst is used as the primary beacon) than on the analysis of contemporary practices that exemplify the new take of memory “in motion”.
This idea of motion is elaborated in mainly two directions. On the one hand, all studies in this book reject the idea of archive as a passive repository, insisting instead on the fact that contemporary, that is digitally structured archives are open environments that permanently change under the influence of many convergent or conflicting impulses: the data input itself can change the archive, and so can (and will) the transformations of software and hardware or the interaction with users and user groups who do much more than just retrieve or check data, for instance. On the other hand, and this is the most challenging claim of the book, memory in motion does not only rely upon data, memories, and archive that are themselves changing all the time; it has also become an instance that changes the very object that it is supposed to represent, namely social memory, social life, if not the social fabric as a (heterogeneous and ever shifting) whole. To summarize it in very naïve terms: once the technology of collective memory changes, it is no longer possible to stick to classic conceptions of society and sociality.
Memory in Motion scrutinizes these changes in two ways. First of all, it offers a well-balanced mix of strictly theoretical approaches (the introduction by the editors, the opening chapter by Wolfgang Ernst, the closing chapter by Yuk Hui) and more practice-oriented readings of more or less recent case studies. In all chapters, however, there is a strong historical and theoretical awareness, so that even the most sophisticated and detailed technical readings (and there are some chapters which are not always easy to follow for readers having no more than an elementary knowledge of digital culture) do not lose sight of the bigger picture. Second, the book has also chosen a truly interdisciplinary approach. Not at the level of the theoretical approaches (as already stated, the general framework is definitely that of media archeology, in the most radical and materialist sense – a wise decision, which provides the collection with a minimum of theoretical cohesion), but at the level of the objects that are studied, as reflected in the organization of the table of contents along five major lines: oralities (the issues raised by the digitizing of sounds and voices), softwares (the evolution toward the digital post-archive), lives (the impact of digital memories on telling, experiencing, reinventing the relationship of past, present and future), images (old and new approaches of image archives that exceed the simple idea of visual repositories), and socialities (theoretical rereadings of social memory and social memory production).
Memory in Motion is certainly not an easy book to read. It mobilizes a wide range of disciplinary concepts and debates on collective memory, but the effort to avoid mere juxtaposition compensates for the often dizzying diversity of the theoretical references. It also challenges the reader by the technicity of some of its close readings, but here as well one feels the strong editorial hand that helps understand the larger scope and stake of these analyses. As such, it is a highly valuable contribution to the increasing exchanges between memory studies, cultural studies, digital humanities and media archeology.