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Because memory is not just an individual, private experience but is also part of the collective domain, cultural memory has become a topic in both historiography (Pierre Nora, Richard Terdiman) and cultural studies (e.g., Susan Stewart). These emphasize cultural memory’s process (historiography) and its implications and objects (cultural studies), respectively. Two schools of thought have emerged, one articulates that the present shapes our understanding of the past. The other assumes that the past has an influence on our present behavior.
Crucial in understanding cultural memory as a phenomenon is the distinction between memory and history. This distinction was put forward by Pierre Nora, who pinpointed a niche in-between history and memory.
Scholars disagree as to when to locate the moment representation 'took over'. Nora points to the formation of European nation states. For Richard Terdiman, the French revolution is the breaking point: the change of a political system, together with the emergence of industrialization and urbanization, made life more complex than ever before. This not only resulted in an increasing difficulty for people to understand the new society in which they were living, but also, as this break was so radical, people had trouble relating to the past before the revolution. In this situation, people no longer had an implicit understanding of their past. In order to understand the past, it had to be represented through history. As people realized that history was only one version of the past, they became more and more concerned with their own cultural heritage (in French called patrimoine) which helped them shape a collective and national identity. In search for an identity to bind a country or people together, governments have constructed collective memories in the form of commemorations which should bring and keep together minority groups and individuals with conflicting agendas. What becomes clear is that the obsession with memory coincides with the fear of forgetting and the aim for authenticity.
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