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Memory work


Memory work is a process of engaging with the past which has both an ethical and historical dimension.

The premise for memory work or travail de memoire is that history is not memory. We try to represent the past in the present through memory, history and the archives. As Paul Ricoeur argued, memory alone is fallible. Historical accounts are always partial and potentially misrepresent since historians do not work with bare, uninterpreted facts. Historians construct and use archives that contain traces of the past. However, historians and librarians determine which traces are preserved and stored. This is an interpretive activity. Historians pose questions to which the archives responds leading them to “facts that can be asserted in singular, discrete propositions that usually include dates, places, proper names, and verbs of action or condition”. Individuals remember events and experiences some of which they share with a collective. Through mutual reconstruction and recounting collective memory is reconstructed. Individuals are born into familial discourse which already provides a backdrop of communal memories against which individual memories are shaped. A group's communal memory becomes its common knowledge which creates a social bond, a sense of belonging and identity. Professional historians attempt to corroborate, correct, or refute collective memory. Memory work then entails adding an ethical component which acknowledges the responsibility towards revisiting distorted histories thereby decreasing the risk of social exclusion and increasing the possibility of social cohesion of at-risk groups.

The concept of memory-work as distinguished from history-as-memory finds a textbook case in the Vichy Syndrome as described by Rousso. His title uses medical lexicon to refer to history-memory as dependent on working consciously with unconscious memories to revise accounts of history. This calls for an expanded archive that includes the "oral and popular tradition" as well as the written traditions normally associated with the archives.

Pierre Nora, introduced 'lieu de mémoire' about 25 years ago, he traced the surge in memory work at the level of the nation-state to the revisiting of distorted histories of the anti-Semitic Vichy France (1940-1944) following the death of Charles de Gaulle in 1970. Structural changes resulted from the end of the peasantry and the dramatic economic slump as oil prices worldwide rose in 1974. Added to this was the intellectual collapse of Marxism precipitated in part by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago which forced the French to rethink attitudes towards the past. 'Lieu de mémoire' closed down perspectives to better understand cultural memory, instead of opening up perspectives. He associated memory with place, and location.



  • (1955) Ricoeur, Paul. History and Truth. Translated by C. A. Kelbley. Evanston: Northwestern University press. (2nd edition 1965)
  • (1982) Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. New York: University Press.
  • (1983) Kristeva, Julie Nations without Nationalism, trans. L. S. Roudiez (Yale University Press, 1993)
  • (1986) Derrida, Jacques. Memoires for Paul de Man, Columbia University Press.
  • (1991) Rousso, Henry. The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944. Translated by A. Goldhammer. Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press.
  • (1996) Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever. Translated by E. Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • (1997) Cixous, Hélene. Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing: Routledge
  • (2000) Ricoeur, Paul. La Mémoire, l'Historie, l'Oubli: l'ordre philosophique: Éditions du Seuil. http://www.theology.ie/thinkers/RicoeurMem.htm
  • (2002) Nora, Pierre. "The Reasons for the Current Upsurge in Memory." Tr@nsit-Virtuelles Forum.22 Retrieved Access 2002. http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2002-04-19-nora-en.html
  • (2004) Gabriel, Barbara. "The Unbearable Strangeness of Being; Edgar Reitz's Heimat and the Ethics of the Unheimlich" in Postmodernism and the Ethical Subject, edited by B. Gabriel and S. Ilcan. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press.
  • (2008), Haug, Frigga. "Australian Feminist Studies" in Memory Work. Volume 23, 537-541.
  • (2011) Basu, Laura. "Memory dispositifs and national identities: The case of Ned Kelly" in Memory Studies Journal: 4(1): 33-41
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