Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Reading:: Voices of Collective Remembering

Originally posted: Tue, 21 Oct 2003 19:13:44

Voices of Collective Remembering

by James V. Wertsch

I recently reviewed Wertsch's Mind as Action and that caused me to look his work up on Amazon. When I saw he had a new book out, I picked it up and read it fairly quickly. That turned out to be a good move, because the last chapter of Mind in Action turns out to be a great lead-in to the new book. Voices of Collective Remembering deals -- as the title suggests -- with how we publicly construct and maintain memories within societies, and in particular how official histories are both written and resisted.

Most of the work in the book comes from interviews, surveys, and textual analyses the author conducted in Russia, where the Soviet obsession with controlling history has consequences over a decade after the USSR itself collapsed. You would expect some of the findings, such as the tendency for Soviet history books to valorize whoever was in control of the Soviet Union at the time they were written. (One interesting fact: across the entire Soviet Union, all students in a given grade would read the same pages of the same textbook on the same day.) Like Big Brother in 1984, the Soviets would indeed change parts of the official recorded history to suit their ends. But unlike 1984, Wertsch finds, the Soviets rarely made up facts out of whole cloth. Rather, they deleted parts. In one striking illustration, Wertsch describes how pictures of Stalin would be periodically airbrushed to remove people who had later fallen out of favor, leaving uncomfortable and obvious gaps -- and sometimes eventually leading to pictures of Stalin alone.

But the book is about more than Soviet stage-managing of history. Wertsch identifies a prototypical Russian narrative that is applied time and time again to historical events -- in particular, World War II -- and that both predates the USSR and persists after it. The Soviets leveraged this narrative, to be sure, but that leveraging doesn't seem to have been conscious. What's more, though the official history predictably was resisted through clandestine oral accounts and samizdat texts, these accounts and texts also show traces of the narrative. Wertsch takes these insights and, importantly, points to how they can be applied to history in the West as well.

Memory is really not my research interest, so I'm not sure how useful this book will be to me. But it's a fascinating book and, I think, important for understanding history and memory dialogically.

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