Reflecting On European Meta-Memories

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On the 5th of June 2018, the European Observatory on Memories (EUROM) and the House of European History (HEH) jointly hosted EUROM’s 2018 Network Meeting: Taking Stock of European Memory Policies. The meeting took the form of an one day open conference, held in the auditorium of the House of European History, and aimed to bring together academics, representatives of trans-European organizations and networks, and those responsible for memory policies at an European level.

The first keynote titled A Broader View on Politics on Memory was held by Peter Vermeersch, professor at the University of Leuven and senior researcher at the Institute for International and European Policy (IIEB). His keynote focused on the utilization of a vocabulary of morality by nationalist actors in memory conflicts in Europe. Vermeersch, initiated his keynote by reaffirming Tony Judt’s statement, that the European project was indeed not born out of optimism, ambition, and idealism, as retroactively has been imagined, but instead was born out of a ‘fear of the past’. He further stressed that politics of memory are as much, if not more, about making us forget, than they are about making us remember. To illustrate this he identified three mnemonic techniques of forgetting, namely: 1) the creation of an abstract ‘we’, 2) the simplification of history, and the 3) overwriting of old histories with new stories, which, he contended, are especially prevalent in the case of national and nationalist policies.

Vermeersch further delved into the notion of the abstract we, detailing how this abstract ‘we’ is generally portrayed as a stable historical subject position, further stating that while the notion of a stable historical ‘we’ is inherently absurd, emotionally, it is highly appealing. In contrast, getting the notion of an everchanging ‘we’ across, is incredibly difficult. To deconstruct conceptions of a stable historical ‘we’, he briefly pointed to tactics of ridicule and the adoption of more ‘polytactic’ ways of deconstructing and conceptualizing the notion of a constructed ‘we’. While Vermeersch didn’t delve into polytacticity in this presentation, in his article Exhibiting Multiculturalism: Politicized Representations of the Roma in Poland, he describes the term as exploring “cultural diversity or the fluidity of ethnic boundaries”. In this vein, he concluded by emphasizing the necessity to rethink the European institutions, to reform the machinery of ordinary citizens in participating in democracy, to guard the quality of public debate, and to connect democratic involvement with the dimension of memory. He further pointed to the possibility of bringing memory, especially within European institutions, to a meta level, where remembering & forgetting are taught and portrayed as inherently connected.
I chose this (part of the) presentation by Peter Vermeersch, because I would like to briefly reflect on some concepts and ideas he offered, namely: 1) the incorporation of a ‘polytactic’ approach to fight back against oversimplified national and nationalist conceptions of a ‘we’, and 2) the move to a meta level in memory education and politics. In my eyes to a certain extent both the a polytactic and a metal level approach overlap quite significantly, since both could be instrumentalized to question and critique notions of rigid and stable identity borders and oversimplified pasts. With both approaches, the question however remains of how feasible they are to work with, and at what level. Later in the conference, Pavel Tychtl, Policy Officer European Commission, continued on the point of the meta level and made the point that this level of dealing with historical memory should take place on a local level. I however wonder if it is possible, or perhaps more acutely stated practical, to practice memory on a meta level, without simultaneously having a meta conception of memory explicit on a European level. If a meta level of historical memory is practiced at a local level, without having a similar construction on a European level, I think this would lead to further frictions.

Talking about practicing a meta level of memory however is very easy, when we actively avoid describing what actual form this would take, what would be sacrificed, what room for a European ‘morality’ would remain, and what the hell we actually mean with a meta level of historical memory. Important to remember hereby is that even meta comes in degradations, and that every deconstructive act is inherently constructive as well. Adopting a meta level of memory on a European level would probably entail the creation of new narratives and more insight in how these narratives are created. European myths such as the European project being one of pure optimism, ambition, and idealism, could be critically debunked and traded for more nuanced views linked to contemporary questions surrounding the European Union’s fate. Similarly, there could be more openness as to how the Holocaust came to be central for the creation of the European Union, and the questions that the Eastern expansion of the European Union, raised regarding this centrality. Similarly more focus could be paid to the European colonial legacies, how these legacies act and reverberate in the present, etc. etc. And generally delving into the mechanisms that cause societies to forget and remember.

Important to emphasize here is the constructive elements in these, at first sight, deconstructive attempts. It involves a redirection of histories to focus on, and from whose perspectives, we look at these histories. The points of focus we choose however, should actively problematize current conceptions, offer alternatives, nuances, and most importantly raise questions, both about the past, and contemporary issues, hereby functioning on a meta level. This meta level however is still inherently connected to notions of morality and linked to concepts such as active citizenship.
One should also ask where, and in what form, we could make this adaption to a more meta level of historical memory on a European level? Should this take place in European institutions such as the House of European History, should European policy and laws deal with the ways in which history is taught in national contexts? Should it be reflected in the official statements and documents of European officials and institutions? Should the European institutions fund more projects dealing with this meta level of history? And what national and nationalist reactions will such switches have?

My point with these brief reflections is to stress the necessity to further reflect on the possibilities, forms, and results, such an European adaption of a meta level of historical memory might have and take, and to highlight the need to move beyond the use of meta as a mere keyword, a mere possibility, and an empty denominator.

Keep it wavey in the free world,

Vermeersch, Peter. “Exhibiting Multiculturalism: Politicized Representations of the Roma in Poland.” Third Text 22.3 (2008): 359-371)

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