In her article, “Social Forgetting: A Systems-Theory Approach”, published in the Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook, (ed. Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning, 2008), Elena Esposito discusses the notion of social memory and its relationship to history and discourses on ethnography in the contemporary era of globalization. She argues for an approach to conceptions of memory—that which we call ‘memory’ representing the nuanced cognitive balance between remembering and forgetting on a collective, and personal-individual, scale—in society (both distinct cultural societies, as well as the ‘new’ global society procured by mass media) that is self-reflexive. Referring to the work of German theorist Niklas Luhmann, this self-reflexivity of a systems theory approach “starts precisely from the assumption of ‘autology,’ the relativity of the world to the system observing it, which finds itself in its own field of observation.” She carries on, “[i]n other words, an autologic system faces a world that also includes the observing system itself, which gives up the privileged position of the external observer looking at the world from the outside.” (182) Esposito asserts that forgetting accordingly becomes the primary function of the memory system—in a contemporary world brimming with easily disseminated information, the reservoir of collective memory space is stripped bare of its unifying agents. Members within these societies—more or less anybody today who has semi-unregulated access to multiple sources of media images and information—are more and more individualized, their memories (drives, desires, personalities, etc.) intensely personal and selective based on time, space, and the many facets of cognitive agency.

So, the question then becomes, how to communicate coherently across such radically individualized stratospheres of life experience, how to remember and to speak of a past event, how to conceptualize what is important, what is relationally relevant to the ever-expanding present? Luhmann argues that art exists as a powerful new social system in the contemporary epoch, as well as any narrative that maintains its self-reflexivity and asserts its potentially fallible relationship to the larger social structure within which it exists. In remembering and communicating the experience of certain traumatic histories—such as the Holocaust—art and creative practice provides a particularly salient opportunity for the evocation of collective memory through individual work and/or narrative. Christian Boltanski, perhaps the most famous French contemporary artist living and working today, has produced a vast body of work dealing with Holocaust remembrance, its many nuances and inevitable cohesive impossibility. He works by purposefully blurring the lines between fiction and reality, the personal and the political; he questions the division between mourning and the banality of death, and does this in a fashion that is continuously critical and self-aware. Boltanski, not unlike Freud, Lacan, and many other intellectuals fascinated by the concept of memory, believes that childhood is a particularly salient temporal period in the life of an individual, and perhaps serves as a repository of experiential-systemic meaning that bleeds ever into the present memory. In this way, and thinking particularly about traumatic histories and the social recollection and narratives which surround them, Boltanski addresses the notion of death as contiguous to the present being—he addresses the many deaths we have all experienced, the deaths that have allotted us new life ever again, and the memories that must be relived and released continuously, reflexively, systemically, in order to truly heal, as an individual within a larger society that is also carrying out these same processes evermore.

by Connie Walsh

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