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David Rieff talk

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Lecture Theatre 206, Main Building

University of Glasgow

Glasgow

G12 8QQ

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David Rieff talk on:

Collective memory and collective forgetting:
A skeptical look at the memory wars and at the duty to remember

Although there is bitter disagreement about what events in the past need to be remembered and how they should be commemorated, the general consensus among decent people is that commemoration is a moral obligation. The reasoning behind this is partly prudential — the view encapsulated in George Santayana’s celebrated phrase: “those who do not remember the past will be condemned to repeat it.” But it is also an ethical argument in that remembering is seen as a moral obligation — the view that generalizes to all peoples and historical tragedies Emile Fackenheim’s view That for Jews to forget the Shoah would be to accord Hitler a "posthumous victory.”

But what if this sacralization of historical memory is a mistake? What if, at least in some historical contexts, there is at least as strong a case for forgetting as there is for remembrance? This is not as paradoxical as it at first may appear. After all collective memory is not a neurological fact as is the case with individual memory. Rather it is a metaphor: a way of describing how the present debates how to understand the past and what moral judgments to make about it. And if that is correct, then it is just as feasible for societies to choose to forget, or perhaps more precisely, to remain publicly silent about the past as it is to choose to remember.


David Rieff is a New York-based journalist and author. During the nineteen-nineties, he covered conflicts in Africa (Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Liberia), the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosovo), and Central Asia. Rieff has written extensively about Iraq, and, more recently, about Latin America. He is the author of eight books, including Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West and A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. He has published numerous articles in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, El Pais, The New Republic, World Affairs, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs, The Nation, and other publications. His book The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the 21st century was published by Simon & Schuster in October 2015. Rieff’s latest book In Praise of Forgetting: the Irony of Historical Memory was published in April 2016 by Yale University Press.


This event is organised by the SAGE Journal of Memory Studies in association with The College of Social Sciences, University of Glasgow.

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Lecture Theatre 206, Main Building

University of Glasgow

Glasgow

G12 8QQ

United Kingdom

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