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In the twenty years since Pierre Nora began publishing his landmark work on Les Lieux de memoire (Nora, 1984-92), the study of memory, especially in its collective forms, has become a veritable industry. If historians such as Nora were to the fore in giving momentum to the field of study, scholars in many other disciplines have also been actively involved. It has become increasingly clear that tile construction of memory is imbricated in a complex network of social, psychological, political and cultural processes which require analytical tools spanning a wide range of scholarly disciplines. We cannot understand how collective memories gain currency or, a contrario, slip into oblivion, without understanding the dynamics of power within the societies in which they circulate. Equally important is an understanding of the cultural forms in which memories are inscribed. A medieval manuscript holds and transmits memories in ways which are radically different from a printed page or a twenty-first-century website. Cultural artefacts are in turn open to a range of inflections depending on the relative strength of different social groups and the memories that they hold dear.

The intersection of these forces was explored by participants at an international conference on 'Cultural Memory in France: Margins and Centres' hosted by Florida State University's Winthrop-King Institute for Contemporary French and Francophone Studies on 30 October-1 November 2003. Selected articles based on papers presented at the conference are now being published in two special issues of the Journal of European Studies: 35(1) in March 2005 and 35(2) in June 2005. Drawing on recent research, contributors to these special numbers show how, using the cultural forms available at different moments in time, individuals and groups have worked on key sites of memory to construct constantly evolving and often competing representations of France. Some of the artefacts examined here depend on highly personal individual energies, such as those of writers or film-makers, from whose imagination new representations of collective experiences enter into public currency via cultural gate-keepers such as the publishing and movie industries. Others are the work of institutionalized forces such as governments, political parties and pressure groups. Whether personal or institutional in origin, all expressions of memory pass through culturally codified mechanisms which, as Ann Rigney demonstrates, both construct and constrain the public circulation of representations of the past.

As noted by Rigney, a fundamental dividing line between those codes distinguishes between oral memory on the one hand and written forms of remembrance on the other. In her analysis of Christine de Pizan's writings in the early fifteenth century, Loft Walters shows how early written vernacular histories of the French monarchy became key repositories of 'a constantly evolving royal ideology'. Centuries later, France and other countries would see a vogue for new, multimedia ideological showcases in the form of fairs and exhibitions which, while highlighting the latest technological achievements, would often set these against the backdrop of an officially approved national narrative. Two such exhibitions are analysed by Elizabeth Emery and Colette Wilson. Wilson reveals how the organizers of the 1878 Exposition universelle used the medium of photography to efface the national divisions experienced only a few years earlier during the Paris Commune, while Emery shows how a commercially motivated enterprise made a surprising contribution to France's nascent conservation movement during the 1900 Paris World Fair. The importance of literary imagination in constructing complex images of memory is attested to by Andre Benhaim's analysis of A la recherche du temps perdu, in which, as Antoine Compagnon has remarked, Proust seems 'to have swallowed the whole of France's cultural memory' (Compagnon, 1996: 236). Conversely, Annette Becker demonstrates the tramnatizing effects of early twentieth-century events on one of the first theorists of collective memory, Maurice Halbwachs, who, while recognizing the enormous impact of the Great War in shaping the recent past, proved unable to incorporate it in his scholarly work.

The public commemoration of the First World War was to prove highly problematic in frontier regions of France such as Alsace-Lorraine, which before being reincorporated in France in 1919 had been under German rule. Almost all the troops mobilized there had fought on the side of the Kaiser, making it impossible for the newly installed French authorities to combine homage to the dead with the usual expressions of French patriotism, a combination typically formulated on war memorials in the words 'Morts pour la France'. William Kidd highlights the ways in which circumlocution and ambiguity became essential features of war memorials in Alsace-Lorraine, while in other regions marked by antipathy towards the centralizing spirit of the French state linguistic and other sculptural features of local war memorials of both the First and Second World Wars also undercut the habitual conjugation of respect for the dead with expressions of national unity.

The Second World War brought new divisions. One of the battlegrounds over which resisters and collaborators fought each other was that of public commemoration, especially of the revolutionary heritage associated with 14 July 1789. Through radio broadcasts, newspapers and other printed media, both officially sanctioned and clandestine, the Vichy regime and its opponents sought to advance their respective causes by appealing to contrasting visions of the nation's past. In documenting this struggle, Ethan Katz shows how, in post-war France, 'the triumph of the Resistance elevated the revolutionary tradition and values to a new plane of national unity'. Yet beneath this surface of unity lay unhealed wounds, which a series of documentary films on the Occupation period was to bring ever more clearly into focus. In the process, they helped to create a new form of cultural memory in which, as Nelly Furman notes, traditional history was displaced in favour of personal testimony. Equally innovative in the literary field was Georges Perec's W ou le souvenir d'enfance, where the traumatic memory of the Holocaust was reflected in a highly aestheticized form of autobiography in which, as Lawrence Kritzman demonstrates, the writer's imagination serves to compensate for the cognitive and ethical void arising from irreparable loss.

In the field of abstract art, Steven Harris shows how some of the most innovative minds of the early post-war French art world sought to legitimize aesthetic practices which questioned the classical foundations of the French nation-state by drawing parallels with artefacts from some of the earliest periods in French history. No less paradoxically, artists aligned with radically opposed modern-day political camps trawled in similar historical waters to 'mobilize an imaginary relation to the past for fundamentally different conceptions of the present'. The canalization of collective memory for political purposes emerges still more starkly in Christopher Flood's analysis of the rhetoric of the extreme right in contemporary France.

Although Flood rightly characterizes this as a form of counter-memory in the sense that the extreme right sees itself as challenging dominant political discourses, the need to construct memory within a nationally bounded framework has been taken as given by the vast majority of political actors, including the extreme right. But as France enters the twenty-first century, it is far from clear that national frames of reference will retain their seemingly self-evident role in collective representations of the past. Jean-Philippe Mathy traces, in a recent publishing venture by Seuil, anxieties that the common points of reference on which such appeals to the past rest may now be dangerously weak. As older French elites struggle to come to terms with an increasingly globalized world, younger generations, for whom the internet has largely replaced the pen and the printed page as forms of cultural transmission, are less inclined to see themselves as guardians of national memory. These most recent examples of the numerous and continuing changes which memory practices in France have undergone under the combined impact of cultural innovation and socio-political realignment thus reinforce the need for on-going interdisciplinary inquiry of the kind which informs the present collection of articles.


Compagnon, Antoine (1996) 'Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past', in Pierre Nora and Lawrence D. Kritzman (eds), Realms of Memory. The Construction of the French Past, pp. 211-46. New York: Columbia University Press.

Nora, Pierre (ed.) (1984-92) Les Lieux de memoire. 7 vols. Paris: Gallimard.


Florida State University


Florida State University


Florida State University


Florida State University

Aimee Boutin is Associate Professor of French at Florida State University. Address: Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306-1540, USA [email:]

Alec G. Hargreaves is Ada Belle Winthrop-King Professor of French at Florida State University. Address: Winthrop-King Institute for Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306-1515, USA [email:]

Reinier Leushuis is Assistant Professor of French at Florida State University. Address: Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306-1540, USA [email:]

Lori J. Walters is Professor of French at Florida State University. Address: Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306-1540, USA [email:]
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Author:Boutin, Aimee; Hargreaves, Alec G.; Leushuis, Reinier; Walters, Lori J.
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Article Type:Panel Discussion
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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