Position Papers

Accounting for experience: Commemorating 11 November 2018

By April 21, 2018 No Comments

The authors workshopping the position paper at CegesSoma in Brussels for the second Commemoration Reframed workshop. Photo: Shanti Sumartojo.

Shanti Sumartojo, Pierre Bouchat, Matthew Graves, Emma Hanna, David C Harvey, Chantal Kesteloot, Olivier Luminet, Laurence van Ypersele, James Wallis.

In our first position paper, we laid out some of the conceptual territory for our program of collective research, Commemoration Reframed. We asked what happens when we orient our research towards how people experience commemorative sites and events, and what areas we need to consider with such a reframing. This paper summarised the main areas we discussed in our initial network meeting and was intended to begin a conversation about our shared areas of inquiry.

In this, our second position paper, we build on this, turning to some of the more specific questions that will inform our individual research projects focused on the end of the First World War centenary period. As with the first paper, this is not intended to be prescriptive or reductive, or indeed exhaustive, but rather to identify some of what as a group we think is important to consider as we each move forward with the empirical aspects of our projects. While we may not all investigate each of these questions, this paper lays out the broad contours of our shared interests.

As such, this paper runs along two vectors – the first is thematic. Narrative, discourse, representation, politics, space, senses and feelings are all important here, and we will briefly touch on those aspects that we are particularly concerned with as we plan for this year’s projects. The second angle of approach concerns how and when these themes are manifested, articulated, or taken up in experience in the chronologies of commemorative events – that is, what happens before, during and after these events that we need to attend to. In this sense, the ‘event’ itself exceeds the boundaries of its timings (specifically, 11 November 2018), but such an approach illuminates that what comes before and after them is crucial in determining their form and reach in their most intense moments.

As before, we present this paper as co-authored by the nine participants in our second workshop on 9 February 2018. This was hosted by CegeSoma in Brussels, who we thank for their ongoing generosity in supporting and engaging with this program of collaborative research. The ideas emerged collectively from our discussions during this workshop. The lead author was responsible for drawing them together into this document, which was then edited by the group.


There are a few areas without which one cannot sensibly consider commemoration. Perhaps foremost amongst these is discourse, and by this we mean the messages that are promulgated from official (and other) sources, the values they express, and the histories that anchor them – and what these messages do. Who transmits them, the position of power that they operate from and the scale of their address are also important. While the boundaries of such discourse are neither fixed nor uniform, a related and critical question is who this discourse includes and excludes – put differently, what is the public that is being addressed, and indeed being made, discursively, and who is identified as outside this group. In terms of collective identity, this could be national, and almost certainly is in the case of 11 November 2018, but local, linguistic or regional axes of identity might also be central depending on the context.

Second, the empirical content of this discourse is necessarily derived historically, although which stories are told and how they are told is often contested and never permanently settled. Nevertheless, how these histories are represented – in ceremonies, memorials, texts, artworks, buildings, foods or place names, for example – is important in how we perceive and make sense of the content and aims of commemoration. The ways in which collective histories are symbolised form a sort of representational background for what we might then do to actively remember via commemorative events.

A third central theme in terms of how we experience and understand commemoration is through its politics. This begins at the smallest level of the micro-politics of encounter with others and the affective intensities and social and cultural frictions this might engender. This also extends, however, to much larger government or civil society entities at the local, metropolitan, national or supra-national level. Again, what commemoration does or makes possible is a key concern here, across multiple scales of institutional and social structures. For many of the group, this includes how commemoration is situated in and refracted through contemporary political issues such as Brexit, European integration, international migration, racial and cultural equality and government diplomacy.

A fourth theme that runs through much of our work is the spatialities of commemoration, or how space is implicit in how it is understood, contested or made sense of, and what is produced by way of particular spatial configurations. This is linked to both representation and discourse, because groups such as the nation are often symbolised in spatial forms such as memorials, which then can work to reinforce longstanding versions of collective identity.

Thinking spatially also provides a critical purchase towards our final theme, the sensory and affective qualities of commemorative events, or how they might make us feel. We explored this in more detail in our first position paper, but here we simply reiterate it as central to understanding the experience of commemoration – our core concern in this project – but also part of a larger constellation of linked approaches to this topic.


How do we define ‘events’? Wagner-Pacifici (2017: 5) advocates for thinking about them as ongoing, ‘the ways they are restless and the ways they are subject to continuing oscillations between bounding and unbounding as they extend in time and space’. We work with a similarly extended definition by considering what comes before and after the fixed moments in time that are conventionally understood as events. This builds in large part on Kesteloot and van Ypersele’s (2016) framework for examining commemorative phenomena that begins with the decisions that shape how the past is framed in commemoration. Such decisions are made within pre-existing political and social structures, but also within a context of public and individual foreknowledge of such events, the extant symbolic repertoires that they might draw on, and media coverage that precedes them. In some cases economic factors, such as tourism, play an important role in determining the values and attitudes that shape how people understand commemoration. In others, education or pedagogical frameworks have set down dominant discourses that can be difficult to pierce.

If factors such as these precede and comprise the context for commemorative events, the way they play out during events themselves occurs in multiple ways, some of which we have discussed above or in our previous position paper. The actors, settings, staging and design of events are crucial, as are the ways in which they are covered by the print, broadcast and social media (and who controls these and to what degree). Again, how people might feel at these moments, whether they are actively participating or not, how events connect to their own memories, imaginations or attitudes, and how this fits in with anything else they might be doing, thinking or feeling are important considerations (Sumartojo 2016). Finally, alternative or ‘counter’ events or protests, or even disregard or disengagement, play a role. A focus on the experience of commemoration allows us to unfold this in the accounts of people at whom these events are aimed, whether they participate in them or not.

Our group was also concerned to consider what impact commemoration might have on the public it addresses, and how it might change, reinforce or otherwise affect attitudes and feeling about the state, collectivity, history, or indeed anything else. An example of this interest is in the project that CR members Emma Hanna and James Wallis are involved in, Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War (http://reflections1418.exeter.ac.uk/), a UK government-funded project aimed at evaluating the outcomes of the four-year official commemorative program in Britain. We discussed ways to investigate impact that could include public surveys, examining media coverage or accounting for participation in events after the fact.

Next steps

The breadth of these areas demonstrates both the complexity of commemoration and the many ways we might approach investigating it – which reinforces our commitment to interdisciplinary and internationally comparative research. Our next steps are to plan our own projects, drawing on our discussions and position papers to find common ground. At our next meeting on 29 May we will share our plans for research on 11 November and help each other refine and strengthen them, focusing more closely on methodologies and how these might work in dialogue with the concepts we have sketched out so far.

Kesteloot, C and van Ypersele, L (2016) ‘Pour une analyse du phénomène commémoratif’, Journal of Belgian History 3/4: 207-222.

Sumartojo, S (2016) ‘Commemorative atmospheres: memorial sites, collective events and the experience of national identity’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 41(4): 541-553.

Wagner-Pacifici, R (2017) What is an Event? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sumartojo, S., Bouchat, P., Graves, M., Hanna, E., Harvey, D., Kesteloot, C., Luminet, O., van Ypersele, L., Wallis, J. (2018) Accounting for experience: commemorating 11 November 2018. Available online at: www.commemorationreframed.com.