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Position Papers

Accounting for experience: Commemorating 11 November 2018

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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.

Themes

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.

Chronologies

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.

Commemoration reframed: Conceptualising commemoration from the perspective of experience

By | Position Papers

The authors assembled at CegesSoma in Brussels for the first Commemoration Reframed workshop. Photo: Tamar Cachet.

Shanti Sumartojo, Danielle Drozdzewski, Matthew Graves, Chantal Kesteloot, Dominique Vanneste, Karla Vanraepenbusch, Laurence Van Ypersele, James Wallis, Caroline Winter, Nico Wouters

With just over a year to go until the end of the First World War centenary period, an enormous amount has already been written about this global event, how it is being recognised, what these forms of remembrance might mean for people and what impact they might have. Governments around the world have spent millions on official activities, and as the 14-18 centenary draws to a close, attention is now turning to evaluating the effects of this expenditure and drawing conclusions that might inform fast-approaching anniversaries associated with the Second World War.

Commemoration does do something important – chiefly, it works to cohere groups of people around narratives anchored in the official and usually national past. It repeats these stories and makes them stick through rituals with sensory and emotional impact. It works through the media in sites and spaces resonant with meaning, often where people died or in prominent sites designed to be noticed in particular ways, although it is also the focus of museum displays, creative practice interventions, official pedagogies and international diplomatic efforts. Despite the efflorescence of public and scholarly work, however, we argue that there is still something that has not yet been coherently addressed about what commemoration does. We argue that we must reorient and literally re-embody how we conceptualise commemoration by focusing on how people experience it – and by this we mean the affective, embodied, spatial and material, imaginative and remembered subjective encounters with commemorative sites and events. In this way, we want to bring fresh understanding to how official messages are reproduced, reinforced and redistributed, and the different interpretations and meanings that individuals ascribe to these messages. In turn, we also want to explore the implications for identity and belonging, and for the potential effects that the experience of commemoration might carry into the future.

This jointly authored position paper reflects the discussion of the first workshop of the Commemoration Reframed network, on 7 September 2017 at CegeSoma in Brussels. It aims to establish a position for the group as we continue to work together into 2018-19. This paper refers to some of the key ideas outlined in the opening presentation given by our first speaker, Shanti Sumartojo. However, as our workshop was discussion-based, it also represents ideas shared and discussed by all the attending group members.

The workshop considered what happens when we reframe commemoration towards how people experience it. What new ways of making sense of it are possible and how can we advance our understanding of how it works and what its effects are? How can we understand its impact? What might we infer about the future of commemoration? To begin to chart this terrain, we have identified the following five starting points – these are not settled concepts or a complete account, but rather an initial sketch to establish some parameters for our shared interest in the topic.

Emotional legitimacy

In commemorative moments, national values are commonly presented to the public in terms of personal narrative – evidenced in First World War commemorations that emphasise the experiences of individual soldiers to represent more general messages about war, such as loss and grief, heroism, sacrifice and suffering, service or bravery. These personal stories take on a life beyond the individual and come to represent the nation. But in official commemorative events, individual cases are selected that best support the larger political aims of the state. The emotional intensities associated with imagining the war experience of one soldier imbues a much larger and more abstract collective narrative, and the scale of the individual is elided with the national by way of how commemoration feels.

Moreover, because commemoration is often reported and understood in affective terms, it can be very difficult to approach critically – how can we deny, for example, the reality of someone else’s emotional experience? However, despite physical and emotional encounters that are genuinely moving, the point is that there are many ways of making sense of, understanding and experiencing any shared moment. We are often told about how commemoration is moving or sad for example, without attending to other feelings – hostility, boredom or apathy, for example. Instead, commemorative events, sites and activities, and the state-sponsored histories they represent – are understood and legitimised through particular emotional experiences and affective intensities without adequately accounting for the complexity, malleability and diversity of these experiences.

Yet, commemoration is not solely collective – indeed engagement with it can be solitary or intensely private – but because it takes in collective historical experiences, such as shared experience of war or violence, individuals are implicitly connected to others through the sharing of its narratives and practices. However, as Nico Wouters suggested, we need to conceptualise the sites of commemoration generously to understand how experience might be at work across a range of them, and to better comprehend what effects it might engender for both individuals and states or other groups. The question of how we might best define experience, and its relationship to the impact that commemoration might have on people, remained a central question throughout our workshop discussions.

A focus on how commemoration feels does particular kinds of work. We can see this work in how people commonly report these events in visceral term – tears welling up in the eyes, hairs standing up on the backs on their necks. Such responses make the experience somehow more meaningful and more memorable, even if the historical details might be poorly understood, as Caroline Winter’s (2015) research on battlefield visitors testifies. Her work suggests that attendance at such sites is not so much about specific historical details, as it is about immediate intensities of experience, commonly linked to individual family histories and often shared with other people in these places.

Atmosphere

Here, atmosphere is a helpful frame through which to consider the particular configurations of environments, people, structures, objects, movements, activities and experiences – both in the past and anticipated – that contribute to how commemoration feels to people. It can also help us work through precisely what is meant by experience, an important empirical question, as Karla Vanraepenbusch emphasised. Accordingly, our interrogation of experience must be lodged in the combination of sensory perception, memory and imagination that belongs to each of us, and how these relate to our material and immaterial spatial surroundings, and to representation and narrative. Attuning to atmosphere means attending to the specific spatialities, temporalities and socialities of commemoration, rather than only focusing on its historical narratives, political uses or representational manifestations. Furthermore, atmosphere helps commemoration stick (Ahmed 2004) – by way of how it makes us feel, what memories it evokes, and its often collective nature. It arises in commemorative sites, helped along by ritual and the expectations of familiar texts, music, movements and rhythms, for example (Sumartojo 2016). It can also represent a distinct moment or point of rupture in one’s experience in/with/at/on a commemorative site – that is, the point at which one remembers experiencing memory in a certain place (Drozdzewski 2016).

In terms of our opening point about emotional legitimacy, atmosphere can be useful in connecting feelings with particular spaces and materialities. Dominque Vanneste uses a similar notion of a ‘sense of place’ in her investigation of tourist practices and attitudes on Belgian historical battlefield sites to think through how attachment is (re)produced and performed. She suggests that the atmosphere that clings to the landscape in which material artefacts (such as cemeteries or monuments) are embedded, works to foster imagination beyond the imaginative geographies described by Said (2000).

Atmosphere can also help us pay attention to the entanglement with everything else that people might be doing, feeling sensing or thinking when engaging in commemorative spaces or activities. Attending to the micropolitics of commemoration can break down the temptation to focus only on ritual or representation, and draw together a wider range of factors that influence what commemoration might actually mean to people – and in turn what impact these experiences might have, a separate but related question.

Temporality

A focus on experience also allows us to focus on commemoration’s non-linear temporalities. For example, Luminet and Curci’s (2018) work on flashbulb memories demonstrates that those moments that remain vivid and sharp for our whole lives do so because of their emotional intensity and import. Concomitantly the experience of commemoration is revealed as less about the past than about the future – about speaking to other people who we imagine will experience commemoration after us and of what we think is significant now. Such future orientation helps explain why governments spend vast amounts on memorials, museums, repeated rituals, education and many other forms of representation and experience to try and protect particular memories and particular ways of remembering. Official remembering is a way to reach forward into the future, to try and legitimate what we think now by making it difficult to forget. For Matthew Graves, this imminence extends to transnational history and its utility in providing the ‘mood music’ for amicable international relations.

Attendance to future temporalities is most obvious in physical memorials, which are clear articulations of futurity, often designed from materials intended to endure, in prominent urban sites, or in the places where people have died. Even if we can see that previous memorials have been forgotten, moved, demolished or covered over, we continue to construct them to last. Achronological temporalities are also at play in new forms of commemoration, such as on social media platforms (see Tom Sear’s video presentation on this topic here). A recent example was the 2015 use of official archival accounts as a form of live commentary on Twitter to draw followers into an ‘as-it-happened’ account of the 25 April 1915 Anzac assault on the Gallipoli Peninsula (Sumartojo 2017). James Wallis identified another aspect of temporality in the future-oriented aspects of commemorative materialities, such as when visitors remove soil or rusting scrap metal from the battlefields to function as relics, these objects’ emotional resonance burnished by their repeated handling.

In attending to experience we somewhat complicate this state-sponsored relationship to the future, because our gaze is firmly lodged in the present, or in the moment of experience. From the perspective of experience, we can see the desire to carry ideas and values forward into the future, but also how the past can be paradoxically rendered timeless in doing so – for example in the repeated stories of individuals that we are invited to empathise with as if their deaths had just occurred. Indeed, as Hoelscher and Alderman (2004: 349) point out, ‘Individuals and groups recall the past not for its own sake but as a tool to bolster different aims [in the present] and agendas [for the future]’. This returns us to the question of the micropolitics of commemoration, that Danielle Drozdzewski identifies in her work on memory in the everyday city, and the range of aims and agendas that might be pursued vis commemorative acts.

Inclusion and exclusion

The fourth point is a question of inclusion and exclusion from both what and how we commemorate. One problem with any sort of research is that when we put the object of inquiry at the centre of our investigations, its significance can almost become self-fulfilling. However, by centring experience we might be able to notice what usually goes unremarked, to attend to what Erin Manning (2016) calls ‘the minor key’, which creates possibility for reimagined ways of doing things. Attuning to experience makes potential visible – that something new could be made possible that escapes control, in this case perhaps the control of the state, or of established and conventional ways of doing commemoration. Here Massumi’s Politics of Affect (2015: 57-58) can offer an opening:

‘Even in the most controlled political situation, there’s a surplus on unacted-out potential that is collectively felt…No situation simply translates ideological inculcations into action. There’s always an event and the event always includes dimensions that aren’t completely actualised, so its always open to a degree, its always dynamic and in re-formation’.


An immediate implication concerns who is included in commemorative ritual. For example, in Australia there is a shameful 200-year old history of the state not officially recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and this non-recognition extends to war service – although there have been minor changes in very recent years. We advocate for the potential of commemoration in terms of its possible reconfigurations and what work those reconfigurations might do for counter-memory and social justice, and we suggest that an orientation to experience might be a useful place to start doing this. Indeed, the experience of the empathetic imagination is a powerful concept here, one that can open out through experiential accounts, and also one that potentially draws in groups or individuals who may have historically been excluded. Forms of collaborative memory-making also speak to the possibility of reimagined inclusions. For example, James Wallis explained how co-production between governments and communities – in which community-based research is undertaken by ‘citizen historians’ – allows practices of research that become forms of commemoration that are experienced and discussed as being as affective and empathetic as they are scholarly. The same goes for guest-host or local-visitor relationships during battlefield tourism trips or everyday encounters. Dominique Vanneste and Danielle Drozdzewski illustrate the importance of micro-memory spaces (Han 2012), in which the interest in or awareness of them is underpinned by commemorative markers or events. Here we also begin to see the potential of commemoration to recast who belongs and whose stories might be told and recognised.

Methodologies

Our final point is one about methodologies that can help to account for experience. Chantal Kesteloot and Laurence van Ypersele’s investigation of how decisions are made about commemorative events and sites turns its gaze to how official agendas shape the places in and activities through which it occurs – and therefore the official parameters of how is can be experienced. Danielle Drozdzewski discussed her innovative use of visual and ethnographic techniques, a powerful means to consider the immaterial and sensory aspects of experience, as well as to think about movement and bodies. Dominique Vanneste advocated for a mix of approaches, including interviews that allow participants to relay their experiences in their own terms.

These methodologies are not the only way to approach experience, of course, but a core concern here is to understand experience as ongoing and unpredictable, and consider methodologies that might come to grips with this. Massumi (2015: 13) argues that we must recognise that we are ‘immersed in an experience that is already underway’, when things are in movement, constantly shifting and contingent. Here commemoration doesn’t somehow stand apart and separate from anything else that may be happening, and isn’t necessarily distinct from our other thoughts, sensations or emergent experiences. Indeed, Matthew Graves draws on Thrift’s (2004: 75) attention to ‘the little, the messy and the jerry-rigged as a part of politics and not just incidental to it’. Equally, as a group we intend to explore how innovative combinations of approaches – archival, visual, discursive and practice-based amongst them – might move our shared agenda forward.

Ahmed, S (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotion. London: Routledge.

Drozdzewski, D (2016) ‘Encountering memory in the everyday city’, Memory, place and identity: Commemoration and remembrance of war and conflict. London: Routledge, pp.19-37.

Han, J-S N (2012) ‘Conserving the Heritage of Shame: War Remembrance and War-related Sites in Contemporary Japan’, Journal of Contemporary Asia 42(3): 493-513.

Hoelscher, S, Alderman, D (2004) ‘Memory and place: geographies of a critical relationship’, Social & Cultural Geography 5(3): 347-355.

Luminet, O and Curci, A (2018) Flashbulb Memories: New Challenges and Future Perspectives, 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.

Massumi, B (2015) The Politics of Affect. London: Polity Press.

Manning, E (2016) The Minor Gesture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Said, E (2000) ‘Invention, memory, and place’, Critical Inquiry 26(2): 175-192.

Sear, T (2016) ‘Dawn Servers: Anzac Day 2015 and Hyperconnective Commemoration’, in West B (ed.), War Memory and Commemoration. London: Routledge, pp. 67 – 88, http://unsworks.unsw.edu.au/fapi/datastream/unsworks:44440/bindc10af22-38ba-467e-9528-f5ed9cb246d0?view=true

Sear, T (2016) ‘Uncanny Valleys and Anzac Avatars: Scaling a Postdigital Gallipoli’, in Frances R;Scates B (ed.), Beyond Gallipoli: New Perspectives on ANZAC, Melbourne: Monash University Press, pp. 55 – 82, http://unsworks.unsw.edu.au/fapi/datastream/unsworks:44110/bin5e1185fd-daf1-4f54-a89b-79512f11a218?view=true

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.

Sumartojo, S (2017) ‘Tweeting from the past: commemorating the Anzac Centenary @ABCNews1915’, Memory Studies. DOI: 10.1177/1750698017709873.

Thrift, N (2004) ‘Intensities of feeling: Towards a spatial politics of affect’, Geografiska Annaler 86 B (1): 57–78.

Vanneste, D and Winter, C. (2018) ‘First World War battlefield tourism: Journeys out of the dark and into the light’, Handbook of Dark Tourism Studies, R Hartmann, P Stone and T Seaton (eds). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Winter, C. (2015). Ritual, remembrance and war: Social memory at Tyne Cot. Annals of Tourism Research 54:16-29.

Sumartojo, S., Drozdzewski, D., Graves, M., Kesteloot, C., Vanneste, D., Vanraepenbusch, K., Van Ypersele, L., Wallis, J., Winter, C. and Wouters, N. (2017) Commemoration reframed: conceptualising commemoration from the perspective of experience. Available online at: www.commemorationreframed.com.