Position Papers

Commemoration reframed: Conceptualising commemoration from the perspective of experience

By October 5, 2017 No Comments

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.

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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.