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This Issue: Collective Memory and Cultural Amnesia
Our society is obsessed with the short-term present. It devalues
memories and the past. That’s the nature of capitalism, especially the
speeded-up hypercapitalism of today. The past is useless: profits are
made by getting rid of the old and replacing it with something new.
Certainly this applies to commodities, which, as Marx taught us, are
both the incarnation of value under capitalism, as well as the
embodiment of capitalist values. Commodities (whether or not they take a
physical form) have to be destroyed or made obsolete so that new
commodities can be sold.
The need to eclipse the past also applies to ways of living. For the
sake of increased profits, steady jobs have to be eliminated and
replaced with precarious work. Unions have to be ground down and where
possible destroyed. Farmers practising traditional agriculture have to
give way to industrial farming, or be forced off their land. Culture has
to be packaged as a product so it can be bought and sold.
This ceaseless enterprise of social engineering works best if people
can be made to forget that things once were different. Collective
memories of unionized jobs with benefits, air you could breathe and
water you could drink without being poisoned, times when you could live
your life without being spied on by the government and the corporations –
such memories are dangerous. It’s best if people forget that such
things ever existed.
Even more dangerous are collective memories of resistance – times
when people got together, and fought for their rights, sometimes
winning, sometimes losing. The very idea that things were different in
the past, and could be different in the future, is perilous because it
gives people dangerous ideas.
Official society, including the mainstream media, busily carry on
their daily work of fostering social amnesia, focusing on the present
and the trivial, while erasing the past by misrepresentation or neglect.
Certainly neither media nor governments have any interest in having
people remember the lies that were used to justify past wars and past
crimes. Recycled lies (including promises of a better future) work best
if people don’t remember how often the same false tales have been told
in the past.
But there are those who do remember, and who work to preserve and
share our collective memory. They do their work for different reasons,
in different places.
Sometimes the impulse is nationalist or even racist. Those who live
on conquered or stolen land rarely care to remember much about how the
land came to be theirs. They prefer collective myth to collective
But they have to contend with the collective memories of those who
were displaced. From Canada to Palestine, from South Sudan to Burma,
people are working to document their stories and bring them to the
attention of the world. In such instances, and others, the burning
impulse is truth: to tell what happened to us.
Other initiatives and projects – Connexions itself is an example –
see historical memory as a way of contributing to the struggle for a
different world. For us, knowledge of history is subversive, and
remembering can be a form of resistance. To understand how we can change
society, we have to understand it. That means understanding where it –
where we – came from.
When we know and understand more about those who came before us
lived and fought, we can gain a deeper understanding of how we can best
live and fight.
In this issue of Other Voices, we share some stories about people’s
struggles to use collective memory as a form of resistance and a tool
for creating a better world.
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Collective Memory refers to the things that form the shared historical
memory of a society or social group. Like any aspect of a culture, it
changes through time, and varies according which group is doing the
remembering. It is always contested terrain.
On the Connexions website, you will find many histories, with the
predominant emphasis on people’s history: people from below. You will
also find many accounts of people struggling to preserve and recover
their history. Explore the Collective Memory page in the Connexions
Subject Index here
Bhopal's Fight for Memory
In December, 1984, unknown poisonous gases burst out from a Union
Carbide pesticide plant located in a vicinity of the city of Bhopal in
central India. The plant was not maintained adequately, and had already
seen prior deaths from exposure to toxic leaks. Over 5000 persons from
the area immediately adjacent to the factory died in the 72 hours
following the gas “leak,” and over 20,000 persons died subsequently as a
result of severe health complications from the toxic air. More than
600,000 persons continue to suffer severe health problems and physical
deformities. Dow Chemical, which subsequently acquired Union Carbide
Company, denies liability for damages.
According to Nityanand Jayaraman, the struggle in Bhopal
underscores the importance of memory as a weapon or tool to get justice
and to hold corporations and the government accountable. The government
wants Bhopal to be forgotten, and the one thing that the Bhopalis know
is that they need to fight for memory of Bhopal.
The fight is to keep the memory alive, not only through holding
the anniversary but by having significant victories and defeats and
ongoing struggles as the subject of each anniversary. It is a
stock-taking effort, and also an invitation for people to come to Bhopal
to witness the rehabilitation work and the struggle, to see the
strengths and the fatigue, and to see firsthand the extent of damage
that has been caused by one corporation's pursuit of profit.
Keywords: Corporate Crime - Disasters
A Century Later, Namibia Demands Justice From Germany for Its First Holocaust
Between 1904 and 1908, German colonialists committed a
holocaust against the Herero and the Nama, exterminating as many as
65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama.
Afterwards, the German perspective viewing the genocide as
an heroic colonial war against ‘savages’ literally dominated the
memorial landscape as the former colony was inundated with monuments and
street names commemorating the German war effort. Descendants of the
victims have struggled to keep the memory of the genocide alive, both by
commemorative events and oral tradition.
Read more here and here too
Keywords: Genocide - Namibia
Sherpur: big sacrifice, short memory
Rural Indians were both the foot soldiers of freedom and the
leaders of some of the greatest anti-colonial uprisings ever seen.
Countless thousands of them sacrificed their lives to rid India of
British rule. And many who lived through great suffering to see a free
India were mostly forgotten soon after. From the 1990s onwards,
journalist P. Sainath, the founder of the People’s Archive of Rural
India, recorded the lives of some of the last living freedom fighters.
Keywords: India/Independence Movement - Oral History
Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen
The MUPI is a foundation dedicated to the investigation,
preservation, and dissemination of the historical and cultural heritage
of El Salvador. The MUPI permanently accompanies indigenous and peasant
communities in their process to document their historical memory, and
organizes youth workshops on themes such as memory and human rights.
After the Civil War (1980-1992) and with the signing of the
Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992, journalist Carlos Henríquez Consalvi
(also known as 'Santiago'), directed a team initiative to rescue diverse
archives and audio files on social movements. This conservation effort
has been extended since to include diverse themes regarding Salvadoran
culture, identity, and history
Find the MUPI here
Keywords: El Salvador - Memory
Journalism, History and War: Sit, Type and Bleed
There are millions of victims throughout the Middle East region,
numerous bereaved families, constant streams of refugees and a human
toll that cannot be understood or expressed through typical media
narration: a gripping headline, couple of quotes and a paragraph or two
by way of providing context. The price is too high for this kind of lazy
journalism. There is too much at stake for journalism not to be
fundamentally redefined by those who are experiencing war, understand
the pulse of the region, fathom the culture and speak the language of
But how much is our journalism today a reflection of this reality? This harrowing, blood-soaked reality?
American author and journalist, Ernest Hemingway, once wrote,
"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and
But modern journalism - at least, the way it is communicated in the
Middle East at the moment - hardly bleeds. Under the guise of false
objectivity, it remains detached, removed from its immediate reality and
is rarely expressive of the seriousness of this difficult transition of
Equally inexcusable, we pay little attention to history as if the
most significant component of our story is the least relevant one.
Keywords: Journalism - Media Coverage/Middle East
The Case for Grassroots Archives
Grassroots archives and citizen-run history projects – archival
collections that are maintained by small non-profit groups and
individuals – fill some of the gaps that mainstream institutional
archives are unable or unwilling to fulfil. Their interests and areas of
specialization are diverse. Among the most active are political
projects which work to preserve the histories of grassroots movements
for social justice and make them accessible to new generations. They
share a belief in the importance of ‘history from below, people’s
history, and work to keep alive memories of resistance and alternative
visions for the future, in the face of a political culture which insists
there are no alternatives to the way things are. Read more
Keywords: People’s History - Left History
Website of the Week
Seeds of Fire
Seeds of Fire is a people’s chronology, organized in a daily
format, which recalls and commemorates events that happened on this day
in history. The focus is on memories of struggle, resistance, and
persistence: people’s history.
Seeds of Fire is compiled by Ulli Diemer, and is featured on the Connexions website. Find it here
Keywords: Collective Memory - Left History - People’s History
Book of the Week
Memory of Fire
By Eduardo Geleano
Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy documents Latin American
history from the earliest days to the late twentieth century. The first
volume, Genesis, begins with the pre-European-contact period and then
goes on to chronicle early encounters and colonizing missions from 1492
to 1700. Relying on translations of first hand accounts, the author
presents the interaction between the old and the new world from several
perspectives. The author's focus sheds light on the inhumane and cruel
policies taken towards the native inhabitants of the Americas in the
guise of Christianity and progress. Several of the documents record the
ethnocentric beliefs of European supremacy regarding the inferiority of
'native' peoples and the impassioned attempts of indigenous peoples to
preserve their roots in the face of dramatic change.
Galeano's work also provides glimpses into the voices of objection to
the treatment of the colonized people, speaking out against the brutal
enslavement and maltreatment of 'savages'. .
Genesis voices stories, accounts and events often forgotten and
overlooked. The format, presented chronologically, reveals a continuing
divide and a "kaleidoscopic" view between those in favour, those opposed
and those ambiguous to the events shaping the Americas. Read more
Keywords: Latin America - History
Film of the Week
Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light)
By Patricio Guzman
Patricio Guzman’s documentary film is a meditation on astronomy, the past, memory, and persistence.
In Chile's Atacama Desert, astronomers search the sky and
explore the origins of the universe. Nearby, a group of women sift
through the sand searching for body parts of loved ones murdered and
dumped in the desert by the Pinochet dictatorship. All of them are, in
their own way, trying to make sense of what happened in the past. Guzman
brings us the voices and recollections of family members and surviving
victims of human rights abuses, as well as the perspectives of
historians, archeologists and astronomers.
Find out more here (Spanish) or here (English)
Keywords: Chile - Memory
Tears of Solidarity
The story of how C.P. Ellis, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and Ann
Atwater, an African American civil rights activist, overcame racial
divisions to forge first, a working relationship, and then a strong
friendship. In the process of working with Atwater, Ellis broke with his
racist past, and became an anti-racist and a union organizer. The
Ellis/Atwater story is extraordinary in that it involves a dramatic
transformation of rare degree. This is part of what makes it so
compelling; it inspires hope that even vehement racists are redeemable.
But there is another reason to find the story compelling: it
demonstrates the principle that the best way to overcome prejudice and
racism is to get people working together, as equals, on common issues.
Keywords: Racism - Transformation
The Nine-Hour Movement: How civil disobedience made unions legal
From today’s strike-first strategy of fast food workers in
America, to the 1965 postal workers wildcat which ushered in public
sector collective bargaining, civil disobedience has long been essential
to breaking through legal barriers imposed on workers. The birth of
Canada's labour movement was during a movement of mass civil
disobedience in attempt to secure the nine hour workday. Read more
Keywords: Civil Disobedience - Labour Organizing
From the Archives
Bogota's bibliophile trash collector who rescues books
Jose Alberto Gutierrez, who lives on a steeply sloping road in the
La Nueva Gloria barrio in the southern reaches of Colombia's sprawling
capital, created a community library and donates books to children,
believing that education can break the cycle of poverty. Jose has become
a conduit connecting book lovers - La Fuerza de las Palabras has
donated reading materials to some 235 schools, institutions and
community libraries across Colombia. In fact, one of their first
contributions was to his neighbourhood's only school, which is down the
road from his house. The school did not have a library until Jose rolled
up. Read more
Keywords: Books - Libraries
Your support is needed to keep Connexions going
All of the work of the Connexions project is done by volunteers, but
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support, as well as expenses related to our ongoing project of
converting printed archival materials into digital formats. You can make
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contact us: Connexions Archive and Library, 812A Bloor Street West,
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This issue was edited by Ulli Diemer.
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Toronto ON M6G 1L9 Canada
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