Tag Archives: Maurice Halbwachs

The Memory Mavens, Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance (2)

This is the second section of Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance. In the previous post, I tried to explain how modern Memory Mavens often read Maurice Halbwachs selectively. For example, Barry Schwartz (see Part 3) and Anthony Le Donne (see Part 5.1) inexplicably failed to read the earlier chapters of The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land: A Study of Collective Memory (La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective).

In a similar fashion, some modern authors seem all too ready to conflate Halbwachs’s generalized treatment of the “localization” of memory with his specific discussions about locations, places, etc. To be fair, we might argue that part of the problem is Halbwachs’s use of the term.

Localizing individual memories in social frameworks

Couverture du livre de Maurice Halbwachs, Les ...

Couverture du livre de Maurice Halbwachs, Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire, 2 édition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So let’s try to be clear from the start. In his 1925 work, Les cadres sociaux de la memoire, partially translated in On Collective Memory (see Chapter 3, “The Localization of Memory”), he explains that recent individual memories “hang together” only if we can place them within an overall framework. That is, they make sense to us when “they are part of a totality of thoughts common to a group.” He writes:

To recall them it is hence sufficient that we place ourselves in the perspective of this group, that we adopt its interests and follow the slant of its reflections. Exactly the same process occurs when we attempt to localize older memories. We have to place them within a totality of memories common to other groups, groups that are narrower and more lasting, such as our family. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 52, emphasis mine)

In its first iteration, then, localization in general refers to two things: (1) the placement of individuals within the perspective of a group and (2) the placement of individual memories within the larger framework of group memories. Hence, for Halbwachs, we cannot understand how memory works unless we take into account the associations between individual recollections and the group or groups to which that individual belongs.

We can understand each memory as it occurs in individual thought only if we locate each within the thought of the corresponding group. We cannot properly understand their relative strength and the ways in which they combine within individual thought unless we connect the individual to the various groups of which he is simultaneously a member. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 53, emphasis mine)

Conceptual localization vs. geographical localization

Clearly, Halbwachs is not talking about geographical places here, but “locations” within conceptual, sociological frameworks. However, it’s easy to conflate the two ideas by mistake, which Elizabeth Castelli does in Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making:   read more »

A Tribute to Maurice Halbwachs

Maurice Halbwachs

Maurice Halbwachs, French Sociologist, 1877-1945

In a recent post on memory theory, I erroneously stated that of The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land: A Study of Collective Memory (La topographie legendaire des evangiles en terre sainte: Etude de memoire collective) was published posthumously in 1941. In actuality, Halbwachs died 70 years ago on this date in 1945, in the German death camp called Buchenwald. His health had failed, and he did not survive to see the Allies free the camp just 19 days later on 4 April.

And sadly, that date as posted on Wikipedia — 16 March — is probably not correct. According to The American Journal of Sociology (see Vol. LI, No. 6), it happened back in February, and that may be right. On the other hand, the official death report from the Buchenwald archives (transcribed here) says it happened on the 15th of March.

On the day he died, his one-time student, Jorge Semprún, had the terrible job of erasing the memory of Maurice Halbwachs, his friend and teacher. At the camp office, he explained the ritual that represented the annihilation of a person. read more »

The Memory Mavens, Part 5: Rituals and Remembrance (1)

The Historiographical Jesus

The Historiographical Jesus

Earlier this month on The Jesus Blog, Anthony Le Donne, one of the main Memory Mavens, let us know that he had publicly posted a chapter of his monograph, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David. (You can, incidentally, read the original version of Le Donne’s thesis at the Durham University web site.) While I expect to have more to say about Le Donne’s book in a later post in this series, for the time being I would like to focus on three criticisms he has about Maurice Halbwachs‘s study of the sacred sites of Palestine.

Before going further, we should note that Halbwachs’ study was seriously deficient in several ways. The first is that he relied heavily upon the account by pilgrims of Bordeaux and neglected any part that Constantine played in the localization of holy sites.[14] Also, he inexplicably presupposed that the Synoptic Gospels took written form in the second century and perhaps over a century after the events to which they attest.[15] This poorly defended position was foundational to Halbwachs’ conclusion that the Gospels are mostly invented and fictive in nature.[16] Halbwachs also misrepresented (and oversimplified) the relationship between Jewish and Christian religious belief.

[14] Eusebius, Vita Constantine, 2.46; 3.30–32. Constantine’s wife Helena is also reputed to have traveled to Bethlehem and Jerusalem to establish monuments at the place of Jesus’ birth and at the Mount of Olives. See H. Lietzmann, From Constantine to Julian: A History of the Church, vol. 3 (London: Lutterworth, 1950), 147.

[15] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 209.

[16] Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 213.

(Le Donne, 2009, p. 44, emphasis mine)

Constantine’s . . . er . . . wife?

Before continuing, we ought to address the elephant in the room. Seriously? Constantine’s wife? Helena was, of course, the mother of Constantine. How is it possible that “the first book-length treatment of Social Memory for historical Jesus research” managed to undergo intense scrutiny from a PhD examination board, extensive peer review, editing by a major publishing house, glowing reviews from scholars around the world — all without noticing this strange little error?  read more »

The Memory Mavens, Part 4: The Analytical Power of Failure

Another lifetime ago, back when I was a U.S. Air Force field training detachment commander, one of our instructors came into my office with a worried look. He told me he had been teaching basic circuitry to a group of enlisted students. “Lieutenant,” he asked, “when you were in school what did they teach you about the flow of electricity? That it goes from the negative terminal to the positive, right?”

When I agreed, he continued, “Well, I’ve got this squid in my class, and he said in the Navy they taught him it goes from positive to negative!” He was flummoxed. (At the time our detachment on Beale AFB was the only certified DoD training facility from Sacramento up through Oregon, so we often played host to reservists and military members from other branches.)

I said, “But the math works both ways, right? I mean in circuit models it doesn’t really matter.” He found the whole thing terribly unsettling. It was as if I’d told him up was down and down was up.

Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.

— George E. P. Box

George E.P. Box

Statistician George E. P. Box (1919-2013)

All models are wrong

Often while trying to understand how processes work, we build representational, mental constructs or “models” to help us understand them better. These models don’t correspond identically to the real world; instead, they’re subsets of the world — small enough to fit inside our brains. Our models of simple electronics are like that.

What can we can learn from our little story above? First, the fact that we can swap logical current flow in a circuit diagram and still make it “work” (for our purposes) might suggest that our model doesn’t fully correspond with reality. It’s just a representational subset, after all. It’s fiction. But that’s all right, as long as our model gives us the answers we need.

Sometimes a model we know is wrong around the edges can still serve us adequately in general circumstances. We’ve refined the standard model of gravitation quite a bit since Newton’s day. However, if our only task is to launch a projectile at a castle wall, then the older, simpler model will probably suffice. On the other hand, if we want to launch and maintain an array of geosynchronous satellites for precise global positioning, we’re going to have to take into account the effects of relativity — trading in Newton for Einstein, so to speak.

Whenever we use a scientific or mathematical model to help us make real-world predictions, we need to be aware of its limits. We need to know the range of conditions within which it works reliably. And we need to know whether and how its performance degrades as it approaches those limits.

Actually, we can apply that last lesson to the real world, too. That’s why car manufacturers slam their vehicles into walls. We can’t fully understand a system’s range of acceptable behavior until we find the points at which it fails. Moreover, we can learn a great deal from discovering where and how a system begins to degrade. We don’t smash cars because we want their safety systems to fail; we do it to find out where those failure points are. read more »

The Memory Mavens, Part 1: A Brief Introduction to Memory Theory

Maurice Halbwachs

Maurice Halbwachs, French Philosopher and Sociologist, 1877-1945

A muddle of mavens

For several months now, I’ve been poring over works written by a contingent of New Testament scholars who I like to call the Memory Mavens. This group claims that “memory theory” offers new perspectives on Jesus traditions and provides new insights on how those traditions eventually found their way into the written gospels. Some of the best-known authors in this subfield include Alan Kirk, Tom Thatcher, Anthony Le Donne, and Chris Keith. In this introduction we’ll examine some of the basic ideas in memory theory, while attempting to nail down some definitions and core concepts.

Unfortunately, the often imprecise and confusing language in use under the umbrella of “memory,” tends to impede our understanding. Much of the ambiguity in terminology stems from the broad range of meanings that encompass the English word “memory,” which can refer to a personal recollection, the human faculty or ability to remember, a commemorated event, or a given period of time in which things are remembered. But the addition of psychological and sociological layers aggravates the problem, especially when people simply use the word “memory” without clear context or antecedent.

If you search for works on memory, you will find countless examples of self-help books whose authors promise to improve your recollection of names, numbers, events, and anything else you want to remember. On a somber note, you will also find many books discussing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Generally speaking, when most people hear the term “memory theory,” they think of the faculty of (individual) human memory or the physiological and psychological aspects of personal recollection.

The constructed past

“A specialised area of research is ‘collective memory’, which is the notion that people remember together with other people and that memory is constructed in, by and for a social group. Collective memory in relation to smaller groups is sometimes called ‘social memory’, whereas, in relation to whole cultures, it tends to be called ‘cultural memory’. Both types of collective memory include ‘memory sites’ such as works of art, ritual acts, symbols, celebrations, memorials, libraries, writings and much more, all of which reinforce the collective identity of a people.” (Duling, 2011, p.1)

However, when the Memory Mavens talk about “memory,” they usually mean collective memory. In the 1920s, sociologist Maurice Halbwachs observed that we do not remember the past independently, but within groups, and that we understand and interpret all memories, even those we experience directly, within social frameworks. Hence, we have no access to the direct past; we see only the interpretation of the past as it is shaped by present circumstances.

Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory may at first seem paradoxical. It changes our focus from the past to the present, while it diminishes the role of the individual in favor of the group. The past, then, is not so much retrieved from our personal recollections, but rather constructed in the present by means of our current social frameworks.

[T]he collective frameworks of memory are not constructed after the fact by the combination of individual recollections; nor are they empty forms where recollections coming from elsewhere would insert themselves. Collective frameworks are, to the contrary, precisely the instruments used by the collective memory to reconstruct an image of the past which is in accord, in each epoch, with the predominant thoughts of the society. (Halbwachs, 1992, p. 40)

Taken to the extreme, collective memory theory erases the past, replacing it with the present, and equates tradition history with fiction, leaving us nothing but mere constructed stories. As a result we see scholars periodically chastising “presentist,” “constructivist” sociologists for being too skeptical. For example, Jan Vansina wrote:

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