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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Texts of Memory and Texts of History

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Starting with the observation that the terms “memory” and “history” are used almost interchangeably in everyday discourse and professional academic discussion, I argue that they can and should be distinguished. Drawing on longstanding debates about nations and nationalism, it is possible to trace the roots of this distinction and see how it has taken on new significance in contemporary memory studies. I outline a few assumptions about humans as meaning makers, users of cultural tools, and “cognitive misers” and then turn to oppositions that have been drawn between collective memory and formal history. These concern the degree of subjectivity or objectivity involved, the source of authority for narrative tools, and the willingness to sacrifice evidence to preserve a narrative account about the past or vice versa. In order to translate these oppositions into more concrete means for discussing memory and history, I introduce a distinction between “specific narratives” and “narrative templates,” and I examine the source of “ethnocentric narcissism” that characterizes memory to a greater degree than history. Insight into this issue can be derived from drawing out William James’s comments on the “me-ness” of individual human memory to examine the “us-ness” of collective memory.

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