What about the ethics of memory?
Looking at the debate that has ensued thus far it seems important to make a distinction between personal memory and collective memory. As I wrote in an article for Critical Military Studies, one should be careful with conflating what an individual remembers with what a community, or nation, remembers. For Avishai Margalit, in The Ethics of Memory, collective memory is “shared memory” with the “we” as collective or communal, not a simple aggregate of individual memories, but built instead on a division of mnemonic labor. This shared memory travels from person to person through institutions (archives) and communal mnemonic devices (monuments) (Margalit, 56).
Remembrance is an act symbolic exchange. With this distinction, we needn’t worry as much about memory as such, or about who is speaking for whom, but rather what ethical engagements follow from remembering together. This remembering can be less about “exercising sovereign power” as Jordan writes and more about the experiences we share as a community and what this means for our actions in the future.
In fact, these shared memories can produce an obligation on a community beyond sovereign control; each of us has a responsibility to keep memories alive, but all shoulder this burden in some way. This, in turn, makes shared memory’s relationship to morality and action different from that which stems from individual memory. This is memory that is based on keeping promises to generations that preceded and those that will follow. Memorialization and monuments can fulfill this ethical call, and have in many cases. It is when nation building and state politics try to control this process and dictate what a people should remember that ethical engagement tends to fall away.
Collective memory must be a relationship to the future; it must be a promise to the future. In this, monuments are less about what happened and more about where we are going. As Margalit writes “the memory that we need to keep our promises and follow through on our plans is this kind of prospective memory…to remember is to know and to know is to believe” (Margalit, 14).
This can be about deploying policy decisions, but it can also mean one policy might be followed rather than another based on what we are allowed to remember together. This makes Jordan’s MAI productive, but what ethics that follow from that productivity are unclear and must be understood contextually.