How we make, keep, and lose memories throughout our life is one of our great skills as human beings, and also something of a mystery. Is what we think of as memory ours individually, or is it based on shared experiences – national, communal, familial, and with peers? Also far from decided is how much memories are made and put at risk by biological processes in the brain, and how much by the verbal, visual, and experiential inputs that we call daily life. These questions have broad cultural impact as well as their personal presence in each individual’s life. The reliability of traumatic memories became a scene for national debate in the US in 2018 during Supreme Court confirmation hearings, for example, and disputes of whose memories count in creating collective memory and identity have long been part of public debate in and beyond the US.
This course explores individual as well as collective memory as a contested and potentially highly fraught aspect of human life. We will read memoirs by superb writers (Tracy K. Smith, Maggie Nelson, Lucy Grealy, Jamaica Kincaid, Vladimir Nabokov) and study memorial sites, monuments, and public events that seek to fix shared memories (examples to be drawn from memorial sites on the Harvard campus; the battlefield at Gettysburg; the World Trade Center site; and, in Washington, DC, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Vietnam Memorial, and the Holocaust Museum). We will analyze violent experiences that resist efforts to turn them into memory (sexual assault, the Gulag and the concentration camps, and war), study some examples of work to recover lost memories, and conduct our own memory-creating and memory-gathering activities, including interviews with residents in the Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Allston and with each other. Throughout, our goal will be to study how memories are made, retrieved, lost, trusted, mistrusted, and valued. How do memories make us who we are – as individuals, and as members of communities?
Our course will thus investigate how we are all in the process of making and losing memories every day, and also how the memories we have or think we have give us our sense of identity both personally and as part of groups. And what exactly is the relationship between memory and identity? Do we need, for instance, a firm, clear sense of who we are in order to make new memories? Or do the memories themselves constitute our identities as they are being formed? What does the loss of memory in traumatic brain injury or dementia tell or teach us about memory and identity?