Memory and Economy

Cultural memory is forged by making things, moving things and maintaining things – mediation, manufacture, memorialisation. These activities are not carried out in abstraction from capitalism. The cultural production of memory depends increasingly upon the social organisation of labour and natural resources. To date memory studies has largely ignored issues relating to political economy in favour of speculative sociological and psychological concepts. Consequently, the rush to explain the digital turn in memory studies has been dominated by the familiar, anti-materialist, rhetoric of “the symbolic” and “the collective”. However, the spectre haunting two twentieth-century “memory booms” and the present boom in connectivity is an unsustainable intensification of immaterial, precarious and forced labour, economic processing zones, intellectual property, and exploitation and further enclosure of common natural resources. Memory studies lacks a critical discussion of the material production of storage devices, memorials, memorabelia, and commemorative objects.

Yet the canon of memory studies is littered with explicit references to political economy. In his seminal article Kurwin Lee Klein introduces the reader to the “memory industry” that he explains ‘ranges from the museum trade to the legal battles over repressed memory and on to the market for academic books and articles that invoke memory as a key word’ (2000: 127). Avishai Margalit argues that ‘shared memory depends not just on a network of people and organizations to carry out the division of mnemonic labor but also on the remembered items themselves belonging to coherent networks’ (2002: 79). Jay Winter points out that the “crucial defining feature of sites of memory: They cost money and time to construct or preserve. They require specialists’ services – landscapers, cleaners, masons, carpenters, plumbers, and so on” (2008: 65). In Brian Conway’s sociology of Bloody Sunday commemorations he argues that commemoration is “work”, and in particular is contingent upon the work of “memory choreographers”. Alison Lansberg’s understanding of “prosthetic memory” emphasised what she calls the ‘exchangeability’ of memory once memory became composite in the mass consumption of the culture industry. Despite these remarks, attention to political economy in memory studies remains predominantly at the level of analogy.


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