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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Professor Alejandro Baer delivers enlightening presentation on the role of human rights discourse in the shaping of collective memory

alejandro-baer.jpgOn Thursday, February 20th, University of Minnesota professor Alejandro Baer gave an enlightening lecture on his research on social memory, its cultural representations and its consequences. As the Director for the Center of Holocaust and Genocide Studies and as an Associate Professor in the department of Sociology, Baer is interested in identifying the culture of memory, looking at mass violence from different perspectives, and examining human rights within a sociological context. Continuing the theme of this spring's lecture series called "Reframing Mass Violence," Thursday's event was titled, "The Collective Memory of Mass Atrocities: Traveling Ghosts of the Holocaust."

Baer began his lecture by introducing the concept of "collective memory" as illuminated in the theories of sociologists Emile Durkheim and Maurice Halbwachs. Durkheim defined social memory as a real or imagined link to the past that creates unity within a society. The first to establish the term "collective memory," Halbwachs expanded Durkheim's theory by arguing that memory is shaped by the needs of the present and that individual memory is also shaped by collective memory. According to Halbwachs, shared memory cannot exist outside of the group framework. However, Baer countered that in the global age when people no longer define themselves strictly within these groups of society, new approaches to collective memory have emerged. Highlighting the works of contemporary sociologists, Baer explained how the theories of cosmopolitan memory, multidirectional memory, postmemory, and cultural trauma show how collective memory in the global age has been revisited and reinterpreted beyond the group context through the narrative of human rights, with the Holocaust as the quintessential example of this phenomenon. One such example is The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age, in which Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider discuss the ways that the Holocaust has been remembered in the age of globalization, as it transcends the group framework and adopts universal narratives of human rights, tolerance, and other cosmopolitan norms. Similarly, Michael Rothberg argues in Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization that the memory of the Holocaust has become a platform for articulating the interactive relationship between the global and the local that generates transnational symbols like human rights, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Other research that Baer referenced on this subject include The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust by Marianne Hirsch and Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Neil J. Smelser, and Bernhard Giesen.
According to Baer, these new approaches to collective memory are tools to help us see human rights as a form of memory. He used the example of transitional justice in Spain, as there is a movement today among younger generations to reframe the mass violence of Francisco Franco's dictatorship in the 1930s-1940s from a narrative of civil war to one of genocide and crimes against humanity. Rather than attempting to rewrite history, the postmemory generation in Spain is inverting the previous narrative in hopes of finally gaining closure through truth and justice. However, Baer argues that there is an analytical price we pay for memory as we simplify at the expense of history and when we transform the narrative from agency to victimhood. Collective remembering and collective forgetting are part of the same process, constructing a selective memory that often forgets the political history of a conflict. In the case of Spain and other related mass atrocities, the fact of a civil war does not excuse human rights, but in embracing a human rights memory regime, history often gets blurred in the process. As Baer ended his lecture, he emphasized that there is no such thing as one truth, there are different forms of justice, and there are innumerable memories, and it is therefore worth exploring how a human rights discourse shapes our understanding of events and what the consequences are of these collective memory narratives.
Written by Kailey Mrosak