A History of the Emergence and Phenomenal Success of Memory as a Discursive-Frame

Building 460, Room 429
  • Istvan Rev

The subject of the lecture is the emergence of memory-life. I consider the early 1980s to effectively bring the twentieth century to a close. In this time of the collapse of Communism it became obvious that the Utopian experiments, based on continuous, deep state intervention on the macro-sphere, could no longer be sustained. Memory as a discursive frame became available and readily usable for anybody, for millions of people, who lost their future because they lost their past, both in the East and West, and especially in East and Central Europe. By making use of the readily available Memory frame, they managed to find a past under a new description. Memory has emerged as a tool with which to reimagine and represent both individual and collective identity. Instead of analyzing notions of individual or collective memory, I will focus my talk on the emergence of Memory as a discursive and existential frame. I will closely examine the emergence of a specific interactive type, The Survivor, The Living Memorial, who considers it as his or her obligation to bear witness to his or her refashioned, newly found past.


Professor Rev begins by explaining that the 20th century had led to the emergence of the science of memory. Prof. Rev shows how there is an unfortunate and unnecessary line between history and memory when in fact they should complement each other. Aiming to survey the public discourse from the mid-1980s , Prof. Rev begins his story at a time where the after effect of the Vietnam War was deeply pitted in the American psyche, there was serious alarm at the high incidents of child abuse, and fundamental critiques were being made of the typical bourgeois family. He discusses the crucial notion of trauma through the example of the work of Catherine MacKinnon in trying to associate mass rape during the Balkans conflict of the 1990s as genocide due to its attacks on sex and ethnicity. Prof. Rev also explains the intense discussions of the trauma in the section on mass rape of the U.N. archives on humanitarian violence in former Yugoslavia. To Prof. Rev, this along with other historical factors, such as the outbreak of hysteria in France in the 1970s, led to a new kind of memory born from the previously unrecognizable state called trauma and the previously unknown kind of forgetting called repression.

Prof. Rev explores how memories of atrocities are closely connected with traumatic silence, as well as the theory of how trauma can be passed onto others by listening, making trauma an intergenerational experience. The significance of such transmission has led to a belief that the history of events such as the Holocaust is better experienced than understood. Prof. Rev also examines how such historical events really came to light once communism had fallen, and there was a ready made discursive frame for the past to be made sense of. The significance of memory, in particular in Eastern Europe, was that memory was a tool of unmediated access to the past or a source of authenticity after decades of censored, centrally written history. Consequently, issues such as the Holocaust departed from being shameful taboos to a respected identity for the Jewish people. Prof. Rev explains how through memory such an identity could really be formed.

Prof. Rev also analyzes how the fall of the Soviet Union led the liberation of memories through key works such as Alice Miller’s ‘Breaking Down the Wall of Silence.’ Miller links difficult childhoods to the acts of great tyrants such as Hitler and Stalin. Prof. Rev reveals how a tough childhood stunts the growth disabling one reach the full human capacity of being able to feel inclinations such as compassion. He links this with the work of Jeffrey Mason, archivist for Freud’s archives, who emphasized that sexual, physical, and emotional violence is a tragic part of the lives of many children. Mason’s book played a serious role in the recovered memory movement. Prof. Rev brings this all together by expressing that, to him, the Holocaust is a symptom as well as a cause of repressed memories of child abuse.

In a lengthy question-and-answer session, Prof. Rev and the audience raise of a number of points. For example, Prof. Rev further explores the concept of inherited or transgenerational memory. In addition, he reiterates his concern about the clash between historians and memory scientists. Another notable point Prof. Rev addressed among a variety of others was the history of the status accorded to victims and the fraudulent behavior that may be caused by this phenomenon.

About the speaker

Istvan Rev is Professor of History and Political Science at the Central European University, Budapest, where he is also the Academic Director of the Open Society Archive. He has been a visiting faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley on several occasions. Since the early 1980s, Rev has published widely on the political cultural, and architectural history of Hungary and other Eastern bloc countries. He is the author of "Retroactive Justice" (Stanford University Press, 2005). He edited the special issue of Representations on "Monumental Histories"(1991).

Sponsored by Contemporary History and the Future of Memory, a project of the DLCL Research Unit co-sponsored by the Forum on Contemporary Europe.