Memory and Theory Conference

  • July 4-5, 2011 (Cambridge)

July’s first week was thoroughly conference-themed. It all started on Monday with a two-day conference entitled Memory and Theory in Eastern Europe, taking place at King’s College, Cambridge. This specialized event attracted some serious heavy-weights of memory theory, as well as a whole set of experts who work in memory studies. The two-page program of speakers can be found here.

For the newer generation of memory scholars, this was a valuable opportunity to hear what our senior colleagues had to say. Rather than trying to offer a comprehensive academic overview of all presentations – a task assumed by another colleague this time – I’d like to blog about some of the things that left an impression on me. And among these was a strong realization of how incomplete our verbal arsenal remains, despite our best efforts.

I was struck, for instance, by how often the concept of nostalgia came up in talks and discussions. Yet our use of this term arguably exceeded its Merriam-Webster definition – ‘a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition’. In my experience, the actual ‘return to or of’ isn’t always a part of the longing encountered. This was most clearly visible in a presentation by Harriet Murav, who described one artist’s nostalgia for the military bombardments of her childhood. The presenter expressed interest and surprise that one could be nostalgic for such things. When I caught myself not being at all surprised by the artist’s words, I realized we may be using the same term to designate some very different inner aches.

This isn’t the first time I hear the label ‘nostalgia’ applied to an unnamed yearning simply because we don’t have too many alternative words to tackle the nuances of what else that yearning could entail. I myself have engaged in debates about Yugo- (in relation to former Yugoslavia) and Soviet-nostalgia, and in doing so, felt the limitations of the available concepts. If one misses, cherishes, or simply appreciates a certain aspect of a given past, but would never want that past (or even that aspect) to actually return, is this still nostalgia? Selective nostalgia? Temporal, spatial or conceptual nostalgia? This label carries a load of connotations, many of them quite critical, and yet it hardly begins to reflect the complexities of a range of possible feelings about the past. The only time I’ve been truly content with the use of this word was in its role as title of Tarkovsky’s masterpiece.

Beyond these contemplations, of course, it was wonderful to see some old friends at Cambridge once more. Natan Sznaider dropped by from Tel-Aviv, Andriy Portnov from Kiev, Nancy Condee from Pittsburg, for instance. Somehow, these and other colleagues’ re-gathering lent a sense of closure to my first doctoral year. No less enjoyable were the new acquaintances. Among these, it was particularly nice to meet MAW’s next set of doctoral students, due to start this coming October – Molly, who will be working on memory in theatre productions, and Tom, who will be working on dissident memory. Both of these topics hold a special place among my interests, and I look forward to watching them develop.




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