Collective Memory and the Media

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I. Introduction

II. Increasing Relevance of the Field of Research

III. Media Production

IV. Flashbulb Memories

I. Introduction

Memory, according to the Greeks, is the precondition of human thought (Samuel 1994). For psychologists, memory is also seen as a fundamental condition of consciousness. Not surprisingly, psychologists have constructed a variety of complex models of individual memory. However, memories also require distinct social and communicative frameworks, patterned ways of framing the flow of remembered actions, images, sounds, smells, sensations, and impressions. Without social frameworks to anchor and sustain memories, they would soon falter and fade. This idea is central to the contribution of the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1877–1945) who advanced the study of memory beyond the individual and the interests of psychology at the time through his notion of “collective memory.” He believed that for individual memory to thrive it was reliant upon continuous support from “frameworks of social memory” (1992, 182).

II. Increasing Relevance of the Field of Research

Memory is almost by definition part of the past, of course, yet in significant ways it is a central resource for making sense of the present and thus for extending the continuous present out to edges of the personal and collective horizons of time/space. An increasingly “presentist” perspective on memory is evident over the past thirty years with a growing premium placed on, and contestation of, memory in modern societies. Susan Sontag (2003, 86), for example, argues that the concept of collective memory is misleading, for it “is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the picture that lock the story in our minds.” Public discourses on our past have intensified in response to the renaissance of the heritage/museum industry, the technological, political, and cultural shifts affecting how, what, and why societies remember, and the near-globalization of discourses on the Holocaust (Huyssen 2003). In this context, the concept of collective memory seems an inadequate expression of how individuals and societies remember in the contemporary age.

We now inhabit a new mediatized sphere of memory, in which individual and social memories increasingly intermingle or collide, partly as a result of the technological shifts in the modes of recording, archiving, and representing events. In response, new taxonomies of memory have emerged, particularly in the field of media, communication, and cultural studies, and there is now a critical intellectual mass so that an emergent field of Memory Studies is evident – and a journal of the same name being launched in 2008. These transformations transcend and transform “living memory,” i.e., afford an “experiential” engagement with a past reaching beyond generational memory (this is the case especially with Holocaust and war memory: see Hirsch 1997, Landsberg 2004, and Weissman 2004, on “post,” “prosthetic,” and “fantasy” memories, respectively). And Barbie Zelizer (1998, 6) convincingly demonstrates how the “texture” of visual memory “becomes a facilitator for memory’s endurance” in her study of how images have transformed the remembering of the Holocaust.

The most far reaching, and perhaps least understood, of the new contestations of memory have been ushered in by and through the mass media. The electronic and now digital media have become the ultimate conveyors of the contradictions of contemporary memory: ephemeral, fleeting, and artificial in one sense (e.g., the rapid and continuous circulation of news and images) but also explicit, enduring, and authentic in another (e.g., the potentially depthless storage capacity of archives from which footage can be retrieved and “relived” by new generations for the first time). Thus a key function of the mass media today is the renewal of memory (Hoskins 2007). However, any process of renewal inevitably involves obsolescence, displacement, and discarding; thus the amnesiac effects of the process of renewal of memory are crucial in any understanding of how modern societies in particular come to live with and transform their pasts in and for the present. This importantly involves an understanding of the production processes of the media itself.

III. Media Production

Increasingly central to contemporary debates on collective memory are critiques of the mass media overpowering or condemning human memory, or even negating the need for memory through potentially unlimited and increasingly complex documentation, storage, and instant retrieval and re-assemblage of our past(s). The neurobiologist, Steven Rose (1993), for example, contrasts the memory-keeping of early human societies with the memorial processes of today. In the oral cultures of the former, memories needed to be constantly trained and renewed, with select individuals afforded the considerable responsibility of “retelling” the stories which preserved the common culture. Rose argues that the media of “artificial memory” are said to diminish our capacity to remember in unique and imaginative ways (1993, 61). And, for the influential critic Pierre Nora (1989, 14), the accumulations of mass archives produce a “terrorism of historicized memory.”

These debates concern the nature and possibilities for memory exteriorized through and shaped by a seemingly rampant and particularly visual media. Are the prolific mediated symbols and signs of the past, for instance, sufficient to deliver our continuing relationship with what has gone before, or are these merely a product (and exploitation) of society’s anxiety with a present irretrievably loosened from the bonds of a past? Yet, today’s media-processing of events effect, if not always-fixed “artificial memory” in Rose’s terms, but a constant renewal of the past through the widespread usage of “media templates” (Hoskins 2004; 2007). Templates are the frames, images, and discourses (presumed by news editors and producers to be familiar to their audiences) that are routinely employed as often instantaneous prisms through which current and unfolding events are described, presented, and contextualized. For example, the Blitz (the 1940– 1941 German bombing of London and other major UK cities) was widely employed as a template to frame the immediate coverage of the 2005 London bombings, invoking memory of the “Blitz spirit,” the capacity to carry on with daily life in the face of daily bombing attacks. This included the use of still images and footage, and the living memory of survivors from World War II, in renewed narratives interwoven into news coverage and analysis of the breaking story of London “under attack” in July 2005. The growing media archive thus constitutes a readily available local, national, and global resource of memory which through its highly selective appropriation is self-consciously employed to shape interpretations of the present, as it in turn renews the past.

The media renewal of memory thus affords growing status to the historical functioning of the media and those who come to author and shape its content. So, particularly journalists, photojournalists, and even news anchors, who are increasingly co-present, contemporaneous and connected with the “production” of original events, are to some extent inevitably involved in the production and reproduction of the memory of those events. Thus, the core features of strong individual (and collective) memory: witnessing or experiencing the original event, its retelling and reshaping through repetition, and particularly its visualizing, are all increasingly powerfully constituted by and through the mass media and its personnel in our digital age.

These processes, however, also extend to anyone who is equipped with widely available and highly portable audio/visual recording devices to capture the unfolding of events as they witness them. Recent technological developments have enabled a much greater integration between the role of co-present witnesses and their subsequent testimony – and the emergent digital media. For example, mobile-phone video recordings and photographs taken by public onlookers (who are somehow compelled to stop and record even the most disturbing of scenes) led the global news coverage of the July 2005 London bombings, affording immediacy and proximity to scenes of fear and death that would until relatively recently have remained obscured or unseen. Thus so-called “citizen journalists” enter into the constitution of the media memory of events that they witness and record.

In some instances, the accumulation of audio/visual records of some media events are so intensively and extensively mediated that it becomes difficult to imagine a history of them that is not already-inscribed, archived, and visually imprinted on social memory. For example, there seems little point in being a historian of the attacks on the US of 9/11 when there has already occurred such an explicit media rendering of oral testimony, combined with a seemingly endless archive of audiovisual material. In this way particular frames and images accumulate a granular quality in contemporary memory as they become over-familiar through their repeated exposure and analysis. Images of conflict and catastrophe are particularly vulnerable to this granularity as they enter into the public, political, and media obsession with the cyclical commemorative marking of these events.

IV. Flashbulb Memories

A significant contribution to the study of the relationship between memory and media is made by cognitive psychologists, although, unsurprisingly, they focus on the former at the expense of the latter. This is particularly so in relation to research into how media events are remembered, notably the study of so-called “flashbulb memory” (Brown and Kulik 1977). Some of the earliest photographs of publicly mediated life are associated with the introduction of burning flashbulbs of the 1920s. Flash photographs from this period, as well as carrying the age of the paper on which they are printed, possess a certain frozen quality. The subject was literally flooded indiscriminately with very powerful light, momentarily illuminating the detail of everything within range in the frame. The term flashbulb memory thus describes human memory that can apparently be recalled very vividly and in great detail, as though reproduced directly from the original experience.

In this way, such memories are said to possess a photographic quality, owing to the apparent clarity of the reproduction of the image in the mind’s eye. A pioneering example of work on flashbulb memory is the Emory Cognition Project which examined the relation between memory and affect in recollections of the US Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986 (see Winograd and Neisser 1992). Neisser and Harsch (2000) found a shift to “TV priority” in some of their student-respondent recollections of this event two years after its widespread media coverage. In other words, even for the individuals who had not first learnt of this catastrophe via television, some later misremembered the medium as being their original source, suggesting an accumulative influence of the ubiquitous and repetitive televisual image and analysis (and public and private discourses thereon) on human memory.

Although it never exists within a vacuum of personal or collective history, it is the still visual image that is central to the idea of flashbulb memory in its apparent capacity to rest memory in a single moment and in a single form that is frozen, fixed, and stopped in time. And thus, it is precisely because we inhabit an image-saturated environment, with its much greater explicit rendering and contestation of established past, emerging past, and newly captured images, that has raised the stakes of flashbulb memory significantly, beyond explanations of the accuracy or otherwise of this phenomenon.


  1. Brown, Roger, & Kulik, James (1977). Flashbulb memories. Cognition, 5, 73–99.
  2. Conway, M. A. (1994). Flashbulb memories. Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  3. Edgerton, G. R., & Rollins, P. C. (eds.) (2001). Television histories: Shaping collective memory in the media age. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
  4. Halbwachs, M. (1992). On collective memory (trans. Lewis A. Coser). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  5. Hirsch, M. (1997). Family frames: Photography, narrative and postmemory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. Hoskins, A. (2004). Televising war: From Vietnam to Iraq. London: Continuum.
  7. Hoskins, A. (2007). Media and memory. London: Routledge.
  8. Huyssen, A. (2003). Present pasts: Urban palimpsests and the politics of memory. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  9. Landsberg, A. (2004). Prosthetic memory: The transformation of American remembrance in the age of mass culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
  10. Neisser, U., & Harsch, N. (2000). Phantom flashbulbs. In U. Neisser & I. E. Hyman (eds.), Memory observed: Remembering in natural contexts, 2nd edn. New York: Worth, pp. 75–89.
  11. Nora, P. (1989). Between memory and history: Les Lieux de Memoire. Representations, 7–25.
  12. Rose, S. (1993). The making of memory: From molecules to mind. London: Bantam.
  13. Samuel, R. (1994). Theatres of memory, vol. I: Past and present in contemporary culture. London: Verso.
  14. Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  15. Sturken, M. (1997). Tangled memories: The Vietnam war, the AIDS epidemic, and the politics of remembering. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  16. Weissman, G. (2004). Fantasies of witnessing: Postwar efforts to experience the Holocaust. New York: Cornell University Press.
  17. Winograd, E., & Neisser, U. (eds.) (1992). Affect and accuracy in recall: Studies of “flashbulb” memories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  18. Zelizer, B. (1998). Remembering to forget: Holocaust memory through the camera’s eye. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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