A human life is defined in large measure by what one remembers of one’s individual past and, by extension, what is forgotten. The same can be said of human collectivities. Our capacity and compulsion to remember and forget may or may not be uniquely human, but it is without a doubt one of the central and defining characteristics of humanity. Perhaps, however, Kundera’s oft-cited statement could do with modification. Is there not power in both constructive and destructive memory? Is not forgetting both a natural and intentional process? That which we choose to remember and that which we consign to oblivion reveals our hopes, fears, nostalgias and our struggle to balance “preferred” and “uncomfortable” narratives.
The relationship between remembering and forgetting operates in many registers, of course, and it implicates a wide array of social, political, cultural and psychological concerns and conditions. History is often regarded as a record of what we remember and what we forget, sometimes actively and sometimes passively, caught in the tension between cultural memory and living memory. Monuments, memorials, and museums focus attention on what we find worthy of remembering, and by extension—and again, both actively and passively—of what we allow or will ourselves to forget. For example, traumatic memory, as with PTSD or other instances of psychic trauma such as false memory syndrome, is often understood as an unrelenting, repetitious remembrance of painful events without the capacity for forgetting—often characterized through the problematic term “closure.”
Legal battles regularly test competing memories of what happened when and where while taking account of what is being forgotten. Aging is fraught and filled with ailments of memory, including Alzheimer’s disease, which challenge our capacity to remember who we are. Digital memory offers no easy solutions as the evolution of technology leaves old formats inaccessible and lost to time. Commemorative landscapes change over time, often in recognition of people and events too long forgotten.
The 2019 Themester topic is a timely one, since during the 2019/2020 academic year, Indiana University will celebrate its Bicentennial. Working with and alongside Bicentennial events, our Themester will explore processes of remembering and forgetting that shape both our personal and social identities.