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Commemoration

What do we remember when we remember together?

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Commemorate:

transitive verb

1. To call to remembrance

2. To mark by some ceremony or observation: observe <commemorate an anniversary>

3. To serve as a memorial of <a plaque that commemorates the battle>


September 11 was destined to become an occasion of annual remembrance. What ten years of deliberate recollection has yielded is a familiar phenomenon for social scientists: a memory that is distinguished by being external to any individual; that is experienced as something shared by a collective; a memory that joins us socially rather than dividing us by our distinct experiences.

What we know about the embodied production of memory is that we do not, strictly speaking, either reconstruct or simply replay impressions formed at the moment. When I try to remember my own experience on September 11, 2001, I piece things back together, rehearsing what I think happened. I was beginning a year on sabbatical at the Center for Advanced Study in the Social and Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, California. That day was, as I remember it, the first day of the residency.

But that part of my memory is absolutely not true, although it feels true. September 11 was a Tuesday; my residency began on Monday. Nonetheless, I have no memory of what happened on Monday. I know what happened: orientation and introductions.

When I try to remember the first day of my residency, though, what I recall is Tuesday, September 11. And what I recall of that morning is equally suspect, shaped even as it was happening by the reported experiences of others. When I started my day, turning the television on to CNN to catch morning news, what I saw was what everyone in the US was watching: two jets crashing into the twin towers, people fleeing from the scene, billowing smoke through the streets of lower Manhattan. CNN was broadcasting continuous reporting that unfolded as if I were watching events as they happened. Yet on the west coast, three hours behind New York, I was watching events from the past, transmitted as if they were unfolding live, rebroadcast over and over.

That mediation, and the annual revisiting of events that this year has risen to a marked pitch predicated on the importance in the decimal system of ten year anniversaries, has created an external image of the events of that day that can be and is shared by people who did not experience the attacks on Manhattan or Washington. We participate in the production of a collective, public representation that we recall together.

And of course, horrific disasters should be remembered. The dead should not pass unremarked. Memory sustains the living and honors those who are gone.

But one thing that gets lost in collective remembering is personal experience. What I want to remember, but find harder to recall, are the personal contacts that I did not share with everyone watching the endless television loop. I was alone, in a tiny apartment converted from a garage, among strangers. I called my brothers in New York and Philadelphia, I waited for news of the former student who had just started her job at the State Department. I decided to seek the company of others, and walked up to the center, even though I had no idea whether the routine we had been briefed to expect would be underway.

At the Center, the others, all strangers to me, some from universities in Manhattan, stood talking quietly, or watching a television screen that my memory-- my personal, fallible, not-collective and unsocialized memory-- says was brought into our conference room as an exceptional gesture. I have no memory of conversations that day, or the first days that followed. I have few memories of my actual experiences that week, and I cannot locate them accurately in time, although they are composed of exceptionally vivid sensory perceptions. I am in the study that came with my fellowship, looking out the windows towards the east, and realizing I hear no airplanes. And I am near the main road, and a fire truck passes, American flags flying from the sides.

The gap between these recollections, which are truly my own memories, and the coherent continuous story that I can bring to mind much more easily because it has been reinforced constantly since then, is a gap that makes me hesitant about what is accomplished when public ceremonies take place to comemmorate the anniversary of horrific events. These public ceremonies fix in our minds a common account of what happened, regardless of how experience -near or -distant we might have been. But that account does not just consist of events; it embodies attitudes and perspectives. No tragedy is immune to being taken up in a political narrative, as we have all long ago realized.

So is it possible to commemorate-- to call to remembrance-- something like the events of September 11, 2009, without being pulled into a collective narrative?

Perhaps. But not necessarily in the ways we are being led to enact.

A wise man I know offered these words today, and I share them now, as a different way to commemorate September 11: not to recall and dwell upon horrors, but to observe an anniversary and to serve as a memorial to lives seneslessly lost:
"there is another generation rising who can still get there, another child born who will be loved, another marriage that will withstand the pressure, another death that will be mourned with love and not violence, and hope still speaks volumes where bravado, racism, sexism, genderism, nationalism, and religious bigotry have failed. We can still live proud enough to die." Much love to those who resist being fed lies and who reject anyone's enemies list.

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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