Connerton, paul. seven types of forgetting

Connerton, paul. seven types of forgetting

(Parte 1 de 3) Memory Studies

DOI: 10.17/1750698007083889 2008; 1; 59 Memory Studies

Paul Connerton Seven types of forgetting The online version of this article can be found at:

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Seven types of forgetting PAUL CONNERTON, University of Cambridge

Abstract Much of the debate on cultural memory has been shaped by the view, commonly held if not universal, that remembering and commemorating is usually a virtue and that forgetting is necessarily a failing. But this assumption is not self-evidently true. This article seeks, therefore, to disentangle the different types of acts that cluster together under the single term ‘to forget’. I suggest that we can distinguish at least seven types: repressive erasure; prescriptive forgetting; forgetting that is constitutive in the formation of a new identity; structural amnesia; forgetting as annulment; forgetting as planned obsolescence; forgetting as humiliated silence.

Key words identity; obsolescence; shame

A politician parrying an interviewer might occasionally acknowledge that he or she failed to recall an alleged fact or circumstance, but never – surely – will he/she be heard to utter the words ‘I forget’. The reason for this seems self-evident; we generally regard forgetting as a failure. I may say that I ‘forget someone’ or that I ‘forget something’ or that I ‘forget to do something’ or that I ‘forget that something has taken place’ or that ‘I forget how to do something’. All these usages have one feature in common: they imply an obligation on my part to remember something and my failure to discharge that obligation. This implication has cast its shadow over the context of intellectual debate on memory in the shape of the view, commonly held if not universal, that remembering and commemoration is usually a virtue and that forgetting is necessarily a failing.

Yet forgetting is not always a failure, and it is not always, and not always in the same way, something about which we should feel culpable. Forgetting is not a unitary phenomenon. It might be helpful, then, to try to disentangle the different meanings that cluster together under this single term. I suggest that we can distinguish at least seven types.

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Forgetting as repressive erasure appears in its most brutal form, of course, in the history of totalitarian regimes, where, as in Milan Kundera’s often quoted words, ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’. But it long predates totalitarianism. As the condemnation of memory (damnatio memoriae), it was inscribed in Roman criminal and constitutional law as a punishment applied to rulers and other powerful persons who at their death or after a revolution were declared to be ‘enemies of the state’: images of them were destroyed, statues of them were razed to the ground, and their names were removed from inscriptions, with the explicit purpose of casting all memory of them into oblivion (Meier, 1996). The French Revolution sought to eliminate all remnants of the ancien régime in a similar way: monarchical titles and titles of nobility were abolished; the polite forms of address, ‘Monsieur’, ‘Madame’ and ‘Mademoiselle’ were eliminated; the polite distinction between the two forms of the second person, ‘vous’ (formal) and ‘tu’ (informal) was supposed to be forgotten; and the names of the historical provinces of France – Burgundy, Provence, and so on – were consigned to oblivion (Bertrand, 1975).

Repressive erasure can be employed to deny the fact of a historical rupture as well as to bring about a historical break. It was the strategy adopted in English parliamentary debates and pamphlet controversies in the 17th century, by Milton, Lilburne, Filmer, Harrington and Hobbes, when they alleged that a set of precedents, principles and maxims were to be found in an ancient constitution, which was asserted to be in some way immune from the king’s prerogative action. The plausibility of such claims ran up against one massive obstacle. The Norman Conquest was the one great apparent break in the continuity of English history. The thought that William I might have brought about a systematic importation of new law was incompatible with this belief in an ancient constitution. To acknowledge that there had indeed been a conquest was to admit that the English constitution bore the indelible mark of sovereignty. For if William had truly been king by right of conquest, then the laws and liberties of England forever afterwards depended on that fact. And so, as J.G.A. Pocock has brilliantly shown in The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957), all the parliamentarians, lawyers and antiquarians joined together in a harmonious chorus, constantly asserting that the establishment of the Normans in England did not constitute a conquest, that William, despite his epithet, was not a conqueror, and that his victory at Hastings brought him no title to change the ancient constitution of England. This is how the English have come to think of themselves as having been a colonizing people but not as having been a colonized people.

Repressive erasure need not always take malign forms, then; it can be encrypted covertly and without apparent violence. Consider, as a further instance, the way in which the spatial disposition of the modern art gallery presents the visitor with nothing less than an iconographic programme and a master historical narrative; by walking through the museum the visitor will be prompted to internalize the values and beliefs written into the architectural script. Entering the Great Hall of the Metropolitan in New York, for example, the visitor stands at the intersection of the museum’s principal axes. To the left is the collection of Greek and Roman art; to the right is the Egyptian collection; directly by on November 26, 2008 http://mss.sagepub.comDownloaded from

CONNERTON SEVEN TYPES OF FORGETTING61 ahead, at the summit of the grand staircase that continues the axis of the entranceway, is the collection of European paintings beginning with the High Renaissance. An entire iconographic programme establishes the overriding importance of the western tradition and the implicit injunction to remember it. But the collection of oriental and other types of non-western art, as well as the medieval collection, are invisible from the Great Hall. They are included, yet they are also half edited out. In exhibiting a master narrative, the museum’s spatial script is overt in its acts of celebratory remembrance, covert in its acts of editing out and erasure. Here too the struggle of humanity against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting (Duncan and Wallach, 1980).

Or yet again: what was the gesture of the Futurists towards past art and museum cities if not a fantasy of repressive erasure? In their manifesto the Futurists declared the wish to free Italy from its infi nite number of museums, which covered the country like an infi nite number of cemeteries. This ‘museumophobia’ was no isolated attack but part of an overall assault on all institutions that transmitted traditional knowledge and values, academies and libraries included. These the Futurists saw as not just preserving the past but as embodying a cult of the past. It was the fascination exerted over the imagination of artists at the opening of the 20th century by technological developments that explains their call for an elimination of the past. But only in part; we need to take into account another, more complex element. The Futurists wanted the bourgeoisie not only to propel forward a wholesale process of technological revolution, but also to identify themselves culturally with that process. But the bourgeoisie’s position, as they saw it, was contradictory. On the one hand, they urged ever forward the transformation of the everyday life-world; on the other hand, they refused to commit themselves entirely to the destruction of pre-industrial cultures that this entailed. Because of this contradictory behaviour of the bourgeoisie, the Futurists saw a bifurcation opening up between everyday life and culture. Their sense of this bifurcation was at the core of the Futurists’ museumophobia. To the aestheticization of the past, which found its core institution in the museum, they opposed the aestheticization of the everyday – aeroplanes, cars, telephones, railways, weapons of mass destruction (Grasskamp, 1981).


What might be called prescriptive forgetting is distinct from this. Like erasure, it is precipitated by an act of state, but it differs from erasure because it is believed to be in the interests of all parties to the previous dispute and because it can therefore be acknowledged publicly.

The Ancient Greeks provide us with a prototype of this kind of forgetting. They were acutely aware of the dangers intrinsic to remembering past wrongs because they well knew the endless chains of vendetta revenge to which this so often led. And since the memory of past misdeeds threatened to sow division in the whole community and could lead to civil war, they saw that not only those who were directly threatened by motives of revenge but all those who wanted to live peacefully together in the polis had a stake in not remembering. This thought was famously expressed in 403BC. In that year, the Athenian democrats, after having suffered defeat at the hands of the by on November 26, 2008 http://mss.sagepub.comDownloaded from

MEMORY STUDIES 1(1)62 dictatorship, re-entered the city of Athens and proclaimed a general reconciliation. Their decree contained an explicit interdiction: it was forbidden to remember all the crimes and wrongdoing perpetrated during the immediately preceding period of civil strife. This interdict was to apply to all Athenians, to democrats, to oligarchs and to all those who had remained in the city as non-combatants during the period of the dictatorship. Perhaps more remarkable still is the fact that the Athenians erected on the acropolis, in their most important temple, an altar dedicated to Lethe, that is, to forgetting. The installation of this altar meant that the injunction to forget, and the eradication of civil confl ict that this was thought to engender, was seen as the very foundation of the life of the polis (Meier, 1996).

Whether at the resolution of civil confl ict or after international confl ict, the formulation of peace terms has frequently contained an explicit expression of the wish that past actions should not be just forgiven but forgotten. The Treaty of Westphalia, which brought the Thirty Years’ War to an end in 1648, contained the injunction that both sides should forgive and forget forever all the violence, injuries and damage that each had infl icted upon the other. After Charles I ascended the English throne in 1660, he declared ‘An act of full and general pardon, indemnity and oblivion’. And when Louis XVIII returned to occupy the French throne in 1814, he declared in his constitutional charter that he sought to extinguish from his memory all the evils under which France had suffered during his exile, that all research into utterances of opinion expressed before his restoration was to be forbidden, and that this rule of forgetting was enjoined upon both the law courts and the citizens of France (Frisch, 1979).

Sometimes at the point of transition from confl ict to confl ict resolution there may be no explicit requirement to forget, but the implicit requirement to do so is nonetheless unmistakable. For example, societies where democracy is regained after a recent undemocratic past, or where democracy is newly born, must establish institutions and make decisions that foster forgetting as much as remembering. Not long after the defeat of Nazism, it became evident that West Germany could not be returned to selfgovernment and civil administration if the purge of Nazis continued to be pursued in a sustained way. So the identifi cation and punishment of active Nazis was a forgotten issue in Germany by the early 1950s, just as the number of convicted persons was kept to a minimum in Austria and France. For what was necessary after 1945, above all, was to restore a minimum level of cohesion to civil society and to re-establish the legitimacy of the state in societies where authority, and the very bases of civil behaviour, had been obliterated by totalitarian government; the overwhelming desire was to forget the recent past (Judt, 1992).


The practice of prescriptive forgetting suggests that we should entertain doubts about our deeply held conviction that forgetting involves a loss. This conviction is found in our European and American background, even if it may not be held more widely. But could not forgetting be a gain, as the case of prescriptive forgetting implies, as well as, or by on November 26, 2008 http://mss.sagepub.comDownloaded from

CONNERTON SEVEN TYPES OF FORGETTING63 perhaps more than, a loss? This certainly appears to apply to a third type of forgetting, which is constitutive in the formation of a new identity. The emphasis here is not so much on the loss entailed in being unable to retain certain things as rather on the gain that accrues to those who know how to discard memories that serve no practicable purpose in the management of one’s current identity and ongoing purposes. Forgetting then becomes part of the process by which newly shared memories are constructed because a new set of memories are frequently accompanied by a set of tacitly shared silences. Many small acts of forgetting that these silences enable over time are not random but patterned: there is, for instance, the forgetting of details of grandparents’ lives that are not transmitted to grandchildren whose knowledge about grandparents might in no way conduce to, but rather detract from, the effective implementation of their present intentions; or there is the forgetting of details about previous marriages or sexual partnerships which, if attended to too closely, could even impair a present marriage or partnership; or again there are the details of a life formerly lived within a particular religious or political affi liation that has been superseded by consciously embracing an alternative affi liation. Not to forget might in all these cases provoke too much cognitive dissonance: better to consign some things to a shadow world. So pieces of knowledge that are not passed on come to have a negative signifi cance by allowing other images of identity to come to the fore. They are, so to speak, like pieces of an old jigsaw puzzle that if retained would prevent a new jigsaw puzzle from fi tting together properly. What is allowed to be forgotten provides living space for present projects.

(Parte 1 de 3)