by Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham
Sandwiched neatly between Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, this post could only really address one thing; the inherently geographical themes of remembrance and memory. Geographers have engaged with the wide range of embodied, material, and spatial practices involved in both collective and individual remembering; from war memorials and commemorative ceremonies or exhibitions, to a photograph of a missed relative kept on a mantelpiece or the poppy so imbued with symbolism. The spaces, practices, and material culture associated with memory provide a wealth of research fodder for cultural geographers. However, let us not forget (if you’ll pardon the pun) the other side of the coin; whilst there is a burgeoning geographical literature that discusses selective remembering – particularly work that has considered the traces of the Holocaust in Berlin’s ‘memory district’ – there has been less investigation into processes of forgetting.
In an article published online in Transactions of the IBG earlier this year, Muzaini (2014) explores the active processes of forgetting practised by people who lived through the Second World War in Perak, Malaysia. This article explicitly sets out to address the oft-neglected question of forgetting and, in particular, the strategies used by individuals to obscure and obliterate painful memories of war. However, as he discovers, despite their best efforts to avoid them, memories unfortunately have a terrible habit of re-emerging involuntarily and unpredictably. The arguments put forward in this article almost certainly could be applied to some people in this country living with memories of war.
Muzaini (2014) conceptualises processes of individual forgetting in three ways. Firstly, ‘silence’ is a technique often used by those who want to forget; they may avoid talking about topics that could trigger upsetting memories. Secondly, some people may throw away or hide objects that they associate with unwanted recollections, re-arranging their domestic space to avoid upset. Finally, a more embodied form of avoidance involves staying away from certain places associated with troubling memories, even if it means ‘taking the long way round’. However, these active processes of evading the past are often in vain; unwanted memories can return through interactions with people, objects, and places. Triggers can also be multi-sensory; sounds and smells as well as bodily scars and injuries may elicit flash-backs of traumatic past events.
The fact is that the past has agency; it can exert a strong influence on the present and can never truly be forgotten. So, whilst you’re remembering and celebrating those who have fought in wars for our country during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, spare a thought also for those who would rather just leave the past in the past.
Muzaini, H. (2014). “On the matter of forgetting and ‘memory returns’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, DOI: 10.1111/tran.12060.