Sites of Collective Counter-Memory by TJ Demos


'Counter-memory designates a practice of memory formation that is social and political, one that runs counter to the society of the spectacle.'


‘Collective memory’ designates the shared knowledge of past experience held by the members of a select group. Developed by the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs in the first half of the twentieth century, the concept stresses the relation between memory and its social context.[1]

More than individual memory, collective memory is a key component in the formation of social bonds and community relations, irrespective of whether or not it is later codified, archived, or formalised as history. Of course, collective memory depends on material sites of transmission and sharing, where experience links with technology, urban space, and institutions.

The obvious sites of contemporary collective memory are mass media (television, film, print media), art, culture, and educational discourse, political demonstrations and mass spectacles (sports and music), and, increasingly, social media (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter). As social forms of being-together are ever more structured by commercial relations, one might say that we’re living through an era of the impoverishment of mass collective memory (one that began with the ‘culture industry’ and advanced capitalism in the early twentieth century[2]).

That impoverishment is defined by the loss of historical experience and the diminishment of political agency, as collective identity is defined more and more by reactionary and intolerant forms such as nationalism, fandom, and consumerism (identified long ago by Guy Debord as the ‘society of the spectacle’—one of general amnesia, capitalist subjection, and social separation[3]). The problem is acute with social media, which ostensibly answers the desire for connectivity and friendship, but depends on techno-social atomisation mediated by the consumption of computers and mobile phones.

As governments controlled by corporate interests attempt to define the terms of collective memory so that it supports their agenda of ‘sustainable development’, meaning increased economic inequality and environmental destruction, the need to continue the struggle for a model of ‘counter-memory’ - as in Foucault’s historiographic politics[4] - remains imperative.

Counter-memory designates a practice of memory formation that is social and political, one that runs counter to the official histories of governments, mainstream mass media, and the society of the spectacle. It involves the memorialisation—a collective practice of relearning - of forgotten, suppressed, and excluded histories, which then becomes an act of political subjectification. Recent examples include the Occupy movement’s collective learning around the struggle for anti-corporate globalisation, social justice and equality; and the Arab uprising and its reanimation of memories of the unfulfilled promises of past decolonisation struggles.

The fundamental issue is that when counter-memories are produced (of state violence, war, and genocide; of colonial inequalities and atrocities; of embodied experiences that contest official histories; of the heritage and existence of subjugated groups and threatened cultures), then that production works actively toward the positive transformation of social and political reality in the future.

Art is also a privileged site where experimental collective memory can be generated, performed, and archived. Consider the recent turn to documentary practice in film and photography, which mirrors the explosion of politically engaged, independent documentary films that are disseminated freely online. Those films might expose the truths of climate change and environmental destruction, or detail the failures and human costs of neoliberal policy[5].

While ‘truth telling’ is one site of collective counter-memory, it also parallels the artistic experimentation with the notion of ‘documentary’ - which can also be understood as the construction of reality through its creative imaging. Rather than resurrecting an outdated belief in documentary’s objective truthful account, artists are widely investigating the ‘politics of truth’ - again in Foucault’s words - signifying a form of knowledge that is contingent, subjective, and transformative[6]. Such an investigation might bring to awareness the unrepresentable phantoms of historical experience, the traumatic hauntings of past violence, or the symptoms of psycho-social trauma, in ways that render documentary legibility and historical accuracy in a new light[7].

Increasingly, documentary is seen as a form that cannot but blend fact and fiction, the real and the imaginary—as theorists of film have proposed[8]. Collective counter-memory can be similarly positioned within creative practices that reinvent the political potential of truth, and that define collective struggles committed to the invention of a better world. By remembering forgotten visions - of social justice, equality, solidarity and tolerance - they make them all the more possible to be realised in the future.



[1]See On Collective Memory, Maurice Halbwachs, Trans. Lewis A. Coser, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, originally published posthumously in 1950.

[2]See Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Trans. John Cumming, New York: Continuum, 1994.

[3]The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, 1967, Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, New York: Zone Books, 1994.

[4]See Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, Michel Foucault, Ttrans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, Oxford: Blackwell, 1977.

[5]See, for example, Josh Fox’s Gasland, 2010, on hydrofracking in the USA; Jim Keady and Leslie Kretzu’s Behind the Swoosh: Nike’s Sweatshops and Social Justice, 2009; Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s The Take, 2004 on worker self-organization in Argentina; and John Pilger's The War You Don't See, 2010, on the problems of 'embedded' reporting in contemporary warfare.

[6]See Subjectivity and Truth, in The Politics of Truth, Michel Foucault, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, Trans. Lysa Hochroth and Catherine Porter, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007.

[7]See my forthcoming book, Return to the Postcolony: Spectres of Colonialism in Contemporary Art, Sternberg Press, for further examples of recent film practices and their reinvention of the documentary mode.

[8]See, for example, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze, Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989; and Film Fables, Jacques Rancière, Trans. Emiliano Battista, New York: Berg, 2006, originally published 2001.


TJ Demos lectures in the Art History Department at University College London. He writes widely on modern and contemporary art, and is the author of Dara Birnbaum: Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, Afterall Press, 2010, and The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp, MIT Press, 2007. He is presently completing two new books: The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary During Global Crisis, Duke University Press, forthcoming; and Return to the Postcolony: Spectres of Colonialism in Contemporary Art, Sternberg Press, forthcoming.