“Memory is constantly on our lips because it no longer exists.”

“Memory is constantly on our lips because it no longer exists.”

Written by Pierre Nora in the first paragraph of his general introduction, ‘Between Memory and History’, the phrase argues that memory has been lost due to the acceleration of history, which has overtaken the “the equilibrium between the present and the past”. [1] An incorrect conclusion when we examine the demolition of the Japanese Government-General Building in Seoul in 1995. A building which was at the forefront of the debate over Japan’s legacy and visual memory in Korea, for its construction resulted in the partial destruction of Kyŏngbok Palace, a Chosŏn dynasty palace which was constructed in 1395. From GCB’s completion in 1927 it’s memory was contested on multiple levels; Korean architects, for example, saw it as an embodiment of early cosmopolitan architectural ideas, originating from Europe at the turn of the 20th century. [2] For many Koreans, however, it was a painful colonial legacy which was affecting the national spirit of the country and so needed to be demolished to allow for the restoration of the Kyŏngbok Palace. [3] A demand which is interesting to note as it demonstrates memory emerging victorious over history, for the historical significance of the Palace within Korean national identity before the construction of the GCB was minimal, having been abandoned for large parts of its history.

Nora had attempted to counter this, when he addressed the use of his work in understanding memory in Franco’s Spain. His criticism centred on the fact that the investigation was too contemporary and so did not fit the definition of the concepts he had provided for places as memory, a term he called ‘les lieux de mémoire’. [4] A defence which Eugenia Allier Montaño states, ignores the historiographical debates of the late sixties and seventies which affirmed the validity of studying history of the present. [5] This is important as the ‘les Lieux de mémoire’ provides a developed framework for spatial historians to explore sites of collective memory. For example, Nora requires places to be material, symbolical and functional, to allow memory to crystallise and secrete itself and so should not be limited by periodisation of the term. [6]

The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei stands testament to this argument; it is still a contested place of memory for many Taiwanese today. The site encompasses much of modern Taiwan’s collective memory, reminding many, through its design, the connection the nation has to the Chinese mainland, as well as serving for some as a painful legacy of occupation and oppression. [7]

Pierre Nora is right, history and memory can and do conflict, however, they are not binary opposites. Memory as I have shown has not lost out to history. Instead, often, the two work in tandem, allowing ‘les lieux de mémoire’ to offer unique insights into the collective past of social groups.

[1] Michael Rothberg, ‘Between Memory and Memory: From Lieux de mémoire to Noeuds de mémoire’, Yale French Studies 118/119 (2010), p. 4.

[2] Jung-sun Han, ‘Japan in the public culture of South Korea, 1945–2000s: The making and remaking of colonial sites and memories 1945-2000’, Asia-Pacific Journal 12:15:2, <https://apjjf.org/2014/12/15/Jung-Sun-Han/4107/article.html>[25 April 2020].

[3]Ibid.

[4] Eugenia Allier Montaño, ‘Places of memory. Is the concept applicable to the analysis of memorial struggles? The case of Uruguay and its recent past’, Cuadernos del Claeh 2:31:96-97 (2008) pp. 87-109, <http://socialsciences.scielo.org/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0797-60622008000100001#_ftn25>[25 April 2020].

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Marc Andre Matten, “The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei: A Contested Place of Memory” in Axel Schneider and Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik (ed.), Places of Memory in Modern China: History, Politics, and Identity (Leiden, 2011), pp. 51-86.

Bibliography:

Han, Jung-sun, ‘Japan in the public culture of South Korea, 1945–2000s: The making and remaking of colonial sites and memories 1945-2000’, Asia-Pacific Journal 12:15:2, <https://apjjf.org/2014/12/15/Jung-Sun-Han/4107/article.html>[25 April 2020].

Matten, Marc Andre, “The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei: A Contested Place of Memory” in Axel Schneider and Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik (ed.), Places of Memory in Modern China: History, Politics, and Identity (Leiden, 2011), pp. 51-86.

Montaño, Eugenia Allier, ‘Places of memory. Is the concept applicable to the analysis of memorial struggles? The case of Uruguay and its recent past’, Cuadernos del Claeh 2:31:96-97 (2008) pp. 87-109, <http://socialsciences.scielo.org/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0797-60622008000100001#_ftn25>[25 April 2020].

Rothberg, Michael, ‘Between Memory and Memory: From Lieux de mémoire to Noeuds de mémoire’, Yale French Studies 118/119 (2010), p. 3-12.

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