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17 Tons: Memory as practice
To conceive of memory in terms of its practice is to take into account its social and cultural manifestations; it is to be attentive to the variety of techniques by which collectivities revive, re-imagine, re-interpret and re-activate the past (Ricoeur 2004). Memory is inscribed on the surface of a photograph, whether of a lover or an employee. It resides in the heft of a pneumatic pick, and accrues in the callous on an experienced embroiderer’s index finger. It lies coiled in the smell of a prayer mat, as well as in the prescribed sequence of gestures that would bring one’s nose close enough to breathe it in. Understanding memory as a practice allows us to perceive how immaterial social and economic structures can become corporeal (and corporate) realities (Bourdieu 1977): what we remember and the ways we remember it serve to differentiate us along lines of gender, class, ethnicity, religion, and nationality.
Memory is alive: it exists in insoluble dialectical tension with the forces of oblivion. The material traces of the past are thus forever open to renegotiation. Upon retelling in a new context, an old folktale might take on unexpected meanings; with the passage of time, the rough texture of a disused miner’s uniform might find itself draping the body of an entirely different kind of labourer. This “mutability of the past” (Orwell 1949: 219) lends it – as well as the kindred injunction ‘never to forget’ – an inescapably political character. CMF