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Thesis Spotlights – Importing Memory: Using Other Nations' Collective Memory in Political Speeches

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020

Tracy Adams, PhD, Israel

Email: tracy.adams[at]
Institution: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Time: March 2015- 2020
Supervisor: Prof. Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi
Funding: President Scholarship for Excellent Doctoral Students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Although there is a consensus that images and cultural products circulate globally, relatively little is known about how collective memories transcend national boundaries to be used in public rhetoric. This dissertation focuses on speech as a space in and through which collective memories of other nations (MONs) are imported to advance political agendas. Although globalisation enables memories to cross local boundaries, their transmission is enabled by the exalted role of politicians in everyday sense-making processes. I show how political leaders turn to MONs mainly to enhance the nation and the identity of the collective. Thus the research establishes the continued salience of the nation within the trans-local understanding of traveling memories in political speech. In addition, it conceptually expands the notion of boundaries of collective memories.

The first co-research, with Dr. Christian Baden, investigates how political leaders in Israel, Germany, England, and the United States, in more than 9,000 speeches (1948-2018), strategically import MONs into new settings via their speech. We suggest a typology of domestic, hybrid, and foreign memories, and we inductively examine the circumstances and functions of the imported MONs. We then characterise the discursive strategies employed to render MONs meaningful for local audiences. Finally, we identify three primary paths of travel to show how MONs remain subordinated to the present concerns and identities of the importing nation.

In subsequent research, I inductively examine the dominant foreign collective memories that are used strategically in American presidential rhetoric. I show how across seven decades, World War II and related events continue to demand the nation’s attention. Significantly, imported memories in the American case do not retain much of their original form and content but rather are appropriated and domesticated to serve national interests and identity. Thus, I show how imported memories gain symbolic importance through the active construction of political leaders and through the process of transnational narration.

The third research project examines the use of the memory of the Holocaust in political rhetoric in Germany, Israel, and the US over four decades. This research highlights the continuing salience of national cultural systems by analysing non-Holocaust commemorative rhetoric and the coupling of the memories of the Holocaust with additional national and foreign collective memories. I demonstrate how the memory of the Holocaust travels, in the sense that it spills over into occasions in which it is not necessarily expected. Also I contribute to the practice of boundary-making through collective memories in political speech and show how the evocation of the Holocaust reflects national memory paradigms more than it does a cosmopolitan value system. 

The thesis concludes with suggestions of implications for three theoretical issues in sociology and current memory studies: the relationship between history and memory, the distinction between memory and event, and issues of boundaries and belonging. Contemplating the traveling of memory in such a national space as political speech is closely connected to epistemological concerns of knowledge-making and justification over time. As memory is used strategically to provide meaning, both the temporal boundaries between memory and event, and also the spatial boundaries concerning the concept of the ownership of memory, are under examination. Accordingly, the practice of the political conveyance of memory between cultures and nations holds within it an interesting and socially charged question: to whom does memory belong?

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