Institute of Para-Enactment Research
Softcore Historicism and Embodied Heritage


The Insertion of
the Collective Memory into Space

Maurice Halbwachs

in: Halbwachs, Maurice. La mémoire Collective. Presses Universitaires de France, 1950. 

Auguste Comte remarked that mental equilibrium was, first and foremost, due to the fact that the physical objects of our daily contact change little or not at all, providing us with an image of permanence and stability. They give us a feeling of order and tranquility, like a silent and immobile society unconcerned with our own restlessness and changes of mood. In truth, much mental illness is accompanied by a breakdown of contact between thought and things, as it were, an inability to recognize familiar objects, so that the victim finds himself in a fluid and strange environment totally lacking familiar reference points. So true is it that our habitual images of the external world are inseparable from our self that this breakdown is not limited to the mentally ill. We ourselves may experience a similar period of uncertainty, as if we had left behind our whole personality, when we are obliged to move to novel surroundings and have not yet adapted to them.

Thus, every collective memory unfolds within a spatial framework. Now space is a reality that endures: since our impressions rush by, one after another, and leave nothing behind in the mind, we can understand how we recapture the past only by understanding how it is, in effect, preserved by our physical surroundings. It is to space - the space we occupy, traverse, have continual access to, or can at any time reconstruct in thought and imagination - that we must turn our attention. Our thought must focus on it if this or that category of remembrances is to reappear. (...)

While it might be conceded that every group and every kind of collective activity is linked to a specific place, or segment of space, it could be argued that this fact alone is quite insufficient to explain how the image of a place conjures up thoughts about an activity of the group associated with that place. While each mental picture does have a framework, there is no strict and necessary relationship between the two; the framework cannot evoke the picture. Such an objection would be valid if the term “space” referred solely to physical space-that is, the totality of forms and colors as we perceive them about us. But is that how we originally experience space? Is that normally how we perceive the external milieu? It is difficult to know just what space would be like for a genuinely isolated man who had never belonged to any society. Let us speculate as to what conditions are necessary if we are to perceive only the physical and sensory qualities of things. We must divest objects of many relationships that intrude into our thought and correspond to a like number of different viewpoints. That is, we must dissociate ourselves from any group that establishes certain relationships between objects and considers them from given viewpoints. Moreover, we would succeed in doing so only by adopting the attitude of another group, perhaps that of physicists if we claim to focus our attention on certain abstract properties of matter, or that of artists if we concentrate on line and shading of figures and landscapes. Back on the riverbank, at the park entrance, or amid the activity of the street after a visit to an art gallery, we still feel that impulse from the society of painters, as we view things not as they really are but as they appear to one trying only to reproduce an image of them. Actually, nothing is less natural. Of course, remembrances of interest to other groups cannot find a place to be preserved in the space of the scientist or painter, since it is constructed by the very elimination of all other spaces. But this does not prove that these other spaces are less real than those of the scientist or painter.

︎︎︎ Berlin, 2022

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