Ann Rigney: “We need also to understand why some people refuse to let go of cherished beliefs about a mythical nation”

Ann Rigney holds the chair of Comparative Literature at the University of Utrecht. Among her books:


The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move (Oxford UP, 2012);

Imperfect Histories: The Elusive Past and the Legacy of Romantic Historicism (Cornell UP, 2001);

The Rhetoric of Historical Representation: Three Narrative Histories of the French Revolution (Cambridge UP, 1990; 2003).


Transnational Memory: Circulation, Articulation, Scales, edited with Chiara de Cesari (de Gruyter, 2014);

Commemorating Writers in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Nation-Building and Centenary Fever, edited with Joep Leerssen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014);

Reconciliation and Memory: Critical Perspectives, edited with Nicole Immler and Damien Short (Special issue of Memory Studies. Volume 5, Issue 3, July 2012);

Mediation, Remediation, and the Dynamics of Cultural Memory, edited with Astrid Erll (de Gruyter, 2009).


  1. Dear Prof. Rigney, our journal is specializing in memory studies. Therefore it is natural for our interviewers to ask the researchers how far they remember their family roots. Majority of them are able to trace their genealogy back to the nineteenth century and earlier. Does that mean that the concept of three generations span (80–100 years) of social memory (Jan Assmann) is obsolete by now? How many generations of your ancestors do you remember?


Like many other Irish people, it is difficult for me to trace the history of my family back very far: the Public Records Office was destroyed during the Civil War in 1923 and with it a huge archive that has proved difficult to replace. Gradually my family has put together some pieces that take us back into the 19th century where it appears that my maternal great-grandfather was one of the first Catholics to become the owner of his own farm in the mid-century. Since my father’s family had no such property to their name, it has been much more difficult to trace their history. But where official documentation has been scarce, family stories, supported by the odd relic or letter, have been rich in number. These stories go back to late 1910s and to the events around the struggle for Irish independence, which my father (born in 1910) witnessed as a child.  If I piece together the various stories, then indeed their temporal reach would seem to bear out the idea that lived experience is recalled informally and by word of mouth over a span of three generations. My father once told me a story about his grandfather and the ‘night of the big wind’ which I’ve managed to date back to 1839, but in fact this story turned out to be part of a collective folkloric memory rather than a family specific one. This suggests to me that over time personal memories become inflected by ones mediated by storytelling and circulating within the community.


  1. Mariann Hirsch recognized that her family memory was one of the main sources of her post-memory concept ( Did your family memory impact on your involvement in memory studies or you were motivated by other reasons?

Although family memory certainly helped feed my interest in history and in stories, in fact, school was for me the most formative experience. In Ireland elementary schools are known as ‘national schools’ and the one I attended in the 1960s took that ‘national’ very seriously indeed. Attending school was closely linked to the idea of becoming a nationalised subject, speaking and writing in the national language (Gaelic as opposed to the English we all spoke at home and among ourselves), singing patriotic songs and learning complicated poems by heart, many of them denouncing the British.  All lessons were imbued with a strong sense of history, each of us given the sense of a duty to be a carrier of the national culture and of a very nationalistic story which, in my childish imagination (but perhaps not only there) was reduced to a centuries’ long struggle against the villainous British. This culminated in the last year of elementary school with the history of the solemn Proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916 (which of course we had to learn by heart). I remember very strongly the sense of joyful anticipation I experienced as we approached the final chapter of our history textbook, knowing and hoping that all the struggles would finally lead to freedom. This education certainly gave me a strong socialisation into a collective memory and fed into my fascination with collective narratives and their mobilizing role. It also ended up, once I realised how propagandistic it all was, with a lifelong suspicion of dogma’s and of overblown nationalism with its binary logic of ‘us’ versus ‘the other’.


  1. You graduated in Ireland, got PhD in Canada and teach in Netherlands. Maybe it is not coincidental that in your publications you argue that memory researchers should overcome the “methodological nationalism”. How much do you think the personal experience of researchers impacts on their academic approaches?    


Having overdosed on nationalism in my primary schooling, I went on to become very curious about other cultures and other languages. This led to my studying Comparative Literature and moving to Canada to do so. In multicultural and multilingual Toronto, I discovered a society in which origins and histories were less important than the willingness to live peacefully together on the basis of differences and to share common resources in building a future.  It seemed that all peoples of the world had come together in that one city, making cultural and linguistic pluralism the basis for everyday interactions. I guess that this combination of a nationalist upbringing with the Canadian experiment in multiculturalism, followed by migration to the Netherlands, has really helped to shape my academic interests. It has shown me how the boundaries between one nation and another are both imagined and yet deeply tenacious. It also made me more aware of the possibilities for imagining communities along other lines than national ones. All this fed into my challenging methodological nationalism in study of culture and memory since it takes the ‘nation’ as the inevitable and unchanging framework for thought and research.


  1. You have suggested a promising concept of multiscalarity, which means that we should not simplify reality focusing on a singular scale (framework) of memory: national, European or global. There is interplay of different scales: familial, local, national, macro-regional, global and so on, which affect each other. Does that mean that every scale makes a comparable input in collective memory or it means that during different eras some scales are at the forefront? Can we say that the leading scale enforces others to play by its rules?

There have been many attempts in the last years to go beyond methodological nationalism in memory studies, and in that sense, my own work is part of a bigger trend. In most cases, this has led to an ‘upscaling’ of the study of memory; that is, attention to ‘global’ or even ‘planetary’ developments. In many cases, this has been linked to an ethical position that promotes cosmopolitan values above ethno-centric or nationalist ones. The assumption is two-fold: that memory, in the form of mediated storytelling, travels beyond borders; that people across our globalised and entangled world increasingly share experiences. Upscaling in memory studies is important. Nevertheless, going beyond methodological nationalism should not just be a matter of considering the world as a borderless one across which information flows freely. Indeed, studying borders and frameworks has become even more urgent than ever. This was beyond the idea of multiscalarity which I developed with my colleague Chiara De Cesari in our book Transnational Memory (2014). Multiscalarity involves the recognition that memory is produced and circulated within different social frameworks and operates at different scales: that of the family and private life, the city, the region, the nation, the continent, the world and so on. Crucially, there is no hierarchy between these different scales. They are all equally important sites for observing the production of memory. This begins with individuals and the various communities to which they belong and extends into much larger configurations. Within this model, small is as important as big, since it is in the hearts and minds of individuals that the willingness to identify with a nation or to a supra-nation like Europe begins.


Nevertheless, some sites of memory production are undoubtedly more powerful than others. In the last two hundred years the nation-state has been a dominant mnemonic actor, exercising its power through schools, museums, and public monuments. It has had the finances and the authority to shape and to promote a nationalised understanding of the past. But it is not the only player in the field. We are becoming increasingly aware of how cities and city authorities, for example, have helped to create a city-specific memory for its citizens which doesn’t always fit neatly into the national frames.  Moreover, the narrative arts have also been an important site of memory production, and although they do not command attention in the public space  or occupy particular locations, they do have the power to appeal to individuals in the intimacy of viewing and reading; and they often do so in ways that ignore or challenge national boundaries.  Although we shouldn’t overestimate their power, I believe that the arts are important sites for imagining alternatives to the nations. So, while it is correct to consider the powers at play in the production and promotion of certain views of the past, I don’t think we should speak of one dominant player or attribute sole agency to one actor.  Instead, we should think of collective memory production as a dynamic system that operates at multiple scales. There is a constant interplay between different actors who sometimes reinforce each other, but also often challenge each other. While the state and city authorities may have a monopoly on public space, the media and the arts as well as local, small-scale initiatives can work towards producing alternatives by mobilising individuals at particular locations as well as across the boundaries of nation-states.


  1. You pointed out that we should differ between myth and memory. That separation is not fully clear to me. You mentioned, for example, the myth of golden age. It is a narrative, which allows to articulate memory of nice times, which unfortunately passed away. I do not agree that the myth of golden age is more related to the distant past. Every European nation, or to be more precise, different social groups inside those nations have their own memory of the golden age, which is related to different decades of the twentieth century. Therefore, if we want to separate memory from myth we should redefine the concept of memory. Could you provide a description of “unmythic” memory? What role does academic history play in that opposition? Is history a part of “unmythic” memory? Then how can we discern between history and other parts of “unmythic” memory? Maybe we should distinguish between mythic memory and academic history as two opposite approaches to the past?


I used the concept of myth as part of a critical dialogue with Anthony Smith’s book Myths and Memories of the Nation (1999). Smith assumed that all nations are based on foundational myths that originate in the distant past. Indeed, his work assumed that national memory should be seen in terms of an unchanging legacy that was shaped definitively a long time ago. I criticized this view as it reifies past events instead of seeing their legacy as a potential resource for responding to the present and shaping the future. In discussing collective memory, we should distinguish between ‘remembrance’ (how we recollect the past) and ‘history’ (what happened in the past). Obviously remembrance and history are linked (historians indeed have a professional obligation to bring collective views of the past as close as possible to what actually happened); but they never coincide entirely.


In principle our shared recollections of the past are subject to change and adaptation as new events cast fresh light on the past or as new archives are found. Nevertheless, some recollections are very hard to displace; and those who believe in them resist the idea that they might not actually to be true to history. Such persistent and unchanging forms of memory are rightly called myths (and indeed, as your question suggests, some of these are of much more recent origin than the myths discussed by Smith). Myths are those narratives about the past that resist revision in the light either of new circumstances or fresh historical insights. Ernest Renan once wrote that historical research is always the enemy of the nation because it will inevitably lead towards people having to abandon some of their cherished beliefs.  Historical research is of course not the only way whereby myths are challenged and new narratives generated; but along with the arts, it is certainly one of the most important drivers of mnemonic change. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur usefully distinguished between ‘repetition memory’ (which corresponds roughly to what I’ve been calling myth here) and ‘critical recollection’, which entails new ways of looking at the past.  So, I wouldn’t see ‘myth’ and historical research as representing two alternative modes of remembrance as much as different stages in the ongoing production, reproduction, and critical transformation of memory.  


  1. The main point of Maurice Halbwachs’ famous book “Les cadres sociaux de mémoire” is that social frameworks define collective memory. You stated that there is interdependency between both phenomena, hence when we are changing the narratives of memory the social frameworks are changing as well. Does it mean that through memory we can change the current world of nation-states? I would be very inspired if constructing of the future would be a part of our professional duties. It would mean that memory studies are transforming in applied In your opinion, which parameters must the new narratives of memory have in order to overcome the growing wave of nationalism?

Nation-building has been intimately tied to the cultivation of the past and the production and promulgation of collective memory. Emerging nations invested in remembrance as a cornerstone of a shared identity. While nationalized collective memories were subsequently experienced as timeless, historical research has shown that they were created through cultural practices of representation, memorialization, and conservation. If nationalized memory was culturally produced, it follows that other social configurations might also be brought into being if media and cultural practices were used in another way. If nations could be imagined, why not other formations too? Remembrance can make and remake the boundaries of imagined communities.  But it’s not easy. We’ve seen recently in the debates surrounding Brexit that reified notions of ‘the nation’ are regularly brought into play. We see the idea of the homogenous and autonomous nation being deployed as a nostalgic defense mechanism at a time when such an idea is patently at odds with the entanglements of today’s world and the multi-ethnic composition of British society which is itself one of the legacies of British colonialism.  As academics, we need to understand the dynamics whereby identities are transformed and explore the frameworks that better suit today’s world; in doing so, we need also to understand why some people refuse to let go of cherished beliefs about a mythical nation.

  1. And a standard question about your academic plans?

I am now working on a new project about the ways in which protest has been culturally remembered in Europe: how are protest movements represented at later points in time and how does the memory of earlier movements feed into new ones? By choosing this topic, I hope to move away from the emphasis on war and victimhood that has dominated memory studies hitherto and recover memory practices related to civic life and to the negotiation of civil rights.


Thank you very much for your interview! 



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