The Case for Deep Memory
I want to find evidence for — and find a way of talking about — the idea that deep memory is important. By deep memory, I mean historic collective memory. I mean what we refer to as heritage, but more. Heritage can have existed in the past 500 years, but it generally refers to ancestry farther back than that. In Western society, this deep memory tends to be acknowledged only by spiritual or mystical communities. This is probably because these communities do not require scientific evidence in order to believe in something. Scientific evidence is necessary and good, but lack of it does not mean that something does not exist. As we have learned repeatedly in the past century, sometimes all we need is to wait until we have the tools to measure it.
But I argue that in some cases, we can’t afford to wait. If it does exist, then deep memory has profound psychological and sociological implications that need to be addressed now. Just as PTSD and depression needed to be treated before they appeared in the DSM, deep memory needs to be addressed, not just individually, but on a society level. Deep memory can be made of supportive or destructive elements. It can contain experiences of horrific trauma, such as slavery or genocide, and it can contain ancestral wisdom and sources of resilience. It exists within our societies, whether we acknowledge it or not.
The forces of assimilation and domination are detrimental to deep memory, because it usually does not fit into the dominant colonial, capitalist social structure. The closer a people gets to the top of the domination hierarchy, the more they are forced to disregard the existence or importance of it. Therefore, White Americans — those from European ancestors especially — are the most oblivious to it’s existence or their need for it (unless it perpetuates white supremacy). Other social groups, like African-Americans or Native Americans, who have never been allowed into the privileged domain of Whiteness, still retain a sense of the importance of their ancestral memory, especially in relation to trauma. They have coined words for it: “soul wound,” or “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.” They recognize the strength that comes from connection to ancestral traditions because they need that strength in order to contend with the forces of White domination in which we live. White people are led to believe we don’t need these strengths. But I believe we are tragically misled.
It is not, of course the only thing that matters. I never want to imply that it is more important than adopted or chosen family, than community, than connection to spirituality or self-recovery work. But these things have all get a lot of attention. They have been widely studied, probably because they are easier to study. They are easier to trace — but actually, that is a Western-centric — a settler-centric perspective. Because heritage can be very easy to trace in locations where the people who live there now have a direct link to the people who lived there for centuries. It is in the buildings, in the land, in the songs, the food. These are the things that are lost when a people is uprooted from the land where their ancestors lived. They can bring the customs and songs, they can import some of the food and reproduce old recipes, but they cannot reform the connection that is lost to physical places and structures.
I believe the lack of these things, coupled with the intense pressure to fit into the culture of the new place, leads to an erosion of something that is larger than traditions and heritage. It is a historic collective memory. And Halbwachs explains how collective memory is not just a way, but the way we know ourselves. It is the source of our identity, our sense of belonging. Many parts of collective memory our immigrant ancestors were able to take with them. Many parts we have created ourselves in settler societies — as each generation does. But there is another part — the deep memory — that has been lost, and I think its time we start to examine that loss, its consequences, and what, if anything, can be done about it.