History, Memory and Reconciliation Project Addresses Communal Memories of Loss

Mankind has regularly witnessed the immense destruction wrought by natural disasters. Similarly destructive to human life are man-made atrocities, like war and genocide. Those who are lucky enough to have survived either type of cataclysmic event must then begin the process of confronting and reconciling the memories of the catastrophe that befell them.  Public commemorations of these events have run the gamut from poetry and works of art to government sponsored “truth commissions” and institutional reform.

The ways in which people chose to memorialize hardship, whether organized by a group or expressed by an individual, offer illuminating insights into the human psyche and post-conflict justice and also provide valuable information about a society, government or culture.

Several Stanford groups are sponsoring a series of events and research projects designed to explore the many facets of the human phenomena called ‘memory’. Scholars participating in the endeavor, entitled “Contemporary History and the Future of Memory,” represent a broad spectrum of disciplines, but share a common objective: to analyze the range of ways that people have coped with adversity in the past so that future communities may benefit their experience. Attention to the role that memory plays in helping people move beyond tragedy is especially pertinent now as citizens of Chile and Haiti transition from survival to recovery after the devastating earthquakes that took place in each country.

“Contemporary History and the Future of Memory” began in the spring of 2008 with the launch of a multi-year research and public policy program sponsored by Stanford’s Forum on Contemporary Europe (FCE) and the Division of Literature, Cultures, and Languages (DLCL.) The aim of that program, as described on the DLCL website, is to investigate “how communities that have undergone deep and violent political transformations try to confront their past.”

In the fall of 2009 the Program on Human Rights at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law joined the initiative, bringing with them expertise in reconciliation, a fundamental phase in the cycle of memory.  The series title was amended to “History, Memory & Reconciliation” in recognition of their contribution. This year’s events featured a visit by Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, the internationally renowned scholar of comparative literature from Columbia University, who addressed the subject of cultural and linguistic memory. During the spring quarter human rights and memory will be addressed in separate events by two guest scholars. Cambridge Anthropologist Harri Englund gave a talk on April 6th and University of Chile Law professor José Zalaquett will take part in several events on April 22nd and 23rd, including a lecture on Post-Conflict International Human Rights: Bright Spots, Shadows, Dilemmas.

Four Stanford scholars co-chair “History, Memory & Reconciliation.” They are French Professor Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi, Assistant Professor of English Saikat Majumdar, Law School lecturer and FSI fellow Helen Stacy, and Roland Hsu, Assistant Director of FSI’s Forum on Contemporary Europe.

Professors Majumdar and Boyi answered a few questions about the value of delving into memory and how humanities research informs the broader dialogue. Read the full interview here.