Why COVID-19 calls us back to “communities of memory”

By Rowan Light April 07, 2020

As we try to make sense of the pandemic sweeping the globe, it’s been interesting seeing people turn to stories. The 2011 film Contagion has jumped to the top 10 on Netflix; publishers report a boost in sales of classic novels such as Albert Camus’ The Plague and The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. New Zealand media have been running frequent pieces on Black November in 1918 and the last polio epidemic of the 1950s.

As well as suggesting that many people now have a lot more time on their hands, the new interest in the pandemic genre also reflects how we look to stories to help us make sense of ourselves. It’s a quiet recognition that the past has something to tell us.

Contemporary culture suffers a kind of “chronological snobbery” – what’s come before is suspect, irrelevant, and backward. We privilege, above all else, “progress” or the notion that what is new is better, reflected in our technologically-orientated culture with its various status-symbols like the latest iPhone or the Tesla Model S.  We look to the future to save us and avoid the seemingly more antagonistic past with its difficult legacies of war, genocide, colonisation, and the like.

It’s a quiet recognition that the past has something to tell us.

In times of crisis and change, however, humans find comfort in and look to the beliefs, practices, and ways of being handed down to us to make sense of our lives. Institutions of community, in particular, provide tangible evidence of longevity and cultural frameworks that go beyond our immediate family or household. Individuals, by themselves, cannot fabricate this vital resource; instead, we do well to rely on what has been built up and passed on over time.

These are our “communities of memory,” repositories of human experience that go beyond one person’s lifetime and communicate the value of shared practices and places. Just as our own memories are central to the way we construct our identity over our lifetime, so too the collective memory of our communities links us to each other and provides a vision of stability and order.

These “stockpiles” of the past might include religious and cultural traditions that span thousands of years of human experience; the wharenui that our great-grandparents carved over a hundred years ago; the honours board and calendar of annual events at the local tennis club that’s been going since 1953. All of these rely on collaboration between generations, each sustaining and adding value for the next. More than mere nostalgia, these materials, places, and practices provide the very shape of our lives.

Memory is history in the first person; it makes the past ours.

The problem is many New Zealanders lack connection to any of these precious resources of meaning and comfort. Indeed, forms of community have been declining in New Zealand for some time, from volunteering for charities, to participation in club sport and church attendance. We’ve been sliding into a kind of “memory lockdown,” distancing ourselves from the places and practices given to us by previous generations—a self-inflicted isolation that has been reflected in our pocked landscape of poor mental health, loneliness, and splintering social ties.

This isolation means we also lose the stories from the past that we use to frame our life experiences and remind us of continuity in the face of radical discontinuity in our everyday lives. Stories, whether from written literature or the oral traditions of family and whānau networks, provide shared lessons, images, and vocabularies to imagine human relationships, even when not physically present. Memory is history in the first person; it makes the past ours.

The lack of shared practices and places magnify, rather than mitigate, some of the effects of the lockdown. It’s all the harder to orientate ourselves in the “new normal.” Moreover, the lockdown has put all of our communities on hold, essentially threatening to scrub what’s left of these vital parts of our society.

The lockdown is an opportunity to reflect on how we might better nurture “communities of memory.” 

Slowing down and taking stock during the lockdown is an opportunity to reflect on how we might better nurture “communities of memory.” We might ask ourselves: when was the last time I did something with other people that relied on sets of stories, beliefs, practices, and places that had been meaningful to men and women no longer living? In the aftermath of the crisis, we should look to re-connect with the communities we have neglected, and look to make new connections—perhaps by extending a dinner invitation to the people who put that teddy bear in the window down the street.

Our technology is great for getting us through the boredom of the lockdown, but it’s face-to-face communities which have a sustained purpose beyond one human lifetime that are going to prove crucial in the long-term recovery of our society—and help us weather future crises.

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