Welcome to our website, the online home of our Australian Research Council (ARC) funded project, Popular Music and Cultural Memory: localised popular music histories and their significance for national music industries. Visit our site regularly for updates on our research's progress, as well as links to our project's outcomes as they appear. Find out more about our project and its aims here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

What do we mean by 'cultural memory'?

In our project, the notion of 'cultural memory' is providing us with a way of thinking about what we see as the traces of the past in the present. More than being another way of saying 'the act of remembering culture', 'cultural memory' refers to a series of ideas in cultural studies and elsewhere that consider the tensions between collective and individual ways of imagining the past in our contemporary experience, and how this connects with identity in both cases. Another way of saying this is that 'cultural memory' is concerned with the relationships between the public and the private stories that we tell about the past.

For instance -- one 'public' articulation of the story of music in Australia is the page contained on the Federal Government site, the Culture Portal, a site that ran from 1997-2010 with the aim of 'providing wide electronic access to cultural material' (the site is no longer updated, but is preserved for posterity by the National Library's PANDORA project). This page provides a certain kind of narrative about Australian music's history, which appeals to -- and indeed produces -- a collective sense of our nation's past. This is 'our story'. It is a mediated story, of course, available to us online in a public forum, and told for us by a government agency. Reading the text, you'll find a story about popular music in Australia that might sound reasonably familiar to you, naming the progression of styles and artists and events, combined here in such a way as to produce a coherent narrative about the past. It's one way of remembering our shared music heritage.

A 'private' memory story about popular music might be a lot more ordinary. Take the box of cassette tapes that is pictured in the photo on this site's masthead. That's a photo of my tapes, circa 1991, before i got a CD player, and represents a point of access into a series of my personal memories of popular music. You might not be able to make out the titles, but the box contains my homemade copy of the 'St Elmo's Fire' soundtrack, the songs from 'The Sound of Music', the 'Summer '88' compilation, Morrissey's 'Bona Drag', an Elvis compilation, 'Three Imaginary Boys' by The Cure -- and who knows what lurks under those tapes on the top... Seeing these tapes unlocks a whole raft of memories for me. I remember my friend from school lent me her LP of 'St Elmo's Fire' in about 1989, and I sat cross legged in front of my parents' record player supervising it spin as I dubbed my copy, and carefully wrote out the track list in two different coloured pens. I remember choreographing a dance to the theme song, 'Man in Motion'. I remember my love for Rob Lowe, who starred in the film.

Both the 'public' and the 'private' memories exhibited here are connected, though they might not seem to be at first. The 'public' story holds in tension with my 'private' recollection -- neither looks like the other, but this is important, because it shows that this paticular 'collective' version of music's history in Australia does not capture the specificity of the personal history I remember when I rummage through the material artefacts in my tape box; nor does my personal history neatly match up with a sense of a common Australian experience. My 'Australian' music memory is more about an American movie star, two forms of outmoded technology, and jazz ballet lessons, than it is to do with the particular Australian artists deemed important on the Culture Portal, or the development of a recognisably 'national sound'. Of course it would be ludicrous to suggest that the infinite nuances of personal experience could ever be represented in a public story about music, or that even if they did that the result would form a representation of the past that we could identify as 'collective'; however, it is these differences, the ways in which the competing narratives are formed, and what this all might mean for the construction of identity at both the national and individual level, that hold the most interest for us in this project.

As Jose van Dijck puts it, 'personal memory can only exist in relation to collective memory: in order to remember ourselves, we have to constantly align and gauge the individual within the collective, but the sum of individual memories never equals collectivity' (from van Dijck (2007), Mediated Memories in the Digital Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 25).

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