The Politics of Memory

The upcoming February 23, 2018, lecture by Mr. Jamie Swift on the theme of The Politics of Memory: rewriting history is a very timely and politically sensitive lecture theme for some of the reasons I am about to share with you.

You might want to check out and read the Kingston Whig-Standard, Tuesday, February 20, 2018, edition and go to the article in Section B, Page 1 entitled Rewriting Canada’s memory banks: Archivists ‘decolonize’ collections. The article is by THE CANADIAN PRESS writer Mr. Bob Weber.

Mr. Weber starts out his own article saying, “Reconciliation is rewriting Canada’s memory banks as archivists across the country work to make their collections more open and sensitive towards Indigenous people.”

The study of “human memory” is a very complex and politically and cross-culturally sensitive scientific research topic for most academic researchers on so many personal and scientific research levels.

The area of scientific human memory research is currently both very broad, and very specialized. Our individual and collective human understanding of who we are, and what may or may not happen to our memories, imperfect as they may be after we die
takes on a special research significance in our digital age, for people from all walks of life.

No other time in human history has it become so easy and low cost for both private individuals and powerful elites from around the world to both record, modify, destroy and/or preserve all types of human experiences in digital format. The digital recording and controlling of our human life experiences may be for both commercial gain and/or political reasons of seeking to have power and control over other individuals.

The U.S. historian and author Abby Smith Rumsey has written an interesting book worth considering reading with the title “When We Are No More. Theme: How Digital Memory is Shaping Our Future.”This same book title is available through our local library lending system. Ms. Rumsey is described by her publisher as an American historian who writes about how ideas and information technologies shape perceptions of history, of human time and of personal and cultural identity.

Ms. Rumsey has consulted with many libraries on digital collecting and curation, and intellectual property issues and the economics of digital information. Ms. Rumsey opening question in her book to all of her readers is framed thus, “What is the future of human memory? What will people know about us when we are gone?” Rumsey’s book is a call to action in our digital age. Rumsey points out in our digital age it has become so cheap to record and digitally store all human experiences. The practical question arises as to which pieces of information do we need to store and preserve for posterity, in what storage format and what information items do we choose to discard? Rumsey also asserts in her book that “…data storage is different from memory; what we know from neuroscience about the value of forgetting; and above all, why memory is about the future, not the past.”

An Introduction to the Politics of Memory

While there is humanity, history was, is, and will never be as accurate as mathematical equations or scientific discoveries. History, as an ancient academic discipline, is a very subjective matter. Although the advent of the 19th and 20th centuries introduced several systematic approaches, there will always be lapses in writing, reading, discussing, and interpreting history.

The oversights, misconceptions, and prejudices are the main culprits that malign history. When the record is partial and lacking, where else will mankind learn the past, analyse the present, and determine the future? Beyond writing and recording, veering away from biases is a crucial task that every historian must perfect.

Sources are the lifeblood of historians. Without them, integrity is a deception. There are two general groups of sources: material and immaterial. Between the two, the latter is more difficult as it commonly refers to oral testimonies/memories. The retention of information is heavily affected by ageing, and sometimes, cultural and political factors.

Given that the mere study of human memory is a broad, quite elusive and complex topic, Later Life Learning invites you to the second session of its Series B lectures. 

On February 23 at 10:00 AM, author and historian Jamie Swift will explain to us the essence and challenges of human memory in writing and rewriting history. In today’s time, scholars call it the politics of memory.

Jamie Swift: About the speaker

Meet Jamie Swift, the speaker of this upcoming lecture.

Born in Montreal, Swift is an award-winning journalist, author, activist, and historian. Over the course of his scholastic career, most of his oeuvre addresses the issues of social justice, economy, climate change, globalisation, and politics.

His bachelor’s degree is African Studies at McGill University. In the mid-1970s, he became active in a few social activist communities, leading him to his knack and passion for writing. In 1977, his first published work (a book) entitled The Big Nickel: Inco at Home and Abroad was a success. This piece explored and shed light on the effects of nickel production in third world countries.

Aside from his books, which are listed as follows, Swift’s journals and newspapers are mostly issued on major Canadian platforms. Examples include The Globe and Mail, The Montreal Gazette, and The Kingston Whig-Standard, to name a few. Then in 1996, Governor Romeo LeBlanc awarded his intellectual contributions with the Michener-Deacon Fellowship for Public Service Journalism.

Fast forward to now, Swift resides in Kingston and currently lectures at the Queen’s School of Business. Here are some of his selected individual and co-written works:

  • Cut and Run: The Assault on Canada’s Forests (1983)
  • Wheel of Fortune: Work and Life in the Age of Falling Expectations (1995)
  • Civil Society in Question (1999)
  • Walking the Union Walk: Stories from the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union (2003)
  • Hydro: The Decline and Fall of Ontario’s Electric Empire (2004)
    • By Jamie Swift and Keith Stewart
  • Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety (2012)
    • By Jamie Swift and Ian McKay
  • Getting Started on Social Analysis in Canada, Fourth Edition (2003)
    • By: Jacqueline M. Davies, Jamie Swift, Robert Clarke, and Michael Czerny

The Politics of Memory: Rewriting History

The politics of memory broadly covers the disciplines of history, politics, psychology, and philosophy. It understands their complex relationships and impact on one another in the quest of portraying historical events in politics during the 20th century. 

Simply put, it examines how individual and collective memories of certain historical events are expressed and exploited based on the different political settings and cultures. It sees how the past is remembered, recorded, and passed or discarded to the next generation.

In the study of historiography (a branch of history), the politics of memory plays a crucial role in determining the way past events are written and rewritten. That is why it is often interchanged with the terms ‘history of politics’ or ‘politics of history’. In this sense, no politics of memory could ever be universal and neutral.

Have you ever wondered why the events in the 19th and 20th centuries are quite contentious? Why Soviet Stalinism or Eastern European communism couldn’t be fully reduced after the Cold War? Or, why the Holocaust, World Wars 1 and 2, and other raging wars and deaths not completely understood? These major cases are concerned with and quite affected by the said collective memory.

They become vexed when authentic historical memories are politicised and modified out of the group’s identity, cultural forces, and social norms. The ability to sway people’s memories affecting the truth of past events exhibits the power of subjectivity and authority. In spite of the scientific methods set forth by Karl Popper, Carl Hempel, and William Dray, history as a discipline will always bridge the gap between liberal arts and social sciences.

Works of authors and scholars

To give you an idea of this lecture, here are three sample works of authors and historians related to the politics of memory.

  • Carl Becker — What are Historical Facts?

In the study of historical writing, it is imperative for aspiring researchers to go through the works of Carl Becker. Born in 1873, this American historian was lauded for his interpretations. Such they were written in the manners of clarity, grace, and novelty.

Becker believed that studying history should not be new to other people. Given that this field has to do with the minds of people, he arrived at his subjective understanding and analysis of history. Although this belief gained him critiques, questioning whether he might have lost track of how the discipline works, he still pursued it.

His pursuit of this knowledge led him to say the very famous phrase, ‘every man was his own historian’. According to him, there are two kinds of histories: (1) the actual series of events that once occurred and (2) the ideal series of events that we affirm and hold in memory.

The latter type of history is similar to the politics of memory, although his philosophy is years ahead. As Becker put it, a true historian is someone who holds a memory. This, in turn, is where his relativism enters. Given that the facts of every human being or social group is not known to the rest in this world, what your minds hold are what you can consider the truth. 

  • Bob Weber — Rewriting Canada’s Memory Banks

The politics of memory is a timely yet sensitive lecture. As for Weber, it is an opportunity to rewrite Canada’s memory banks. According to his article, archivists across the country work together to compile their collections in order to bring more openness and awareness towards Indigenous people. 

  • Abby Smith Rumsey — When We Are No More: How Digital Memory is Shaping Our Future

While the politics of memory gives chances and power to groups of people who were left behind in textbooks, the individual and collective memories in the digital world are quite the opposite. In this age, it has become so easy and low cost for powerful elites to record, change, or destroy human experiences in an instant.

About the Series B lectures

If you liked the politics of memory lecture, we guarantee you other interesting and relevant topics under this series. Series B (Winter 2018) — entitled ‘Controversy & Conflicts in Contemporary Politics’ — boldly discusses the remarkable changes in the political scene in Canada and the world.

The phenomenon of the complex power and pervasion of politics in today’s different sector is quite evident. Now, it is more complicated than ever before. So, don’t miss out on the chance to understand what is happening in the world. Come and see how politics drive history, people, and the future. Listed as follows are the details of Series B lectures.

Lecture 1

  • Date: February 16
  • Title: Populism and Democracy
  • Speaker: Professor Zsuzsa Csergo (Head of the Department of Political Studies, Queen’s University)

Lecture 2

  • Date: February 23
  • Title: The Politics of Memory: Rewriting History
  • Speaker: Jamie Swift (author and historian)

Lecture 3

  • Date: March 2
  • Title: Conflict in the Name of God: The Resurgence of Religious Politics
  • Speaker: Ambassador (retired) Louis A. Delvoie of the Centre for International and Defence Policy

Lecture 4

  • Date: March 9
  • Title: Trade Policy on the Cusp
  • Speaker: Professor Robert Wolfe (School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University)

Lecture 5

  • Date: March 16
  • Title: Surveillance, Security, and Democracy
  • Speaker: Professor David Lyons (Director of the Surveillance Project, Queen’s University)


Both Series A and B lectures have costs. You will get a much higher discount if you will attend them both.

  • Series B: CAD67 per person (5 lectures)
  • Series A and B: CAD124 per person (10 lectures)

Apart from interesting topics coming from prominent speakers, your payments come with the following:

  • Complete flow of each programme: All LLL lectures consist of a 1-hour talk, followed by a 15-minute coffee break (coffee and snacks are covered by your food stub), then finally end with a 45-minute Question and Answer session with the speaker. 
  • Certificate: At the end of the series, our team will email you with a certificate. It is proof that you attended and took part in Series B. See to it that you will have signed our attendance sheets before entering the venue.