Between remembering and forgetting
From this derives the predominant conception of the relationship between material culture and the processes of remembrance or forgetfulness – that of the supplement
or substitute, letting objects carry the excess of ideas and images which our limited minds cannot contain (Forty 1999: 2). If memory is a mere copy, mementoes are copies of copies. From books to computers, from mementoes to war memorials, material culture shoulders the larger responsibility of our personal and collective memory. The corollary of this, of course, is that the decay or destruction of these objects brings forgetfulness. It is precisely this character that made de Certeau write that objects are the enemies of memory (de Certeau 1984: 87). Not that such a model implies material culture as passive – the explicit materialisation or dematerialisation of events can act to forge memories or facilitate forgetting, they produce memories, not simply recall them. Yet it is precisely the weight of this excess that should perhaps make us stop and rethink the role of material culture as supplement. Can we in fact envisage memory without these so-called substitutes – indeed, could it possibly be that memories are not frequently created from the material strategies we use? In an interesting study on the souvenir, Susan Steward turns this whole formula on its head – she argues that souvenirs are needed for events whose materiality escapes us; rather than acting as a supplement to our memory, they fulfil a basic lack, and establish contexts of perpetual consumption for an experience that is otherwise fleeting – but not necessarily trivial (Steward 1984: 135). She argues that while the souvenir initially acts as a metonym or trace of an original experience, it ultimately displaces this experience as a point of origin as subsequent narratives focus around the souvenir – the narrative in fact becomes the supplement to the object which now becomes the authentic point of reference. Her argument equally applies to all mementoes, whether souvenirs or monuments.