The ‘age of commemoration’ as a narrative construct: a critique of the discourse on the contemporary crisis of memory in France

Pierre Nora’s account of the ‘age of commemoration’ has been extremely influential in shaping the way that memory is understood in France as well as in other countries. But what those who adopt Nora’s historical account of the rise of memory often overlook, is that the story of the ‘age of commemoration’ is a narrative construct. This article argues that Nora’s historical explanation of the rise of memory constitutes memory as an historical object, and explains it through emplotment. Nora has constructed a story of crisis in which individual memories stand as ‘symptoms’ of, and reactions to, the ‘acceleration of history’. The significance of memory is supposed to lie in what it tells us about the times in which ‘we’ live. Memory is thus construed as a panicked reaction to historical changes, and the manifestation of an existential crisis in France. Nora’s account of memory is widely referred to in academic as well as public discussions on the memories of minority groups in France. These memory movements are viewed in the historical context of the ‘age of commemoration’. But this historicization functions to circumscribe their meaning: emplotted into the story of the ‘age of commemoration’ minority memories are rendered as symptoms of a macrocosmic malaise. The content of their discourse is thereby marginalized, ignored or deemed insignificant.