New Peter Wall Institute book Memory peels back the layers of history in a multitude of ways
As Canada approaches the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War on November 11, a great deal is being written and broadcast about that momentous event.
The centenary of the first Remembrance Day has also prompted scholars, the vast majority from UBC, to collaborate on a book called Memory. It explores how information is experienced, conceived, stored, retrieved, and sometimes forgotten.
Edited by Philippe Tortell, Mark Turin, and Margot Young for UBC's Peter Wall Institute of Advanced Studies, Memory includes essays focusing on everything from genetics and astrophysics to Indigenous history and anthems.
"We hope this collection will challenge you to think creatively and deeply about memory—its composition and practice," the editors write in the introduction.
The first essay, "Healing Through Culture", reveals how Vancouver Island University adjunct professor Hilistis Pauline Waterfall reconnected with her Heiltsuk heritage after being separated from her culture at the age of 12.
"My life was like a piece of cork tossed into the ocean at the mercy of storms and changing tides—alone, confused, afraid, disconnected, and lost," she writes in one memorable passage. "Navigating the outside world eclipsed my Heiltsuk roots and often left me caught between the cracks of these two worlds, not truly fitting into either."
The story of her "journey to my Heiltsuk self" involved many mentors, who helped her become a knowledge keeper of her culture.
"The gift of memory has been instrumental in my Heiltsuk cultural reconnaissance," she writes.
In the next chapter, "Ecological Amnesia", UBC anthropology professor Wade Davis offers a reminder that passenger pigeons once accounted for 40 percent of North America’s bird population. Hunters slaughtered them in pursuit of food, and by 1900 the last one in the wild was killed.
Davis also recalls the devastation of the buffalo population, which outnumbered human beings in North America in 1871. According to Davis, they disappeared as a result of “a campaign of biological terrorism unparalleled in the history of the Americas”—more than 100 million were killed.
After considering why human beings are able to forget ecological holocausts of this magnitude, Davis reflects on what humanity can learn from Indigenous people’s relationship with the natural world.
In another essay, called “Global 1918”, UBC historians Tara Mayer and Pheroze Unwalla note that Remembrance Day commemorates the peace that was achieved in the European theatre of war a century ago.
However, they emphasize that this was followed by far more aggressive colonialism in other parts of the world, most notably India. One of those betrayed by the original Armistice was Mahatma Gandhi, who supported the British war effort.
After promising greater political independence, the British “cracked down on the nationalist movement in India as soon as the war ended”, Mayer and Unwalla write. “Under the guise of combatting sedition, they suspended habeas corpus, allowed indefinite incarceration, and sharply curtailed freedoms of assembly and the press.”
Five months after the first Remembrance Day, Col. Reginald Dyer ordered troops to fire into the crowds in the Jallianwala Bagh public garden in Amritsar, killing hundreds of unarmed protesters.
“Apparently, the lessons Europeans claimed to have learned from the ‘war to end all wars’ were not going to be applied beyond Europe itself,” the UBC historians write.
There's so much more beyond this.
French computer scientist Serge Abiteboul’s examines the immortality created by digitization; UBC education professor emeritus Jo-ann Archibald’s provides insights into Indigenous stored memory as a form of pedagogy; and Université de Montreal historian Cynthia E. Milton’s look at memory through the prism of visual arts.
"Long-term perspectives on memory give us a richer understanding of the world, challenging us to expand our imagination beyond our everyday experience," Tortell, Turin, and Young write. "Several essays examine how the creative and performing arts can be used as a vehicle for transforming our understanding of past traumatic events.
"At the same time, the tools of modern science and technology have given us the capacity for seemingly limitless digital memory, while also creating a legacy of environmental destruction that lives on in the synthetic materials that have accumulated around the globe."
The book is an interdisciplinary intellectual smorgasbord for those eager to investigate memory in a multitude of ways—or, in the words of the editors, "a road map to explore the ways that memory matters and how it is transmitted, recorded, and shaped across space and time."