What should be remembered?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the disputes around Ushahidi’s role in humanitarian efforts and came round to thinking that we may be looking in the wrong place to discover the work that tools like Ushahidi’s Crowdmap are doing in the world. Whereas humanitarian organisations are asking (good) questions about whether Ushahidi’s tools help or hinder their efforts, another way to look at it might be to look from the perspective of the people making the maps and reports themselves. What work is Ushahidi doing for them? How do they see Ushahidi’s effectiveness? What social role does reporting play and how could we begin to measure effectiveness?

This morning I read a wonderful article by Tamar Ashuri from Ben-Gurion University for an upcoming edition of the journal New Media and Society entitled ‘(Web)sites of memory and the rise of moral mnemonic agents‘. Ashuri looked at how two websites set up by Israelis – one to monitor human rights of Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints; the other to collect testimonies of Israeli soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories – act as agents of collective memory. Ashuri argues that digital networked technologies is challenging the mechanisms that society employs to deny memories of immoral acts and how the online archives created by moral witnesses become a space of living memory and a sphere of moral engagement.

Ashuri explains that ‘collective memory is a social necessity; neither an individual nor a society can do without it.’ She quotes from Kansteiner (2002: 180) to describe how collective memory is different from history:

Collective memory is not history, though sometimes made from similar material […]. It can take hold of historically and socially remote events but it often privileges the interest of the contemporary. It is as much a result of conscious manipulation as unconscious absorption and it is always mediated.

Ashuri describes how Avishai Margalit distinguishes between “common memory” (a group of people who recall a certain episode that each of them experienced) and “shared memory” (which requires communication). Shared memory is is not just an aggregate of individual memories because it requires those who remember the episode to come together to create one version (or at least a few version) through an active presentation and retelling of a story that Margalit terms ‘a division of mnemonic labor’ (2002: 52). Margalit wrote that whereas in traditional society there was a direct line from the people to their priest, storyteller or shaman, shared memory in modern society ‘travels from person to person through institutions, such as archives, and through communal mnemonic devices, such as monuments and the names of streets’ (2002: 52). Ushuri posits a new term “joint memory” to describe a new type of memory that is a ‘compilation of personal histories made public for the public’ (2011: 4). She argues that digital networked technology is challenging the exclusive role of professional mnemonic agents designated by the church, state, monarchy etc.

Significantly, joint memory is not motivated by personal interests – the desire to tell an interesting story or reveal new information – but is driven by a social purpose: Witnesses who add their recollections to an accessible and shareable compilation of memories attempt to expose events that the default collective (such as the nation) denies or wishes to forget.

I don’t agree that such reporting is not motivated at all by personal interests but I do agree with the fact that the social/moral purpose of witnessing is really critical here. Ashuri builds on Margalit’s conception of a moral witness whose testimony is ‘essentially driven by a moral purpose. It reflects hope for the witness to be a social agent who, in testifying to his or her harsh experience, transforms (passive) addressees into active audiences’. She says that what is happening now is slightly different because the moral witness now performs memories of suffering experienced in a public space.

In my conceptualisation, the (moral) mnemonic agent is the one who recalls his or her memories regarding events in whcih others have suffered and by that act of witnessing renders this suffering visible and hence difficult to marginalize or deny. The moral aspect of this act, in my estimation, derives from the content of the mnemonic text (testimony about suffering inflicted by evil) and from its objective (calling on the audience to shed their observer garb and re-enact the experience of the harsh realities). (p5)

I think this is really useful way to think about how websites like Ushahidi as well as engagement on social media sites like Twitter are acting as platforms for this kind of performance and the communication of suffering, and how this is one way of looking at how collective narratives about the world are being wrested from those who traditionally controlled this in the Middle East. Whether it is reporting on human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, harassment of women in Egypt on Harassmap  or reports of arrests and casualties in Syria I think that looking at the maps through the lens of moral witnessing and Ashuri’s “joint memory” could be a wonderful entry point for re-thinking Ushahidi’s role and effectiveness in the world.


6 thoughts on “What should be remembered?

  1. Thanks for sharing that link, Ory – I remember following your journey on Twitter that time. Agree that this was the original goal but it seems to have been taken over by the humanitarian community to some extent – wishing for it to be more – more functional, more useful to them and their goals – when the original goal was to give voice to people on the ground. Perhaps that is enough and perhaps that is what we need to ensure is the focus? Also, I haven’t read everything on this list http://community.ushahidi.com/research/relevant-literature/ and maybe there are things missing but I definitely see that in the scholarly literature around Ushahidi, the general focus is not on the moral witness element or on stories of people on the ground, but rather on Ushahidi’s role in humanitarian efforts, conflicts etc. That is certainly a mediated view of what is happening here. At least that’s what I think. So perhaps not a new way of thinking, but in my mind definitely needs to be returned to.

  2. The two test cases brought by Tamar Ashuri are problematic, because they both relates to a heated political debate which is very emotionally charged. While I can understand why Ashuri values these two projects – Machsom Watch (=”(West Bank) checkpoint watch”) and Shovrim Shtika (=”breaking silence”, namely collecting testimonies of Israeli soldiers) – as something that challenges the good old way of building the corpus of historical narratives and discourses, but in fact, these projects fit very well into the Israeli political schemes. They are successful because they both represent a very established section of the Israeli politics.

  3. That is really interesting, Dror. So are you saying that these voices/websites are still mediated – not through institutions like museums but through dominant political lenses?

  4. Yes, this is a good way to put it. There is a discourse here with unofficial yet well defined limits, and this discourse is promoted by dominant extra-parliamentary movements. You have better chances to receive attention and help (whether financial or any other kind of help) when you keep within the limits of a discourse or its rival one, and yet there is rather wide range in between, or beyond them, which is often lost, because people don’t think it should be published, or even don’t bother to develop it into texts.

    Of course, the new media offer better chances for these “orphan” views to be expressed, and yet we have to remember that new media don’t change people (at least not that quickly and easily) – most of the stuff we find is still what people think is worth saying according to “good old” criteria.

    Machsom Watch and Shovrim Shtika are certainly within one of the well-defined accepted discourses of the Israeli society. It is (currently) an opposition discourse, but it is not an innovative discourse. For the sake of being fair – this has nothing to do with with the truthfulness of the testimonies or the way they should be treated. This is a different issue altogether.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s