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Memories of colonial pasts: perspectives on a global phenomenon of the present time

Over the last few decades, memory issues have multiplied across the world. From the Holocaust to Latin American dictatorships, from genocides to colonization and slavery, from world wars to decolonization, different moments in history have been the subject of debates, and have prompted new practices and reflections concerning remembrance, anamnesis and forgetting, within a phenomenon of “globalization of memory”. In each case, a specific memory is turned into a public matter through which different actors seek the recognition of their claims in order to turn them into memory policies. This form of memory has become a key value for contemporary democracies. 

While it is relevant to question the phenomenon of memory in its global dimension, it is also interesting to understand how the different mobilizations and politics of memory have circulated between different spaces and historical contexts. Moreover, studies have shown that there is not a single memorial matrix, but "multidirectional" influences between different memories in a national or transnational context. The entangled memories of the Holocaust, decolonization and post-slavery is an example, the study of which has also challenged the common notion of "competitive memories". 

The aim of this conference is to question the specificity of memories linked to various colonial pasts in different contexts. It also intends to understand the social and political processes behind these memory constructions, to identify the vectors and the entrepreneurs of memory, while focusing on the "memory regimes", that is, on the mechanisms intended to establish the meaning of the past in the social space. 

Whether linked to the colonization of the Americas, Africa or Asia, to slavery or to the wars of liberation, so-called anti-colonial or – more recently – postcolonial memories are at the heart of political and social claims whose study requires a broad perspective. All these different memories seem to have given rise to the status of "ancestral victims" shaped by individuals or groups who seek recognition and even demand reparation on this ground. This idea goes hand in hand with new memory policies that consider these pasts as traumatic, and call for their public policy or for a social healing through the action of the public authorities. Therefore, two underlying questions may arise: what does it mean to remember a past sometimes located in very distant times from the contemporary period? And why do these memories bring up such intense controversies in the public space today? 

Moreover, forgiveness and reparations are now considered essential issues when dealing with these colonial pasts. Recently, several European countries have made historical apologies while former colonized countries have demanded apologies and reparations. This contemporary double movement, that refutes the possibility of reparation by forgetting, raises a question: why are we lead to think that colonial pasts constitute crimes that must be forgiven and/or repaired in the present? This question can be completed by the following one: what forms do these requests and acts of forgiveness/reparation take depending on whether the colonial pasts is more or less distant? 

It is also necessary to mention another main aspect of the topic: the claims for patrimonialization related to colonial pasts. Over the past thirty years, heritage studies have shifted from the study of heritage towards that of patrimonialization, understood as the process by which a community recognizes the heritage status of material and immaterial objects, as well as an obligation to safeguard and transmit them, but also to restore them to former colonized countries. Heritage, as it is conceived today, has become a tool for acquiring rights. This conference aims at identifying, both in time and space, the actors, the motivations and the social evolutions which lead to the patrimonialization processes related to the colonial pasts and to slavery. 

Ultimately, the matters raised by the memories of colonial pasts and slavery are also related to the construction of identities (local, regional, national). In this context, narratives about collective identities involve memory as a kind of recounting more sensitive to suffering (recent and historical), all the while summoning up visions of imagined pasts that are often very homogeneous, and even simplistic. 

The connected study of these issues goes beyond the simple analysis of the instrumentalizations of the past. It also raises questions related to the use of different epistemologies and questions the extent to which one can use historical experiences that are a priori not comparable to build interpretations. Moreover, the rise, development and uses of memorial policies concerning different colonial pasts must be examined. In the same way, it is necessary to question the sometimes-limited effect of one of the main objectives pursued by the promoters of memory policies: to form more tolerant citizens by reminding them of the past. 

Through brand-new empirically grounded papers, this conference will offer the opportunity to discuss and clarify the notion of "memory(ies)" which has become particularly polysemic today. The issue is nevertheless also a disciplinary one, because this notion is still too often apprehended, within the historical field, in a strict, and very reductive and ineffective, opposition between history and memory. Such an opposition delegitimizes historians’ inquiry into this object of study, as evidenced by the institutional weakness of this field of research, and, on the other hand, engenders a form of confusion, by involving another register which is that of the social role of the historian acting as an expert on a “memory” object ruled as a public problem, as we have seen recently for the Algerian war. 

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