Volume 67, Issue 1, Winter 2023
Toward Collective Memory Reconstruction as Epistemic Activism
The United States, alongside other Western democracies, is in search of a usable past. Collective memory in the United States has persistently distorted or whitewashed its past, resulting in a distinct kind of (socially sanctioned) ignorance of the present. Collective memory reconstruction can thus be understood as “epistemic activism,” targeting an “epistemology of ignorance,” borrowing and expanding key concepts from the work of Charles Mills and José Medina. In this article I begin to defend an ethical practice of collective memory reconstruction as epistemic activism. I first outline a qualified understanding of “collective memory” that survives philosophical skepticism. I then draw on Paul Ricœur’s critical phenomenology of abuses of memory and analyze collective memory distortions of the US Civil War and the US struggle for civil rights. I suggest that a reconstructed democratic collective memory will be a set of plural and dynamic collective memories, rather than a homogeneous and static memory. I end by outlining some consequences that follow from this conclusion.