The world we live in is encased in memory projects, undertakings designed to reconstruct versions of the past suitable for a myriad of purposes in the present. The cohesive narratives and glorious monuments that punctuated the culture and politics of nation-states now appear as mere options on a lengthy menu of books, films, sites, and images of times gone by. Scholars have not been reluctant to advance explanations for this cultural discord. Many have argued that the rise of memory, with its links to individual and group subjectivity and its disdain for the domination of officials, has exploded in the aftermath of the decline of the nation-state. In the most powerful nations in the world, traditional accounts of the relationship between the past, present, and future have withered. In the United States this has given rise to voices that contest interpretations of change over time that have venerated the nation as a source of material prosperity or democratic rights for all. In many nations, images of heroic men who defeated a country's enemies now must fight for cultural space against stories and symbols that expose the evil ways of a nation's leaders themselves. Thus, today in France, Germany, and Japan, significant political debates occur over the degree to which these nations were responsible for violence directed not only toward outsiders but also toward their own citizens.
Hue-Tam Ho Tai's masterful collection of essays that explore how
This book also suggests that the “commemorative fever” that is sweeping Vietnam is about more than Vietnam's history. It also has a great deal to do with the problems premodern cultures presented to those who promoted the creation of contemporary states. In this regard both Vietnam and this book offer all scholars of nationalism and remembering in the West a fascinating perspective on their own nations. Traditions of public debate over commemoration or monuments did not exist in totalitarian regimes; the cultural distance between peasant societies and modern states was immense not only because totalitarian governments could not promise a democratic future but also because they were so far removed from people steeped in premodern traditions. Thus, we can see in this volume that the incredible force of cultural domination in peasant societies produced a countermovement to hold on to memory in unique and compelling ways. When the Vietnamese government attempted to honor the dead who had fought the Americans, they cast their commemorations in predictable tropes of patriotism and heroism. Such images, however, held only a limited value for families deeply attached to rituals that signified that the dead would be reborn in an “otherworld” where they would join a community of ancestors. Thus, in a local community in northern Vietnam studied in this