In this paper, I propose a new approach for understanding the meaning of memory politics, which draws upon the archetypal literary criticism of Northrop Frye. I suggest that the four archetypes elaborated by Frye—comedy, romance, tragedy, and satire—can be used as a heuristic device for interpreting the contested historical narratives that are associated with the politics of memory. I illustrate this approach through a case-study of Artists and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, an exhibition held at Tate Britain in 2016, amidst increasing contestation over the meaning of the British Empire. In sum, I find that the exhibit narrated Britain’s imperial past as a comedy, in which a key theme was the progressive cultural mixing of the British and the people they colonized. To conclude, I discuss the implications of such a narrative for constructing an inclusive, postcolonial British identity. As an alternative, I draw on Aristotle to suggest that a tragic narrative would have been more propitious.
American Journal of Cultural Sociology – Springer Journals
Published: Sep 1, 2021
Keywords: Collective memory; Formalism; Northrop Frye; British Empire; National identity; Tate Britain