Philosophy, Eugenics and Disability in Alberta and Places North – Rob Wilson Part 1

On October 25, 2008, the What Sorts Network hosted a public symposium to examine, well, philosophy, eugenics, and disability in Alberta and places north. Four speakers were featured on the panel, Dick Sobsey, Simo Vehmas, Martin Tweedale, and Rob Wilson. This event was video recorded and over the next month we will highlight these videos on this blog. Roughly four videos will be featured each week.

To download the full description of the symposium please click here.

With this video we begin the first part of the presentation by Rob Wilson. Professor Wilson’s presentation is titled “Building Inclusive Communities Through Practices of Collective Memory: The Case of Eugenic Sterilization in Alberta.” Part interim report, part philosophical reflection, this presentation is a glimpse into the ongoing process of exploring the eugenics history of Alberta.

Part 1

Highlights: collective memory, particular practices of collective memory, constructive value of the very activity of remembering, direction of the What Sorts Network.

Transcript below the cut.


Rob Wilson: I want to say something a little more constructive about one of the main notions at least in the title, that of collective memory. So, in the academy the notion of collective memory is one of those kind of buzz notions that has really taken off in the last 10 years, particularly, most prominently in Holocaust studies. This is a picture of a sort of wall of photographs at the Holocaust museum in Washington I was at about a year and a half ago. More generally in history and sociology in the study of nationalism, there’s a lot of focus on this idea of memories of collectives, of groups that have identities that are ongoing and regulated by the particular forms of memory that they engage in, particular kinds of commemorative activities they use to regulate themselves. There have been other, in some sense less politically loaded contexts in which this talk of collective memory has taken off. Phil Petitt, for example, talks about legal and corporate contexts in which you have high level institutional decision-making that he wants to claim we need to invoke the notion of a sort of group mind or collective mind that’s got a memory component to it, but there is some decision making. There’s another kind of putative group mental ability and also in discussion of collective intelligence. There’s a longer sort of tradition that goes back to the very foundations of social science in the work of Durkheim, and also picked up in some of the earliest work that we might retrospectively identify as philosophy of biology on social insect colonies coming out of Harvard in the early part of the 20th century.

I’m interested in not just collective memory as a construct and how we think about it, I mean, I am interested in that, but not only that. I’m interested in the particular sorts of practices of collective memory or remembering. Okay. And here it’s the idea, it’s not the individual doing the acts of remembering, or if it is the individuals they’re in a particular sort of social context and that context is not just some incidental feature of the forms of remembering they engage in. Those forms are, if you like, intrinsically constituted by the particular social context in which they take place even if the activities of individuals, or whether it is the activity of groups themselves that we think of as being the subjects of memory here. I think there’s a lot to be said and I’ve learned in part what I do know about this from the work of Sue Campbell at Dalhousie, though I don’t think she puts things in quite as psychoanalytic way as I have framed here. Thinking about remembering with a certain kind of social recognition, with a certain kind of social stamp of authority on it, as a kind of working through for a community to sort of revisit traumatic events in the past in some way that has a constructive outcome because of that very activity of remembering. So it’s modeled on the case of the individual and working through some traumatic event through psychotherapeutic interventions. But the idea is we can apply that kind of model over to thinking about what might happen in a social context of remembering. That’s a way to characterize the practice of collective memory. And of course if you think about it with that analogy in mind, many of these forms of group remembering at the group level are going to be difficult. They’re going to involve, they’re going to be very emotional, they’re going to be very charged, they’re going to involve, in some cases, rightful embitterment… people are going to be sort of pissed off because of the way in which they were treated and going through that process of working through communally in a semi- or fully-public way is going to involve basically a lot of tears, a lot of hurt, a lot of painful reliving. But at the same time, at least as I see it, and I think as it’s developed in a lot of communities in which this is being practiced, and I think you can pick your own favorite sorts of examples here, it also leads to a kind of self-affirmation. In some cases it may be the only way to exercise that kind of self-affirmation and to recover oneself and move to forward.

So, you might think in Canada, the sort of process that is on people’s minds recently since the summer apology, the Residential School’s Commission, Sue Campbell herself has worked directly as a philosopher advising and writing for the Residential Schools Commission in the native community. Another sort of example that is brought to mind by the recent visit of Sarah Schulman to campus is the work of ACTUP New York. Sarah Schulman was an activist in the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power in New York, in the early 1980s for about seven or eight years and over the last six or seven years she has created this oral history project. This is the website for ACTUP, where she’s interviewed the 100 remaining living members of ACTUP New York. The interviews range from about 30 minutes to about 4 hours and they’re all fully available-they’re videos-on this website and as transcripts, you can download them free or you can get 5 minutes snippets of each of them, or you can request the whole lot. And it’s a very powerful way to remember not just a social movement but the phenomena the social movement was about. So it’s a kin of archiving sort of project, that I think you can fit into this model of collective memory.

But, the case that’s most on my mind, is the history of eugenics in Western Canada, and its connection to contemporary disability and its study, because at the moment I’m engaged in a project that is of this type. It’s not well-formed enough to say it’s taken exactly this direction or that direction, but for the last few years and that’s part of what forming the What Sorts Of People Network is about, is trying to get academics, activists, community members, sterilization survivors, members of disability organizations together around a sort of set of questions and issues and concerns that will be kind of, that will involve some kind of practice of collective memory, and they have been involving those practices.


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