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Conversation with Jan Assmann

Historian and specialist about the cultural memories

by Caroline Gaudriault

Memory goes hand-in-hand with forgetting.

Hypothesis VI, The Three Graces Hypothesis VI, The Three Graces   © Gérard Rancinan

Caroline Gaudriault – Over the course of your career you have developed an interest in cultural memory. How would you define the concept?

Jan Assmann – My preferred field is Ancient Egypt. I’m not only interested in how ideas were transmitted through writing, but also through memory and the political imagination which characterised that Antique civilisation.
Cultural memory is not the same as personal memory; it’s a kind of collective memory that develops through communication, through language, or, in other words, within a context of socialisation. Our world is socially constructed on the foundations of collective thought; every one of us possesses, on the one hand, an individual memory, and, on the other, a social one. Cultural memory is manifested in communication and participation in living memory, in a process which takes different forms, encompassing rituals, meals, the landscape … In other words, it manifests itself in “places of memory”, to use Pierre Nora’s phrase. It’s a kind of memory based on recognition, on belonging, and it’s dependent on certain objects which carry that memory within them. Whether it’s a type of habitat or a certain kind of food … It’s the idea that an object or an image serves as a vehicle for a particular memory and that, by looking at it we are transported to a group memory. In the same way that Proust’s Madeleine takes him back to his childhood. In fact, it’s a form of recognition based on emotion.
That’s the whole difference with History, in which events are neutral and linked to the past. They are the object of knowledge, but that knowledge is not necessarily associated with a lived emotion, with our relationship with a particular event. History is neutral, a thing of the past; cultural memory is living and personal. It underpins the idea of collective identity, of a group, a nation. Every society in the world has a cultural memory.

CG – But memory fades …

JA – Initially, there is an emotional memory, which lasts for several generations. For example, today, there are no more surviving witnesses of the Armenian genocide, but the children and grandchildren of the people who experienced the genocide have a personal emotion linked to the event, an emotion which, it’s been estimated, lasts eighty years. Beyond that period, the emotion evoked by the event begins to fade. It’s difficult to genuinely empathise with an event which has not created an emotion in you. For the following generations, the event will belong to the cultural memory of their people and will help explain their culture. It’s not transmitted like history, which is based on knowledge, but calls upon symbolisation, traditions, personal writings, as well as religious sites, rituals, customs, costumes, tattoos … And this kind of memory can last for thousands of years …
Of course, we could call it tradition. However, tradition contains within it an idea of continuity, while cultural memory also involves a process of forgetting, moments of rupture and rebirth. We have to accept that. So in order to survive, cultural memory depends on two different mechanisms: canonisation or, in other words, the selection of what must be taught to the younger generations; and the archive, which enables us to retrieve memories.

CG – Because memory can’t retain everything, it has to be selective. But the notion of group memory raises the question of the ability to make personal choices …

JA – In effect, some people have to make choices for others. In France, for example, you created the Pléïade collection, which is a cultural canon, a selection of literary works regarded as being superior to all others. It’s a kind of sacaralisation sanctioned by members of the Académie Française. Certain museum curators and directors of cultural institutions play the same kind of role.

CG – When one considers how works are selected in the contemporary art world today, one can only hope that in the past choices were not as obviously based on economic factors …

JA – It’s true that it’s a question characteristic of the times in which we live. It was never asked in Ancient Egypt. Today, choices are made by collectors, and I have to agree with you that those choices are not artistically objective. Economics clearly plays an important role. Perhaps we can hope that this is not true of all curators of public museums. But there have always been patrons, collectors who have helped certain artists carve out a place for themselves in history. Michelangelo had his patrons who helped him use the talent for which he is renowned to create great works of art. Perhaps other artists of the same era, who also deserved a place in history, did not have the same kind of opportunities.

CG – That is probably why memory is similar to myth; both can be used to ensure than men and events are either forgotten or glorified …

JA – Myth is a foundational narrative which uses a story of origins to shed light on the present. It’s a story told to help situate ourselves in relation both to the self and the world, a truth of a higher order.
For example, the tradition of Exodus, of travelling to a promised land, is a founding myth. It enabled the Jews to create their identity. It’s celebrated every year at Passover. Here, it is not a question of knowing factual history but of being familiar with the remembered story. Thus, cultural memory transforms factual history into an object of desire, or, in other words, into myth. Exodus also constitutes a founding theme for the Puritans who journeyed to the United States, and those who started a new life for themselves in South Africa …
That’s why cultural memory has something sacred about it. Fiction and imagination also serve as the basis of identity. Memory is not just concerned with facts, but also with emotion, feelings and the process of identifying with others.
Furthermore, historically speaking, memory has been handed down by poets, shamans, griots and bards, and in other societies, by teachers, artists and scribes. In other words, it has been handed down by emissaries of knowledge. That’s why in countries with strong traditions, these emissaries are still revered. In India, Brahmans command an enormous amount of respect, while in Rwanda, specialists who have learned royal rituals by heart have a primordial role, to the extent that all errors are punished by death. It’s a shame that in our societies, teachers are no longer quite so respected, because cultural memory has never functioned entirely on its own but requires carefully selected conduits.

CG – So it’s a kind of selective memory; some societies can block out events which they think of as being too traumatic …

JA – Of course, you are describing a situation in which a country turns its back on its past. Some countries identify with suffering. Poland and Israel are two examples. They position themselves as victims of history. Neither of them will ever do anything to diminish the role of Nazism and the catastrophes it inflicted on their people. Such memories play a preponderant role in Polish and Israeli cultural identity. And there’s also the case of Japan, where, out of pride, people want to forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki, suppressing those two events from their collective memory. It’s fairly unusual for countries not to see themselves as victims and to find it difficult to face up to traumatic events in their past.
Memory goes hand-in-hand with forgetting. Memory is often concerned with what is socially constructive rather than socially destructive. Societies remember what helps them consolidate their identity and forget what could potentially destroy them.

CG – So, cultural memory can be exploited politically …

JA – Of course, certain policies are implemented with a view to controlling cultural memory. While in more liberal countries, this approach is relatively subtle, while in authoritarian states it is often quite visible. In Germany, the totalitarian political power wielded in the Second World War was based on a desire to control the past, memory, culture. Books were burned. Not long ago, the Serbs wanted to create a greater Serbia and fought the Bosnians in an attempt to do so. They attacked cultural memory by destroyed the great library of Sarajevo, which contained two million precious books and manuscripts, as well as other cultural treasures. They also destroyed hundreds of smaller libraries, as well as monasteries, frescos, in fact anything constituting a cultural heritage. They wanted to create a homogeneous Serbian culture. Their objective was to attack the ethnic identity of their opponents. It’s a phenomenon that can be systematically observed in regimes whose ambition is to impose a totalitarian system. Because they know that a people who feels it’s under attack will use its culture as a platform for resistance. It’s on the basis of their past that societies forge a critical judgment of the present. So, by destroying that past, you destroy critical judgment.

CG – In China, despite there being no revolutionary justification for it, the architectural and cultural past are being destroyed to make way for the new.

JA – Yes, it’s the modern “revolution” in China, which is obsessed with change and which focuses on the practical aspects of life, on trade, on improving traffic systems, and so on. And, all of a sudden, the country has started raising traditional neighbourhoods to the ground and replacing them with apartment blocks. We saw an example of this at the last Olympics. We ourselves witnessed a similar process in Europe in the 19th century, with the destruction of old neighbourhoods, for example in Paris with Baron Haussmann’s construction of the grands boulevards … Obviously, it’s a phenomenon that’s closely associated with the idea of progress. China doesn’t have the same attitude to conservation as we do in the West because the Chinese believe that they have more to gain by destroying than by conserving. They’ll probably wake up one day wracked with regret.

CG – Does this need for conservation stem from a fear shared equally in countries around the world?

JA – Yes, it’s a dialectic that can be observed in all countries and which depends on their individual histories. But even in the absence of conservationist policies, cultural memory can perpetuate itself by means of symbolic signs, of which there are many in China, for example. This kind of memory is vital for a people because it prefigures its identity. If it loses it, it loses the meaning of its history. If the world of symbolic meanings collapses, then the order which supports humanity will also collapse. There will be no more conscience. If a community loses its points of reference, its actions become socially nefarious. It’s the cultural order that prevents societies from declining into decadence. For human beings, cultural meaning provides a sense of reality and order. Indeed, sovereigns built mausoleums to their own glory under the pretext of warding off the prospect of decadence and providing the nation with continuity. The Tower of Babel offers a similar example: the colossal construction was built to cement existence of a people and somehow establish its identity. To ensure that the project failed, Yaweh scattered them and confused their speech. He attacked the principal guarantee of the gregariousness of a society: its language. The integration of a society is effected through a process of socialisation underpinned by a world of shared symbolic meanings.

CG – Are cultural memories under threat?

JA – That was the question Pierre Nora asked when he started his work on “places of memory”. He argued that there were no more places of memory and that memory itself had died. It’s a radical, exaggerated position to take. There will always be symbols that act as vectors of memory: objects and texts, for example. Museums, conservation, institutions like the UNESCO World Heritage Centre all promote the concept of a kind of intangible memory associated with objects and places. But it’s true that everything linked to living memory is in danger, such things as traditions and local languages … This kind of memory is threatened by globalisation. Today, numerous celebrations are conjured up out of nothing, without any history behind them, with no reference to any tradition. Halloween is comprehensible in terms of commerce, but little else.
The threat is increased by economic pressure because international markets tend only to support themselves rather than the kind of cultural bodies that support memory. We can see this with book shops, which are gradually offering less and less choice. They stack their shelves with bestsellers because they are certain that they can shift them. A lot of good books are never displayed. Obviously, this trend can be seen everywhere and we should be worried about it. In universities, funding for the Classics and minority languages, as well as for minority subjects in general is being cut back. Consequently, less students are studying them. It’s part of a process of forgetting.

CG – Should we be worried about the prospect of culture becoming homogeneous?

JA – There will never be an exclusive, universal culture. Of course, there is an international culture diffused by English and the attraction exerted by the major brands. But cultural bubbles will continue to exist in the form of spheres resistant to globalisation, for example, the sphere of religion. There will always be different religions: Christianity, Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy will never unite. The idea of universal memory or universal identity is as improbable as the idea of a universal religion. The cultural homogeneity created by globalisation has no identity to which to attach itself. It has no memory. It can never be enough on its own. However, nothing stops it existing. Local cultures exist within this global culture. And I believe that we must get used to the fact that these two levels co-exist. Because the two cultures mutually reinforce one another. The dynamic is not one of replacement but of amplification. Cultures are added one to the other.

CG – So there’s no chance of an artificially created history entering the collective memory as in the model of universal culture?

JA – Let’s say that, in such a case, defensive stratagems should be applied. As we have seen, memory functions by a process of reconstruction: it calls upon memories that have been felt, lived and shared. The new only appears in the form of a reconstructed past. So this new culture must call upon memories that echo its own history. It will have to function by analogies, effecting rapprochements with known cultures in order to spark interest. The new culture associated with globalisation has to attach itself to a universally known past. That’s why you’ll notice that “blockbuster” movies are often based on familiar stories, from the Titanic to biopics. Meanwhile, TV series are often based on true crime stories and the realities of everyday life.

CG – Since cultural memory is based on a network of sentimental ties, it comes as no surprise that the memory of the dead plays a central role, especially when you take into account the fact that the dead outnumber the living …

JA – Yes, it can even be said to constitute the heart of the culture of memory. Every society retains a memory of the dead in function of its own criteria. Here again, we see just how impossible it is for memory to be universal. For example, in Egyptian society, men were glorified for their contributions to society, for their sense of civic duty, their family spirit, their sense of responsibility. There is even an Egyptian proverb according to which, “a man’s monument is his virtue”. In Greek society, only men whose exploits could be considered in some way superhuman were worthy of being remembered and ritually celebrated.
In any case, the idea that we can include our dead in the narrative of the present is part of the fundamental structure of human existence. That’s why we need, in the contemporary era, to create icons, like Hollywood stars … The identity of a community is based on a form of spectral imagination. We are never far away from myth.

Lake Constance, Germany