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A somewhat longer post today. About theory. Yay!

I was thinking about memory. Memory comes in all shapes and sizes. There is individual memory, social memory, collective memory, cultural memory. These terms are sometimes viewed as synonymous.[1] However, this leads to confusion. So what’s up with these different memories?

Now, individual memory is straight-forward. You’ll remember reading this post. That’s individual memory.

Social Memory

Social memory is where it becomes interesting. An initial form of social memory is found by Frederic Bartlett’s theory, which holds that “memory is guided and supported […] by the individual’s active and emotional involvement in the group to which he or she belongs, and by the group’s own forms of collective organization.”[2] However, this approach is focused upon the individual, and sees its placement in a society as stable and unproblematic. To take this into consideration, we need a more developed theory of collective memory.

Collective Memory

To define collective memory, we might turn to Wulf Kansteiner, who describes collective memory as “a collective phenomenon [that] only manifests itself in the actions and statements of individuals. It can take hold of historically and socially remote events but it often privileges the interests of the contemporary. It is as much a result of conscious manipulation as unconscious absorption and it is always mediated. And it can only be observed in roundabout ways, more through its effects than its characteristics.”[3]

One of the primary reference points in collective memory are the works of Maurice Halbwachs. His work is staunchly anti-individualist: he argues that all individual memory is socially framed.[4] According to Halbwachs, collective memory is individual in nature, but it is socially constructed and maintained – it is the echo of groups that came before the individual. Furthermore, collective memory is not physically present (in works of art or in written histories), but embedded in society. Though the emphasis is on the group, collective memory “is not the reified memory of the collective”, but individual memory influenced by social bonds.[5] This insistence upon the communal nature of individual memory has generated criticism from historic circles, since a great deal of historians occupy themselves with the study of the objectives and actions of individuals.[6] The sociological nature of this conception thus does not entirely sit well with individual-minded scholars, though cultural memory might do the trick.

Cultural Memory

If we want to move from collective memory to cultural memory, we have to focus our attention on Jann Assmann. According to Assman, cultural memory is distanced from the everyday. It has fixed points in important events in history, of which the memory is maintained through “cultural formation […] and institutional communication.”[7] Assmann places cultural memory at the nexus of three poles: memory, culture and society.[8] Similarly, Astrid Erll defines cultural memory as the “the interplay of present and past in socio-cultural contexts.”[9]

The difference between collective and cultural memory is perhaps difficult to define, but is nonetheless significant. Wolfgang Müller-Funk argues that “one can compare [the difference between collective and cultural memory] with the relation between the memorized life and myth in a pre-modem community.”[10] While collective memory is individual memory fashioned by a collective through social bonds, cultural memory is much more stable. This has two consequences. First,  cultural memory is potentially less anti-individual than Halbwachs’ collective memory – agency in the creation of memories is somewhat restored to the individual. Secondly, this makes cultural memory a much more powerful factor in establishing coherence in a group identity. It suggests

length, duration, frozen time, the idea that there is one and only one understanding of the grand monumentalized narrative.[11]

In popular conceptions of cultural memory, certain images like the archive, the library, or the computer hard-drive are commonplace. However, the problem with these conceptions is that they rely too much on a link between memory and space.

Why this rant? I don’t know; I was wondering about the role of literature in society. Purpose, and stuff. If the library is a site of cultural memory, what about a text in itself? Is there even a thing like cultural memory, or is it purely theoretical babble?


[1] Cf. A. Erll, “Cultural Memory Studies: An Introduction”, in: A. Erll and A. Nünning (eds.), Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook (Berlin, 2008), 1.
[2] G. Cubitt, History and Memory (Manchester, 2007), 156.
[3] W. Kansteiner, “Meaning in Memory: A Methodological Critique of Collective Memory Studies”, in: History and Theory 41 (2002), 180.
[4] J. Winter and E. Sivan, “Setting the Framework”, in: J. Winter and E. Sivan (eds.), War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 1999), 24.
[5] Winter and Sivan, “Setting the Framework”, 25.
[6] Kansteiner, “Meaning in Memory”, 181.
[7] J. Assmann, “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity”, in: New German Critique 65 (1995), 129.
[8] Assmann, “Collective Memory”, 129.
[9] A. Erll, “Cultural Memory Studies: An Introduction”, 2.
[10] W. Müller-Funk, “On a Narratology of Cultural and Collective Memory”, in: Journal of Narrative Theory 33 (2003), 217.
[11] Müller-Funk, “On a Narratology”, 218.