top of page

26.07.2023. Marianne Hirsch

Memory for the Future: Response to Serguey Ehrlich, “Memory, Identity, Imagination: The Structure of Behaviour from the Perspective of Memory Studies”

Marianne Hirsch, Columbia University

Serguey Ehrlich’s erudite, far-reaching and visionary article is an invitation to a series of dialogues with colleagues across the globe and across a broad disciplinary and theoretical spectrum. There is much that I admire and agree with in this ambitious work, and there is much more that I learned from reading it in the conversational mode that Ehrlich so generously models. Like some of his other respondents, I feel qualified to engage just a few of his many insights and analyses and will focus on those that speak most directly to my own current work.

I appreciate the way in which memory studies becomes a point of departure and a lens for this expansive philosophical and historical analysis of human and planetary evolution in the longue durée. The aim is not just to account for the past history of structures of behavior that have led to repeated catastrophe: it is to imagine a group identity and a structure of behavior for a sustainable future. This invocation of the imagination, and of the “remembering-imagining system” as a tool for change is most promising.

Ehrich sees memory specifically as a “form of behavior” that structures identity across time. In this view, memory persists and is transmitted and identity takes shape through narrative and myth. Narrative structures shift across broadly drawn historical periods that move from pre-state hunter-gatherer societies, through state agrarian and industrial societies, to what he envisions as post-nation state global information civilizations in the future. Each of these social formations has a dominant shaping narrative form, each with an ethical orientation: the fairy tale with its “myth of booty,” the heroic myth of “other-sacrifice,” and the imagined restoration or instantiation of a universalist myth of “altruism” and “self-sacrifice” that will enable a sustainable planetary future. That global future, one that Ehrlich believes we can and must imagine, is cosmopolitan, post-national, post-capitalist and global.

In using memory studies as a lens through which to imagine this kind of future, Ehrlich restores to the field some of the socially critical potential and the belief in the possibility of social change that defined its beginnings in the 1980’s. And yet, I want to suggest that Ehrlich’s reliance on what he himself criticizes as “intellectuals’ stubborn devotion to outdated terminology” and to a fixed set of narrative templates or “schemata” (Erll) might actually undermine the scope of the “mnemonic imagination” (Keightley and Pickering) that he enjoins us to practice.

In his book Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (1995), Andreas Huyssen explains the turn to memory and the past at the end of the twentieth century as being motivated by a disillusionment with myths of progress and modernization, and with teleological views of history. Turning to the past through the study of collective and culturalmemory offered a way to contest official histories and to enlarge the present with forgotten and suppressed stories that might offer alternative pathways to possible futures. I have argued that contesting official histories, questioning the traditional structures of archives and the principles of selection and collection on which they rely, interrogating the formation of canons and the conventions of history writing – all these opened the way to reimagine not only history’s teleology and the future, but also the past itself. But to do so, must we not also question the morphologies (Propp), the narrative templates and schemata, the “pre-existing expressive forms” (Warburg) that have come down to us? Do we not have to work to unfix their determinative powers? I worry that however satisfying it is to find and identify them, Ehrlich’s reliance on these schemata delimits rather than opening the future he invites us to envision.

Can we interrupt cycles of violence, racism and injustice, can we stop the repetition wars, genocides and other human-made catastrophes that have come to seem inevitable by returning to traditional structures of thinking, telling and writing? I am not convinced that going back to one specified primal trauma (in Ehrlich’s case, drawing on Freud, cannibalism) and to attempt to work it through will actually achieve the desired progressive goal of a sustainable communal life. Nor does the idea of “self-sacrifice” sound to me as a compelling goal—the Christian overtones of this term are hard to overlook.

Feminist, queer, Black as well as post-and decolonial theories and the movements for radical social change they have accompanied have taught us that change needs to start with our structures of thought and feeling and with language itself. It might seem presumptuous to add additional texts to Ehrlich’s impressive bibliography, a multi-disciplinary bibliography that is quite comprehensive as far as classic European texts are concerned. Other traditions offer different paths to imagining , however, and might prove useful to this project. Works that use different “remembering-imagining systems” to eschew traditional Euro-centric narratives and mythologies include Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, for example. Potential history is the study not just of what was, but also of what might have been, and thus what might still be. Her methodology of “unlearning” is precisely suited to opening different trajectories than the ones that dominant imperial relations have instantiated. I would also go to the writings of Saidiya Hartman – “Venus in Two Acts” and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, for example – and the forms of what she calls “critical fabulation” that help her encounter an archive of victimization of Black life. Through “critical fabulation” Hartman allows herself to imagine the subjectivities of people who appear in ships’ manifests or court records as enslaved subjects, victims, or criminals. She imagines their hopes and dreams, the futures they themselves might have envisioned in their own present. This is again a “remembering-imagining” methodology that rewrites expected narratives. As a last example for the kind of “solidarity” (rather than “self-sacrifice”) that Ehrlich would have us imagine, I would turn to Judith Butler’s work, particularly the recent The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind. The book’s extensive critique of individualism and elaboration of the notion of grievability, as well as the discussion of theories of non-violence from Ghandi to Einstein, lead Butler to ask what would make us want and need to “preserve the life of the other?” In Butler’s reading it would be an acknowledgment of our shared vulnerability as humans living in bodies and in time. But that vulnerability is also differentially distributed, depending on uneven power and resources in a world in which some lives are grievable and others not. Butler’s call to a “new egalitarian imaginary that apprehends the interdependency of lives” is congruent with Ehrlich’s invocation of the imagination. But the feminist social movements with which the book ends rely not on “self-sacrifice” but on solidarity, accompaniment, care and repair.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page