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Natalija Majsova Serguey Ehrlich, “Memory, Identity, and Imagination: The Structure of Behaviour”








Natalija Majsova Serguey Ehrlich, “Memory, Identity, and Imagination: The Structure of Behaviour”








6.04.2023


Natalija Majsova is an associate professor of cultural studies at the University of Ljubljana. Her research cuts across memory studies, film and media studies, heritage interpretation, and (post-)socialist popular cultures. Her current research projects focus on the transmediality of memory work in popular culture. Her publications include Memorable futures: Soviet science fiction cinema and the space age (Lexington books, 2021) and Faith in a Beam of Light: Magic Lantern and Belief in Western Europe, 1830-1940 (co-edited with S. Lenk, Brepols, 2022). She is the co-editor-in-chief of the journal Social Science Forum (with T. O. Črnič) and an occasional film critic.



Serguey Ehrlich’s essay “Memory, Identity, and Imagination: The Structure of Behaviour from the Perspective of Memory Studies” is a passionately articulated blueprint for a future-oriented memory, and for a sustainable academic agenda in the interdisciplinary domain of memory studies. Ehrlich unpacks the triad of memory, identity, and imagination as “guidance and control subsystems of behaviour”, relying on the premise that all these three agenda-setting time-spaces are underpinned by narratives. According to the author, and echoing scholars like Astrid Erll, these narratives are neither random nor countless, but consist in individual and collective reinterpretations of “cultural schemata” (Erll, 2011a: 108). Following foundational narratological insights ranging from Vladimir Propp to Joseph Campbell’s analysis of the hero and their quest, Ehrlich posits that, from the perspective of ethics, these narratives can be distinguished according to three distinct orientations: the primal and, to my mind somewhat petty, obstacle-ridden quest for material reward; the dreadfully uncomfortable quest for collective unity based on sacrifice of someone, who is not us; and the noble route of self-sacrifice for the better of the planet (and humanity, by consequence).

Ehrlich explores the significance of these three mythical quests (in other words, the fairy tale; the heroic myth; the myth of self-sacrifice) in a variety of historical, economic, cultural, and technological contexts. This results in a rich, intriguing, and dense reading, as the author conscientiously repackages and elaborates his ideas to address inquisitive readers from various fields, from memory studies and narratology to history, critical theory, and history of anthropology, seemingly effortlessly polemicizing with founding figures in the fields in the process.

“Memory, Identity, and Imagination” is an inspirational text, a manifesto, in the most laudable sense of the term, and clearly the product of a great passion for intellectual thought. In the context of increasing specialization and compartmentalization in academia, Ehrlich audaciously returns to the tradition of socially engaged, stylistically emancipated, and somewhat utopian reasoning, especially characteristic of the social sciences and humanities in the context of Slavic cultures. The result is a dynamic and fascinating text that echoes the author’s intention both in content and in form. In a somewhat disruptive gesture, Ehrlich expands the current preoccupation of the social sciences and humanities with inter- and transdisciplinarity, demonstrating that these agendas may not and should not be a dry substitute for systematic and relentless engagement with sociocultural and political reality; and that academic discourse can never be clearly separated from narratives that encourage and discourage individual and collective conduct.

Thus, Ehrlich’s blueprint for an ethical stance reflecting the challenges and possibilities of the information age (as a social formation structurally distinct from the earlier modern and pre-modern ages) draws on sweeping, yet illuminating and analytical overviews of changes in the human condition, initiated by transformation in the spheres of economics, industry, and communication technologies. As if recalling Karl Marx’s 1859 observation that humanity “always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation”, Ehrlich stresses that today’s conditions of existence (and therefore of possibility) differ remarkably from those of the modern age. Namely, the modern age did not offer technologies for the seamless kind of global connectivity that characterizes contemporary experience; nor did it provide nearly as many means of self- actualization, self-reflection or aesthetic, political, and social individualization. Has the time come for new formative narratives to take the lead in scholarship, activism, and everyday life? Ehrlich’s response is emphatically positive.

Activating the impactful premise that memory of the past, identification grounded in the present, and future-oriented imagination work with the same materials, Ehrlich’s essay calls for a programmatic link between future scenarios and memory studies, harnessing an important insight from utopia and science-fiction scholarship. The author acknowledges his utopianist inclination, but does so in a modest way, almost under-emphasizing the idea that futurological utopias are known to go hand in hand with nostalgias for an idealized past, conjoining technological advances with traditional social organization. Additionally, in the 21st century, new utopias are often marked by nostalgias for that past’s mediatized (for example, popular-cultural) versions of the future. In other words: there is little spontaneity to how we think about the future; just like other speculations, these, too, draw on mnemonic imaginaries. The question is, then, what our mnemonic imaginaries have in store; what kind of styles, forms, and arguments are at our disposal, and which narratives are the ones we tend to rely on.

Ehrlich stipulates that there is of course no one single narrative available to a society in a certain historical moment. Writing about regimes of art, Jacques Rancière (2009) has convincingly demonstrated that art may be talked, understood, and handled by different social formations to various effects (e.g., as ethical guidance, craftsmanship-based pleasure, or an invitation to perceive the world from an unprecedented perspective). All three options (and for Rancière, this is a non-exhaustive list) coexist; however, they do not co-exist with equal visibility, as societal consensus tends to privilege one distinct regime for a distinct period. Similarly, Ehrlich argues that, throughout history, all societies have the capacity to produce and work with the three basic narratives of material reward, exclusionary collectivity, and self-sacrifice; at the same time, one of these narratives appears to become privileged under certain circumstances, marking the prevalent ethical inclinations of an era. In other words, while institutions such as monarchies, nation-states, heritage identification, preservation, and interpretation mechanisms, funding bodies, and the culture and creative industries work with some mnemonic narratives but not others, a distortion necessarily occurs, as the modes of conduct that are promoted and celebrated in the media, textbooks, and museums no longer necessarily correspond to contemporary challenges. Indeed, Ehrlich identifies many instances of such distortion, pointing to specific steps that policymakers in countries from Russia to the UK and India can and perhaps should implement to reorganize national memory cultures to better respond to the demands of the globally connected and interactive world.

Even more compellingly, Ehrlich identifies contemporary volunteer movements as the flagships of a new ethics, concerned with the future of humanity (and the planet, it seems fitting to additionally emphasize). Ehrlich’s contemplation on the invaluable contribution of volunteer activist movements to the proliferation of an ethics concerned with the well-being of globally connected individuals, all inhabitants of planet Earth, may easily be extrapolated to other activist groups concerned with issues that cut across the exclusionary nation- or ethnicity-based frameworks. In fact, it seems that this expansion be the logical outcome of Ehrlich’s utopian (and therefore especially enlightening) manifesto.

Contemporary movements that envision change on the scales of humanity, nature, and the planet require rich mnemonic resources. Therefore, the task of memory-studies scholarship is, to paraphrase Ehrlich, certainly to “work through the primal trauma of cannibalism”. One of the ways of doing this is to work on systematically uncovering the constant ethical diversity of memory narratives, in the nascent tradition of recent scholarship, focusing on memories of hope, joy, and activism, as they are pre- and remediated, archived, and preserved in different technocultural contexts. Another promising line of research is the reinterpretation of well-known future-oriented texts, with the aim of offering new perspectives on their ethics and on their mnemonic impact. Ehrlich’s potent observation on the ethical dimension of these narratives as the tenants of memory, identity, and future-oriented imagination is a welcome addition to such research, due to its capacity to open up new questions for narratologists, memory scholars, and media scholars, to name several disciplines that I am personally most at home in. In equal measure, and partly due to its intriguing plot, “Memory, Identity, and Imagination” also has promising applicative potential in spheres such as policymaking, education, heritage interpretation, and cultural and creative industries.

References

Erll, Astrid. (2011) Travelling Memory. Parallax 17, no. 4: 4–18.

Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977. Preface.

Rancière, Jacques. The aesthetic unconscious. Polity, 2009.

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