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Ann Rigney. Memory as Resource in the Making of a Sustainable Future

Response to Serguey Ehrlich’s Memory, Identity, and Imagination: The Structure of Behavior from the Perspective of Memory Studies.


Serguey Ehrlich’s ambitious account of the entanglement of memory, identity, and imagination offers lots of food for thought. It brings together a dazzling array of thinkers from different disciplinary traditions, including Freud, Marx, and Halbwachs, in order to formulate an alternative and more forward-looking model of identity-formation. It is focused on the present but draws on anthropological theories about the long-term development of human societies, positing that today’s concerns have deep historical roots.

Driving Ehrlich’s account is an outspoken desire to find an alternative both to nationalism as a framework for identity and to global capitalism as a social-economic structure. At a time when the imminent exhaustion of the planet is amplifying global inequality and forced migrations, this is a welcome and necessary move. As Ehrlich puts it: “We need a dream for an optimistic future” (p.55). Indeed, we do.

The dream that Ehrlich offers is of a form of global citizenship in which people would be less concerned about defending their own group’s interest and more ready to recognize the interdependence of all peoples, and of humans and the environment. He considers this to be a necessary condition for peace, justice, and ultimately, the future of the planet itself. The key question of course is how these vital aims are to be achieved.

More than just an idea, he posits that a new form of global citizenship is already emerging, facilitated by electronic communication systems, and based on the “concert of billions of sovereign individuals” (p.49) who are willing to engage in “different volunteer activities for the benefit of global humanity (p.64) and hence give up their sovereignty. He supports this argument by deploying a complex matrix, inspired by long-standing traditions in narratology and anthropology, in order to map different social structures onto different deep-seated narrative templates. This leads him to conclude that we are entering a new phase in human history in which individuals commit themselves to humankind rather than to their own national tribe. In doing so, they make sense of their world using the ‘myth of self-sacrifice’. The term ‘self-sacrifice’, which Ehrlich uses throughout his essay in opposition to value accorded to the sacrifice of others in imperialistic nationalism, has heavy overtones of self-destruction as Marianne Hirsch has already pointed out. But luckily there are other terms available. Altruism, solidarity, sharing, caring, connectivity, and relationality help articulate more positive and constructive ways of engaging with the world that are still compatible with Ehrlich’s overall vision.

The crux in responding to Ehrlich’s thesis, then, is to know the basis of his optimism at this moment of danger. Does ‘global citizenship’ or altruism already exist at scale, or is it rather an ideal which we should try to realize? And if the latter, how do we get from ‘here’ to ‘there’? What role could memory and memory studies play in this transition?

This is not the place to engage with the specifics of Ehrlich’s complex evolutionary model, which like all such universalizing models, are very difficult either to prove or disprove. Instead, I would like to build further on the valuable point that Ehrlich makes about giving narrative a more central place in memory studies (p.16). In line with the work of James Wertsch (2021),[1] and more generally of structuralist narratology, Ehrlich distinguishes between specific narratives, schematic narrative templates, and base mythic narrative, moving in the process from unique stories, which figure recognizable characters in particular places at particular times, to more abstract configurations that occur in more instances. The capacity to distinguish between specific stories and underlying templates makes it possible to compare, contrast, and aggregate unique narratives at differing degrees of abstraction. Accordingly, thinking in terms of templates is very useful in explaining how unique stories resonate with each other, thereby creating narrative schemata in the long term that come to be used as hermeneutic tools in shaping the understanding of new events. More than communication technologies as such, this capacity to compare and contrast, to move between the singular and the communal, is arguably the core of interpersonal and transcultural communication. It is also the source of its power to build connections and create affective relations between individuals which is the precondition for making collective identities, memories, and shared visions of the future.

Narrative schemata have long been recognized in memory studies as one of the structuring principles in the transmission of experience, although as Ehrlich posits, the role of narrative is often more assumed than explored. Narrative schemata are the foundation of our understanding of culture as memory (Erll 2011) in that they provide a repository for understanding or premediating new events.[2] However, schemata too are always work in progress. So, in applying the concept or any narrative model we need also to keep asking how schemata become transformed. After all, the very idea of cultural evolution supposes they do. Frederick Bartlett, the inspiration behind the concept of schemata already noted this: "An organism has somehow to acquire the capacity to turn around its own 'schemata' and to construct them afresh.”[3] So how are ‘schemata’ turned around?

Structuralist narratology came aground on this issue. Its highly abstract models helped to explain how certain ways of world-making replicate themselves across time. But it took post-structuralism to explain how ‘difference’ is produced as the inevitable by-product of repetition, showing that the application of a model produces deviations in the long-term. What Bartlett called ‘the capacity to turn around its own schemata’. Thanks to these insights, we no longer think of cultural history in terms of the total replacement of one system by another (or one dominant narrative by another). Instead, storytelling is a site of continuous repetition but also of minor adjustments which, as they aggregate, can help to reframe, or ‘reinvent’ the world. As the tenacity of toxic nationalism in a patently interdependent world shows, the transformation of schemata meets the resistance of habit and of deeply rooted affects. So is change effected?

It is worth considering here the key role played by the creative arts and aesthetics. Following the influential theories of the Russian Formalists, the role of art is to undermine habit through ‘defamiliarization’, that is, by presenting new perspectives on the world or by presenting familiar things in a surprising form.[4] As Ehrlich rightly emphasizes this is where imagination and creativity can help counter habit. In light of this, it would be good to build into his model an understanding of how ‘singular’ narratives told creatively by imaginative persons can help to shift in however minor a way, the ‘same old story.’ The operative word here is ‘minor’, since as Marianne Hirsch and others have shown, the arts operate in the micropolitics of viewing and reading, and thus bring about ‘small acts of resistance’ in the hearts and minds of individuals.[5] Being small does not make them insignificant, however. On the contrary: the power of singular stories to move individuals by deviating from familiar schemata is the core of cultural change, which is always going to be slow.

This power also helps explain how memory can move across local, regional, and national borders. Ehrlich expresses a confidence in the power of electronic media to create global citizenship, which by now seems overly optimistic in view of the ongoing fragmentation of the public sphere thanks to social media. But he is right in claiming that communication and storytelling will be key to the creation of new identities since it is through the sharing of experience that connections are forged between people who do not live in the same circumstances. However, as cultural memory studies has shown, communication is not just about the spread of common views among likeminded people. Instead, it is about articulating and recognising differences in a world that is diverse while entangled. Memory studies has provided insight into the production of stories articulating past, present, and future and, increasingly, into the circulation, reception, and uptake of those stories. Crucially, it does not presuppose that the world is a level playing field, or that it can ever become one, but examines the ways in which specific memory narratives – relating to individuals, groups, cities, countries, regions – are shaped and made legible both to members of a group and to outsiders. This will always be work in progress and, ideally, this work should not be a matter of merely replicating Western hegemony.

If memory is to continue to offer a resource for making sense of the present and future it will not be because consensus has been reached on some common story that defines ‘mankind’ once and for all. Memory stays meaningful (and hence will continue to be disputed) as long as cultural acts of remembrance open up new perspectives on the history of the planet through specific narratives. In the process, it can create new conditions for building affective and cognitive relations across borders which recognise both differences and common concerns. Ehrlich’s comments on the different views of Churchill (p.61) offer a case in point: a hero in one context, he is a perpetrator in another. The example serves as a reminder that collective remembering is never a matter of transmitting a single body of knowledge; instead, it offers a site for recognizing and negotiating differences between perspectives and relations to power. Crucially, these negotiations take place at different scales, meaning that changes occur at different sites and only in a slow manner.[6] Thinking in terms of slow ‘mnemonic transitions’[7], rather than positing a one-off systemic shift into a new world, could be a fruitful way of combining a focus on narrative with a more fit-for-purpose understanding of change.

[1] James V. Wertsch, How Nations Remember: A Narrative Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.

[2] For a summary, see Astrid Erll, Memory in Culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

[3] Frederic C. Bartlett, Remembering: An Experimental and Social Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932, p.206.

[4] Viktor Shklovsky, "Art as Technique” [1917]. In Russian Formalist Critics: Four Essays, edited by L.T. Lemon and M.J. Reis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965: 3-24.

[5] Marianne Hirsch in Altınay, Ayşe Gül, et al, eds. Women Mobilizing Memory. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019, p.3; for a more detailed version of this argument, see A. Rigney, "Remaking Memory and the Agency of the Aesthetic." Memory Studies 14.1 (2021):10-23.

[6] On the importance of multiscalarity in post-national approaches to memory, see Chiara De Cesari and Ann Rigney, eds., Transnational Memory: Circulation, Articulation, Scales (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014).

[7] Miguel Cardina and Inês Nascimento Rodrigues. "The Mnemonic Transition: The Rise of an Anti-Colonial Memoryscape in Cape Verde." Memory Studies 14,2 (2020):380-394.

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