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Dr. Milica Popović. Beyond Western Modernity. In response to Serguey Ehrlich’s “Memory, Identity and Imagination. The Structure of Behaviour from the Perspective of Memory Studies”.

Serguey Ehrlich’s essay raises important questions on the role of memory studies in the contemporary world, and the accountability and responsibility of scholars, and presents another ambitious and important contribution to theorization of memory studies. Ehrlich’s text on its own, with the multitude of responses obtained by renowned memory scholars across the world, is countering its claim of “atheoretical trend” in Memory Studies. Providing us with a rich outlook on the structures of human behavior and the role of memory in both individual behavior and societal structures, Ehrlich indeed opens new avenues for reflection. As previous colleagues noted, it makes it impossible to give a thorough response to all the observations, theoretical proposals, and programmatic invites Ehrlich’s text puts in front of us. Also, previous reflections have successfully underlined and elaborated many of the original observations of Ehrlich’s essay and the importance of the dialogue Ehrlich has opened. Ehrlich presents the “holy triad” of memory, identity, and imagination as the core structures of narratives as “programs of behavior”; and presents three base mythic narratives: fairy tale, heroic and self-sacrifice. In the author’s view self-sacrifice is the only one adequate for global humanity - the contemporary society which we live in. Calling for the accountability of researchers to involve with changing the world, rather than simply observing it, and most importantly, to leave behind the modernistic lenses of understanding the new Global Age, as he names it, Ehrlich finds himself in a couple of paradoxes that I wish to underline.


While asking to leave Modernity behind, Modernity itself and the classical authors are at the core of Ehrlich’s attempt at a theorization of memory studies, just as Marianne Hirsch (2023) has rightly noted. Standing on the shoulders of the giants – the Rennaissance and the Enlightenment, Ehrlich’s essay misses the opportunity to present a truly global essay founded in the diversity of global knowledge. Starting early with a position that: “it is not surprising that Western civilization based on Christian values achieved the leading position in the world” (p. 31) and criticizing harshly what he calls “the ideology of decolonization” (p. 27), the essay openly proclaims Christianity as the only religion “which exhibits self-sacrifice" (p. 31). Thus, while criticizing nationalism and even displaying the multiplicity of memory cultures and “spaces of experience” on the case of Winston Churchill later in the essay (p.56), Ehrlich, however, himself remains enclosed in his Western-centric gaze. This is further confirmed by the choice of the religious language of “self-sacrifice” instead of progressive theorizations of solidarity and hope, as has been previously raised in both Marianne Hirsch’s and Ann Rigney’s responses.


The latest call for papers of the journal Memory Studies for a special issue on “Decolonizing the Study of Memory” will certainly bear fruit to further enrich the literature which has already been vastly produced and which would be of crucial importance to Ehrlich’s work. Engaging further with brilliant work of Ruramisai Charumbira, for example, and her article on “The Historian as Memory Practitioner” (2022) where Charumbira reminds us that “The historian who practices a history focused on the conqueror, even when telling stories of the vanquished, unwittingly practices the memory for the powerful” - all would help Ehrlich embrace the importance of positionalities in his quest for global identity. For a world to be global, one must leave the Whiteness and Westerness of Christianity and open the thought to the indigenous ways of knowing as well as practices of epistemic disobedience (Mignolo 2011). And the decolonizing agenda encompasses the peripheral positionality of Eastern Europe (Wawrzyniak and Pakier 2013), the positionality of author himself. Understanding Michael Rothberg’s concept of multidirectional memory (2009) we can see the global citizen, that Ehrlich is so passionately looking for, emanated in the examples Rothberg offers - like W.E.B. Du Bois discourse on Warsaw Ghetto. A decolonizing approach is the only one which can even pretend to offer a truly humanistic and universal approach to memory cultures, while producing an outlook into the future. Rejecting to acknowledge the privileges of the authors invoked in his essay, Ehrlich finally surrenders, as an implicated subject (Rothberg 2019), to the reproduction of totalizing and colonizing identities.


Another, and complementary, paradox the essay opens is found in its understanding of a certain singularity of identity, focusing on national identity. A global citizen exists only within the nuances and multiplicity of (post/modern global) identities (see further the works of Stuart Hall, for example). Without taking into account the development of identity politics, which in the contemporary world goes well past ethno-national identities, it is difficult to imagine a finer understanding of the interconnectedness of identity and memory, tensions which also Barbara A. Misztal has elaborated on discussing “sacralization of memory” (2004). The delicate interwovenness of contemporary identities could further help illuminate author’s search for a (primal) trauma besides “murderous cannibalism”. Opening the wealth of knowledge outside of the “usual suspects” would enhance the analytical capacities of the essay, for example when discussing “witch hunts” explained as “confusion over challenges posed by the transition to Modernity” (p. 54), and seemingly without taking into account the crucial gender perspective and thoughtful reflections elaborated by many, including Silvia Federici (2021) on the intricate relationship between patriarchy and the development of capitalism.


If we wish to follow the invitation Ehrlich sends us to work through our primal traumas in the attempts of creation of new mythologizations adequate for the Global Age, it is impossible to continue through the same monopolizing lenses of the theories of the 20th century. It is impossible to continue without opening the space for vast diverse knowledge created beyond the realms of Western theory. The mere substitution of the idea of hope with the term of imagination, in this context, does not seem so innocent anymore – if theory ever is. Imagination can continue to reproduce the traumas of the past centuries, demanding the structural inequalities to remain in a status quo. The promise of self-sacrifice does not bring hope nor does it sounds as a promise of life in its full multitude of identities. And thus, as the biggest paradox indeed, it can even prevent solidarity on a global level - contrary to Ehrlich’s gracious plea.


References


Charumbira, Ruramisai. 2022. “The Historian as Memory Practitioner.” In The Politics of Historical Memory and Commemoration in Africa.  Mark-Thiesen, Cassandra, Moritz Mihatsch, and Michelle Sikes (Eds.) Pp. 195–216. Oldenbourg: De Gruyter. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110655315-009.


Federici, Silvia. 2021. Caliban and the Witch. London: Penguin Classics.


Hall, Stuart. 2017. The Fateful Triangle. Race, Ethnicity, Nation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Hall, Stuart, and Paul du Gay, eds. 1995. Questions of Cultural Identity. London: Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446221907 .


Hirsch, Marianne. 2023. Memory for the Future: Response to Serguey Ehrlich, “Memory, Identity, Imagination: The Structure of Behaviour from the Perspective of Memory Studies”. Available at: https://www.istorex.org/en/post/26-07-2023-marianne-hirsch


Mignolo, Walter. 2011. “Epistemic Disobedience and the Decolonial Option: A Manifesto.” In TRANSMODERNITY: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World 1. No. 2.  https://doi.org/10.5070/T412011807.


Misztal, Barbara A. 2004. “The Sacralization of Memory” in European Journal of Social Theory. Vol. 7 (1). Pp. 67-84.


Rigney, Ann. 2023. 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. Available at: https://www.istorex.org/en/post/11-08-2023-ann-rigney


Rothberg, Michael. 2009. Multidirectional Memory. Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.

Wawrzyniak, Joanna, and Małgorzata Pakier. 2013. “Memory Studies in Eastern Europe: Key Issues and Future Perspectives.” in Polish Sociological Review. No. 183. Pp. 257–79.

 

Dr. Milica Popović (Sciences Po CERI) is a political scientist, specializing in Memory Studies, Political Sociology and Higher Education Studies. She obtained a PhD in Comparative Political Sociology at Sciences Po Paris and in Balkan studies at the University of Ljubljana. Currently, she is working as an independent researcher and consultant. Popović is also an affiliated researcher at the Institut Jacques Delors in Paris, on issues regarding the Western Balkans and the European Union enlargement. She has been Postdoctoral Fellow and Project Lead at the Global Observatory on Academic Freedom at Central European University in Vienna from 2021 to 2023, and for her work at CEU she is a recipient of DAAD Fundamental Academic Values Award for Early Career Scientists. Popović also worked as a lecturer at Sciences Po Paris. She has been a visiting fellow at the University of Warwick and the Institute for Contemporary History in Ljubljana. While finalizing her monograph on Yugonostalgia and the memory narratives of the generation of the last pioneers in the (post)Yugoslav space, she is currently developing a new research project on the memory narratives of deserters in Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

 

 

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