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James V. Wertsch. The Limits of Memory and Imagination

James V. Wertsch – David R. Francis Distinguished University Professor Director Emeritus, McDonnell International Scholars Academy Washington University in St. Louis St. Louis, MO 63130, USA

In “Memory, Identity, and Imagination: The Structure of Behaviour from the Perspective of Memory Studies,” Serguey Ehrlich extends memory studies into important new territory. Of special note is how he harnesses ideas from memory studies to address a range of today’s conceptual and practical issues that are high on the world’s agenda. For example, his account of national memory and identity points to impediments of human reasoning when it comes to dealing with global climate change and the threat of nuclear war.

Ehrlich lays the foundation for his argument with the observation that “memory is an important component of the guidance and control subsystem of behaviour.” This means that memory is not something to be studied in isolation. Instead, its interest stems from the role it plays in an integrated system where an active agent (“identity”) is constantly drawing on information about the past (“memory”) to imagine the future (“imagination”). This system of interacting subparts is the key to understanding whether it might be possible “to diminish the control that the [national] past exercises upon the [global] future.”

Ehrlich covers a wide range of research and intellectual traditions to explore how national memory works, but I shall focus on just a couple of key points: the role of future thinking as part of “mental time travel” (MTT) and his use of notions of “narrative templates.”

Future thinking has become a topic of rapidly growing interest in memory studies, and Ehrlich draws on several of the leading scholars to develop his ideas. One of the founders of modern memory studies, Endel Tulving (1985), broached the issue of MTT almost four decades ago, but lately, it has received new attention in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. This can be seen in the writings of figures such as Karl Szpunar and Kathleen McDermott (2007). They were some of the first to use clinical and imaging data to examine how remembering past events involves the same regions of the brain as are engaged in imaging future ones.

The cognitive psychologist Martin Conway similarly noted that “it seems that both memories and episodic simulations of the future are mediated in large part by the same neural networks” (2016: 256-257). For Conway, this leads to the claim that “we should be using the term remembering-imagining system (RIS) rather than simply memory system,” which in several respects echoes Ehrlich’s argument that memory is part of a guidance-control system of behavior. Studies of individual psychological functioning have encouraged other scholars of MTT to take on issues of collective, and especially national memory and mental time travel (see Topcu and Hirst, 2022, for a review), and in this connection the role of narratives in human evolution becomes a major topic.

In his 2015 bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari poses the big question: Why is it that humans, who were at one point were just “unexceptional apes,” have turned out to dominate the earth in a fairly short time span? After discounting explanations based on developments in brain size and individual cognitive abilities, Harari turns to a crucial transformation of social life that flourishes with the use of language, including narrative. He emphasizes that it is not just language as a lexical or grammatical system that can explain the rapid rise of Homo sapiens to a position of dominance—and often destruction and extinction—of other species. Instead, it is the way language facilitates the social organization of groups that can grow beyond a few dozen individuals.

In contrast, Harari points to limits in the size of social communities of chimpanzees, communities that rely on personal recognition and relationships. Chimpanzees are social animals who use basic forms of communication and form groups, but the groups extend only to about 50 individuals. Beyond that, rather than expanding further, the tendency is for a few individuals to break off to form another group. In contrast to the natural upper limit on how big such groups become, modern humans are capable or forming much larger communities with much larger capability to dominate other species and the natural world. These communities can extend up to over a billion individuals as in the case of China or India.

Harari sees language, including narratives to be a key facilitator of this. He does not go into great detail about the forms of language that are central to his argument, but at several points he suggests that narratives play a crucial role. Narratives, or stories[1], are ideal instruments for forming large groups such as nations. This so first of all because they are extremely powerful cognitive instruments that grasp together information in an efficient manner, making them easy to communicate and share. In addition, when used to tell the story of a community such as a nation, they are usually part of an identity project that encourages members to see themselves as part of a big narrative of a big group.

In discussing the mutual influence of culture and the individual, Ehrlich draws on Atrid Erll’s comments about “a permanent exchange between cultural schemata and their ‘individual actualization’” (2011). Cultural schemata are generalized patterns of action, including narrativizing the past. They come in the form of general, reusable tools such as those harnessed to tell and retell stories about a group, and in the process, they can become sacred and resistant to change for members of the group. Paraphrasing William James in Principles of Psychology, memory is not just about the past, but about our past.

The notion of “schemata” in Ehrlich’s formulation plays a key role. Instead, of thinking of narratives as being isolated specific stories about concrete actors, events, times, and places, he emphasizes that they have their impact on us largely in the form of narrative schemata that are more general story lines that can be used again and again. In pursuing these claims, Ehrlich builds on the notion of narrative templates (Wertsch, 2021), which are generalized underlying plots instantiated in multiple specific narratives. Rather than having surface form, these are plots posited by analysts in order to make sense of patterns of discourse and thinking in a collective. Ehrlich extends these claims further by positing additional levels of abstract narrative forms. The result is a “triple-layered narrative ‘nucleus’” that includes the notions of specific narratives and narrative templates and goes on to include “base mythic narratives.”

This analytic move takes Ehrlich into territory beyond the narrative templates that guide modern nations and into issues concerned with generic narrative forms used by to humans in general. In his account, three “base mythic narratives” are the fairy tale, the heroic myth, and the myth of self-sacrifice. In reflecting on such issues, he is delving into topics examined by scholars such as Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) in The Myth of the Eternal Return and Vladimir Propp (1895-1970) in The Morphology of the Folktale. These are profound works still being mined for new insights today, and Ehrlich might have something to add.

Ehrlich’s elaboration of the notion of narrative template can be put to work when trying to understand some of the world’s most vexing and dangerous problems. In particular, the collective memory and collective future thought that have emerged with “transition from the industrial society of nation-states to the information society of global humanity” have a sobering downside. The imagination and thought required to deal with today’s existential threat are “hampered by inertia of Durkheimian ‘collective representations’” that arose as part of the nation-state, which may be the apotheosis of human aspiration, but also end up being a “necessary evil.”

This has led to the paradox that the “identity ‘container’” of the nation-state has given rise to the threat of nuclear war, environmental degradation, social inequality, and other global challenges, while at the same time depriving us of the means to deal with these existential threats. The result has been short-term thinking that leaves little room for imagining a global community capable of addressing global problems.

This state of affairs poses fascinating challenges for studies of future thinking and Mental Time Travel. The study of MTT is just getting going, so it is unfair to burden it with too many tasks, but Ehrlich’s line of reasoning will eventually encourage scholars from various disciplines in the social sciences and humanities to take on some very big issues indeed. Potentially, his formulation will encourage us to go beyond identifying symmetries between how we understand the past and future and focus on what appear to be major asymmetries. What I have in mind stems from the observation that collectives often have powerful representations of the past that are so emotion-laden and visceral that they can be mobilized into political action, even violence. Consider the unending, heated disputes between India and Pakistan over the 1947 Partition, or between Palestinians and Israeli Jews over the formation of modern Israel in 1948. These disputes seem to be open wounds that won’t go away.

In contrast, when it comes to future thinking, it is hard to identify any issue that generates the sort of public debate and dispute that allows us to mobilize us to deal with it. Some of this failure stems from the fact that the collective involved in future thinking about climate change or nuclear warfare must go beyond the familiar “identity container” of the nation-state. But Ehrlich’s line of reasoning challenges us to think about whether there is something more at work. For example, is there something fundamentally different about collective, or even individual MTT that limits our ability to imagine the kind of visceral events that we are all too prone to do when it comes to remembering the past?

It is unfair to charge Ehrlich with the responsibility for addressing all these issues. But he does add a fascinating item to the tool kit of memory studies. It comes in the form of a conceptual framework that could have real use as we try to be more successful in the future than we have been in the past in coping with some of the globe’s most pressing issues.

James V. Wertsch is David R. Francis distinguished professor and director emeritus of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University in St Louis, where he teaches courses in anthropology and global studies. He is a consulting professor at Fudan University, an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Education and a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His latest book is How Nations Remember: A Narrative Approach.

[1] I use these terms interchangeably.

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