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James Wertsch: “It is often the case that someone outside a national community might have better insights than those inside it”

James V. Wertsch, David R. Francis Distinguished Professor, Department of Anthropology Director Emeritus, McDonnell International Scholars Academy, Washington University. Among his books are:

Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. Harvard University Press, 1985.

Voices of the Mind: Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action. Harvard University Press, 1991.

Mind as Action. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Voices of Collective Remembering. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

How Nations Remember. A Narrative Approach. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.


This interview is an introduction to the discussion regarding the new book of Prof. Wertsch How Nations Remember. A Narrative Approach (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021). There are three reasons why especially this book should be interesting for Russian academics:


  • Russian national memory is the main part of the empirical basis of Wertsch’s theoretical research. His perspective helps Russians to see those aspects of our national memory which we may not be able to perceive easily, because we take them for granted and therefore they are “transparent” for us;


  • Finally, for Wertsch Russia is not only the “store” of empirical data, he points out that one of the main intellectual sources of his concept of collective memory are the works of M.M. Bakhtin and L.S. Vygotsky. Professor Wertsch contributed a lot towards Vygotsky’s heritage especially in the West. He translated works of Vygotsky and wrote the book Vygotsky and the social formation of mind (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985). Wertsch’s efforts triggered international interest in the ideas of the Russian genius, who now is one of the most cited “stars” of worldwide academia.

The Wertsch’s approach to memory includes two crucial insights:


— The first one is the mediational function of narrative in the process of shaping consistent mnemonic communities out of separate individual experiences. This is important because some scholars are still skeptical towards the Halbwachsian concept of “collective memory”. Their criticism is partly justified, because the reference of Halbwachs to “the perspective of the group” as a “carrier” of collective memory is somewhat vague and we need more ideas about mediational tool that function between individual and collective memory. Wertsch made the decisive step in pointing out consistent mediational tools of two kinds. The heritage of Ernst Cassirer and Lev Vygotsky regarding the mediational role of language, allowed him to argue that narrative is a mediational tool of collective and individual memory: individuals string “the meat” of personal experiences on the “skewer” of collective narrative; at the same time, publicly shared individual experience, which is structured by the collective narrative, changes the narrative itself. It is crucial to specify that the interaction of collective and individual memory is possible only through the mediation of narratives. Wertsch writes that voices of individual experience are “co-authored” by the narrative tools provided by a community. Therefore narratives are the core of memory. One can argue that there is “nothing new under the sun” in this and many researchers have applied this concept to memory studies before Wertsch. Obviously, it is difficult to discuss memory without mentioning narratives, although the founder of our discipline Maurice Halbwachs did manage to do that in his fundamental research “Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire.” In my opinion Wertsch made the breakthrough investment in memory studies presenting narrative as a mediation tool of collective and individual memory, thus he found the principle shaping not only national but any mnemonic community;

— The second insight is an idea of schematic narrative template which serves as an underlying code (schema) of specific narratives. Wertsch applies this concept to national memory and his approach is different from other researchers. It analyzes not obvious types of memory schemata as “progress”, “decline”, and so on (see for example Zerubavel E. Time Maps. Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), but the hidden narrative templates such as “Expulsion of Alien Enemies” of Russian national memory unforeseen even for the Russian academics. After reading Wertsch research I was very surprised why I did not notice earlier that narrative template of our memory. Narrative template “Expulsion of Alien Enemies” explains to a large extent the Russian perception of our foreign politics not only of the past but of the recent conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine as well.

In the final chapter of his book Wertsch discusses idea of Astrid Erll (Memory in culture. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2011) on two phases in the development of memory studies: the first phase was inaugurated in 1920th – 1930th by Maurice Halbwachs, Aby Warburg and Frederic Bartlett, who established the subject of collective memory; and the second phase was proclaimed in 1980th by Pierre Nora and other researchers delving ‘national remembrance and traumatic events’. Erll raises a question regarding the essence of the future, which from her perspective will involve a third phase of memory studies. I think this phase has been started in 2002, when the Wertsch’s monograph Voices of collective remembering (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) was published, but momentum of our discipline did not allow to notice that. I believe that the subjects of structure of narrative core of memory and mediating function of narrative tools should become the focus of current memory studies.

The new book of Prof. Wertsch presents the development of his fruitful concepts. It is a comprehensive theory of national memory, which contains a number of controversial points, and it therefore is in need of constructive criticism from colleagues. I think it would be nice to have a debate in order to make a progress in our discipline.

Serguey Ehrlich



  1. How your concept of mediation tool of memory was changed from your previous research?

Over the years, I have tried to find ways to draw various psychological constructs into the discussion. This was always part of the approach, but recently I have relied more heavily on notions about schemata, and in my most recent writings, I have turned to the notion of habit. These ideas, of course, have been around for a century (Frederic Bartlett in 1932 on schemata in Remembering, and William James on habit in 1890 in Principles of Psychology), but they are continuously taken up and developed further in cognitive psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience. Crucial to the whole enterprise is finding a way to deal with issues like national memory in ways that can communicate across disciplines. In my early years I tended to rely more heavily on linguistic and discourse analysis when trying to explicate Vygotsky, and I still rely on those disciplines, but recently I have tried to expand my horizons in two crucial ways. First, I have come to appreciate the power of narratives as cultural tools or mediational means; and second, I have become more interested in habit as a crucial psychological construct. Hence, I now see topics such as narrative habits as a crucial meeting point for findings from linguistics, narrative analysis, and psychology.

Further motivation for my increasing interest in habit comes from a practical concern. I spent a dozen years as the founding director of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University, and this experience involved a lot of interaction with students and colleagues from many societies, especially in Asia. In the process, I found myself constantly being struck by the tenacity of different views of the world reflecting different societies, and in some cases these surfaced in the form of bitter conflict. I was often struck by how an individual from one society could look across the table at someone from a different society and simply not be able to believe that the other really believed that what they said was true. In many instances, the real problem was that the second person was looking back with the same sort of disbelief about another’s beliefs. For me, this was further exposure to the sort of “mnemonic standoff” I describe in chapter one that I had with “Vitya,” and it reinforced the idea that something unconscious and quite deep was involved. To date, the best way I have for describing this is habit, and as a result, habit has become a bigger part of my ideas as I seek to try to understand and manage sharp conflict over the past.



2. Your previous classification of narratives of national memory had two items: specific narrative and schematic narrative template. Now you extended it to a four-item list adding privileged event narrativeand national narrative project. Would you tell how they differ from each other?

A privileged event narrative combines the strengths of specific narratives and narrative templates, and I introduced the notion after spending a lot of time hearing Chinese colleagues bring up the Opium Wars of the 19th century in particular and the Century of Humiliation more generally. As an outside observer, I found myself constantly wondering why my Chinese colleagues always seemed to want to bring this up when discussing topics that I saw as not being connected to it, and that led me to see parallels with the way the Great Patriotic War functions for many people in Russia. This has more to do with a rhetorical strategy for speakers from a national community and with the emotional power that a specific narrative contributes to their argument—something that goes beyond what a narrative template is capable of doing.


A national narrative project is an idea that builds primarily on the writings of the moral philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, and it has to do with a “narrative quest” that moves thinking into the future, specifically as a general telos. As such, it is not about the sort of schemata of past events that is the focus of a narrative template deals with. Past events have an ending, which is crucial to defining the meaning of those events, whereas a narrative project is about a life course or biography of an individual or nation that takes them into the future, where there is no concrete ending that can be known, but there is nonetheless a notion of where we are headed. I had known of MacIntyre’s writings for some time, but his insights into a narrative quest opened up new possibilities for me as I started to harness this idea. I anticipate going further into this issue in the future.


3. Privileged event narrative is one of specific narratives. Would you clarify how national narrative project (NNP) and schematic narrative template (SNT) relate to each other? Is NNP one of SNT or is NNP the underlying schemata of SNT?

A national narrative project is a sort of single organizing story arc that extends into the future and provides a framing device for schematic narrative templates and other national narrative forms. An NNP is not a template because a template has multiple instantiations, which make it a template in the first place. And unlike an SNT, an NNP does not have a concrete ending, the sort of “sense of an ending” that locks in the meaning of events leading up to it. Instead, it has a telos, something like what is sometimes discussed under the heading of a national idea in Russia. It is more like an assumed mission defining where a nation or individual is going than a clear end to the story. In the Russian case, that’s why I think the Expulsion of Alien Enemies is a schematic template that is used to make sense of multiple discrete events from the past and present, whereas Moscow as a Third Rome or some other mission or national idea is a narrative about the whole history or “biography” of the nation and where it is assumed to be headed. To be sure, an NNP needs to be compatible with SNTs that are part of the mnemonic community, but the two sorts of narrative serve different purposes and cannot be reduced to one another.


4. Describing the Russian national memory you write that the main role among its specific narratives play stories of different invasions by Germany, France, Sweden and so on and all of them have the same underlying code, that is the schematic narrative template “Expulsion of Alien Enemies”. Current privileged event narrative is The Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, which is not simply the brightest embodiment of the narrative template “Expulsion of Alien Enemies” but also a lens for comprehending of the current foreign politics. I fully agree with such interpretation of those three concepts of your theory. The question arises regarding the concept of national narrative project. In the Russian case it is “the Russian Idea” with its “familiar to virtually every Russian” manifestation “Moscow as the Third Rome” (p. 191). You write that it is a symbol of eternal life of the nation, which has no ending (“And there will be no fourth [Rome]”) and therefore it differs from the Russian narrative template with its final expulsion of alien enemies (p. 190). You notice that “endlessness” is a common feature of any national narrative project. Meanwhile the American narrative template “City on the hill” has no ending, so from that perspective it is similar to “Moscow as the Third Rome.” There is another similarity between two above mentioned narratives, both are directly related to spiritual values. Would you say if the “City on a hill” is not only the narrative template, but the American national narrative project as well?

You have provided a good summary of crucial points here, and I am still working through how the idea of a City on a Hill fits into the analysis. Is it a narrative template or a narrative project? I am more inclined to see the notion of a more perfect union based on democracy as an NNP now, but I am still working on this. No matter how difficult it is for others to believe Americans’ ideas about our mission being one of a quest for freedom or democracy, and no matter how cynically this idea is sometimes used in American political discourse, I still see it as a basic narrative habit of sorts. Donald Trump was an outlier in this regard, but recent statements by Joe Biden sound a lot like Barack Obama and earlier presidents, which I take to be a reflection of a deeper set of narrative habits than the wave of resentful populism that Trump encouraged.


5. In the case of Russia you described all four items of your narrative classification. But there are missing elements in your view of American (privileged event narrative) and Chinese (schematic narrative template) memories. Why did not you mention them?


Again, you are right here. I think what you reveal in your close reading is that these are still works in progress on my part. I would also note that it is often the case that someone outside a national community might have better insights than those inside it. The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville is often cited as one of the most brilliant observes of American habits and ideas, so it might be time for us in America to listen to others—like Russian colleagues—as they give us insight into who we really are. From Bakhtin’s perspective, this sort of dialogic encounter would seem to be what should be prescribed as standard analytic procedure, but of course Americans can become pretty upset at having others tell us who we are, so it is more complex than just a cognitive exercise. Indeed, we are currently have heated debates within the U.S. between different groups and their ideas of what the basic national narrative of America is. Is it one that starts with 1619 and the “original sin” of slaver, or is it one that starts with 1776 and some sort of quest for freedom?


6. Your four-item classification of memory narratives is created on the basis of American, Russian and Chinese national memories. Do you think it is applicable to other countries? Could you provide some examples?

I do indeed think the notions and classifications I outline in How Nations Remember are applicable to other national communities, but I may have already ventured too far into speculation about the Russian, Chinese, and American cases, so I hesitate to start in with other nations. If there is one other set of cases that I see as potentially promising, these cases would involve small nations. As my Estonian friend and colleague Peeter Tulviste once told me, there is something unique about national memory and narratives for small nations. Among other things, I think there is some sort of narrative about how small nations may have been invaded, annexed, taken over, and so forth, but nonetheless continue to exist. I think of cases like Armenians and Jews in this respect. It strikes me that there is something fundamentally different about such nations’ mission or narrative quest in such cases than in cases like Russia, China, and America. This, however, is venturing pretty far into speculation, so more concrete research needs to be done before we can be very concrete about the claim.

7. And the final question, what are your academic plans?

Roddy Roediger and I have a grant to support the formation of collective memory as a topic of study, and we have convened a group of scholars, many of them junior and in need of particular support, to start that discussion. This has more to do with the formation of a field or tradition of inquiry than a particular intellectual agenda, and much of it concerns the battles over memory that have emerged lately in the U.S. As I mentioned above, my hunch is that I will be trying to understand Nation Narrative Projects as a particular research topic. More concretely, I also anticipate that Roddy and I will conduct additional empirical studies based on survey data and perhaps try to collect and analyze more detailed narrative accounts as part of this.

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