Ludmila Isurin. “How nations remember:” Reflection on the intellectual power of James Wertsch’s scholarship
In this paper, I reflect on the impact that James Wertsch’s scholarship had on my quest into collective memory. From his inspirational call for ignoring disciplines and forging ahead to his influential narrative templates known as “expulsion of foreign enemies,” from his emphasis on a counterpoint in the exploration of national memories to his broad intellectual take on the research of collective memory, my own path in the field has been shaped. I have provided specific examples and findings from my research to illustrate the points shared with Wertsch’s stance as well as those that challenge it. Rather than focusing on his latest book, How nations remember (2021), the paper elucidates the intellectual impact that the scholarship of one academic can have on others.
Key words: interdisciplinarity, collective memory, memory of WWII, Russian collective memory, narrative templates, counterpoint, mnemonic standoff
As a scholar that primarily worked on psycholinguistic aspects of bilingualism and bilingual memory, the field of collective memory remained outside of my research interests until 2012 when a selection of excellent works edited by Pascal Boyer and James Wertsch (2009) came to my attention. Rarely does any academic book make me read all contents, from cover to cover, and then return back in order to read some parts more in depth. Later I read James Wertsch’s monograph “Voices of collective remembering” (2002). My journey started with these two books that became some of the most influential, inspiring, and pivotal works in my academic career. The idea of writing a new monograph on collective memory by bringing collective and autobiographical memories together gradually was born. Although I had a good grip on autobiographical memory, which is one of the topics in my graduate seminars, I was entering the territory of collective memory that had remained largely uncharted by me; this required me to overcome numerous moments of hesitation when I would feel lack of confidence and belief in my abilities to tackle the major issue of trespassing the “foreign” territory. However, the foreign territory was fascinating and somehow did not feel totally foreign. The words by Boyer and Wertsch, scholars whose work tremendously inspired me in that journey, “[T]o understand those phenomena (collective and autobiographical memory – L.I.), one should not be ‘interdisciplinary,’ if that means concocting a witches’ brew of disparate results. Rather, one should ignore disciplines altogether and forge ahead…” (Boyer & Wertsch, 2009, p. 1), encouraged me to persist with that project.
Although my approach to the study of collective memory was empirically based and involved a case study of Russian collective memories of the 20th century among Russians living in Russia and Russian immigrants in the United States (Isurin, 2017), the idea of James Wertsch’s schematic templates illustrated on the example of Russian narratives surrounding wars (Wertsch, 2002) was at the back of my mind while I was working on that book. Not incidentally, one of the topics in my project pertained to Russian collective memory of WWII or, more precisely, the Great Patriotic War. The emotionally charged memories shared by the participants of the study, who in most cases, were separated by generations from the event, did signify the tremendous importance of the collective memory of WWII for Russians as the nation. Both Russians in Russia and Russian immigrants in the U.S. ranked the memory of WWII as the most important in passing down the generations. Those excerpts also could provide an excellent illustration to Wertsch’s conceptualization of what he called the “expulsion of foreign enemies” schematic template. However, already at that point when I read “Voices of collective remembering” and later when I read Wertsch’s recent book How nations remember (2021), I argued that the entire question of “who won the war” that still invokes heated debates in countries affected by the war and the lists of the most important events in WWII, as they are elicited by different nations, should be treated with much caution. From my analysis of texts related to WWII, both in Russia and the U.S., it became clear that there is a deliberate lack of clear differentiation between the two terms, WWII and the Great Patriotic War in Soviet and, later, post-Soviet discourse, which makes most Russians believe that it was the USSR that won the war – whichever name one applies. Incidentally (or maybe not) the U.S. media tend to refer to Russian V-Day (May 9) as the WWII victory celebration. Based on the empirical findings from my study I suggested that “the eternal question, who won the war, seems to be rooted deeply in the existent misunderstanding of what Russians consider as the war when they claim their sole victory. The results of within-group analyses for both groups did show that those people who credit the USSR with victory do think of the war as the Great Patriotic War, which undeniably was won by the Soviet military and cost over 20 million human lives” (Isurin, 2017, p. 202). In other words, having applied this Russian understanding of what war they were fighting (i.e., the Great Patriotic War) to the “expulsion of foreign enemies” schematic template proposed by James Wertsch we, indeed, can say that “through heroism and exceptionalism, and against all odds, Russia, acting alone [emphasis added] triumphs and succeeds in expelling the foreign enemy” (Wertsch, 2002, p. 131) and we may even put an end to a burning question of who won the war.
Wertsch’s conceptualization of narrative templates as a foundation on which national memories are built has been groundbreaking in the field of collective memory. From this point of view, his new book How nations remember not only develops further the argument that he started in Voices of Collective Remembering (2002), it does enrich it with bringing in psychological, philosophical, historical, and linguistic perspectives. Moreover, the book provides technical tools for the analysis of narratives related to the national past; this illustrates James Wertsch’s deeply intellectual take on such narratives as well as his ability to provide analytical instruments that can be used in future research. By recognizing the complexity of the notion of collective memory and acknowledging the existence of various approaches to its study – that ultimately may contribute to a difference in how such concept is perceived and defined – Wertsch concludes that “different methods for studying national memory tend to encourage different visions of what national memory is. Instead of suggesting the need for a single orthodox method, however, this suggests that different methods may be called for, depending on what one is trying to explain. But that still leaves us with the problem of how various results complement one another in larger effort. Ideally, this would take the form of a unit of analysis that allows us to operate at the crossroads where various disciplinary methods and claims can be coordinated” (Wertsch, 2021:2). Such call for interdisciplinarity in tackling the issue of collective memory has been shared by other scholars. A similarly strong call was made by cognitive psychologists, Hirst and Manier, who maintained that “… a full appreciation of collective memory will never be achieved until the ‘problem of reception’ is investigated. That is, one must take the individual seriously, even if the individual is deeply embedded in a social world. For a collective memory to form, society must construct, maintain and, over time, reconfigure memory practices and resources to be effective in altering the memories of members of a community. The two extremes in the array of approaches to collective memory are, in the end, not incompatible. In fact, they complement each other” (Hirst & Manier, 2008, p. 192). In my humble attempts to find answers at such crossroads of disciplines and methods, I was guided by the inspirational words of James Wertsch and a few other scholars. By bringing together producers and consumers of collective memory through the combination of text analysis and empirical data analysis and by looking into individual memory that often elucidates and fills gaps in collective memory, I launched a study on Russian collective memory in which I found the interface between what is in the world and what is in the mind the most interesting in the study of collective memory (Isurin, 2017). Such interdisciplinary plunge into something as complex as collective memory would not be possible, in my case, had not I been driven by the works of James Wertsch. Incidentally, at the time when he was finishing How nations remember (2021), I was deeply engaged in yet another project on collective memory as a continuation of my interdisciplinary inquiry into this complex issue. This time, I was interested to see how in an age of media distrust, ideological bias, distortion, and schemata in Russian and American media outlets work to reestablish a Cold War-like narrative – and by extension, reignite perceived enmities in the individual minds and collective memories of both nations (Isurin, forthcoming). The role of schemata in the construction of national narratives, whether about past or recent events, as emphasized again by James Wertsch (2021:2), indeed is highly important, as I have found it in my research.
Being an interdisciplinary scholar is not an easy path to choose. What struck me the most in How nations remember is Wertsch’s ability to cross disciplines in a masterful way without losing the focus of his argument or giving priority to any particular disciplinary approach. It is from the combination of different approaches that he looks at the national memories and how they should be studied. Indeed, his insights from psychology, philosophy, anthropology, history, political sciences, communication and literary studies are remarkable. Rarely do we see publications by scholars who are so knowledgeable and well versed in multiple areas and still are capable to deliver their argument is such an accessible way, often providing interesting and humorous examples from his own life! It is truly a work of an INTELLECTUAL!
Having started with three major illustrations, two from the Russian collective memory of the past and one from the Chinese account of the past, he later added intriguing examples from Serbia, Estonia, Azerbaijan, Israel, and Palestine. In his own words, “the inclusion of counterpoints reflects the fact that national memory is often flushed out into the open only when confronted with an alternative…. Using counterpoints brings up the fact that narrative tools often operate under the radar of conscious reflection, leaving us with the impression that we have a direct, unmediated picture of reality” (Wertsch, 2021:1). Counterpoints, like Russian and American contrasting memories of WWII, or Chinese and American memory of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, or Israeli and Palestinian takes on same events and presenting them as “narrative dialogism” to suggest two narratives facing off against one another in an explicit conversation (Wertsch, 2021: 5), all these provide a much welcome challenge to our understanding of different political events from the perspectives of two countries caught in the mnemonic standoff. Also, the same illustrations that serve as a “real meat” for the theoretical/ intellectual argument are repeated across chapters and they get a new “treatment” depending on the angle that the author takes in that particular chapter. I have appreciated this approach: It is better to have a few cases explored in depth from different perspectives than to be drowned in multiple examples. From this point of view, I do not see this book as one on Russian or any other nation’s memory. The author rises above any specific instances of a collective memory manifestation while keeping a few selected illustrations in focus, which makes the reading of this book very engaging.
The idea of a counterpoint in the exploration of national memories, as it was promoted by Wertsch’s works, has been very influential in my research on Russian collective memories. If in my first large scale project (Isurin, 2017) I have looked into how events in Russian past are reflected in Russia and in the United States and how, respectfully, they are recollected by Russians residing in Russia and Russian immigrants in the U.S., my second project focused on recent political events (2014-2018) involving Russia and how they were reflected in Russian and American digital media and subsequently remembered by people in both countries. I believe that without having such a counterpoint in the study of nation’s memories, whether they relate to distant past or recent events, we may lose a focus on why certain elements of such memories become crucial in our understanding of the contested memories constructed by the two nations in question. Mnemonic standoff, as Wertsch refers to it across his publications, including his recent book, indeed is an important concept on which collective memory research often is based.
How nations remember makes a great contribution to the accumulated knowledge on collective memories and will encourage scholars to cross the disciplinary boundaries in their pursuit of this complex – yet fascinating – notion of shared memories. The publication of this book is also timely, as I hope politicians – or at least those who are involved in political debates and decision-making processes – may become better educated through such scholarship. Lack of understanding of how and why nations are different in their construction of collective memories leads to near-sighted political decisions and failed foreign policies. As I said in my recent work, “in academia, we may never solve political crises and conflicts or make decision-makers and politicians smarter and more open-minded. Yet, we should not become messengers and oracles of the ever-shifting ideologies of those who are in power, no matter where we live or how much we want to be heard” (Isurin, forthcoming). In this respect, James Wertsch’s strong voice and intellectually groundbreaking scholarship not only have significantly contributed to the growing field of collective memory, they also have demonstrated how an intellectual, no matter where he lives, can trespass national boundaries, which is further manifested by the present discussion of How nations remember, on pages of a Russian academic journal.
Boyer, P. & Wertsch, J. (eds.) (2009). Memory in mind and culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hirst, W., & Manier, D. (2008). Towards a psychology of collective memory. Memory, 16(3), 183-200.
Isurin, L. (2017). Collective remembering: Memory in the world and in the mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Isurin, L. (forthcoming). Reenacting the enemy: Collective memory construction in Russian and U.S. media. New York/ Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wertsch, J. (2002). Voices of collective remembering. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Wertsch (2021). How nations remember. New York/ Oxford: Oxford University Press
Ludmila Isurin is a professor at the Ohio State University, USA. An interdisciplinary scholar whose research encompasses psycho- and sociolinguistics, social sciences and humanities with a recent focus on how collective memory is reflected in text and constructed in individual minds, she has written numerous chapters and journal articles, including an award-winning article in Language Learning. She has authored or coedited six books, including the Global Psychology Book Award nominee, Collective Remembering: Memory in the world and in the mind (Cambridge University Press). Her forthcoming book, Reenacting the enemy: Collective memory construction in Russian and U.S. media (Oxford University Press) is a continuation of her work on collective memory.