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Ludmila Isurin “Memory, Identity and Imagination” by Serguey Ehrlich

Ludmila Isurin “Memory, Identity and Imagination” by Serguey Ehrlich

Ludmila Isurin, Ph.D., Professor, The Ohio State University, USA

At the time when Western academic thought is mostly guided by strict disciplinary divides and predominantly operates in the English language mode, with the latter often separating the Western academia from other schools of thought existing in the world, a recent work by Serguey Ehrlich “Memory, Identity, and Imagination: The structure of behavior from the perspective of Memory Studies” offers a rare insight into the mind of a Russian intellectual. I found this work fascinating: it is deeply interdisciplinary, it challenges the existent presuppositions in memory studies, and it is thought-provoking. In my reflection on this work, I will try to elaborate on all three points underlined above.

First, in his essay, Ehrlich explores the interconnection between memory of the past and collective future thinking from the perspective of human behavior. By doing so, he grounds his argument in multiple disciplines, such as history, psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology, anthropology, folklore, literary studies, politics, and theology. Such broad approach not only provides much depth to his intellectual exploration, but also it takes the reader across disciplinary boundaries in an almost effortless way. Although the superficial reading of his suggestion that memory is a component of the guidance and control subsystems of behavior may not sound as a new one, if one thinks about multiple studies in Psychology (e.g., Proactive Memory or Memory and Evolution), the idea behind his approach would not fit one specific academic field. Rather, by outlining the four major points where memory becomes a component of the subsystem of behavior, such as 1) memory, identity, and imagination acting as a “molecule;” 2) triple-layered narratives as “atoms’ nucleus;” 3) three base mythic narratives as the core of the “nucleus” and 3) “fundamental particles” of base mythic narratives he proceeds to the in-depth discussion of each component of the proposed framework showing overarching connections between those components. Multiple examples from academic sources as well as from our knowledge of the world where we live makes his argument convincing and highly engaging.

Moreover, the interdisciplinary approach undertaken by Ehrlich in his essay is not limited to the study of the phenomenon in question from multiple angles. He calls not only for stepping outside of one’s discipline, but he also calls for the intellectual exchange that transcends national borders. In his own words, “[t]here is a fundamental difference between material and spiritual production. The first one is a zero-sum game from the perspective of the limited natural resources of our planet; the second one is as unlimited as our imagination. We must share material products amongst us, spiritual ones are able to multiply in the minds of each and every one of us: ‘If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.’ It is impossible to alienate ideas and hence, by their own nature, they cannot be the property of either a person or a group.” Through this metaphorical presentation of the intellectual exchange Ehrlich voices the need for scholars to unite their efforts to better understand memory of the past and imagination of the future in the world that becomes increasingly divided by politics and ideology.

Second, in his discussion of the proposed framework, Ehrlich often challenges the well-established conceptions, such as a definition of history. In his view, “history has a double framework: experience-past and expectation-future” and that historians should act as prophets of the future. He takes a step further by offering imagination as the “reliable ‘asymmetric counter concept’ of memory” of the past. Moreover, he challenges some old-fashioned terminology, such as “the stubborn devotion of intellectuals to the outdated” concept of modernity, “which is a derivation from the Latin adverb modo ‘presently, just now.’ For sure that name plays the deceptive role, because first of all we reflect the world existing ‘just now’ around us.” According to him, “that terminological pitfall is an important reason why we have not realized clearly how deep is the rupture between industrial and information stages. Therefore, we are not able to elaborate effectively the new forms of memory, identity, and imagination suitable to our global mode of existence.”

Although the question, what makes collective memory different from history, is widely discussed in literature on collective memory and there seems to be a consensus that history is more objective than collective memory, Ehrlich undermines the latter by suggesting that “many historians are members of a ‘dishonest legion’ of scholars from different disciplines both in the humanities and natural science, who betray truth guided by such non-rational factors as rhetoric, propaganda, and personal prejudice.” It is hard to disagree with his reasoning. In my recent study on Russian collective memory (Isurin, 2017), I raised a similar concern by giving an example of Soviet historians, who were not free of ideological pressure and censorship. He proceeds further by saying that “[i]t is true that all scholars as members of their mnemonic communities are affected by powerful narratives, which are based on national, class, religious, and other interests. Therefore, a historian must permanently make a choice between the universal narratives of science and the group memory narratives. When, for example, he/she is seriously engaging with his/her nation-state memory narratives he/she turns out to be an agent of national memory regardless to his/her investment in historical studies.” He concludes his statement with a witty comment that “some alchemists made a contribution to the early stages of chemistry development, but that does not allow them to be called ‘chemists,’” which is just another illustration of Ehrlich’s engaging writing.

Third, I found a few lines of thinking offered in this paper thought-provoking. According to Ehrlich, a trauma of early humankind, such as cannibalism or bringing one’s own children as sacrifice to gods, becomes a “collective primal trauma” that leads to certain behavioral patterns in modern times and in modern democratic societies. He cites examples of American soldiers involved in mass torture in Vietnam and Iraq, hazing rituals in American college fraternities, or the “efforts of German elites to cure their society from venomous Nazi heritage…., which is now under a threat from the growing popularity of far-right.” Thus, Ehrlich believes that “the one of important duties of academia should be working through the ‘metaphysical guilt’ (Karl Jaspers) of the Stone Age, the collective primal trauma inherited of cannibalistic practice of hunter-gatherers, which unfortunately still not discussed in current memory studies.” Indeed, through my extensive reading of literature in the field of collective memory, this is the first time I came across such a proposition, and it made me stop for a moment and think more about it.

Such violent behaviors are later discussed within the opposition of “we vs. others,” a common theme in national memory construction, where one group pushes against the “other,” a group that is viewed as inferior to the values of another group. Here he looks at such behaviors on a national scale. Ehrlich brings up a very important – albeit not comfortable to many Westerners – idea, cited from Benda (2011), that “the citizens of democratic nation-states are more prone to wage wars than the subjects of medieval monarchs,” and reminds the reader of the slogan of French monarchists: “Democracy is war.” The discussion of the US external interests that are dominant over the moral values and that shaped the US foreign policy in the last few decades adds a valuable angle to the discussion of violence and aggression in modern times.

Ehrlich further elaborates on the idea of the “other” that “must be presented as non-human monsters to whom the human treatment is unacceptable and instead deserve torture and humiliation” in order “to motivate ‘our people’ for such a ‘mortal combat’ for surviving.” This thought-provoking statement, although metaphorically expressed, makes one think about recent and current atrocities committed by one nation against another.

All in all, this deeply intellectual – and somewhat philosophical work – presents an interesting take on memory studies, which may not be supported by some scholars, but it will certainly keep them engaged. Intellectual “food” is not always easy to digest but it does not mean that it should be excluded from our “diet.”

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