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Stefan Berger. Thoughts on Serguey Ehrlich’s "Memory, Identity and Imagination"


Anyone reading Ehrlich’s long essay on the relationship between memory, identity and imagination will be deeply impressed by the wide range of reading that went into it and the deep thinking that is emerging from it. He is attempting to relate memory to the guidance of behavior and argues that memory is tightly related to questions of identity and the role of imagination. All three together, memory, identity and imagination rely on a range of narrative templates (here he draws strongly on James Wertsch’s ‘schematic narrative templates’), of which Ehrlich picks out three in particular, the fairy tale narrative, which he sees most closely associated with family, kinship and clan identities, the heroic myth narrative, prominent in national identities, and the myth of self-sacrifice narrative that he associates with a vision of global humanity. He sees those narratives as primal phenomena which help to understand the history of human evolution. His is certainly an ambitious argument, and I am not really in a position to comment fully on all aspects of his intricate argument but draw from it a long list of interesting things that I will have read to engage more fully with what he presents here.

The emphasis on storytelling and narrativity in the construction of memory and identity and the formation of imagination is one that is emphasized by Ehrlich, and here I concur entirely with his argument.[1] Yet, I would add that it is not enough to look at narrations but also to take into account practices. Practice theory has for some time now pointed to the weaknesses of just looking at discourses.[2] Hence I would urge everyone analyzing memory, identity and imagination not just to examine discourses but also the practices that are aligned to these discourses.

Drawing on Reinhart Koselleck’s conceptual ideas around ‘the space of experience’ and ‘the horizon of expectation’, Ehrlich is, like Koselleck, connecting the former with memory (although Koselleck connected it to history, something also acknowledged by Ehrlich), but whereas Koselleck is linking the latter to hope, Ehrlich finds imagination better suited as a concept. Memory and imagination, he goes on to argue, are tightly interlinked in the way they both work together and impact on identities in any given present. Memory, identity and imagination are set up by Ehrlich as a triangle where each end of the triangle influences the other ends.

I believe that at the bottom of his intriguing argument lies a normative desire that derives from strongly contemporary concerns. These include fear of the future in relation to either a nuclear or an environmental Armageddon, a deep skepticism about the values of industrial modernity, a dislike of nationalism and its terrible side effects, like wars, genocides and forms of ethnic cleansing, as well as a dislike of capitalism and its logic of utter greed. He follows Alvin Toffler in declaring that industrial modernity came to end with the late twentieth century and that instead we are now in an ‘information society’. What is largely ignored in this argument is, however, that we are still living in a capitalist society which connects industrial modernity and ‘information society’. The break therefore might not be as substantial as posited by Ehrlich.

I believe that Ehrlich and I share a broadly left-wing normative political agenda. We are both looking for an ecologically and socially responsible world order, and he sees hope, in this respect, in what he describes as ‘narodniks of the global scale’ towards the end of his long essay. What he means is ‘the fast growing volunteer movement, which has crossed national borders’ and seeks to build a better world. I share his support and enthusiasm for these new ‘narodniks’ and I applaud them wholeheartedly. If Ehrlich and I share a common political vision, what about the epistemological basis of such a vision? Here I fear I am little more skeptical of the framework which Ehrlich constructs in his extremely learned and cogently argued essay.

He wants to inspire the intellectuals of the twenty-first century to return to the age of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and find there inspiration for a universal vision of humanity that will be able to overcome the nationalism that in Russia and Ukraine is currently fueling a cruel war that has pushed Ehrlich into exile. Whilst I have certainly been a strong critic of historiographical nationalism in my own work,[3] I am skeptical about universalism and humanism being able to serve as the guiding lights out of the darkness of both industrial modernity and nationalism. We should not forget the fundamental insight of Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno about the ‘dialectic of the Enlightenment’ gave birth to its own monsters.[4] Not only do we know now that the historical humanists could also be nationalists, racists and religious zealots, the language of humanism has often been used in order to postulate a set of values and ideals that were very culturally specific and yet, by saying that they were universal and related to what it was to be a human, they in fact had a totalizing dimension that served various forms of liberal colonialism and imperialism. The ideology of humanism and universalism thus needs to be deconstructed just as much as the languages of nationalism, progress and modernity. Humanism and universalism served as vehicles for the construction of essentialized collective forms of identity as did the other grand narratives of which Ehrlich is so justly skeptical.

As I have tried to argue in my recent book on History and Identity, the close link between historical writing and the construction of essentialized forms of identity, be it national, class, gender, ethnic or other forms of identity, has led to the construction of illiberal, totalizing and exclusionary forms of identity.[5] Instead, I follow Stuart Hall’s writings on identity in arguing that we should replace identity with identification, as such identification on the one hand recognizes the need for collective forms of identity whilst on the other hand avoids their essentialization and points to the changing and constructed nature of such identities.[6] They are constructed for a political purpose and become an argument in political contests, but they are invariably fluid and fuzzy. Such a reconceptualization of identity as identification allows forms of historical writing that are far more self-reflexive about the construction of collective identities and shun the essentialisms that previous generations of historians have employed - keen to write for the establishment of essentialist collective identities.

Working with ‘identification’ rather than ‘identity’ draws us to a range of thinkers that have been problematizing essentialized collective identities from the 1960s onwards. These include Hayden White’s denial of the scientificity of historical writing, Michel de Certeau’s interest in the re-appropriation of cultural meanings, Michel de Foucault’s attention to power imbalances in knowledge formation, Jean-François Lyotard’s critique of ‘grand narratives’, Peter L. Berger’s and Thomas Luckmann’s theory of social constructivism, Pierre Bourdieus thinking around ‘cultural reproduction’ and ‘social habitus’, Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony, Jacques Lacan’s skepticism of ‘fixed identities’, Jacques Derrida’s reading of texts as sites of contestation, Edward Said’s hostility towards binary oppositions when it comes to the construction of collective identities, Homi Bhaba’s notions of ‘hybridity’, and Frederick Coopers’ and Rogers Brubaker’s critique of reified collective identities. Whilst this is by no means an exhaustive list, I mention these examples, as they have all had major impact on the way historians today write history in relation to forms of identification – which I try to show in relation to different sub-fields of historical writing in History and Identity.[7]

Ehrlich also refers to my own work next to that of Wulf Kansteiner and others to point out that many historians have now argued that the border between history and memory is a porous one. But what he concludes from that is, if I understand him correctly, that we need to create a firm line of division between those scholars adhering to what he calls ‘group memory narratives’ and those adhering to the ‘universal narratives of science’. For me this sounds like resurrecting ‘scientificity’[8] through the back door and losing the insights about the relativity and normativity of all historical knowledge. The point about all historical narratives is that they can pretend to be as ‘scientific’ as they want, they will invariably carry messages that are inflected by normative values and identifications. Adhering to universally valid scientific methods is no protection against the link between narratives of the past and identifications. Hence, in my view, Ehrlich’s attempt to recreate a firmer border between history and memory is bound to fail, but what might indeed be useful is a sustained reflection on what we are actually comparing. As Wulf Kansteiner has recently pointed out there is, on the one hand, the past and the memory of the past, and then there is, on the other, memory studies that studies how the past was remembered through different media (one of which has been historical writing), and historical studies which studies the past in itself. I would argue with Kansteiner that memory studies has the far easier task, namely to make statements about how (mostly differently) a past was remembered by different memory actors. Historians have a far more difficult task, because how the past actually was is impossible to infer from what is left to us from the past and because each and every author approaches these remnants with a set of normative ideas and choices that invariably colour their readings of those remnants.[9] Unbiased history is therefore as impossible as objective scientific history. There is then, in my opinion, no ‘universal and objective perspective of the historical discipline’ that can be juxtaposed neatly to biased historical writing.

The emotiveness with which Ehrlich seeks to resurrect objectivity and scientificity in historical writing carries much of the apocalyptic and eschatological power that also informed other doctrines of salvation in the past, from Christianity to Communism. Their close links to oppression should be a warning sign not to search for new truthful utopias. If Ehrlich writes: ‘By searching for truth, he/she [the historian] fearlessly destroys the nation-state memory, identity, and imagination and creates instead the global ones. Therefore, he/she brings the triumph of the global information civilization closer.’, it is indeed reminiscent of earlier constructions of historians as prophets – prophets of nationalism, of liberalism, of progress, of the classless society. The fact that they are now supposed to be prophets of a universal humanity does not bode well for the future of those prophecies, I fear.

The proximity of Ehrlich’s argument to another form of scientificity is underlined by his use of metaphors from physics, the key precise natural science. Thus he calls memory, identity and imagination ‘atoms’ of a larger ‘molecule’ and describes these ‘atoms’ in terms of having a ‘triple-layered narrative “nucleus”’. ‘The core of “nucleus”’, according to him ‘consists of three base mythic narratives’ which themselves contain ‘”quarks” or “fundamental particles”, which he identifies as ‘self-sacrifice, others-sacrifice, and booty’. Yet memory studies and the historical discipline are not ‘sciences’, and, of course, the exactness of objectivity of the natural sciences has also long been in doubt, thanks to Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg and their successors. There is then, I would argue, no way of going back to the scientificity of the past.

We are firmly in the realm of anthropological knowledge production, when Ehrlich argues that these ‘”fundamental particles” represent condensed experience of millions of years of humankind evolution’ – a long line of continuity which I eye with huge skepticism. I find it even more dubious to claim that ‘they still powerfully govern our behavior even in situations when we are not able to realize that’. He draws on Sigmund Freud for this argument, but if this is the case, who then can realize that they govern our behavior, i.e. who stands outside the process of non-recognition and why?

If I have to admit skepticism towards his scientifistic metaphors, I am also wary of his use of organic metaphors when it comes to describing his ‘structure of behaviour’ as ‘a process of temporal changes’. Self-sacrifice, others-sacrifice and booty are to Ehrlich the ‘seeds’ from which ‘societal plants’ grow. Here he draws on Oswald Spengler. There is of course, in the history of nationalism, a massive tradition of using organicist metaphors to describe the growth, flowering and death of nations. Critics of this organicist understanding of nation have pointed out that it is naturalizing processes that are socially constructed. The combination of scientificity and organicity in Ehrlich’s argument multiplies this tendency to naturalize things that are always situational, contingent and changeable and usually the result of power contests of different social groups in society. There is no unavoidable primalism in history, only change, contestation and diverse constructions of space, time and identity.

By calling something primal we are again naturalizing it and making it an anthropological universal and constant, which, in my estimation, do not exist outside the construction of an increasingly smaller group of anthropologists today. By referring to ‘booty’ as ‘primal trauma’, Ehrlich is making a historically dubious (because hard to evidence) link between ‘the consequences of a trauma of early humankind’ and ‘the omnipresent atrocities of Modernity’. According to him ‘the cannibalistic complex of our Paleolithic ancestors is the primal trauma of humankind, which is still not realized and hence is not worked through.’ I find it hard to believe that we have to go back all of the way to the Paleolithic to understand historically specific atrocities in the modern world. Close attention to the specificities of historical situations, actors, events and to interests, power constellations and contingencies are in my view better able to explain those atrocities than any vague reference to ‘primal trauma’ and ‘cannibalism’ in the Paleolithic. Overall then, I find in Ehrlich’s argument too much universalizing psychology and anthropology and too little specific history and sociology. I doubt whether we as academics have to work ‘through the “metaphysical guilt” (Karl Jaspers) of the Stone Age’ in order to understand modern-day atrocities. It would lead us into a cul-de-sac and might well draw attention away from those often very specific individuals who have been guilty of committing atrocities.

To Ehrlich, ‘others-sacrifice’ is a ‘primal religion’ – once again he refers to Freud’s speculations about religion and mixes those ideas with insights from anthropology on cannibalism and sacrificing rituals. Like with the ‘primal trauma’ of ‘booty, ‘others sacrifice’ thus becomes something that is naturalized in human evolution and allegedly has universal qualities rooted in a kind of deep history.

Ehrlich draws again on Spengler to describe ‘self sacrifice as “the prime phenomenon of all past and future world-history”’. It is another totalizing statement that, when applied, eradicates diversity, plurality and contestation which stand at the heart of historical debates on identity, and inform both memory and imagination. He constructs ‘self-sacrifice’ as binary other to ‘others-sacrifice’. Self-sacrifice, he contends, is present in the ‘construction of every human community’, and ‘the starting point of all three basic myth narratives: the fairy tale, the heroic myth, and the myths of self-sacrifice’. I am not an expert in comparative religious history, but I find his claim hard to believe that Christianity is the only religion exhibiting forms of self-sacrifice. But it is this claim which allows Ehrlich to argue that Christian values were at the heart of the rise of Western civilization to the dominant position in the world. Without referencing Max Weber’s protestant ethic,[10] there is, like in Weber, an attempt to ascribe some kind of superiority to (in Weber’s case Protestant) Christianity over other religions, and, by implications, superiority of Western civilizations over other. Hence it is no surprise that he argues that the current decline of the west and western values is due to the ‘process of “dewesternization” of the West itself’, which includes the abandonment of the former willingness to live according to the ‘spirit of self-sacrifice’. Whilst this seems to be directed at well-established, and in my view, well-argued postcolonial attacks on the west,[11] there is nowhere in his piece an in-depth engagement with postcolonialism which might indeed be necessary if Ehrlich intends to defend the west against its many critics.

Ehrlich’s seems to be a very linear understanding of history, where we move from a ‘limited identity-solidarity’of kin, clan and tribe from pre-history to the medieval world, based on the ‘myth of booty’ to nationalism, based on ‘others-sacrifice’ to the future of universalism, based on ‘self-sacrifice’ that has the quality of saving mankind from nationalism, wars, environmental disasters, capitalism and whatever else threatens humanity in the present. Whilst this is undoubtedly an attempt to create a positive utopia, it might very well be wishful thinking and, at worst, a dangerous way of constituting new essentialisms and totalizing thoughts. Ehrlich is looking for a pathway from ‘savagery’ to ‘civilization’, but I am not sure whether he has found it, or indeed, whether it is at all findable, or whether we can only try, in every historical situation, to stand on the side of those stemming themselves against ‘savagery’ without ever being entirely sure whether we are standing on the right side of history. This doubt also acts as an important reminder that we need to accept other positions than our own in a democratic forum where those positions can be exchanged, as long as our adversaries also accept the democratic forum itself.

The self-sacrifice that Ehrlich sees as the foundation for a future better society, is not a collective one, but an individual one. He sees the ‘global world of information civilization’ as a ‘concert of billions of sovereign individuals’, ‘unique persons’ who create universality through the rejection of universal collective identities. Whilst acceptance of unique personalities and sovereign individuals is no doubt a good thing, we may, of course, ask, how unique personalities actually are in the highly commodified and commercialized worlds of late capitalism, and we also may ask how sovereign the individual actually is in a world in which forms of identification seem to be of high continued importance to many of these individuals. Furthermore, is not the vision of sovereign individuals quite close to the neoliberal utopia so famously formulated by Margaret Thatcher in the words: ‘There is no such thing as society.’[12] Is the solution to all of the problems of our contemporary world really individualism? Or is it rather a more playful form of identification with particular collectives leading to political engagement on behalf of those collectives in a liberal-democratic forum of decision making that reflects on the power inequalities within such fora and seeks to implement mechanisms countering such power inequalities?

Ehrlich’s individualistic universalism is critical of Chantal Mouffe’s notion of the need of collective identities that will always work on an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mechanism. Instead he posits that the individualized universal identities of the future would not have an ‘outside’ as they no longer have an ‘inside’. I have to admit that I find that perspective rather frightening, as it resembles to me a new totalizing framework where there are no legitimate conflicts of interest anymore. Such a global identity to me is a dangerous fiction which may well hide very specific interests, as does the liberal-democratic universalist and cosmopolitan ethos that we find in many cosmopolitan thinkers.[13] They have a very clear ‘other’, of course – something they call totalitarianism. Anyone not subscribing to the cosmopolitan ideology of human rights and victimhood-centred memory will quickly find themselves as ‘other’ with whom no communication is possible any more. The consensus-oriented nature of a cosmopolitan deliberative democracy is as willing to exclude as antagonistic Schmidtian or Lucacsian notions of the political, even if they are arguably far less deadly. Ehrlich’s ‘dream for an optimistic future’ might work in the same direction as Francisco Goya’s idea that ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’, but don’t we know that reason itself is very capable of producing monsters of its own?

In line with his own universalist ambitions, Ehrlich is very much in favour of the transnational and transcultural turn in memory studies and with their championing of diverse forms of cosmopolitanism, which is, of course, also rooted in universalist aspirations. He thus hails the transnational turn in memory studies as being ‘grounded in the recognition that the phenomenon of national memory … less and less corresponds to the “globalizing’ reality. Present-day memory does not fit into the container of the nation state.’ I wonder whether the rise of deadly nationalisms around the world over the last two decades has not shown this to be an illusion. Of course, there is a globalizing reality, but there is also a nationalizing one. There is not just one reality, but several temporal and spatial frames working alongside each other. Hence there are different forms of memory, national and transnational among them, which relate to different forms of constructed ‘reality’. We need to take all of them seriously, analytically and normatively. This is also where Aleida Assmann’s recent critique of the transnational turn in nationalism studies is important, for it takes seriously the national memory and its huge implications in the present.[14] Where I would contradict her is that the left has to present a national countermemory to the right. In other words, analytically it remains important to understand national memory, but normatively we should continue to deconstruct it and instead construct a plurality of possible national memories and transnational memories that have the power to counter the nationalist memoryscapes of the right an empower visions on the left for greater social justice and a more equal distribution of wealth in the world.

Ehrlich’s plea to create ‘an effective pantheon of global culture’s creators’ (using Shakespeare as an example) is highly reminiscent of Friedrich Meinecke’s call at the end of the Second World war to found Goethe societies in Germany.[15] The universalist genius of literary greats was to guide his compatriots after the ‘German catastrophe’ of National Socialism. We may indeed ask if this is not a rather helpless form of humanism seeing in high culture a panacea for the ills of the world. Without wanting to denigrate cultural interventions in the world past and present, it is not enough to appeal to idealistic values and beliefs in order to find the pathway to a better world. We need to contest political power in an attempt to frame a politics in line with our beliefs in a better future and we have to face resistance of those who envision the future world differently from us. This is the basis of an agonistic politics, championed by Mouffe, and it is also the basis of agonistic memory work, championed by Cento Bull and Hansen and those who have adopted and adapted their initial theoretical frame.[16] 

I find very interesting in this respect Ehrlich’s engagement with Mouffe’s agonism and his use of the example of Winston Churchill and how he is a hero to his ‘own’ British people (or at least most of them, for in the South Wales valleys, they might also think differently about him), and a villain to many in Greece, Kenia and India. A very interesting project would be one that looks in detail at the aggressor in history and memory. Such a project would invariably find that many aggressors are at the same time heroes, depending on which (national) perspective one takes on the person in question. The aggressor is a typically transnational figure in history and memory, yet he is also a strongly national memory resource for those promoting nationalist forms of history and memory. The image of the aggressor can thus not be fixed to that of perpetrator or hero. He is in fact always both, in different memory contexts, spatially and temporally.[17] However, agonistic perspectives would show the political contest in the uses of heroes/ villains and the political interests behind the diverse constructions of heroes/ villains in historical aggressors. It does not aim, as Ehrlich seems to believe, at a ‘conflictual consensus’ for it is skeptical of any consensus that would bring political contestation to an end. Of course, Ehrlich is quite right in pointing out with reference to contemporary Russia that from the political perspective of the left, political contests may indeed be lost to the political right. That is the nature of political contests and has to be accepted in liberal democratic fora for political debate. However, Russia does not present such a forum, for it is a strongly authoritarian state. For agonism to work, the liberal democratic state frame is an absolute precondition. And within that frame everyone has to accept the other as adversary, worthy of debating with, and not as political enemy to be destroyed. This is the only form of binary or ‘us’ versus ‘them’ construction that also agonism needs to uphold.

Overall, anyone reading Ehrlich’s long essay will come away from it deeply inspired to engage with a range of theoretical and philosophical issues that are extremely relevant to our present condition. I am in deep sympathy with many of the ideas and thoughts put forward by him, I still have to engage more fully with several of the arguments he makes on the basis of reading what he has already read, but I have also indicated above, where I beg to differ from his arguments and line of reasoning. I hope that this might be the beginning of a fruitful dialogue on issues that should concern every practicing historian and memory studies scholar today.

[1] On the importance of narrative theory for diverse forms of historiography compare Stefan Berger, Nicola Brauch and Chris Lorenz (eds), Analyzing Historical Narratives. On Academic, Popular and Educational Framings of the Past, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2021.

[2] Gerd Spaargaren, Don Weenink, and Machiel Lamers (eds), Practice Theory and Research. Exploring the Dynamics of Social Life, London: Routledge, 2016.

[3] Stefan Berger (with Christoph Conrad), The Past as History. National Identity and Historical Consciousness in Modern Europe, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

[4] Max Horheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of the Enlightenment. Philosophical Fragments, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. The work was first published in German in Amsterdam in 1947.

[5] Stefan Berger, History and Identity. How Historical Theory has Shaped Historical Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022.

[6] Stuart Hall, ‚Introduction: Who Needs Identity?’, in: Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (eds), Questions of Cultural Identity, London: Sage, 1996, pp. 1 – 17; also: Stuart Hall, ‘The Question of Cultural Identity’, in: Stuart Hall, David Held and Anthony McGrew (eds), Modernity and its Futures, Cambridge: Polity, 1992, pp. 274 – 316.

[7] See footnote 5 above; I treat all of these thinkers at greater depth in chapter one of my book.

[8] Heiko Feldner, ‚The New Scientificity in Historical Writing around 1800’, in: Stefan Berger, Heiko Feldner and Kevin Passmore (eds), Writing History: Theory and Practice, 3rd edn, London; Bloomsbury, 2020, pp. 7 – 24.

[9] Wulf Kansteiner has been developing these ideas in the context of the Oxford Handbook of Memory Studies that he is currently preparing for publication together with Tina Morina. I am grateful that he allowed me to draw on those ideas in Stefan Berger, ‘History Making and Ethics – an Integral Relationship?’, in: History and Theory 62:1 (2023), pp. ?? - ??. [add when it has been published].

[10] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Routledge, 2012. Weber published this much-quoted work first in German in two subsequent journal articles in 1904 and 1905, from which they were later put together as a book.

[11] In my view still unsurpassed is Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Since then, of course, a whole library of books has appeared that has followed Chakarabarty’s call in decentering the west.

[12] Thatcher’s words are often quoted, but in the same text she goes on to refer to family, and neighbours as concrete examples of how people care for other people. So even an alleged dyed-in-the-wool neoliberal like Thatchter was not denying the need of individuals to form relationships with others.

[13] Whilst I find Chantal Mouffe‘s critique of Habermas and other thinkers of a deliberative democracy and their universalism quite inspiring, I recognize that there are also intriguing ideas about the development of cosmopolitanism that includes notions of open-ended debate and radical plurality. For Chantal Mouffe, see idem, Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically, Cambridge: Polity, 2013. Very inspiring on a different kind of cosmopolitanism is Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.i

[14] Aleida Assmann, Die Wiedererfindung der Nation: warum wir sie fürchten und warum wir sie brauchen, Munich: C.H. Beck, 2020.

[15] Friedrich Meinecke, The German Catastrophe: Reflections and Recollections, New York: Beacon Press, 1963. The text was first published in German shortly after the end of the Second World War in 1946.

[16] Anna Cento Bull and Hans Lauge Hansen, ‘On Agonistic Memory’, in: Memory Studies 9:4 (2016), pp. 390 – 404.

[17] I am drawing here on an exchange of ideas about historical aggressors with Thomas Maissen, Ilaria Porciani, Balazs Trencsenyi, Diana Mishkova and Macjej Gorny, with whom I am applying for a project on historical aggressors to the Mercedes Benz Foundation.

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