Tyler Wertsch: “As America launched several wars and enacted increasingly strict and violent policy I decided to shift my work to American memory”
Tyler Wertsch is a PhD student in the American Culture Studies Program at Bowling Green State University in the United States. His primary research interests are the intersections between collective memory, war/trauma, and popular media (primarily video games and film).
Why did you choose memory studies? Was there any influence from your father, a well-known researcher of collective memory James Wertsch?
I think there certainly was a fair amount of influence from my father, though if I am totally honest, I don’t think I really understood what he studied until I was about halfway through my undergraduate program. As I started to develop my own interests, however, the direction of my studies was certainly shaped and reinforced by my conversations with him. My interests initially centered on Japan and Japanese memory of WWII, though over time I became more interested in the way nations and other imagined communities conceptualize themselves and their pasts. As America launched several wars and enacted increasingly strict and violent policy I decided to shift my work to American memory, a change my father both suggested and supported.
I guess in your childhood you played video games and watched Hollywood action movies, where Russians are depicted as America’s main enemies. Can you tell about your own experience in that field? Did it impact on your view of Russians?
I think when I was growing up the villains in numerous American texts tended to rely on old, Soviet-era understandings of a bipolar power structure (asJohn Mearsheimer would call it)—essentially, many popular media texts were written by members of a generation which could not conceive of a reality without these perpetual Manichean struggles between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. After 9/11 the populations that were routinely depicted as villainous changed dramatically, though I was fascinated that there always seemed to be at least some texts with a Russian or vaguely Soviet antagonist even in the age where American perceptions of terror are highly racialized towards arab and Persian villains. As for my own views on Russia and Russians, after growing up in a house where focus on people and works was valued more than discussions of national character, I think I never fell into the trap of generalizing all Russians as villainous.
Did you discuss “a Russian threat” with your high school classmates in the context of popular American media?
Most of my classmates in high school didn’t think very much about Russia in general, especially since my high school years (2003-2007) were so dominated by the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even in my college years (2007-2011) there was comparatively little attention paid to Russia. It is for this reason that I was so surprised to see the prevalence of Russian and generally Soviet villains still present in a number of then-new video game texts.
Last years Western so called quality media readily spread doubtful information regarding “the Russian interference” in all realms of American internal politics, for example in elections of Trump, which is portrayed as almost like Putin’s puppet. In your opinion can we say that popular media have been raised a generation, which is addicted to chew the bubblegum of post-truth news?
This is an interesting question. To begin, it is not implausible that there actually was Russian interference in the American political process. I do not mean this in the sense of hacking voting machines or directly corrupting voter data, but more in the sense that politically charged media on platforms like Facebook were elevated through strategically designed algorithmic expressions. However, I say this knowing full well that the United States almost certainly has done (and likely continues to do) similar activities in other areas of the world. The polite term “cultural diplomacy” describes this phenomenon, and America has been actively involved in these pursuits, both overtly and covertly, since at least the start of the Cold War. This could manifest in programs designed to showcase American philanthropic ideals and demonstrate how partnerships with the U.S. are inherently beneficial, such as the Peace Corps or Fulbright Program. On the other hand, more aggressive and nefarious actions and interventions can occur as well, such as the long pattern of material and military interference in Central and South American democratic processes or even the joint U.S./U.K. assassination of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. To answer the second part of this question, I think media experts would widely agree that the momentum of an idea lies in its emotional and visceral impact, not in its hard data. To this end, we are seeing what appears to me as a shift by mainstream news networks towards embracing the emotive impact of news and leaning away from the pretense of objectivity. It is in these times that memory studies, which rely so heavily on the affect of trauma rather than the data itself, are so crucial.
In your paper “Still Fighting with Echoes and Ghosts: Collective Memory, National Identity and the New Frontier of Popular American Films and Video Games” you point out that anxieties and fears of the national memory have been manipulated by video games and Hollywood films. In that context the affects, which are generated by the past, play bigger role than the knowledge of historical events. The similar situation we can see in the current museology, where it is an obvious turn from the classical history museum of knowledge to the memory museum of affect. How do you explain that phenomenon of memory’s structure, where feelings prevailed over knowledge?
I don’t know if it is possible to point to a single, foundational moment of paradigm shift for this phenomenon, though I would argue that there is certainly something to be said about the effects of capitalism on the process of memory. Recent scholars, like Viet Thanh Nguyen (Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War; and The Sympathizer) point to the “memory industry,” or the attempt to commercialize remembrance in the form of memorials and purchasable media. Such an industry relies on affect-driven consumer models, so it would seem that outrage and sorrow are more effective (and more profitable) paths to mnemonic salience than solemnity and statistics. I think the unsettling reality is that scholarship, like memory itself, is driven by intellectual and material demand, and at the current moment affect is being commodified to sell or spread texts. This is an observation that has been made before by historians such as Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life, though I think if anything it is truer now. How and why we got to this point is something that I think is beyond my powers of observation for the moment, but I am keenly interested in how this came to be.
In your paper you analyze the American generic narrative “Rebuffing of Invaders”. You point out that it does not correspond to the historical experience of the US and presents the repercussions of the Cold War propaganda regarding “the Soviet threat”. American memory for a long time is based on another narrative “The City upon a Hill”, which justifies the US military invasions in order to bring democracy to countries suffering from their authoritarian rulers. Can you tell how the business of popular media utilizes “The city upon a hill” narrative? Can you compare the popularity of “The city upon a hill” and “Rebuffing of Invaders” narratives?
This is a timely question! At the moment there are several texts in the process of being written or published that tackle the question of “the city upon a hill” concept in American thought, memory, and policy, such as Abram C. Van Engen’s upcoming book that builds on his previous scholarship. The study of “the city upon a hill” is not currently one of my main areas of research, though there is a long and fruitful history of scholarship in American Studies and American Culture Studies that engage with these concepts, such as Godfrey Hodgson’s The Myth of American Exceptionalism. One of the fascinating takeaways from this, however, is what I believe to be the reality that memory may be rooted in history in only a tenuous manner. In other words, American media have managed to make a strong connection between the “city upon a hill” narrative and the alleged exigency of interventionist military policy and defensive narrative structure of “rebuffing of invaders” to create an appealing and profitable perspective from which to make and sell media texts that reinforce these beliefs. Certainly the “rebuffing of invaders” narrative more clearly lends itself to defensive memory, though from what I have observed in America and elsewhere, narrative structures are often more complex and the product of marrying several basic narratives together, such as “rebuffing of invaders” in concert with some kind of ethnonationalist rhetoric or assumed national moral character. That said, I think all mnemonic groups (to borrow a term from Eviatar Zerubavel) and even nations have certain guiding narratives and assumptions about themselves, and part of the task of memory studies is to identify these patterns and analyze their origins and effects.
What are your academic plans?
For now, I just hope to finish my PhD in the next 2 years. After that, however, I think I might try to pursue a postdoc appointment or a teaching fellowship before finding a tenure-track position in a college or university that would allow me to continue my work on memory. That may not be an achievable dream, however, considering the American academic job market, so I may need to teach outside the United States, perhaps in, Australia, or New Zealand, or an English-speaking institution in South Korea or Japan. Hopefully there will be some space for me to enter academia and pursue this area!
Thank you very much for the interview!