In Jan Assmann’s essay “Collective Memory and Cultural Identity” the author points to a peculiar notion of ‘collective memory.’ In that the author suggests the idea of human memory as a purely individualistic and psychological process offers only an incomplete view of human memory. In fact, the author takes on a far more macroscopic and social view of memory as a cultural phenomenon. To which end we can characterize social memory as a collective. And that our understanding of the past is directly shaped by our collective obligation to society.
One of the most interesting points that Assmann makes in his essay would be the notion of the communicative memory. Assmann asserts that communicative memory could be defined as “those varieties of collective memory that are based exclusively on everyday communications (Assmann 126).” One of the key arguments that Assmann makes in his essay is the fact that communicative memory and cultural memory are actually distinct concepts which are related but not the same as one another. It might seem counter intuitive at first of how the notion of communicative memory is very different from cultural memory as they are both related towards the ‘social’ character of human memory.
Assmann first explains his argument with valid examples how communication, even in the very simplest form always takes place within a social context. This social context shapes the memory of the individual as it relates to a group scenario and therefore forms a critical part of how our cultural memory comes to be shaped and constructed. Assmann’s argument for communicative memory can be broken down into segments. Firstly, everyday human communication is always characterized by social activity. Regardless of how trivial or frivolous these types of activity or interactions may be, they always take place within a social setting. Secondly, communicative memory takes place through the notion of ‘oral history.’ The integration of the ‘historical’ aspect of communication inserts another layer into Assmann’s overall presentation of cultural memory. In that if both our culture and our oral communication is shaped by past events (history) then logically cultural memory and communicative memory could be linked together.
It would seem that Assmann deliberately presented the notion of communicative memory for a very important point regarding cultural memory. In that while communicative memory may not be completely the same as cultural memory, it does fit into the overall construction of cultural memory as a whole. Therefore, Assmann is essentially breaking down the different layers of human memory in order to justify this notion of cultural memory as a macro theory. From this perspective, we understand that individually, all of us possess and innate, neurological capacity for memory. This is the very first level of memory that Assmann does not cover in the essay.
Then secondly, we have a social level of memory. This is the notion of communicative memory that was aforementioned. How we construct this level of memory is based on our social interaction with others. Our sociological path towards identity and interpretation of meaning – especially through oral communication and history forms the core of our social memory. Then there is the third level, which the most macroscopic notion of memory in the cultural memory. Our memory and interpretation of the past must therefore fit in with our cultural identity. Culture is represented by Assmann as persistent and unchanging, a continuous regurgitation of the past where historical elements is sifted through into the present.
In this way, Assmann actually presents a fairly complex argument in that the notion of communicative memory and cultural memory is definitively related to one another but at the same time they are fairly distinct as well. In which sense the notion of communicative memory is characterized by “its proximity to the everyday, cultural memory is characterized by its distance from the everyday (Assmann 129).” Here Assmann iterates the notion of “distance.” Where the notion of cultural memory construction is shaped by past, far away spaces and continues to lived and re-lived persistently through our institutions, values, norms, and rituals.
By that rationale, it becomes clear that Assmann’s communicative memory directly contributes to cultural memory as our social identity contributes to our cultural identity. Or at the very least there is a level of interaction between how we remember our social groups and our interactions formed under an individual context, a social context, and the broader, macroscopic culture of our society. In this way social memory and cultural memory becomes intertwined. Through building up the explication of communicative (social) memory and tying it well to the notion of cultural memory, Assmann succinctly produces a key statement in his essay: “Our theory of cultural memory attempts to relate all three poles – memory (the contemporized past), culture, and the group (society) – to each other (Assmann 129).” Therefore, Assmann points out both the difference and the similarity between communicative memory and cultural memory.
Assmann produced a fairly robust argument in integrating this whole notion of cultural memory as a means of “social/cultural preservation.” For if Assmann had not introduced this notion of communicative memory then his whole concept of cultural memory would be fairly incomplete, because culture is not the only meaningful form of memory making. Clearly, as Assmann suggested, our social context in the absence of culture also plays a big part. But if Assmann had introduced communicative memory but failed to distinguish between the social vs. cultural aspects of memory, then it would also be fairly unforgiving because then he would have failed in delineating the critical differences between culture and social context. Therefore, Assmann’s approach towards formulating his argument was fairly successful and critical.
But there are also some short comings to Assmann’s essay. For one, Assmann fails to highlight how social memory and cultural memory interact with one another. As we would believe that we are influenced by our social setting to act and remember in a certain way, our social settings are influenced by our cultural memory as well. Assmann does not specify to which extent the interactions between social and cultural memory take place and what kind of result they produce.
Take for example towards the end of Assmann’s essay: “One society bases its self-image on a canon of sacred scripture, the next on a basic set of ritual activities, and the third on a fixed and hieratic language of forms in a canon of architectural and artistic types (Assmann 133).” But Assmann fails to mention to what degree does this notion of ‘self-image on a canon of sacred scripture’ penetrates into lived social scenarios. He also does not mention, if possible, the degree of fluctuation that our cultural memory constantly fluctuates.
As Assmann himself acknowledged: “No memory can preserve the past. What remains is only that which society in each era can reconstruct within its contemporary frame of reference. (Assmann 130).” Certainly, this is a very powerful and truthful statement regarding the epistemological study of culture. Yet Assmann only offers an ambiguous semblance of what is supposedly constructed without providing concrete examples of how the process truly works.
As a result, the argument provided in part by Assmann was that communicative memory must be fairly different but at the same time fairly similar than cultural memory. This poignant point was made abundantly clear in the early stages of Assmann’s essay in order to provide logical evidence for the arguments that came later within Assmann’s essay. Indeed, because of the way that Assmann constructed this particular argument, his arguments and therefore the entire essay was made more robust and convincing. With regard to religion, Assmann actually produces little textual references towards how religion and memory would be linked.
- Assmann, Jan, and John Czaplicka. ‘Collective memory and cultural identity.’ New german critique 65 (1995): 125-133.