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Cultural memory: the link between past, present, and future

by Richard Meckien - published Jun 03, 2013 03:00 PM - - last modified Jun 07, 2013 03:08 PM

The event, held on May 15 at IEA, opened the conference cycle ‘Spaces of Remembrance’, which the researchers uttered in the country from May 15 to 21 as part of the Year of Germany in Brazil. The cycle has been a realization of the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR) and the Institute for Advanced Studies on Social and Cultural Mobility, with the support of IEA and other institutions.

Aleida Assmann e Jan AssmannAt first glance, memory seems something inert, stuck in the past - a memory of something that has happened and stopped in time. But a closer look reveals that memory is dynamic and connects the three temporal dimensions: evoked at the present, it refers to the past, but always views the future.

During their conference entitled ‘Communicative and Cultural Memory’, researchers Jan Assmann and Aleida Assmann, both professors at the University of Konstanz, addressed this dynamic character of memory. Jan spoke on the durability and symbolic aspects of cultural memory, emphasizing their role in the construction of identities, while Aleida prioritized contemporary historical narrative, focusing on mnemonic processes related to the formation of new nation-states.

The event, held on May 15 at IEA, opened the conference cycle ‘Spaces of Remembrance’, which the researchers uttered in the country from May 15 to 21 as part of the Year of Germany in Brazil. The cycle has been a realization of the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR) and the Institute for Advanced Studies on Social and Cultural Mobility, with the support of IEA and other institutions.

Cultural memory

Jan made ​​a distinction between two types of memory: the communicative one, related to the diffuse transmission of memories in everyday life through orality, and cultural memory - in which the speech was focused - referring to objectified and institutionalized memories, that can be stored, transferred and reincorporated throughout generations.

Cultural memory is formed by symbolic heritage embodied in texts, rites, monuments, celebrations, objects, sacred scriptures and other media that serve as mnemonic triggers to initiate meanings associated with what has happened. Also, it brings back the time of the mythical origins, crystallizes collective experiences of the past and can last for millennia. Therefore it presupposes a knowledge restricted to initiates.

Communicative memory, on the other hand, is limited to the recent past, evokes personal and autobiographical memories, and is characterized by a short term (80 to 110 years), from three to four generations. Due to its informal character, it does not require expertise on the part of those who transmit it.


Jan pointed out the connections between cultural memory and identity. According to him, cultural memory is ‘the faculty that allows us to build a narrative picture of the past and through this process develop an image and an identity for ourselves’.

Therefore, cultural memory preserves the symbolic institutionalized heritage to which individuals resort to build their own identities and to affirm themselves as part of a group. This is possible because the act of remembering involves normative aspects, so that ‘if you want to belong to a community, you must follow the rules of how and what to remember’, as stated by the researcher.

He also highlighted that, by working as a collective unifying force, cultural memory is considered a hazard by totalitarian regimes. As an example, he mentioned the case of the Bosnian war, when Serbian artillery destroyed the Library of Sarajevo in an attempt to undermine the memory of the Bosnians and minorities in the region.

The goal, he said, was to make culture a blank slate so that it could be possible to start a new Serbian identity from scratch: ‘This was the strategy of the totalitarian regime to destroy the past, because if one controls the present, the past also gets under control, and if one controls the past, the future also gets under control’.

The past in focus

Aleida opened her conference calling attention to a characteristic phenomenon of the recent decades: a disbelief in the idea of ​​the future and the emergence of the past as fundamental concern. According to the researcher, from the 1980s, confidence in the future as a promise of better days lost power and gave rise to the restlessness before the past: ‘the idea of ​​progress is increasingly obsolete, and the past has invaded our consciousness’.

This phenomenon, she said, is the effect of the period of excessive violence of the 20th century and new problems faced by contemporary society, such as the environmental crisis, for example. But she cautioned that it is not mere nostalgia or rejection of modern times, since cultural memory is always directed to the future, ‘remembering forward, so to speak’.

Thus, memory appears as a device to protect the past against the corrosive action of time and to give subsidies for individuals to understand the world and know what to expect, ‘so they do not have to reinvent the wheel and start each generation from scratch’, as the researcher explained.

National memory

Based on the concept of ‘les lieux de mémoire’ (places of memory) prepared by the French historian Pierre Nora, Aleida talked about the changes that have taken place in the construction of national memory in the post- World War II and post-Berlin Wall.

Thinking from the case of France - a country that would be defined by the triumphant character of its people -, the concept of places of memory refers to concrete symbolic objects such as monuments, museums and archives, linked to a self-image of heroism and pride by the nations.

But for the researcher, this concept does not apply to the new nation-states that emerged after 1945 (post-colonial) and 1989 (post-Soviet). Unlike France, these countries are not constituted around the triumph but around the trauma generated by past events. Thus, at the time former colonies are elevated to the status of free nations and define their own identity, a memory marked by a history of violence, slavery and genocide arises.

According to Aleida, nations recall those wounds in an attempt to obtain, at present, an acknowledgment of the suffering and abuse they passed by. This type of memory, built on traumatic episodes, intensifies in the 1990s, when the testimonies of the victims gain ground and several museums and memorials dedicated to symbolically perpetuate the past human rights violations open around the world.

The case of Israel

When asked by Helmut Galle, Professor of the Department of Modern Languages of the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences (FFLCH), about the construction of a memory of trauma linked to the holocaust in Israel, Aleida stressed the interval of time between the creation of the nation-state and the emergence of this memory.

‘This traumatic memory was not built immediately, but after a long latent period for a political reason: there was a new country to be built and a status of independence to be achieved’, she said, stressing that the concern at that time was to compose a heroic memory, and not giving space to the memory of the victims.

Jan completed stating that the goal of the state of Israel immediately after its establishment was to never be the victim again, while Germany’s was to never repeat the crimes committed in World War II again. ‘The recognition of the victims came later. The first idea was the 'never again' one', he said.

Risks and benefits

Aleida raised questions about the risks and benefits of the cultural memory derived from traumatic events: ‘Does this memory bring up an aggressive potential or does it result in greater respect and dialogue between neighbours?’; ‘Does it build a society that is more vengeful and more aware of its past?’; ‘Does it let the individual citizens more sensitive or insensitive to the violation of human rights or the condition of minorities?’.

The researcher concluded that cultural memory should not be understood as an unhealthy fixation to the past, but as a back-up, a kind of background necessary for society to build its future. But, according to her, this memory should be inspected critically, as any other.

Therefore, she said, we must take care that the negative past, once transformed into memory, does not wake the revanchism: ‘memory can be dangerous and destructive if it digs up anger willing to revise history’.


Aleida AssmannAleida Assmann is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Konstanz. She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Heidelberg and in Egyptology from the University of Tübingen. Her published papers cover fields such as Egyptology, English Literature and History of Literary Communication, but since the 1960's she has been working on memory theory. Her research focuses on cultural memory, with particular interest on the tensions between individual experiences and official memories of Germany's history in the post-World War II period.

Jan AssmannJan Assmann is Honorary Professor of Religious and Cultural Theory at the University of Konstanz, where he currently teaches, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Heidelberg, where he served until 2003. He holds a Dr. honoris causa title in Theology from the University of Münster. His publications cover the fields of Egyptology, focusing on interpretations of the origins of monotheism, Reception of Egypt in the European Tradition, History of Religion, Historical Anthropology and other topics. In recent years, he has been focusing on the dimension of cultural memory in a distant timeline, dating back more than 3000 years. From this, he seeks to understand the role of memory in disputes between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East and between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.



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