Saturday, July 02, 2005

Jan Assmann and cultural memory in oral cultures

from Thomas, Günter. "Secondary Ritualization in a Postliterate Culture: Reconsidering and Explaining Walter Ong's Contribution on Secondary Orality." Soundings 83.2 (2000): 385-409.

"In Das kulturelle Gedäctnis, Jan Assmann distinguishes two types of memory in early oral cultures, "Communicative memory" points to the recent past and waxes and wanes with the passage of time. It relies very much on biographical memory and is primarily reproduced in everyday interaction. "Cultural Memory" resembles a founding memory, pointing to events in the distant past. It is preserved and even objectivized not only in language, but also in nonlinguistic artifacts. Its primary places are ritual and festive celebrations. Its reproduction and preservation require (a) a poetic form, (b) a (multimedia) ritual performance, and (c) collective participation. Repetition together with gatherings and personal physical presence are the keys for partic-/ipating in cultural memory. In terms of its temporal structure ritual divides into everyday time and festive time, thereby providing the opportunity for non-simultaneity, the possibility of living in two frames. In comparison with communicative memory, it is highly formalized and ceremonial. The shift from oral culture to chirographic culture is at the same time a shift from ritual coherence to textual coherence as a way of holding the world together. Even if rituals persist for a long time, the means of constructing and representing the past change the dominant type of cultural reproduction: from repetition to interpretation. 'Repetitions and interpretation are functionally equivalent procedures in the production of cultural coherence.' However, repetition keeps meaning in constant circulation, whereas texts risk not being read. On the other hand, oral ritual coherence stays with what is already known, whereas writing favors innovation and variation.

"The construction of collective identity is one central function of ritually reproduced cultural knowledge, although this type of knowledge is not collective identity is based on shared knowledge and on a common memory, 'the use of a common symbol system.' Identity preserving knowledge, however, encompasses two complexes. Thus Assmann distinguishes two types of identity-preserving knowledge: (a) normative knowledge (wisdom) which justifies the forms of life and (b) circulates in ceremonialized ritual communication. The former primarily orients human interaction whereas the later serves to define the community and to nourish its self-identity. Within oral preliterate cultures, rituals keep alive, reproduce, and circulate identity preserving formative knowledge, thereby foregoing the leading self-images. 'Rites are channels, the 'vessels' through which identity is preserved.'

"Assmann emphasizes the important role of ritual in oral societies and traces the transformation in the formation of cultural identity brought about by writing. He prompts the question of the place, shape and function of ritual under the conditions of 'secondary orality,' and he suggests looking for the function of communication within the scope of 'secondary ritualization'." (388-389).

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