Sunday, August 14, 2005

Dissertation notes: Kelber on the Halbwachs/Assmann Tradition of Social Memory

From Kelber, Werner H. "The Case of the Gospels." Oral Tradition 17.1 (2002): 55-86.

Summarizing social memory, in particular Jan and Aleida Assmann's contribution, Kelber writes:

"Since the 1980s an interdisciplinary group of scholars under the leadership of Jan Assmann (1992) and Aleida Assmann (1999) has produced a steadily growing body of work that carries on the legacy of the pioneering work on memory by Maurice Halbwachs (1925, 1941, 1992, 1997). Memory is here entirely allied with the group and with group identity—a concept that will prove pertinent to the case of the gospels. Once again, the process of remembering does not work purely for the benefit of what is deemed worthy of recollecting; that is to say, it is not primarily fed by needs for preservation of the past in a state of authenticity. Rather, memory selects and modifies subjects and figures of the past in order to make them serviceable to the image of the community wishes to cultivate of itself. Socialization and memory mutually condition each other, seeking in the last analysis preservation not of the remembered past but of group identity. The emphasis is decidedly on the sociological dimension of memory. [page break]

This concept of cultural memory, which entails the construction of the symbolic and historical stability of group identity, in some ways resembles our current notion of tradition. But the Assmanns and their colleagues shy away from the metaphor of tradition, arguing that it overemphasizes the elements of continuity and evolutionary progression. A vital point that appears to be frequently slighted by the notion of tradition is memory's regressive gesture towards the past. The memory work of the group consists in constructing a new image from elements it retrieves from the past. At the same time, this gesturing toward the past is deliberately oriented toward the present. In using the past selectively, memory retains not the past as such but in a sense creates a new past that speaks to the needs of the present. In sum, memory is conceived less as a storage or archive, and more as a dynamic operation that reappropriates the past in the interest of communal identities. The isolated user who calls up ready-made memories is replaced by the social interaction of community within which memories are produced. Again, this concept may be relevant for the gospel compositions if, as will be argued, each gospel constructs a new representation of the sacred past in order to meet the demands of a changing present" (56-57).

*Assmann, Aleida. Erinnerungräume. Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1999.
*Assmann, Jan. Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politishce Identität in frühen Hochkulturen. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1992.
*Halbwachs, Maurice. Les cadres sociaux de la mémorie. Paris: F. Alcan, 1925.
*---. La Topographie légendaire des évangiles en Terre Sainte. 2nd ed. Paris, 1941.
*---. On Collective Memory. Ed. and trans. Lewis A. Coser. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
*---. La Mémoire Collective. Ed. Gerard Namer and Marie Jaisson. Paris: A. Chichel, 1997.

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