Transcultural memory

> By Erll, Astrid
   Goethe Universität Frankfurt
> Published on : 21.04.2015

“Transcultural memory” emerged in or around 2010 within the field of memory studies. It describes the programmatic move away from the assumption that memory is the product of bounded “cultures”, often national cultures at that – an idea which had crept into a wide section of memory research, especially in the wake of Pierre Nora’s lieux de mémoire (1984-92). Proponents of transcultural memory studies criticize such “methodological culturalism”. They emphasize instead the fluidity and fuzziness of memory in culture as well as the non-isomorphy of culture, nation, territory, social groups, and memory (see articles in Parallax 17(4), 2011). As a theory and methodology, “transcultural memory” means a change in the focus of attention: from stable and allegedly “pure” national-cultural memory (a container-memory of container-culture, as it were) towards the movements, connections, and mixing of memories.

The “transcultural turn” in memory studies (Bond & Rapson 2014) was prepared by discussions about “hybridity” and “third space” in postcolonial studies (Bhabha 1990), cultural globalization and cosmopolitanism in political philosophy and sociology (Appiah 2006; Beck 2006), and by the complication of the notion of culture in anthropology and cultural geography (Clifford 1988; Hannerz 1992). “Transcultural memory” is an umbrella term, addressing common concerns palpable in research on “memory in the global age” (Levy & Sznaider 2001/2006), “memory sites in an expanded field” (Huyssen 2003), “postmemory” (Hirsch 1997, 2012), “prosthetic memory” (Lanser 2004), “diasporic memory” (Baronian, Beser & Jansen 2007), “multidirectional memory” (Rothberg 2009), “travelling memory” (Erll 2011), “connective memory” (Hoskins 2011), “palimpsestic memory” (Silverman 2013), “trauma out of bounds” (Craps 2013), or “dialogic memory” (Assmann 2013). Fundamentally, it is the result of a dynamization of the idea of memory, brought about by new research agendas, which progressed “from products to processes” and from stable memory sites to the dynamics of “memory on the move” (Rigney 2008, 2012; see also Olick 2007). Transcultural memory studies is characterized by its careful consideration of the differential logic of memory: the fact that social, ethnic, religious, gender, linguistic, national, and territorial aspects will propel the ongoing production of memory into different directions.

The notion of transcultural memory also emerged as a reaction to tangible developments “on the ground” of cultural remembrance. In the context of globalization, archives and repertoires of memory have increasingly become interlinked, the prominent example being the ways in which Holocaust memory has travelled virtually across the globe and was turned into a language that enabled people to address other cases of the violation of human rights (see Levy & Sznaider 2006; Rothberg 2009; Craps & Rothberg 2011). Holocaust memory, with its wide reach and its significance for a discussion of the ethics of memory, has proved the most important case of transcultural memory studies so far. But other constellations are also addressed from a transcultural angle: memories of colonialism and decolonization, of migration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the “dirty wars” in South America, or of “9/11” (for examples, see articles in Crownshaw 2011a, and in Bond & Rapson 2014). Last but not least, the project of Europe appears to be “in search of transcultural memory” – this, in any case, is the title of a research network that addresses the questions outlined above from a distinctly European angle (see COST ISTME, since 2012). These few examples point to the fact that the study of transcultural memory is not bound to one content. But so far it has shown (like memory studies in general) a predilection for problematic, traumatic, and conflicting memories. (A different focus on more “happy memories” is thinkable: most art, literature, “heritage”, for example, is the product of transcultural memory.)

The term “transcultural” has a surprisingly brief history. Its two main protagonists are the anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, who in 1940 (Engl. 1947) coined the term “transculturation” to describe the ongoing transformation of cultures in colonial contexts, and the philosopher Wolfgang Welsch, who in 1997 (Engl. 1999) used the term “transculturality” in order to question Herderian notions of cultures as monads and to describe instead phenomena which reach “across and beyond cultures”. I might add that “transculturality” is actually a misnomer as it implies a state of being rather than the ongoing processes that we associate today with both culture and memory (see also Juneja 2014).

As Maurice Halbwachs and Aby Warburg already stated in their field-founding work of the 1920s: memory is fundamentally transcultural. Halbwachs’s cadres sociaux de la mémoire (social frameworks of memory) are the individual’s multiple mnemonic memberships. Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, by showing how art and artistic forms travel across time, space and societies, hints at the dynamics of transcultural memory on the collective level. Clearly, no version of the past and no product in the archive will ever belong to just one community or place, but usually has its own history of “travel and translation” from and to other social groups and localities (see Erll 2011) – not exclusively, but often via forms of “remediation” (Erll & Rigney 2009). This is not only the case in our present age of globalization (or a feature of “cultures today”, as Welsch 1997 puts it). On the contrary, as mnemohistory has shown, this holds true in a longue durée-perspective on memory (for research on early modern memories, see Kuijpers & Pollmann 2013). Given the transcultural processes underlying all acts of remembering, the term “transcultural memory” might actually be considered tautological and replaced by (a reflected version of) the term “memory”. However, for memory studies there is more at stake: as a theory, the term “transcultural memory” implies a specific research perspective and epistemological interest; as a methodology, it describes a yet to be developed toolbox of approaches to study the travels, entanglements, and merging of memories.

In addition to accentuating a specific optics and approach of memory research, the term “transcultural” is also often deployed to highlight what is seen as “productive” mnemonic processes. This is where the distinction between normative and descriptive, “hot” and “cold”, empathic/activist and analytic research on transcultural memory comes into play. Approaches of the former kind will not only observe the making of memory in culture, but will also aim to intervene in the process (if ever so slightly). Guided by the question in which cases transcultural memory becomes an ethical and productive social practice, they tend to study conscious acts of engaging with “other peoples’ memories” – rather than, say, the unacknowledged travels of memory archives and representations. Normative concerns lie at the heart of much important scholarship in the field: Landsberg (2004) accentuates “empathy and trans-ethnic solidarity”, Hirsch (2012) discusses different types of identification; Rothberg (2011) has introduced a model which describes “equation and differentiation”, “solidarity and competition” as possible forms that transcultural memory can take.

While research with such a normative agenda means an intervention of scholarship into the field of cultural remembrance, most academics are at the same time acutely aware of the fact that the phenomenon of transcultural memory itself is neither inherently positive nor negative. But the importance to study and distinguish different types and uses of transcultural memory – also unproductive and ethically dubious ones – cannot be overrated. Part of this endeavour are, for example, the interventions by Dirk Moses (2011) who addresses “paranoid” memory, by Terri Tomsky (2011) who criticizes the “trauma economy” of travelling memory, and by Rick Crownshaw (2011b) who considers transcultural “perpetrator fictions”.

“Transcultural memory”, to sum up, entails a specific research optics and a methodology-in-the-making. Its promise and challenge is the development of a more precise “morphology of different kinds” of mnemonic “relationality” (see Juneja 2014). At this point, I see three roads that research on transcultural memory is taking and that are interconnected:

  1. transcultural memory as the movement of mnemonic archives across spatial, temporal, and social, but also linguistic and medial borders (in the sense of “travelling” or “connective” memory),
  2. transcultural memory as the shape of social remembering in contexts of high cultural complexity, e.g. in postcolonial, diasporic or migrant settings (in the sense of “mixed” or “hybrid” memories),
  3. transcultural memory as the deliberate and productive connection of memories that were formerly considered as distinct and as belonging to different groups – and that tend to have a traumatic core (in the sense of “multidirectional” memory).

Some of the theoretical and methodological challenges transcultural memory research may face in the future are (a) questions about the narrative, rhetoric, aesthetic, and medial strategies of connecting memories along different transcultural axes; (b) a further discussion of the aims, potentials, risks and methods of comparison (how to do comparative work in memory studies without losing view of the historical specifics of each case); (c) a stronger integration of non-Western perspectives, e.g. regarding transcultural memory in the Global South; (d) the study of transcultural processes at the basis of forgetting or silence; (e) a deeper understanding of the place of “the natural” in discussions of “the transcultural”: (f) the development of approaches which enable us to relate socio-medial phenomena with cognitive, emotional, and neuronal aspects for the study of the transcultural in memory.

Works cited

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