9 December 2009

Cultural memory and communicative memory

The distinction between communicative and cultural memory was introduced by Jan Assmann (1992, 2008) in order differentiate different types of collective memory (Halbswachs, 1992) that we treated more or less in the same fashion in the social sciences. According to Assmann (2008) communicative memory is shared and conveyed within a social group defined by common memories of personal interaction through the means of verbal communication over a time span of only 80 to 100 years (p. 117). Due to the interactive nature of this kind of memory, social emotions such as hate, love, shame, etc play a central role in what is handed down from one generation to the next. Based on a traditional paradigm in linguistics that used to place everyday communication and interaction aside as an object of study because of its ‘chaotic’ nature (see Saussure’s Course of General Linguistics), Assman defines communicative memory as an unstructured type of memory due to the fact that everyone is allowed to be a part of the interaction in which autobiographical memories are being communicated (p. 111). Taking into account the communicative memory’s unstructured and individual nature, Assmann also adds that communicative memory can be thought of as a private interpretation of a person’s own past and, therefore, as a sort of unwarranted everyday memory. According to Assmann, the other side of that unstructured and individual memory-coin is cultural memory. Based on a folk definition of culture sustained in 19th century English Romaticism (see Arnold, Hobbes, etc.), Assmann defines cultural memory by a more differentiated and exclusive character. In other words, not every member of the community is endowed with the legitimacy to influence the content of cultural memory. In Assmann’s terms, cultural memory is intrinsically related to power and tradition. Hence it covers a much longer period of time in comparison with communicative memory. National archives are the most illustrative example of reservoirs of cultural memory. In short, according to Assmann, cultural memory begins where communicative memory ends.


Memory and oblivion said...

Rather interesting piece of text - thanks. Especially interesting for me, because we obviously have similar scientific interests - but different academic backgrounds. My name is Nicholas and I'm preparing my MA in memory studies - that's why Assman and Halbswachs, but my main interests are related to cultural memory and its tools.

Lucas Bietti said...

Thanks Nicholas for your comment. Could you please tell what your topic of research is?

Memory and oblivion said...

Not at all.
As for me, than I'm interested in the process of invention of cultural memory and its possible contradictions to communicative memory. I suggest that this aspects are crucial when we're talking about identities and their construction, which is rather important for European Union, which still lacks common European identity. I also interested in some separate cases, which demonstrate this rather well - for example, different perceptions of history and memory about Spanish Civil War or Great Ukrainian Famine. But, anyway, I'm still in process of deepening my knowledge about those issues - so I'm in the beginning of long road.
By the way, Lucas, can I ask you about advice? I'm thinking about place of internship, but I'd like it to related to my academic interests. Being more experienced in this field, maybe you know come centers of memory studies, which take interns? I'd be very grateful.

Lucas Bietti said...

There're not many centers of memory studies but as far as I'm concerned, the only that accepts internships (the call for internships is on the webpage) is the Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research, in Essen (Germany). You can a have a quick look at the webpage:


I'm in contact with the managing director of the center, if you need some help to put in touch with them. Otherwise, in the UK these are the centers I know:

1) Warwick Centre for Memory Studies:
2) Centre for Cultural Memory:

I also know some places in Australia, the US and Latin America. But it basically depends on where you would like to go.

Cucaracha homicida said...

Bastante interesante, desde luego. Estoy intentando analizar el discurso de instituciones culturales como Hollywood en todas sus variantes posibles, planteando el paradigma de la Good War y su "vietnamitación". Esta sencilla aclaración de los dos conceptos de Assmann me es muy útil. ¡Gracias!

Hist_Chav said...

Really interesting blog post. I am also researching in this field at the moment. I am especially interested in the relationships between communicative, individual and collective memory. My research is based on East Prussian expellees and the memory of their experiences. Was wondering which Assmann (2008) book you are referring to? He has so many publications!