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The Cultural Memory

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Jan Assmann

HENN Akademie, June 10, 2009

Culture as a whole is the non-biologically inherited memory of humanity. The knowledge required to survive, which is passed on from generation to generation in the animal kingdom by a close interplay of genetic make-up and parental training, must not and cannot be simply passed on in the human world through symbolic codes such as language, but also through visual and other signs of all kinds, and above all is also accumulated and extended.

Unlike the animal kingdom, this makes possible in the human world cultural evolution which takes human beings beyond the natural bases of their species at an increasingly breath-taking speed. This may be described as the progressive aspect of culture, which is expressed in ever more complex tasks of supply, communications, control and so on. But the human being is not simply an animal that lives in a symbolically constructed sensory world that is open to improvement instead of in a species-specific environment, but also one which buries its dead and is aware of its own mortality. The term, “cultural memory” should be limited to this second aspect, which comes even more strongly to the fore the further we look back to previous epochs.

This second aspect is concerned not with the ability to cope with life and dominate the world, but essentially with memory and contact with the dead and the afterlife. This memory enables human beings to think beyond their own life, birth and death and therefore to find their place in larger time frames. Following ancestors and offering them sacrifices, as well as relating and listening to myths are acts of memory. Religion, art and the humanities have developed from the basic impulses of ancestor veneration and mythical time orientation. Our modern forms of making contact with the cultural memory have, however, lost almost all traces of any ceremonial and ritual separation from everyday life.

To this extent the cultural memory is cultural theory. However the term also stands for a specific theory of memory. According to this, the cultural memory differs from other forms of human memory. Here, we distinguish between three dimensions: the individual, the social and the cultural. In the first place, our memory is an individual, neuromental phenomenon. It is examined by psychologists, brain researchers and philosophers, who are interested in the location, performance and pathology of memory. Secondly, like consciousness and language, memory is also a social phenomenon: Only in socialising with others are our possible innate memory capacities formed and become filled with content and structure. However, we are dealing here with two dimensions of one and the same memory, which, on the one hand, is a matter of our brain cells and is to be found in all senses and fibres of our body and which, on the other hand, is only built up and developed by interaction with others, like consciousness.

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Jan Assmann studied Egyptology, Archeology and Greek studies in Munich, Göttingen, Paris and Heidelberg. From 1976 to 2003 he taught Egyptology in Heidelberg and since 2005 has been honorary professor for general cultural studies and religious theory in Konstanz. Visiting professorships took him to Jerusalem, Paris, Yale and Chicago.

Jan Assmann
Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult.