Academic journal article Polish Sociological Review

On the Usefulness of Aleida and Jan Assmann's Concept of Cultural Memory for Studying Local Communities in Contemporary Poland-The Case of Olsztyn

Academic journal article Polish Sociological Review

On the Usefulness of Aleida and Jan Assmann's Concept of Cultural Memory for Studying Local Communities in Contemporary Poland-The Case of Olsztyn

Article excerpt

Abstract:

The goal of this article is to review the possibilities and limitations of applying Aleida and Jan Assmann's concept to the study of local memory, using as an example the memory of inhabitants of the Polish town of Olsztyn. The author first briefly presents selected key premises of Aleida and Jan Assmann's concept of cultural memory. She then addresses the question of how the Assmanns' concept is received and interpreted in Poland. Discussion of these issues leads to an analysis of the advantages and difficulties of applying the two German scholars' theoretical proposals to the study of memory in local communities. The author refers to the case of a moderately aggregated, urban society with a complicated multiethnic past. Her conclusions concern the challenges scholars face in adopting Aleida and Jan Assmann's theoretical perspective for studying memory and local communities in this part of Europe.

Keywords: Cultural memory, collective memory, local community, town, Polish society

Although previously well-known and influential in German-speaking countries, in the past few years Aleida and Jan Assmanns' concept of cultural memory has been receiving greater interest in Poland as well. Scholars are paying particular attention to the Assmanns' theoretical premises concerning the social aspects of memory, remembrance, and commemoration. The specific nature of the social memory of Central European societies and the challenges that researchers of such societies face means, however, that the method of interpreting individual concepts and analytical schemas, the context in which they are invoked, and their manner of use in research differ from those presented by researchers in Western European circles.

My aim is to show the possibilities and limitations of adopting Aleida and Jan Assmann's concept of social memory for research into the local aspect of collective memory. I will concentrate on the local, territorial, community memory created by inhabitants of a medium-sized town in north-eastern Poland. This case is not only the one I know best, but also reveals the problems facing scholars studying local memory in most East Central European countries (which since the nineties have been undergoing major civilizational and cultural changes).

First, I will briefly present those premises of Aleida and Jan Assmann's concept of cultural memory that are important for the subject at hand. Then I will address the question of references in Poland to the Assmanns' work. I will use this short discus- sion to analyze the advantages and difficulties of applying the Assmanns' theoretical proposals on cultural memory to studying local memory in contemporary Poland.1

The Assmanns' Types of Collective Memory-the Most Important Premises

The concept of cultural memory proposed by Jan Assmann, the Egyptologist and researcher of ancient culture, and then elaborated with Aleida Assmann, the Egyptologist, English philologist, and scholar of culture, aims to provide a theoretical framework for phenomena observed in very different cultures, times, and places.

Jan Assmann's theoretical proposals, which refer to Maurice Halbwachs' concept of collective memory, are based on distinguishing cultural memory and communicative memory within collective memory (Assmann 1988,1992).

In Assmann's opinion, cultural memory is memory based on institutionalized mnémotechniques created ?from above' by means of institutions supervised by the authorities (Assmann 2008:52). Cultural memory ensures the members of a given society (group) have feelings of community, unity, and connections based on a common past. In opposition to communicative memory it is supra-generational. Its goal is the transfer of selected content and interpretation of the past so that members of a given society can create a common memory and common identity on its basis. Furthermore, it should be emphasized that the categories of cultural memory and communicative memory are not in opposition to one another but supplementary. …

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