Do people have finite memories

The cultural memory

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Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Jan Assmann

HENN Academy, June 10, 2009

Culture as a whole is the non-biologically inheritable memory of mankind. The knowledge necessary for survival, which in the animal world is passed on from generation to generation through a close interplay of genetic makeup and parental training, must and can not only in the human world via symbolic codes such as language, but also visual and other signs of all kinds passed on, but above all also accumulated and expanded.
As a result, a cultural evolution is possible in the human world, unlike in the animal world, which leads people at an increasingly breathtaking speed beyond the natural foundations of their species. This can be described as the progressive aspect of culture, which manifests itself in increasingly complex tasks of care, communication, control, etc. But humans are not only animals that live in a symbolically constructed world of meaning that is open to optimization, instead of living in a species-specific environment, but also the animal that buries its dead and knows of its own finiteness. The concept of cultural memory is to be restricted to this second aspect, which becomes more apparent the further one looks back into earlier epochs.
This second aspect is not about fitness for life and world domination, but centrally about memory and contact with the dead or the hereafter. This memory allows people to think beyond their own life data, about birth and death, and thus to orientate themselves in larger periods of time. Both following the ancestors and making sacrifices to them, as well as telling the myths and listening to them, are acts of remembrance. Religion, art and the humanities have developed from the basic impulses of the ancestral cult and the mythical time orientation, but our modern forms of contact with cultural memory have lost almost all traces of a festive and ritual separation from everyday life.
In this respect, “cultural memory” is a cultural theory. The term also stands for a specific memory theory. According to this, cultural memory differs from other forms of human memory. In this we distinguish three dimensions, the individual, the social and the cultural. First, our memory is an individual, neuromental phenomenon. It is studied by psychologists, brain researchers and philosophers who are interested in the localization, performance and also in the pathology of memory. Second, memory, like consciousness and language, is a social phenomenon: it is only when we interact with others that the memory capacities inherent in us develop and are filled with content and structures. However, it is about two dimensions of one and the same memory, which on the one hand is a matter of our brain cells and is in all the senses and fibers of our body, and on the other hand, like consciousness in general, only builds and unfolds in interaction with others.

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.