Aleida Assmann’s “Canon and Archive”


I uploaded “Cultural Memory Studies” in PDF format to the media section of this page if you want to read any of the essays it includes, including this one.

Excerpts from Aleida Assmann’s “Canon and Archive” I find informative:

Through culture, humans create a temporal framework that transcends the individual life span relating pst, present, and future. Cultures create a contract between the living, the dead, and the not yet living. In recalling, iterating, reading, commenting, criticizing, discussing what was deposited in the remote or recent past, humans participate in extended horizons of meaning-production.They do not have to start anew in every generation because they are standing on the shoulders of giants whose knowledge they can use and reinterpret…When thinking about memory, we must start with forgetting…Memory capacity is limited by neural and cultural constraints such as focus and bias. It is also limited by psychological pressures, with the effect that painful or incongruent memories are hidden, displaced, overwritten, and possibly effaced. On the level of cultural memory, there is a similar dynamic at work. (97)

When looking more closely at these cultural practices, we can distinguish between two forms of forgetting, a more active and a more passive one. Active forgetting is implied in intentional acts such as trashing and destroying…The passive form of cultural forgetting is related to non-intentional acts such as losing, hiding, dispersing, neglecting, abandoning, or leaving something behind. In these cases the objects are not materially destroyed; they fall out of the frames of attention, valuation, and use. (97-98)

As forgetting, remembring also has an active and a passive side. The institutions of active memory preserve the past as present while the institutions of passive memory preserve the past as past. The tension between the pastness of the past and its presence is an important key to understanding the dynamics of cultural memory…The museum presents its prestigious objects to the viewers in representative shows which are arranged to catch attention and make a lasting impression. The same museum also houses storerooms stuffed with other paintings and objects in peripheral spaces such as cellars or attics which are not publicly presented…I will refer to the actively circulated memory that keeps the past present as the canon and the passively stored memory that preserves the past past as the archive. (98)

Jakob Burckhrdt…divided the remains of former historical periods into two categories: “messages” and “traces.” By messages he meant texts and monuments that were addressed to posterity, whereas “traces” carry no similar address. Burckhardt mistrusted the messages, which are usually written and effectively staged by the carriers of power and state institutions; he considered them tendentious and therefore misleading. The unintentional traces, on the other hand, he cherished as unmediated testimonies of a former era that can tell a counter-history to the one propagated by the rulers…Cultural memory contains a number of cultural messages that are addressed to posterity and intended for continuous repetition and re-use. To this active memory belong, among other things, works of art, which are destined to be repeatedly reread, appreciated, staged, performed, and commented…At the other end of the spectrum, there is the storehouse for cultural relicts. These are not unmediated; they have only lost their immediate addressees; they are de-contextualized and disconnected from their former frames which had authorized them or determined their meaning. As part of the archive, they are open to new contexts and lend themselves to new interpretations. (98-99)

Whatever has made it into the active cultural memory has passed rigorous processes of selection, which secure for certain artifacts a lasting place in the cultural working memory of a society. This process is called canonization. The word means”sanctification”; to endow texts, persons, artifacts, and monuments with a sanctified status is to set them off from the rest as charged with the highest meaning and value. Selection presupposes decisions and power struggles; ascription of value endows these objects with an aura and a sacrosanct status; duration in cultural memory is the central aim of the procedure. A canon is not a hit-list; it is instead independent of historical change and immune to the ups and downs of social taste. The canon is not built up anew by every generation; on the contrary, it outlives the generations who have to encounter and reinterpret it anew according to their time. Thisi constant interaction with the small selection of artifacts keeps them in active circulation and maintains for this small segment of the past a continuous presence. There are three core areas of active cultural memory: religion, art, and history. (100)

Nation-states produce narrative versions of their past which are taught, embraced, and referred to as their collective autobiography…National history is also presented in the public arena in the form of monuments and commemoration dates. To participate in a national memory is to know the key events of the nation’s history, to embrace its symbols, and connect to its festive dates.
Cultural memory, then, is based on two separate functions: the presentation of a narrow selection of sacred texts, artistic masterpieces, or historic key events in a timeless framework; and the storing of documents and artifacts of the past that do not at all meet these standards but are nevertheless deemed interesting or important enough to not let them vanish on the highway to total oblivion.
The tension that exists between these two poles can be further illustrated by two different approaches to literary criticism…One adopts the strategy of the canon, investing the text with existential meaning and framing it with an aura; the other adopts the strategy of the archive, aiming at destroying the aura (Greenblatt and Gallagher 12). (100-102)

The institutions of passive cultural memory are situated halfway between the canon and forgetting…The archive is the basis of what can be said in the future about the present when it will have become the past…Time, however, quickly outdates these archives. Once they are outdated, they lose their political function and relevance, transforming them into a heap of (possibly compromising) rubbish…The historical archive is a receptacle for documents that have fallen out of their framing institutions and can be reframed and interpreted in a new context…It is the task of…the academic researcher or the artist to examine the contents of the archive and to reclaim the information by framing it within a new context. (102-103)

Memory, including cultural memory, is always permeated and shot through with forgetting…The canon stands for the active working memory of a society that defines and supports the cultural identity of a group…The historical archive helps us to position ourselves in time; it affords us the possibility of comparison and reflection for a retrospective historical consciousness. (105-106)


One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s