Thursday, 13 September 2018

Memory, Narrative, and the Autobiographical Process

Jens Brockmeier is a Professor in the Psychology department at the American University of Paris. With a background in philosophy, psychology, and language studies, he is concerned with the cultural fabric of mind and language - language understood as a form of life and central dimension of human development.

He is the author of Culture and Narrative (Mimesis, 2014) and a co-editor (with L.-C Hyden and H. Lindemann Nelson) of Beyond Loss: Dementia, Memory, and Identity (OUP, 2014). In this blog post he talks about his latest book Beyond the Archive: Memory, Narrative, and the Autobiographical Process



In recent work, Brockmeier has been investigating narrative as psychological, linguistic, and cultural practice. His main interest is in the function of narrative for autobiographical memory, personal identity, and the understanding of time, issues he has explored both empirically and philosophically – empirically, in various languages and sociocultural contexts, and under conditions of health and illness; philosophically, in terms of a narrative hermeneutics.

Brockmeier has summarized much of his recent work in his book Beyond the Archive: Narrative, Memory, and the Autobiographical Process (Oxford University Press, 2015, paperback version 2018). The book’s basic assumption is that our longstanding view of memory and remembering is in the midst of a profound transformation. This transformation does not only affect our concept of memory or a particular idea of how we remember and forget; it is a wider cultural process. In order to understand it we need to step back and consider what is meant when we say “memory.”

Building on a number of far-ranging studies, Beyond the Archive offers such a perspective. It synthesizes our understanding of remembering in various fields (that most of the time work independently from each other): the neurosciences, social, historical, and digital memory studies, and the humanities. This spectrum of studies also includes analyses of key works of life-writing, specifically of autobiographical literature – by Marcel Proust, Walter Benjamin, Samuel Beckett, W.G. Sebald, and others. What’s more, there even is a memory sculpture/installation by the artist Anselm Kiefer, analyzed as meticulously as neuroscientific experimental data. (In a different work, Brockmeier deals with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as incorporating both individual and collective memories).

The aim of all this is to radically rethink our very notion of memory as a storage, an archive of the past. In a long history of scientific, philosophical, and cultural reflections, this notion has gained an undisputed solidity, suggesting the natural existence of a distinctive human capacity (or a set of neuronal systems) enabling us to “encode,” “store,” and “recall” (or “reconstruct”) past experiences, as the universal mantra of  neuro(cognitive) psychology goes.

However, this is only half of the story and, in fact, half of Brockmeier’s book. The other half presents a new picture emerging out of this transitional phase. There are, in fact, many cultural forms of remembering and forgetting that are different from the traditional archival model, forms and practices embedded not only in the brain or some of its parts, but in a wide range of human activities and artifacts. They now come to the fore, turning into subjects of inquiry. The emerging picture is more complex than any notion of memory as storage of the past would allow.

That is to say, there now are a number of alternatives to the archival memory. One of them is elaborated in this book under the name of the narrative approach (Brockmeier has outlined a slightly different approach shifting the focus to the conversational structure of much of human remembering in another recent publication).

The narrative approach, as Brockmeier demonstrates in Beyond the Archive, via several case studies of autobiographical narratives, not only permits us to explore the storied weave of our most personal, namely, autobiographical form of remembering. It also sheds new light on the interrelations among memory, culture, and self – which opens to a further field of research (and literature), that of “narrative identity.”


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