Friday, 15 July 2016
Religion and Cultural Memory (tr. Rodney Livingstone),
Jan Assmann, Stanford University Press, 2006, page 29-30
Coming to the close of the first essay in this book, Assmann turns to a key intersection: memory and identity.
Cultural memory has its own outer horizon of knowledge beyond which the concept of "memory" no longer applies. By this I mean knowledge that has lost every link to a collective identity, however broadly conceived, and therefore possesses neither horizon or force.
Observing that the more esoteric knowledge is, the less connected it is with any form of current identity, the more interesting it is, Assmann makes a critical observation:
The very preoccupation with the outer realms of cultural memory sharpens our perception of its limits.
It is safe for anyone and everyone to be facinated by the techniques used by ancient Egyptians to turn corpses into mummies for two reasons: firstly, no-one is doing it now or has done for thousands of years, so no-one will get upset; secondly, there is no impact on anyone alive today or within living memory that affects their identity - who they are or the way they see themselves or others see them.
Handling the archaeology from Israel, Jerusalem in particular, on the contrary, is not safe since it affects the current identity of Jews, Arabs and a whole bunch of other hangers-on, who all have vested interests in the past such archaeology may show exists. Rights of interpretation of that archaeology are fiercely contested, because those interpretations can affect the current identities of people the world over: who they think they are or the way they see themselves or others see them. Whole swathes of cultural memory, possibly containing some fictive or even counterfactual material, can be threatened or destroyed by unpleasant 'facts' dug up from the ground.