The passage of experience and memory across generations


How is the experience of one generation passed on or transformed by later generations? The work of psychologists has made it clear that memory is not simply a storage system, but involves imagination in important ways. But the move from memory as passive receptacle to memory as imaginative faculty has made it available to multiple uses and misuses. We know that representations of the past change according to the needs of the present: personal memory is unreliable, does not guarantee authenticity and is easily manipulated for social and political ends. The malleability of memory is most in evidence in its passage across generations. I propose to draw upon two different intellectual domains in order to better understand the vertical movement of memory and experience: namely, literary theory and psychoanalytical thought. The American literary theorist Harold Bloom proposed the term «the anxiety of influence» to explore the ways in which writers both draw upon and fear the influence of earlier writers (1973). Few want to be pale replicas of larger, stronger literary forbears. These same anxieties can be seen shaping the transmission of memory across generations. But, on the other hand, Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, two French – Hungarian psychoanalysts argue for the encryptment of earlier family traumas resulting in what they describe as a haunting (1994). The encryptment means that, whether we like it or not, the experience has been passed on as an unwanted inheritance but is not available for conscious reflection or meaning making. Both theoretical approaches point to obstacles in the way of transmitting experience across generations. But equally we are urged that, «Collective traumas have no geographical or cultural limitation» and that they open up new possibilities of moral sensibility and universalism (Alexander, 2004: 27). So how can we determine the nature and uses of transmitted memory? Does it restrict or enlarge our concepts of human identity and experience? Or, can both take place? Is compassion only possible in certain specified and favourable social circumstances as a volume on the subject argues? (Berlant, 2004). Or is it a universally accessible human attribute? Does the aestheticization of experience heal or can it harm and exploit as Struk (2003) suggests? These are some of the questions I want to pose in a transgenerational perspective even if I do not have all the answers.

Nov 12, 2020 — Nov 13, 2020
Rīga (Latvija)
Vieda Skultāne
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