More Thoughts from the Memory Studies Association Second Annual Conference

University of Copenhagen, December 14-16, 2017

by Amanda Barnier

In our project and book, Andrew and I have set ourselves the task of assessing the costs and benefits of interdisciplinarity in Memory Studies. It took us more than five years — coming from our different disciplinary perspectives — to essentially translate what each of us meant when we talked about memory and to forge an overlapping agenda of questions and ways to try and answer them. Our book will, in part, track these kinds of difficult yet important conversations about Memory Studies.

It was clear to me from the opening session of the Memory Studies Association Conference here in Copenhagen, that we are not at all alone in championing interdisciplinary work or in recognising the challenge of closing the gap between “memory in the head and in the wild” as we call it.

On Thursday morning, Professor Jeffrey Olick, Co-President of the MSA, chaired an opening roundtable session on “Horizons of Memory Studies”. The first presenter, Professor Astrid Erll, argued that the field of Memory Studies is the most interdisciplinary field there is. Professor Erll is Professor of Anglophones Literature and Cultures at at Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main.

To paraphrase her passionate and articulate comments, she said that although there may be little agreement over a common canon, memory scholars make effective use of “travelling concepts” (such as trauma), which cross disciplinary and sub-disciplinary boundaries. Memory scholars, she continued, also engage in an ongoing dialogue about how to approach memory from different perspectives.

Professor Erll argued that people in the field of Memory Studies share an interest in how the past is made present. But just as important, she said, is their interest in other scholars’ work: “A memory scholar knows that what he or she is looking at has many other perspectives … a range that is impossible to cover by just one person”.

By her view, interdisciplinarity in Memory Studies is not just valuable but it is essential; a defining characteristic of the field. But how does this interdisicplinarity work? Who is part of it? What makes it successful or not? These are the kinds of questions that Andrew and I hope to answer in our book.

Another presenter in the session, Professor Carol Gluck, is a Professor of History and Japanologist at Columbia University. She began by pointing out that although memory scholars talk about a “developed and developing canon”, it’s still not entirely clear what they — different scholars — mean when they talk about memory (the same confusion that Andrew and I initially experienced). She said that as a memory researcher and Professor of history, she’s always asked “what do I mean by ‘public memory’ and how is it different from history”. She admitted that there are “holes that I need to fill” and that she needs help in filling them. Like Professor Erll, Professor Gluck identified great value in interdisciplinary work, arguing that it “can be more than just parallel play”.

This distinction between true interdisciplinary work and “parallel play” raises an important point about models of disciplinary engagement. Terms such as cross-, multi-, inter- and transdisicplinary are sometimes used interchangeably but can imply quite different configurations of scholars and their additive versus emergent processes and outcomes. This is another issue that Andrew and I are exploring in detail for our book, especially as many grant agencies shift from siloed, within-disciplinary schemes and assessment practices to “challenge focused”, cross- or interdisciplinary funding calls and mechanisms.

Paraphrasing Professor Gluck, who paraphrased Andrew’s video message that helped to open the Conference (more on this message below), she said that “we are all looking for a better analytic of how memory works. … But we don’t yet know enough about the relationship between memory in the head and in the wild”.

As a cognitive psychologist, I was pleased when she said she believed that psychologists and neuroscientists can help solve problems of memory but, she warned, they can’t solve these problems alone. I agree. In the same way, I believe that memory scholars in the humanities can’t solve all the problems of memory alone either. Despite our different levels of analysis and memory cases across the humanities, social sciences, and neurosciences, we have much to gain from coordinating perspectives and filling in the holes (as Professor Gluck called them) across the study of individual, social and cultural memory.

However, as Andrew and I are learning and appreciating, it’s no mean feat to bridge disciplinary divides and successfully navigate with cross-disciplinary partners from “scratch to papers”, as Professor Olivier Luminet said in one of our expert conversations.

I’ll finish by quoting Andrew’s video message, which helped open the Conference this week and, I think, perfectly laid out the challenge of not just thinking that interdisciplinarity can help but actually believing in it and doing it:

For me – although certainly not for everyone –the holy grail of Memory Studies is to find a more productive relationship between work on memory in the head and in the world or rather in the wild. And it is here — in a field perhaps uniquely suited to advancement through interdisciplinary work — that I don’t think the journal [Memory Studies, of which Andrew is the founding Editor] has been successful. There are some notable exceptions, including Dan Schacter and Michael Welker’s Special Issue on connecting memories in July 2016. But on the whole, the question we posed in the inaugural issue editorial of Memory Studies in January 2008, ‘ How do we realise calls for interdisciplinarity’, still has only patchy and unsatisfactory answers.

For me, entering into dialogue about different critical assumptions is essential to interdisciplinary work. This is about interrogation in dialogue between these critical assumptions, and achieving some pathway forward as a result. However, forging a common language and common understanding between the cognitive, the cultural and the social, is not easy. Amanda Barnier, and I, for instance, took several years to even begin our Memory Wild project on interdisciplinarity in memory studies, as we needed to learn the very basics of each other’s assumptions, concepts, methods, as well as unlearn some of our own.

And from our initial research I would say that some scholars may talk positively about interdisciplinarity in Memory Studies, but don’t really believe in it, or think it is really achievable. … Memory Studies needs much more risk-taking, more innovation, more visual and practice-based work, as with the ethno-sociological work of Sarah Gensburger. For all these reasons and many more, the MSA is the greatest opportunity the field has had in years, especially in enabling so many more, and more diverse, voices, to be heard towards a more dialogical enterprise.



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