James V. Wertsch


David R. Francis Distinguished Professor, Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology, Department of Anthropology; Professor of International And Area Studies, Arts & Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis

James V. Wertsch Webpage

How National Memory Does – and Does Not – Change: The Braking Power of Narrative Templates

It is often observed that national memory responds to the demands of the present. These demands can be particularly noteworthy in a time of populism, making the claim that “Nothing is so unpredictable as the past” become especially apropos.   But just how much can accounts of the past change?  Are they really that malleable in the hands of leaders—populist or otherwise, or are there fundamental constraints on them? It turns out that there is evidence for both views, and understanding why they are not contradictory requires distinguishing between two levels of narrative analysis.  The first focuses on “specific narratives,” which include information about concrete agents, times, and places.  For example, there are specific narratives about the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the 1990s or about the life of Frederick Douglass.  A second level of analysis is concerned with “narrative templates,” which are the underlying, schematic codes that provide resources for a mnemonic community’s efforts to make sense of the past.  These templates and their associated mental habits are protean and unconscious, and they tend to be resistant to change.  Based on evidence about Russian national memory during the transition from the Soviet to post-Soviet era, I argue that it is possible to document drastic changes in specific narratives about the past while at the same time witnessing a striking degree of continuity in the narrative template. The ensuing picture is one in which narrative templates impose definite constraints on the changes that national memory may undergo, including changes that populist figures make in pursuing their agendas.