Aleida and Jan Assmann

2017 Balzan Prize for Collective Memory

For their shared, inter- and transdisciplinary elaboration of the concept of “cultural memory” and its defining clarifications as a paradigm in the field of cultural studies, as well as in public debates; for a decades-long exchange about very different historical realities and models, which in a truly extraordinary way proved to be complementary; for the work carried out independently, of far-reaching impact, which presents collective memory as a requirement for the formation of the identity of religious and political communities.

Aleida Assmann was born on 22 March 1947 in Bielefeld, read English and Egyptology and received her Habilitation title at the University of Heidelberg in 1992. From 1993 until her retirement in 2014 she held the Chair of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Konstanz. She has held Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Princeton, Yale und Vienna, among others, as well as being Member or corresponding Member of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, the Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, the Oesterreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften and the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina. She has been awarded several academic prizes, some of them shared with her husband, and holds an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Oslo.

Her husband Jan Assmann, born on 7 July 1938 (*1938 – †2024) in Langesheim, read Egyptology, Classical Archaeology and Greek and received his Habilitation title in 1971 at the University of Heidelberg where he held the Chair of Egyptology from 1972 until his retirement in 2003. He has taught as Visiting Professor in Paris, Yale and Jerusalem and has held an Honorary Professorship for Cultural Studies and the Theory of Religion at the University of Konstanz since 2005. Jan Assmann is a Member of the Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, the Academia Scientiarum et Artium Europaea, corresponding Member of the Accademia delle Scienze di Torino and Honorary Member of the Akademie gemeinnütziger Wissenschaften in Erfurt. He has been awarded several academic prizes, some of them shared with his wife, and holds Honorary Doctorates from the Universities of Münster, Yale and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In addition to specialist publications in their respective disciplinary fields, Aleida und Jan Assmann have presented the work of a lifetime in decades-long close exchanges which, under the title of “cultural memory”, has become a new paradigm extending well beyond their own fields and which has been influential in many countries. While both have written numerous monographs independently of one another, there are some jointly authored texts, especially in the regular meetings and collective works, which they themselves initiated, of the interdisciplinary working circle “Archaeology of literary communication”, a circle which considers and uses written traditions as the most important instrument of anthropological self-investigation. In the works of both, their mutual inspiration can always be detected, evident in their references and reciprocally illuminating. They also share an uncommonly extensive knowledge of the literature reaching well beyond the limits of their own specialisms, a knowledge which ranges from the first testimonies of great civilizations to the latest theoretical approaches and which in their painstakingly written and easily understandable texts surprises and illuminates the reader time after time. Special attention is given to media and the material conditions of tradition, as well as to buildings, works of art, music, and film.

Jan Assmann‘s study Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2011; English translation of Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, München: C.H. Beck 1992) was groundbreaking, a text which has come out in several editions and translations, and which is the best evidence of how a supposedly marginal subject may lead to a change of paradigm in cultural studies. Jan Assmann was the first to combine earlier ideas, namely those of Maurice Halbwachs, but also those of Sigmund Freud, with the renewed interest – scientifically as well as socially determined – in forms of remembrance, and also the first to demonstrate a clearly systematised theory of the foundation of shared identity through the new concept of cultural memory. This theory explains how testimonies of the past handed over in a variety of media (the built environment, writing etc.) create meaning through procedures such as ritualisation, canonisation and interpretation and thereby create a collective identity, that is to say, a “reflection-mediated social identity”. Through impressive case studies on ethnogenesis he has demonstrated how the political organisation in Egypt constituted itself in this way, whereas in Israel it was the religious community, in Mesopotamia a historical awareness grounded in the law and in Greece the intertextual community of the learned.

Among other works, it was in Cultural Memory and Western Civilization: Functions, Media, Archives (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011; English translation of Erinnerungsräume. Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses (München: C.H. Beck 1999) – of which several editions and translations have appeared – that Aleida Assmann offered a fundamental clarification of how such a concept should be distinguished from other forms, not only of individual memory, and of how it could profitably be used scientifically. In this way she differentiates the cultural memory from the social memory of a generation or the communicative memory of people living together, and further distinguished between storage and function memory – the former, so to speak, as a potential of received though often forgotten traditions, the latter as the conscious actualisation of collective foundations of meaning and as a result also of plans for the future.  Unlike almost every other work on collective memories, Aleida Assmann’s work does not neglect the complementary phenomenon of oblivion (Forms of Forgetting, English version ofFormen des Vergessens. Wallstein, Göttingen 2016).  In her study Shadows of Trauma. Memory and politics of Postwar Identity (New York: Fordham, 2016, English translation of Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit. Erinnerungskultur und Geschichtspolitik (München: C. H. Beck 2006) she considers that the “ethical turn” of the culture of memory finds its origins in the historiographical preoccupation with the Holocaust and in what is called “Vergangenheitspolitik” in Germany. With this background and a finely balanced sense of judgment she has taken part in public debates, pleading the case for “dialogical remembrance”, in particular on the occasion of commemoration events.

Of similar significance are Jan Assmann‘s reflections on the formation of religious communities, in particular Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), The Price of Monotheism (Stanford University Press, 2009; English translation of Die Mosaische Unterscheidung oder der Preis des Monotheismus, München: Hanser, 2003) as well as his work on Exodus and memory (Exodus. Die Revolution der Alten Welt, München: C. H. Beck, 2015). While considering the history of Western thought, he investigates the genesis of monotheism and its unavoidably violent implications. In the same way as Aleida, Jan Assmann decisively puts his stamp on public opinion, through fundamental scientific observations reaching well beyond the theoretical debates that have put them on the scientific agenda.

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