March 6, 2015

Visiting German professor explains seven types of forgetting

Aleida Assmann, a professor at the University of Konstanz, analyzed the forms and functions of forgetting during a lecture on Wednesday. The lecture, Forms of Forgetting, was co-sponsored by the Council on Advanced Studies, the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies.

Assmann is the chair of English literature and literary theory at the University of Konstanz in Germany. Her research centers on transnational and cultural memory studies, historical anthropology, and the role and history of media, with an emphasis on the Holocaust and trauma.

“We live with the consensus that we need to remember and we must fight forgetting,” Assmann said in her opening remarks. “But what should be positive about remembering? Remembering and forgetting are human capacities that are neither positive nor negative, per se, but are both needed for coping with life.”

Assmann outlined seven different forms of forgetting. The first three, she claims, are morally neutral forms: automatic, preservative, and selective forgetting.

She defined automatic forgetting as the removal of materials, preservative forgetting as the archiving of objects such that they may be retrieved later, and compared selective memory to computer memory space. “While storage space can be infinitely extended and supplemented, memory space remains a rare resource,” Assmann said. “Our brains will have to go on working on the more or less limited and invariant basis of their biological infrastructure.”

Assmann then defined two darker forms of forgetting: repressive and defensive. Repressive forgetting is “memoricide,” or the killing of the memory of persons or groups, and is inflicted upon others. Defensive forgetting is the destruction of evidence to protect perpetrators.

“Towards the end of the war, Nazi officials hastily destroyed archival documents of the mass murders perpetrated against European Jews,” Assmann said. “After 1945, higher Nazi functionaries changed their names and identities to escape legal prosecution. It is estimated that 80,000 persons chose this undercover existence in postwar Germany.” She said that defensive forgetting can only be challenged if society wills it, and that the voice of the victims alone is not enough.

Assmann concluded on a lighter note, defining the constructive and therapeutic forms of forgetting. To constructively forget, a person moves forward without observing the past and with a clear conscience. Assmann cited the fall of the Berlin Wall and the renaming of streets after the fall as acts of constructive forgetting. Therapeutic forgetters actively address the past and then progress onward, such as when one honors those fallen in war before returning to present-day life.

She also argued that the Internet has changed the ease with which we forget. “Since the beginning of human history, forgetting was the rule and remembering was the exception. Due to the invention and dissemination of digital technology, forgetting must become the exception while remembering the rule,” Assmann said. She added, however, that although the Internet has changed the way information is stored and revitalized, the merits of forgetting still stand and people will continue to move beyond their pasts.

“The weakness of their memory gives humans strength to live,” she added. “The weakness of their memory gives humans strength to prosper.”