Types of cultural memory

Cultural semioticians Juri Lotman and Boris Uspensky have defined culture as “the memory of a society that is not genetically transmitted” (1984: 3). Culture in this sense includes all the texts, norms, beliefs, laws, and traditions ever developed by human beings. Like a genetic code, cultural memory helps us preserve crucial knowledge over centuries and allows us to adapt to new conditions. Every succeeding generation does not have to start anew, since cultural memory transcends individual lifespans and connects the past, present, and future.


Cultural memory is characterized not so much by remembering as by forgetting. Since our storing or storage capacities are limited, it is normal for persons and cultures to forget things. Conversely, remembering is an exception. German anthropologist and scholar Aleida Assmann has made a distinction between active and passive cultural memory (2010: 98). In the first case, the elements of the past are considered as parts of the present: Objects are exhibited in museums, taught at schools, and referred to in everyday life. Meanwhile, the elements of the second case are kept in cellars and storehouses. Assmann described the former mode as canon, and the latter as archive. Cultural memory is characterized by a never-ending dialogue between active and passive memory. The borders between them are flexible: Even classic writers sometimes lose their status, while peripheral phenomena end up becoming central. Competition as such is very intense, and only a tiny segment found within the vastness of history is privileged enough to receive canonical status.

What is canon?

The word “canon” derives from the history of religion. In a narrow sense, it refers to a text that has been considered sacred and must remain unchanged. Furthermore, “canonization” is also a term for the transformation of the martyrs of the Christian church into saints (ibid. 100). When the concept of canon was adapted to secular life, “canonicity” began to refer to a canon of classics. But unlike religious canon, the latter canon is not as fixed, and is more open to changes. 

The role of canon is enormous. Not only does it help to preserve sacred texts, artistic masterpieces, or historical events, but it also forms the cultural identity of the given society. The canon thus conceived forms the basis for education and art: Canonical texts are performed on stages and in concert halls, exhibited in museums, and sold in bookshops. As a political instrument, the given canon helps in transmitting certain values and worldviews. 

Due to its ideological functions, the canon is sometimes considered a tool of coercion that must be fought against. For instance, the representatives of feminism and postcolonialism have pointed out the unfair representation of different identities in canonical works. In order to reflect contemporary values, the canon has to gradually change and expand. However, it is important to think twice before discarding the texts that we may consider irrelevant, inappropriate, or outdated. It is not the purpose of literature to comply with a particular worldview. On the contrary, art offers us the magical opportunity to understand a position different from our own. 

Which texts become canonical?

It is important to distinguish canonical texts from texts that are simply popular. Assmann emphasized that a canon “is not a hit-list; it is instead independent of historical change and immune to the ups and downs of social taste” (ibid. 100). The marketplace oftentimes persuades us that the “latest” is the “greatest,” or that the newest is the most valuable: Every day we come across various lists like “the books one must read right now.” Although some of the listed items may indeed become canonical, most of them eventually go out of fashion and become forgotten. 

It is not yet decided which qualities make texts canonical. Critics usually emphasize two reasons: the sociocultural relevance of the text, and its intrinsic aesthetic qualities. Italian literary scholar Angela Locatelli has come up with a third explanation: Great texts differ from less important ones because “they resist being saturated even by the most intelligent and sophisticated interpretations, while endlessly invoking and provoking them” (2004: 182). Indeed, we tend to return to certain types of texts again and again, and each time something different is revealed.


Assmann, Aleida 2010. Canon and Archive. In: Erll, Astrid; Nünning, Ansgar  (eds.). A companion to cultural memory studies. Berlin [u.a.]:de Gruyter, 97-108. 

Locatelli, Angela 2008. Literature’s Versions of Its Own Transmission of Values. In: Erll, Astrid; Grabes, Herbert; Nünning, Ansgar (eds.), Ethics in Culture. The dissemination of values through Literature and Other Media. Berlin, de Gruyter, 19-34.

Locatelli, Angela 2004. Literariness, Consensus, or ‘Something Else’. Tropismes 12: 173-188.

Lotman, Jurij; Uspenskij, Boris 1984. The Semiotics of Russian Culture. Ed. Ann Shukman. Michigan Slavic Contributions 11. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P.

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