Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (2) – how tradition emerges

How tradition emerges

This is the second of three posts that look at Kirk, A. (2015). Cognition, Commemoration, and Tradition: Memory and the Historiography of Jesus Research. Early Christianity, 6(3), 285-310, and follows on from here.

Kirk begins his account of the emergence of tradition by looking at ‘schemas’ – the structures containing a set of ‘typical’ elements for particular activities that our memories use to save space by configuring memories in logical (conceptual or sequential) order. ‘Experiences unfold in unpredictable, diffuse ways, rarely schematically, but in memory they will be organized and recalled as such.’ (p 296) Further, memories which are schematically similar will blend together over time to form a generic memory which achieves the smallest possible size for minimal loss of information (p 267). Although each of us has individual schemas for particular kinds of events, many of them are drawn from the schemas and scripts of the culture into which we are socialised. Kirk argues that that ‘cognitive schemas are already a form of tradition’ and that memory makes sense of the present by enabling us to make connections between present experience and the schematic patterns laid down in the past (p 298).

How well something is remembered depends on the strength of neural connections formed, which depend on the conditions when the memory is initially encoded, and then on what happens when it is subsequently recalled. People are more likely to remember material that matters (is salient) to them and to forget that which is not. They are more likely to remember events that arouse their emotions, and to become emotionally aroused again when they remember these events. In particular, events that have moral significance to the person are more likely to be deeply encoded and more frequently remembered and thought about, which further reinforces the patterns in which they are encoded. This, again, is triangulation of findings from psychology and social memory theory.

He then notes the similarities between memories as cognitive artefacts and tradition forms as cultural artefacts – they both have schematic, scripted structures, filtering of details and convergence upon existentially and morally salient element. They are thus ‘economical bearers of judgements, evaluations, and affects’ (p 299) From here, he moves to memory genres and forms.

When people communicate their memories, they do so using the formulaic patterns of the genres in circulation within their cultures, and the way that the memories are communicated consolidates the memories. Kirk illustrates this with Harald Welzer, Sabine Moller, and Karoline Tschuggnal’s Opa war kein Nazi: Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis [trans: Grandpa was not a Nazi: National Socialism and Holocaust in family memory] (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 2002), which details the shift in the way family memories are told between the generation that lived through the National Socialist era and their grandchildren as they tell the stories using schemata from their respective ‘ambient cultural fields.’ They show that there has been a shift between generations from the grandparents who simply use the narrative schemas from the Nazi era to tell stories about the soldiers being transported east to Soviet prison camps, and the women in houses trying to hide from Russian soldiers, to grandchildren who distance their grandparents from the regime (Opa war kein Nazi) and even cast them as heroic resisters and helpers of the oppressed. Clearly this tendency for the tradition to ‘romanticise’ events is problematic for the historian and biblical scholar, although Kirk aims to minimise the difficulties by saying that (unlike, the reader must assume, the Jesus events) this study is on memories which could potentially disrupt rather than strengthen the family, so, he suggests the grandchildren view the era as one from which lessons must be learned but which has no bearing on them personally; and that the sample excludes those who are unwilling to talk about their memories, thus biasing it. (pp 299-301)

Kirk next examines how commemorations become traditions (pp 301-303). ‘Community identity is grounded in a shared past; remembering therefore is a high stakes activity: commemoration.‘ (p 301) He describes commemorations as more than just the sum of individual recollections. They form around elements that are important for the moral and social identity of the commemorating community and thus have had individual recollections filtered out. ‘Emergent representations thereby escape the limitations of unreflective, notoriously unstable eyewitness memories with their fragmented, idiosyncratic perspectives’ and thus ‘[c]ommemorative artifacts highlight morally significant elements of a past event at the expense of specific details and thus take on timeless, exemplary qualities.’ (p 302) He states approvingly that they become cultural symbols, virtually decontextualised and stabilized in ‘culturally resonant media forms.’ Again, however, freeing the important elements of a story from their historical context is problematic for the historian and potentially also for the biblical scholar.

From here he moves to the effects of these cultural artifacts back on the cognitive processes (pp 303-305). This section is very dense and provides significant information about the neurobiology of memory, but Kirk appears to be saying that using cognitive-cultural coupling, the brain is able to extend its capacity by using ‘cultural artifacts’ (such as tradition) to store important information. Because of the way that memory works, the memories of individuals are relatively unstable, whereas cognitive-cultural coupling in the form of tradition provides external support which renders salient memories very stable. Tradition, however, displaces or overwrites individual memories, becoming the cognitive basis for individual recollections. Thus, Kirk seems to be saying that once an account of an event becomes part of a tradition, the individual eyewitnesses will no longer actually remember the details of what they saw and experienced – what was salient for them is replaced by what is salient for the community.

My note in the margin of this section says ‘but what about accuracy?’ Tradition is very stable, but it may not necessarily be correct. Opa may not have been a Nazi, but he probably wasn’t the hero that the grandchildren talk about either. This doesn’t matter if the purpose of the communal memory is to extract information about appropriate responses to something like the Nazi regime, but could become quite problematic if someone thinks it would be good to nominate Opa for an award for his bravery.

Finally, before applying his work to the Synoptic tradition, Kirk looks at tradition as an autonomous cognitive system (pp 305-306). His argument here appears to be that when unnecessary detail is stripped so that the tradition can be stabilised and the memory load decreased, the material can be operated on at the higher levels of cognition which are necessary to enable ‘tradent communities’ to apply the information it contains within their shifting historical and social horizons. That is, successive communities are able to apply the concepts and precepts of tradition to the new challenges that arise as the society in which they live changes, thus ensuring the transmission of a cultural identity across generations. This, of course, is an extremely useful thing for people to be able to do with religious tradition because as time goes on it becomes increasingly unlikely that followers of a particular religion will encounter situations that are close to those in which the teachings of their faith emerged. It is not so useful for the historian.

(continued in part 3)



2 thoughts on “Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (2) – how tradition emerges

  1. Pingback: Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (1) – memory distortion | Judy's research blog

  2. Pingback: Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (3) – memory, tradition & historiography | Judy's research blog

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