This essay outlines one way to conceptualise the relation between cultural identity, collective memory, and artifacts. It starts by characterising the notion of cultural identity as our membership to cultural groups and briefly explores the relation between cultural and narrative identity (section 2). Next, it presents how human memory is conceptualised on an individual and collective level (section 3) and then distinguishes between small-scale and large-scale collective memory (section 4). Having described cultural identity and collective memory, it argues that cultural identity is materialised in the environment when we retrieve and construct collective memories by integrating information from our biological memory with information in artifacts or in other people’s embodied brains (section 5). This essay ends with analysing how materialised cultural identities are constructed by using a niche construction approach from evolutionary biology (section 6).
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However, a reviewer pointed out that these institutions, practices, and artifacts do more than just express our cultural identities. They also have other, more practical functions.
The subject of experience (Gallagher 2000; Schlicht 2018), which is the entity that has experiences, is also part of this larger identity system. Briefly, the relation between these can be seen as follows. Expressions of cultural identity are experiences that the subject has and some of these are consolidated in the embodied brain and can become part of a larger narrative identity.
Whilst both persons and cultural groups have narratives, these narratives are ontologically different. One difference is that personal narratives are about experiences of individuals with one main character, whereas cultural narratives are about experiences of groups of individuals with more than one character.
Some oral cultures such as those of the Australian Aboriginals do transfer stories across many generations purely through social story telling. I’ll get back to this in section 6.
I say “often”, as there are also cases in which the opposite happens. A reviewer pointed out that human rights violations in Guantanamo happened a few years ago, but that didn’t shape American identity in a strong manner, which is more influenced by older events in this respect.
Richard Menary (2014) helpfully argues that there is an aesthetic niche going beyond cognitive niche construction but does not theorise about its relation to cultural identity.
Building sometimes involves reproducing an artifact, for example when a book or photo is reproduced.
But since the invention of photography, there are now also many photographs of the bas reliefs and so its lineage is now also branching.
This, of course, has to do with written language being invented approximately between 3400 and 3100 BCE in Mesopotamia. Bas reliefs date back much deeper into the past. The oldest petroglyphs (images pecked into the walls of caves or other rock surfaces) date back to approximately 30,000 years ago. Petroglyphs are much older than written language but are (for contemporary scholars) often difficult to interpret. So, they no longer support collective memories of cultural events.
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Heersmink, R. Materialised Identities: Cultural Identity, Collective Memory, and Artifacts. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-021-00570-5