As the title of my presentation, “Thirdmemory: Drawing a distinction in memory-making,” I shall organize my presentation in several steps. Firstly, I shall explain the concept of distinction in the context of sociological and cultural studies, as well as the application of the concept in memory studies. From here, and inspired by several scholars, particularly Niklas Luhmann (2002), I shall suggest the distinction between presence and meaning might be a good candidate to understand better cultural realities through the perspective of memory studies.

Basically, the concept of “distinction” is not foreign to sociology. In the context of social system theory, the concept of distinction is used by Niklas Luhmann to distinguish between the system and the environment, also between the codes applied in every social system. Similarly, Jeffrey C. Alexander & Bernhard Giesen (1987) divides between micro-sociology and macro-sociology. However, the most famous distinction in sociology is structure and agency. Here, the structure is the recurrent patterned arrangements that influence or limit the choices and opportunities available, whereas agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. With this in mind, we can say that the use of the concept of distinction in social and cultural studies is not new.

However, we should not forget that our main focus is the application of the concept of distinction in memory studies. But before doing so, I want to place the concept of memory in a cultural context. In this regard, we can analyze cultural realities via the lens of memory.

For this reason, I shall invite some scholars that see the close relationship between culture and memory. For example, Dirk Baecker (1997) considers culture as “a gigantic memory of society that constantly overtaxes itself.” On the other hand, Paalman (2012: 142) suggests that “culture is for society what memory is for an individual.” Likewise, Ann Rigney (2016: 65) states that “for scholars working in the field of cultural memory studies (usually with a disciplinary basis in literature and media studies), the key to the articulation between the individual and the collective lies in culture. Finally, Astrid Erll (2011: 11-12), whom I think her name is very familiar among us, emphasizes that “various approaches of cultural memory studies all have in common is that they analyze memory as a prerequisite for, component and product of culture.”

Based on this strong relationship between culture and memory, then we will further explain some applications of distinction in memory studies.

The first is Jan Assmann. I am sure his name is not need to be introduced. As a leading scholar in memory studies, Jan Assmann (1995) established the term cultural memory which is defined as: “cultural memory exists in two modes: first in the mode of the potentiality of the archive whose accumulated texts, images, and rules of conduct act as a total horizon, and second the mode of actuality, whereby each contemporary context puts the objectivized meaning into its own perspective, giving it its own relevance.”

It is clear that Jan Assmann divides cultural memory into two forms: actuality dan potentiality. Indeed, the distinction between actuality and potentiality is very common to be found in the study of meaning. This can be observed, again, in systems theory which defines meaning with such distinctions. In this case, potentiality refers to the unmarked state (which is the environment) while actuality refers to the marked state (which is the system). If we look at social systems through Niklas Luhmann, it is actually a domain to represent the totality of social realities. Here, we could assume cultural and social realities are the same domain.

Secondly, we can bring Aleida Assmann’s view on her multiple distinctions. This includes active/passive, archive/canon, and storage/functional memory. Taking one example is storage/functional memory. Here, Aleida Assmann (2011: 127) states that “in functional memory, unstructured, unconnected fragments are invested with perspective and relevance; they enter into connection, configurations, compositions of meaning—a quality that is totally absent from storage memory.

Moreover, Aleida Assmann (2011: 130) elaborates that storage memory may be seen as an important reservoir for future functional memory.” In other words, “it is a fundamental resource for all cultural renewal and change. Therefore “storage memory itself is no more natural or spontaneous than functional memory; it needs to be supported by institutions that preserve, conserve, organize, open up, and circulate cultural knowledge.” In this context, for Aleida Assmann, “archives, museums, libraries, and memorial sites all play their part in this task.”

The distinction between storage/functional memory describes the passive/active and archive/canon, which is also introduced by Aleida Assmann. On one hand, we can connect storage memory to passive and archive memory, on the other hand, functional memory to active and canon memory. I think, by putting all distinctions into one category, it thus helps us to explain another distinction in studying cultural realities introduced by Paul Connerton. In this case, Connerton (1989) distinguishes between “two fundamentally different types of social practice.”

The first type of action he calls is incorporating practice. Connerton explains that “a smile or a handshake or words spoken in the presence of someone we address, are all messages that a sender or senders impart by means of their own current bodily activity, the transmission occurring only during the time that their bodies are present to sustain that particular activity. Whether the information imparted by these actions is conveyed intentionally or unintentionally, and whether it is carried by an individual or a group,” all actions are called by Connerton as incorporated practice.

The second type of action is inscribing practice. Connerton describes that “our modern devices for storing and retrieving information, print, encyclopedias, indexes, photographs, sound tapes, and computers, all require that we do something that traps and holds information, long after the human organism has stopped informing. Occasionally this imparting may be unintentional, as when we have our telephone tapped, but mostly it is intentional. Obviously, here Connerton speaks of all such actions as inscribing.

Based on this distinction—incorporating practice and inscribing practice—we can state that Connerton divides cultural studies into two modes of cultural realities. This division is based on mind or body depending on which type of social practice. We can say that incorporating practice is linked to bodily presence while inscribing practice is associated with the construction of meaning.

Finally, memory studies is established with the distinction of remembering and forgetting. The difference between these two sides has been mentioned a lot because forgetting and remembering are two dimensions that are equally needed when discussing memory. The reason is, according to James E. Young (2004), “without forgetting there is no space left by which to navigate the meaning of what one has remembered.” With this in mind, we can argue that “sociology of forgetting is an important and integral part of the sociology of memory. When we remember the past, the highlighted question is also: what thing that you do not remember?” (Spicci & Zerubavel 2011: 117).

We have already reviewed various concepts of distinction in memory. However, what is our main discussion is that all these distinctions actually have similarities. Each is separated by physical and mental qualities in a different cultural reality. My argument is that all these distinctions can be represented by other alternative distinctions, namely presence and meaning. My idea is that the concept of presence and meaning can entirely capture all the distinctions we have just discussed. In this case, the basic mode of presence is the body and the basic mode of meaning is the mind.

Actually, the comparison of presence and meaning is no controversy in cultural studies, although it may be new in memory studies. In cultural studies, the concept of presence/meaning was popularized by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (2004) who emphasized two modes of cultural realities. In this regard, for Gumbrecht, the meaning/presence binary is not a simple opposition, and his argument is not conventionally “critical” in that he wants to replace one with the other. Instead, the relationship between the two is exclusive but dynamic. Therefore, he argues that a relation to the things-of-the-world is oscillated between presence effects and meaning effects.” He added that “presence and meaning always appear together and are always in tension.”

One of the advantages of using the concept of the distinction between presence and meaning is that, firstly, we can summarize all distinctions in memory studies into a more organized concept related to a long history of the Cartesian paradigm, which is between mind and body.

Secondly, the distinction between meaning and presence can connect memory studies to several disciplines of knowledge including systems theory. As the concept of system theory is based on meaning, therefore, the invitation of presence can complement systems theory in understanding world society (according to systems theory) or cultural realities (according to memory studies). With this complementary, we can cover the unmarked state of system theory by bringing in the discourse on presence.

In addition, thirdly, the distinction between presence and meaning can conjure up a discourse known as “third category” (Aleida Assmann 2006: 220). In this regard, “third category”— with the assumption that memory is also triadic—is considered an effort to explain the ambiguity found in the gap between presence and meaning.

Some attempts have been made such as by Jan & Aleida Assmann who introduced the concept of mnemohistory. According to Aleida Assmann (2008), “Mnemohistory is interested in the constructive as well as the distorting effects of memory; it takes into account the ambivalence of the past both as a conscious choice and as an unconscious burden, tracking the voluntary and involuntary paths of memory.”

Without denying, conceptually, the benefit of mnemohistory as one option to define the gap between presence and meaning, I propose the concept of “thirdmemory” in finding what is the third category. The concept of thirdmemory is inspired by Edward Soja’s thirdspace which is a combination of “a simultaneously real-and-imagined, actual-and-virtual, locus of structured individual and collective exprience and agency” (Soja 1996). This combination tries to formulate the “trialectics of being” related to spatiality, historicity, and sociality. By placing memory as a thirdspace, we can better explain cultural realities because we can map all cultural forms within two extreme poles: presence and meaning. This will certainly help us in strengthening the concept of memory studies that have many overlapping concepts.

In conclusion, I would say that thirdmemory “is not just a memory concept, but represents a complex interplay of presence and meaning in a reciprocal process.” Specifically, thirdmemory is a kind of “middle range theory” that could facilitate memory studies in analyzing every angle of cultural realities, whether it is the context of everyday-defined or authority-defined.


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Assmann, Aleida. 2006. Memory, Individual and Collective. Dlm. Robert E. Goodin & Charles Tilly (Pnyt.) The Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 210-224.

Assmann, Aleida. 2008. ‘Transformations between History and Memory’, Social Research 75(1): 49-72.

Assmann, Jan. 1995. Collective Memory and Cultural Identity. Terj. John Czaplicka. New German Critique 65: 125-133.

Assmann, Jan. 2011. Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. 2004. Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey. California: Stanford University Press.

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Rigney, Ann. 2016. Cultural Memory Studies: Mediation, Narrative, and the Aesthetic, in Anna Lisa Tota & Trever Hagen (Pnyt.) Routledge International Handbook of Memory Studies. London & New York: Routledge, 65-76.

Spicci, Mauro & Zerubavel, Eviatar. 2011. ‘Museums, Memory and the Shaping of Identity’, Other Modernity – Interviews N. 5(03): 115-118.

Soja, Edward. 1996. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Victoria: Blackwell Publishers.

Young, James E. 2004. ‘Foreword. Dlm Marc Augé Oblivion. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota, vii-xii.

Presented at the International Conference in Memory Studies Memory in a Digital Age, organized by Centre for Memory Studies Indian Institute of Technology Madras, 23-25 August 2022


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