Professor Jens Brockmeier appointed Einstein Visiting Fellow

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Jens Brockmeier, Professor of Psychology at AUP, was recently appointed as Einstein Visiting Fellow at the Einstein Center Chronoi in Berlin. We sat down with him to ask some questions about the fellowship, his research and his time at AUP.

Q: You joined The American University of Paris in January 2014. Looking back at the last 4 years, what strikes you most about teaching at this University compared to some of the other universities that you had the opportunity to teach at?

A: What strikes me most is AUP’s climate as a liberal arts university, a climate that permeates all our work. All my previous universities were so-called research universities. As is well known, teaching doesn’t play such an important role at these schools, what counts is publishing and, even more, chasing after research money. This is different at a liberal arts university; I wouldn’t say research is less important but it is much more embedded in the classroom, and teaching and working with students takes center stage. For example, since I’ve been teaching at AUP I have been experimenting more than ever before with learning strategies, whether strategies of cooperative, experiential, or project-based learning. I am also using various formats of “flipped classrooms” – in short, a form of learning where students take over – and in my Cultural Psychology class, we practice forms of fieldwork and research that cultural anthropologists would call operating “at the scene.”

Or take my class “Self and Identity” that seems to be at first sight more like a traditional Social Science course. Typically, in such a class one would deal with various theories and models of human identity, and how they can be scientifically investigated, what methods and techniques can be used, and so on. In my AUP version of this class we expanded this perspective to include things like cultural and art history. We look, for instance, at how the idea of the individual self emerged in Renaissance and early Modern Times, how it took shape in philosophy, theology, literature, painting, and music. We also take the opportunity to do some hands-on learning, and we go to the Louvre. So close to our establishment, we can even walk there from the classroom – and look at some outstanding examples of portraits and self-portraits created in the early Italian Renaissance. So, you’re standing with a group of students in front of a Giotto, Mantegna, or Leonardo, discussing the development of visual ideas of individual subjectivity, of what the idea of life in the Renaissance was all about. It’s hard for a student who perhaps for the first time carefully studies these artworks, not to be “touched,” to put it modestly. Touched by the psychological and philosophical “depth” of these pictures, not to mention their beauty. It’s still hard for myself.

What’s more, keep in mind that many of our students come from non-European and some, non-Western countries. Those students grew up in quite diverse cultural traditions, with different ideas of personal identity and subjectivity – and beauty. There is no better guarantee for challenging discussions on cultural psychology, self, and life than a liberal arts environment.


Q: Is organizing a university around the idea of liberal arts then a new experience for you?

A: Not totally. I taught a few years at the New School, which is a research university with its own liberal arts college, Eugene Lang College. It’s in various respects similar to AUP, not least because it’s likewise located in the middle of Manhattan, in Greenwich Village – and as with Paris, the city is the campus, or at least part of it. I should add, perhaps, that in a more general sense, the idea of liberal arts is not new. We’ve already mentioned the Renaissance, which is a case in point. Many of the great Renaissance figures were scholars-scientists-artists-engineers-architects-inventors-activists, in short, well-rounded individuals with many interests and passions. This idea of an educated life also underlay the vision of education as a process of development and discovery, in fact, of initiation into the artes liberales – which was considered to be a formative activity of free human beings.

But even in the more recent past, when scientific research wasn’t so splintered off from education and yet so industrialized, so big-business and big-money oriented as it is today, one could find many liberal arts principles at large public universities. In the Continental-European tradition, for instance, where I was intellectually socialized, this was known as the Humboldt tradition. Humboldt, roughly 200 years ago, made this idea the central principle of a modern university education. It shaped his entire life and work. At its heart, there was the combination of research and teaching, of individual and cooperative learning and exploring. This included understanding one’s own discipline and specialty as part of a larger whole, a cross- and interdisciplinary synthesis. Ultimately, this was the idea of a global, planetary community. Humboldt probably was one of the first truly global explorers, an international traveler and thinker with a global, in fact, cosmic consciousness. He called his last work summarizing his studies Cosmos, published in 5 volumes and many languages. For a long time, such view was considered an inheritance of romanticism, a wholistic dream, far off the beaten track of modern science. Today, however, things have changed, dramatically we must say, and a wider ecological and social perspective is in high demand. A planetary necessity. Many say it’s a question of our survival. 

My plan is to finish my new book on simultaneity – the working title is Layers of Life – within the next three years. And I hope that the summers in Berlin will help me to do so.

Prof. Jens Brockmeier
Q: Your research is concerned with the cultural fabric of mind and language, with a particular focus on the function of narrative for autobiographical memory, personal identity. To someone with limited understanding of psychology and neuroscience, how would you describe the influence that culture can have on one’s memory and perception of self through time?

A: I have studied a specific type of memory, autobiographical memory. In psychology and neuroscience, autobiographical memories are generally thought of as a sort of cognition, stored in and retrieved from the brain. I have tried to complement and expand this brain-centered view with a perspective of autobiographical remembering as a cultural process that goes beyond the individual brain, mind, and self. Many studies have shown that autobiographical memories are in several respects shaped by the cultural world in which they occur. In some cultural traditions they play a more important role than in others; in some they are almost unknown. In the western world, they are a crucial element of personal and public life. But even here we find difference, different cultures of autobiography. I have made the case that modern cultures of autobiography, some of which I mention in a moment, impose the habits and requirements of advanced individualism onto the domains of personal memories and lifetime.

Imposition is perhaps a strong term, but I think it is justified if we bring to mind what it means to live in today’s autobiographical cultures. Never before have so many personal life stories, autobiographies, memoirs, biographies, and autofictions been produced in such a wide spectrum of genres and media, linguistic or not. This spectrum has been further broadened by multimedia digital technologies and formats of self-presentation and self-creation. The selfie culture. But there is much more to it. Never before have there been so many public arenas of personal confession and display of private and "inner” life. These places of self-presentation are supplemented by innumerable places of display of memory objects, that is, of carriers of personal and communal memoires giving material or digital shape to significant personal experiences and public events – from coronations and disasters to sports and entertainment highlights. Never before have so many artistic, academic, and professional discourses been concerned with human lives and life stories. And never before have practices of autobiography and other forms of “life writing” been so intimately connected with the idea of self-exploration and, in fact, of self-construction and self-creation.

Today, autobiographical identity construction is considered to be a common and elementary practice of the self. It is neither bound to a particular age, level of education or social habitus, nor to the act or linguistic mode of writing in a narrow, literal or wider, digital sense. Rather, it is widely accepted that it is in countless narrative forms of everyday discourse and reflection that we give a gestalt to our memories and self-interpretations, that we expose our hopes, desires, fears, and obsessions in an autobiographical perspective. This is the milieu, the biotope of the autobiographical story. This is the cultural world of memory and identity in which the autobiographical process has thrived and flourished. Elaborating this view of the autobiographical process as a cultural form of life, I have tried to complete and enrich the traditional individualist and neurocognitive view of autobiographical memory.

Q: In 2015, you published Beyond the Archive: Memory, Narrative, and the Autobiographical Process with Oxford University Press, a book that takes a holistic look at much of your work throughout the years. What did it mean for you personally to publish this work and what would you say are some of its most important findings?

A:  It is true, in the book I tried to summarize my work of about 15 years on autobiographical memory and identity. Its basic assumption is that our longstanding view of memory and remembering is in the midst of a profound transformation. This transformation does not only affect our concept of memory or a particular idea of how we remember and forget; it is a wider cultural process, a redefinition of what memory means.

The book synthesizes this transformation in various fields: psychology and the neurosciences, social, historical, and digital memory studies, and the humanities. This spectrum of studies also includes analyses of key works of autobiographical life-writing, specifically of autobiographical literature – by Marcel Proust, Walter Benjamin, Samuel Beckett, W.G. Sebald, and others. There even is a memory sculpture or installation by the artist Anselm Kiefer, that I tried to analyze as meticulously as data from a neuroscientific experiment. In a different work published recently, I have set out to do the same in examining Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as a work that incorporates both individual and collective memories. This piece is called Picasso's masks: Tracing the flow of cultural memory.

The aim of all this is to radically rethink our very notion of memory as a storage, an archive of the past. In a long history of scientific, philosophical, and cultural reflections, this notion has gained an undisputed solidity. It has suggested the natural existence of a distinctive human capacity (or a set of neuronal systems) specifically enabling us to “encode,” “store,” and “recall” (or “reconstruct”) past experiences.

However, this is only half of the story and, indeed, half of the book. The other half presents a new picture emerging out of this transitional phase. There are in fact many cultural forms of remembering and forgetting that are different from the traditional archival and individualist model. These forms and practices are embedded not only in the brain or some of its parts, but in a wide range of human activities and artefacts, in our cultural life world. They now come to the fore, turning into subjects of inquiry. One of the new ways to look at things is what I call the narrative approach. At its center is the study of the narrative fabric of most autobiographical memories. This approach not only permits us to explore the storied weave of our most personal, namely, autobiographical forms of remembering, it also sheds new light on the interrelations among memory, culture, and self.

Oxford University Press recently released a paperback edition of Jens Brockmeier’s Beyond the Archive: Memory, Narrative, and the Autobiographical Process. Available at AUP’s Bookstore

Q: You have recently been appointed as Einstein Visiting Fellow at the Einstein Center Chronoi in Berlin. You spent much of your academic life in Berlin. What does it mean for you to return to Germany’s capital?

A: You’re right, I graduated from Free University Berlin – that is, in those days, it was West Berlin; there still was the wall between the western and the eastern part of the city. I also took on my first appointment as Assistant Professor at Free University, before I moved on. The last 20 years before I came to AUP, I mainly worked in Canada, the UK, and the US. Of course, I look forward to being again affiliated with the Free University that houses the Einstein Center Chronoi. The Free University is a school that in contrast with AUP is located in an extended very green area, with many parks and gardens. I remember using my bike all the time, which I hope I can do again as I will be in residence at the Einstein Center Chronoi mainly during the summer periods 2019-2021.


Q: The appointment recognizes and supports your research on language, memory, and time. What do you hope to accomplish during your 3-year appointment as Einstein Visiting Fellow?

A: Many neuroscientists today view remembering as a kind of time travel. Travelling in time, this is an old metaphor that, however, has gained new traction these days as it is used in research trying to understand brain activities such as the workings of neuronal networks.  Along these lines, my research interests have shifted a bit towards the phenomena of time and temporality, and how we give meaning to it in different cultural contexts and epochs. Again, my focus is on language and, especially, the language of narrative because I believe it plays a central role in these processes of meaning-making. More specifically, my new project revolves on simultaneity, the peculiar ability of human beings to have various experiences at the same time, to even live in various worlds, real and imagined, at the same time, and still (most of the time) keep a balance.

The Einstein Center Chronoi in Berlin is a research institute, a kind of Institute of Advanced Studies, devoted to the study of time and related aspects such as awareness of time, time management, and the experience of temporality in various interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary formats. The central aim of the work at Chronoi is to develop a historical epistemology of time, in view of both modern and ancient societies. But the Einstein Center will not only address the issue of time from a historical point of view. There are researchers from the natural, social, and life sciences who are integrated in the Berlin research program. An important component of the institute’s work is a fellow program for visiting Einstein scholars from around the world of which I’m honored to be a part. Going back to the theme from the beginning of the interview, the Center aims at realizing a Humboldtian meeting place for the liberal arts. A place where international researchers and students, people from very different quarters of the human and natural sciences get together – and see what happens.

I personally hope to have a chance to present my ideas on simultaneity and discuss them with many of these experts. My plan is to finish my new book on simultaneity – the working title is Layers of Life – within the next three years. And I hope that the summers in Berlin will help me to do so.

What is the Einstein Center Chronoi?

The Einstein Center Chronoi is a research institution in Berlin. Funded by the Einstein Foundation, it is the first Einstein Center devoted to the humanities. It is operated jointly by Free University Berlin and Humboldt-University Berlin, in cooperation with the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, and the German Archeological Institute.