Cultural Memory and Expectational Structures

What is the connection between cultural values (norms, expectational structures) and collective memory?

Memory does not operate as a storage container. Rather, memory is an expectational structure, and its only function is to run consistency tests. As Luhmann writes,

memory is nothing but a continuous consistency test of different information, always in the light of certain expectations. . . . We are not dealing here with a theory of memory that relies on the notion of storage. (Intro to Systems Theory, 72)

For example, as I drive my car from work to home, my eyes automatically scan the environment to test what I am seeing against what I have seen before, or what I expect to see; in other words, my memory runs consistency tests–or it is a consistency test. If I see something odd, like a gorilla sitting in the road playing a guitar, I take notice because it’s not consistent with my expectations.

In other words, the psychic system (individual consciousness) adds predictability and reduces complexity. It simplifies by reducing the operation to a binary choice. The choice is between confirmation or disappointment of expectations. There is no third option.

On a different scale, prior to 2008 America had an expectational structure that said that the next president would be a white male, and this make sense because all this system had ever known had been white male presidents.  (This also applies to observers outside of the United States who had only known of white US presidents). The election of Barack Obama, then, registered as a surprise. If that expectational structure had not been in place, the election of Obama would not have been registered as surprising, or maybe even interesting. In this light, the persistent and apparently irrational efforts to delegitimize Obama’s presidency may be understood as stubbornness of an expectation schema–or the refusal to learn by changing expectational structures (or norms). 

Systems get destabilized when expectations are repeatedly disappointed, and eventually the system, if it is to persist, must find a way to restabilize by altering its expectational structures. If I keep encountering guitar-playing gorillas in the middle of the road, I should change my expectations.


What Comes Next

If we make a semantic shift from a vocabulary of shared values, norms, or morality to expectational structures, we can temporalize the process. A norm is simply what is expected; it tells us what to expect next, whether we’re dealing with a conversation (in an interactional system) or society in general.

In a political context, in trying to shape collective or cultural memory, the nation-state hopes to create suitable expectational structures.  It wants to control what registers as a surprise or “news.” In terms of narrative, a state promotes a national narrative as a means of reproducing the imagined nation. Any narrative establishes expectations. If we are drawn into a narrative, we start to care what comes next (we are affected), and as we read or listen to the narrative, we are building expectations for what comes next. This is also how everyday conversation works. If we didn’t have an expectation for what comes next in a conversation, we would have no way of registering surprise or knowing if the conversation diverges from its course, because there would be no expected course for the conversation diverge from.

Politically, governments tend to lose support when the expectations they establish run up against too many surprises, or in other words, when there’s a sense of inconsistency, unpredictability, or chaos. The consistency tests then do not support the expectational structures promoted by the government. 

A government gains and maintains popular support by limiting unpleasant surprises, as well as limiting its own control over areas of society that it has no hope of controlling anyway, such a the economy, the mass media, religion, sexual practices, art, etc.  If things are about to get bad, the government should prepare the people. Limiting surprises come down to trust. Trust is also reinforced when it appears that the same laws apply to those in the government–those with political power–and those out of the government. This relates to David Beetham’s claim that a political system retains legitimacy when it “conforms to established rules.”  The political system must follow the law.  

Norms are a product of differentiation; social systems differentiate expected behavior from actual behavior. Norms serve as expectational structures, in the sense that the norm is the expected. As Luhmann argues,

there is no doubt that behavior in accordance with norms really is expected, even if–especially if–it must be distinguished from anticipated behavior” (“Are There Still Indispensable Norms” p. 21).

It is precisely this doubling of reality that allows social systems to carry on from moment to moment. Norms allow the reproduction of expectational structures.

A key point is that norms are expected even when they are not anticipated. Expectation and anticipation are not the same thing. For instance, even if we know a person well and anticipate that he will lie to us, we nonetheless expect him to tell the truth because otherwise we could not engage in communication with that person at all. Similarly, we cannot play or watch a game unless we expect the rules to be followed, even if we anticipate that there will be many rule infractions and penalties. We wouldn’t even notice the infractions if we didn’t expect the rules to be followed.


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