“There Are a Lot of Parallels Between the Production of Knowledge and the Production of Cultural Memories” – 5in10 with Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska

Born in 1980, Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska studied cultural studies and sociology at the Universities in Lodz, Giessen and Mainz. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Lodz in 2008 and completed her habilitation at the University of Warsaw in 2016. Since 2008, she has been an assistant professor at the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the University of Lodz. She held a research fellowship at the Centre for Historical Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Berlin from 2010 to 2015, after which she became a research fellow at the German Historical Institute Warsaw. From 2018 to 2020, she was also a visiting professor and Humboldt Research Fellow at the Johannes Gutenberg Universität-Mainz. Her research fields are: Film and media history since 1945, visual history, collective and cultural memory, reception studies.

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

Currently, I don´t teach. In the face of the pandemic and e-learning I really appreciate that I can focus on my research. But when face to face teaching was still possible I used to explain my research to my undergraduate students by saying that cultural scholars and sociologists look behind the scenes of cultural and social realities. We identify structures and causalities that are not visible at first sight. This requires a very thorough analysis of all kinds of texts, images, acts etc. My own research in this context concerns cultural memories. We know a lot about the discourses that constitute them, though we rarely consider them as socio-technical practices. All cultural representations of the past are made by certain people, who use certain technologies, act in certain environments within certain legal and financial frames etc. We often focus on the political framing, and at the same time lose sight of other factors that shape cultural memories. 

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

I´ve been doing memory studies ever since I started my PhD, so there have been a lot of inspirations in the course of the last seventeen years. Usually, my focus has been on the relationship between cinema and cultural memories. When film studies shifted towards production studies and the material history of cinema, I realized that this had also an impact on memories. Let´s think of cultural memories that are transferred by means of cinema. In Europe, many films receive public funding. However, the filmmakers cannot spend the money on anything they want, they must keep to schedules, shoot the film in the region which provides them with the grant etc. Obviously, all these factors affect the final result, and hence the mnemonic discourses included in the films. Similar problems can be discussed in relation to memorials, museums, re-enactments etc.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations.?)

My main activities are reading and watching. In my previous projects I worked on past cultural memories, so I spent a lot of time in the libraries and archives. The current project moves towards contemporary memories, which involves interviews with curators or filmmakers, for instance. At the end, however, I analyze the texts of the transcriptions. In any case, thorough reading remains the most important activity in my research. 

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series.) did inspire you recently?

The last year has been tough, due to the pandemic. Until late summer, I was as a Humboldt-Fellow at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, but most of the academic events were cancelled. The current semester is even worse. I have had some time for reading, instead. Since I think that there are a lot of parallels between the production of knowledge and the production of cultural memories, I came back to Science and Technology Studies and especially to Actor-Network Theory. When my colleagues discussed them intensively about five to ten years ago, I was skeptical because I generally mistrust trendy authors. But now, I have had the opportunity to read more of the classics in the field and I really regret that I didn’t do it earlier.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

I have never worked more than four years at one place and I have always travelled a lot. Though, in my case it is not a result of fixed-term contracts, as it usually is in Germany. I come from Poland and started my career at the University of Lodz at a time when even young researchers received permanent contracts. I was looking for some new experiences, though, and soon moved to Germany. At the Center for Historical Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Berlin, which is a small equivalent of the German Historical Institute in Warsaw, I coordinated the large project “Modi memorandi. Lexicon of memory culture”. Then, I moved back to Lodz and Warsaw. In 2018 I was a research fellow at the Leibniz Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam and then a guest professor and Humboldt-Fellow in Mainz. Even though most of my experiences are limited to Poland and Germany, they were extremely inspiring. Personally, I need the new environments and the frequent travel for my work. It helps me in thinking about and developing new ideas, which is why I am really suffering from the current pandemic-related situation. However, I don´t think that mobility should be mandatory. I know many great researchers who have never worked outside their own institutes and who feel best in their own offices. Mobility is a very personal issue.


Citation: “There Are a Lot of Parallels Between the Production of Knowledge and the Production of Cultural Memories” – 5in10 with Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.01.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26242.


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