forget me not

In the snow of memory, or on the passage of time

 

Memories change over time – and we change with them. Are we the sum of our memories, is our memory congruent with our identity (John Locke)? Or are memories a link between recollection and subjective consciousness (Henri Bergson)?  Or are memories progressively dissolving into digital information bits (Byung-Chul Han)?

With today’s storage technologies, our view of memory and how we deal with forgetting is changing. In our digital world, memory in the form of data storage no longer refers as much to the past, but to the future. How important is memory in digital systems, if the internet never forgets anything and memory nonetheless dissolves in the stream of data? In his book Non-things, Byung-Chul Han argues that “today we perceive reality primarily through information, and therefore there is less direct contact with reality. We can linger over things, but not over information. In turn, information, due to its ephemerality, makes time-consuming cognitive practices like experience, memory or perception disappear.”

If everything is information, and information is the current form of oblivion due to its ephemerality, then the subject, as defined by cognitive processes, consciousness and reflection, dissolves. On one hand, this is because within the flow of data streams, there is no time for cognitive practices. On the other hand, due to fleeting attention spans, memory has become less important, often disintegrating in the most recent selfie. “Digitization de-objectifies, disembodies and ultimately de-realizes the world. It also erases memories. Instead of pursuing memories, we accumulate data and information.” (Byung-Chul Han) Although we have a lot of information, in the end we can’t do anything with it, because we can’t contextualize it. It never gains any meaning. The value of collected data lies in its potential utility in the future, a utility we cannot foresee in the present. Memory no longer refers to the past, but has become something from the future that affects the present. With this, the importance of both the individual and collective past has disappeared hand in hand with our ability to interpret the present. If time is no longer linear, but rather speculative, it is no longer the past that represents a temporal reference point for the memory, but the future. What counts is no longer who we were, but who we could be.

In Philip K. Dick’s dystopian novel Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the presence or absence of memory is what distinguishes humans from androids. The lack of memory is synonymous with a short and limited lifetime; memory in the form of a life story is a social distinction that secures privileges and the right to live. But the androids also have a kind of history, invented biographies that nonetheless feel authentic. Philip K. Dick dealt with the problem of distinguishing between real and manipulated memory and the idea of memory transformation already in his short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” (1966). The story has entered science fiction film history as Total Recall. In Total Recall, artificial memories are implanted into people, leading to identity confusion about who they were and who they are, since what happened in the past is no longer clear. Individual identities and the past are erased by the secret service, repressive state intervention that deletes memories. False memories are implanted in the brain to replace real memories, but the unconscious cannot be completely erased or controlled.

Recently, biologists at the University of California succeeded in transferring behavioral memory from one sea slug (Aplysia californica) to another. The scientists taught one of the sea slugs, which can grow up to 75 cm long, to perform a twitching movement, their usual reaction to a dangerous situation, for a particularly long time, namely, a full 50 seconds. Then they took a special messenger substance from the nerve cells of the trained slug and injected it into another animal, which from then on reacted to the same stimulus with the behavior of the conditioned slug. The nerve cells of Aplysia californica are similar to human nerve cells.

Will it become possible in the near future to transfer memories from one living being to another? Nightmare or opportunity? If the memory transfer successfully performed on sea slugs were to lead to full-fledged memory transfer in human beings, it would definitely be a nightmare. On the other hand, it could also be a useful therapy for those with memory loss or neurological diseases. It is highly problematic if we are not aware of these processes and distinctions.

John Locke, a pioneer of the Enlightenment, believed that we cannot distinguish real memory from manipulated memory and thus, manipulated memory would be tantamount to a manipulated identity. Locke considered a person’s identity to be grounded in their consciousness – it is the consciousness that enables us to perceive our experiences as belonging to us. “Thus, our identity endures only as far as our consciousness stretches into the past. This means we are the same as we were before only as far back as we can remember past experiences.”

Henri Bergson also considers the memory not just a storage medium, but as linked to the entire personality. Bergson emphasizes the connection between memory and subjective awareness, whereby one’s memory is deep, unique and has a personal style. He points to the fact that memories, which are in us and are our identity, are pushed into the unconscious and forgotten. With lost memories, we not only lose ourselves, but our relationships with others. In Matter and Memory (1896), Bergson distinguished between “habitual memory” and “pure memory”. Pure memory contains the unique events of individual histories; habitual memory functions based on mechanical memorization. In pure memory, the primary focus is on direct actions, which obscures, among other things, the memory of material things. According to Bergson, “matter is not the opposite of memory; it is a low yet real level of memory.”

In Yoko Ogawa’s dystopian novel The Memory Police, things such as hair bands, hats, stamps, roses and birds disappear irretrievably. Even body parts and people disappear. Along with these things, memories and meanings also disappear. Everything is in a progressive process of dissolution. This is the work of the so-called memory police, the executive organ on an island ruled by a totalitarian surveillance and police state. To better control the islanders, the memory police ensures that memories are deleted. At the risk of their lives, a few islanders remember lost things, including an editor, who links these things with thoughts, feelings and experiences. As in Yoko Ogawa’s novel, when objects disappear, also the memories connected to those objects dissolve. In the novel’s regime of total surveillance and memory control, all forms of otherness disappear.

 

In Non-things, Byung-Chul Han describes how the stable earthly order is now being replaced by the digital order, whereby “the digital order de-objectifies the world by computerizing it. Our living environment is not determined by things, but by data. We no longer inhabit the earth and sky, but Google Earth and Cloud.” Here, too, the world of things has disappeared – material spaces where we can slowly wander are being replaced by immaterial streams of information. This goes hand in hand with the digital availability of the world, which is being subjected to our needs. According to Byung-Chul Han, other people in the world are disappearing. For him, smartphones enable narcissistic spheres free of the uncertainties of others. “It makes others available by turning them into objects. It turns the you into an it.” 

 

What remains are data and information that shape reality based on the future. Time has long ceased to be linear, it comes from the future. The present is determined by the future; even our relationship with the past is speculative. When information always occupies the present, there is no time for meaning and memory. Everything becomes a mechanical memory (Bergson) in which automated emotions and waves of excitement compensate for subjective awareness. Every instant, every digital move, every physical motion is registered and stored in the archive of the past so that the future can be anticipated and preemptively formed. In this scenario, the past and memories are instrumentalized so they can be potentially exploited as future data capital. This no longer has to do with bringing the past to life in the present or about remembering real experiences, but with the preemptive shaping of the future.

 

The passage of time is the framework within which our memory is inscribed, it is the framework to which our memory refers. Memory arises from the fact that we not only store data, but create relationships with that data, give them meaning, structure them as narratives, history and knowledge. In the future, we will increasingly deal with the distinction between real experiences and virtual or simulated memories. Not only do memory edifices based on experience form subject constructions, they also shape future behavior. When connected to contingency, they keep the futures open.

 

But what if we intentionally want to forget? According to Umberto Eco, forgetting by mistake is possible, but there are no techniques for actively forgetting. Traumatic experiences or tormenting memories stay in the memory; they cannot be deleted by pushing a button, even if desired. In Michel Gondry’s film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), conscious forgetting of certain memories is made possible through a special process – the protagonist has his memory manipulated so he no longer has to think about a painful separation. Nonetheless, memory signals remain in his subconscious and can be activated.

Jorge Luis Borges describes the burden of memory overload in his story “Funes the Memorious” (1942), in which the main character remembers absolutely everything due to an accident. In the end this destroys him. He functions like an infinite memory forced to remember everything in detail without being able to put the individual parts together – mechanical memory similar to the Cloud. Memory melts in the digital thaw – like snow from yesterday.

 

Sabine Winkler

translation from German: Cynthia Peck-Kubaczek

1. John Locke (1632–1704), Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690.

2. Henri Bergson (1859–1941), Matter and Memory, 1896.

3. Byung-Chul Han, Non-things – Upheaval in the Lifeworld. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press 2022.

4. Cf. Byung-Chul Han in interview with Gesine Borcherdt, “Die Welt hat sich ganz nach uns zu richten” (19 Jan. 2022) in: Philosophie Magazin (www.philomag.de/artikel/byung-chul-han-die-welt-hat-sich-ganz-nach-uns-zu-richten). 

5.Ibid.

6. Literary synopsis of the film Blade Runner by Ridley Scott, 1982.

7. Cf. Octave Larmagnac-Matheron, “Transplantierte Erinnerungen: Traum oder Alptraum?” (8 Nov. 2021) in: Philosphie Magazin (www.philomag.de/artikel/transplantierte-erinnerungen-traum-oder-alptraum).

8. Cf. Theresa Schouwink, “John Lockes ‘Dieselbigkeit’” (22 April 2021) in: Philosphie Magazin (www.philomag.de/artikel/john-lockes-dieselbigkeit).

9. Cf. Frédéric Worms, “Henri Bergson und das Gedächtnis” (2016) in: Philosophie Magazin (www.philomag.de/artikel/henri-bergson-und-das-gedaechtnis)

10. Cf. Byung-Chul Han in interview with Gesine Borcherdt, “Die Welt hat sich ganz nach uns zu richten” (19 Jan. 2022) in: Philosophie Magazin (www.philomag.de/artikel/byung-chul-han-die-welt-hat-sich-ganz-nach-uns-zu-richten).

11. Ibid.

12. Cf. Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik, Der Zeitkomplex, 9. Berlin Biennale für zeitgenössische Kunst, 2016

http://bb9.berlinbiennale.de/de/der-zeitkomplex/ 

 

 

“And suddenly there was a memory...” or 

No one lives only in the moment.

 

Anyone who remembers has previously forgotten...

 

The memory is framed, infiltrated and structured by forgetting. A dynamic interplay: “When you carry the light into one corner, you darken the rest.” (Francis Bacon 1561–1626)

 

Even autobiographies only illuminate excerpts of an existence; most is bound to remain obscure. Some things are condensed and thus fictionalized/“falsified”. Life and memoirs are never identical. The German author Günter Grass used the metaphor of an onion in his memoir Peeling the Onion (2006). He wanted to record his memories like the layers of an onion, including the confession that as a 17-year-old during World War II, he had been an SS soldier. The humiliation of that fact pains him the same way an onion brings tears to his eyes... – Infinitely more famous than that onion is the madeleine in Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927). There, the protagonist Swann describes dipping a little shell-shaped cake into tea and the moment he begins to enjoy it: “…a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place.” It was the moment that triggered his “involuntary memory/mémoire involontaire” of his childhood village of Combray and his aunts... Thanks to a scent and a taste, Proust experienced his suddenly reawakened past as if it were yesterday. The feeling of happiness that arose in him had, in fact, serious consequences: his novel, essentially an “immeasurable edifice of memory”, is more than five thousand pages long… It is also instructive for (neuro)psychology as the site of the phenomenon now known as the Proustian or madeleine effect. In Proust’s novel, sensory stimuli, especially smells, are doors to lost memories, especially for those who are ill. Proust’s rapture is also confirmed psychologically: without feelings, memories have no meaning. According to neuropsychologists, the fact that scent facilitates the memory is due to the memory having evolved from the sense of smell.

 

In German (and other languages) there are two different words for our mind’s memory and a particular memory about an event in the past. English uses the word memory for both. Our memory is situated in the hippocampus, which is the working memory of the brain. This switching point for short-term and long-term memory is organized in a modular and hierarchical manner. The tissues of the hippocampus are malleable and – luckily for us – capable of lifelong neurogenesis: its nerve cells can be renewed, especially through training. The memory is thus the biological prerequisite for remembering. At the same time it is the collective term for “the” memories. Access to our memory is momentary, because remembering involves the actual act of looking back at the past, whether voluntarily/intentionally, or triggered involuntarily (by sushi, roses, a place … or by a madeleine!). If the memory, which has a fragmentary character, is verbalized, it becomes mixed with fictitious elements; we make associations, fill in gaps by inventing things even without realizing we are doing so... We want the story of our lives to be coherent. And so we continue to shape it, “improve” on it... That is how a strenuous or even awful trip can become, over time, an interesting and adventurous journey. We continue to modify our memories throughout our lives. And we can also lose them.

The Musashi gene might be responsible for this. The forgetfulness gene, referred to by brain researchers as MSI1 or MSI2, sends proteins to the synapses at the end of the tissues in the brain, and then – wham! – they are severed like the samurai Miyamoto Musashi, famous for being able to fight with two swords at once. Hai!

 

From the individual memory we now turn to the superordinate “collective memory” (Maurice Halbwachs). According to the French sociologist, the “social framework” of a society plays the most important role in its culture of remembrance or “collective memory”. The current communication rules and norms of a collective (“What do we consider beneficial?”) determine which memories are cultivated and which are banned. Halbwachs postulates that strictly speaking, there is no such thing as an individual memory! Although every memory is biologically individually equipped, what and how we remember is always socially shaped; it is “co-written”. In other words, although we remember our own history, this is done under conditions we have not chosen ourselves and thus can always be influenced by society. No one can choose the year and country of their birth, nor everything that leads from that birth in terms of contemporary history...

Since every society, ethnic group or nation is interested in preserving its specific culture and passing it on to its descendants, it creates places and institutions where the common memory can be shared. This is done with the help of media such as texts and images, songs, dance and theatre… stabilizing. This is referred to as the cultural memory of a collective in which everyone is potentially a part (in contrast to communicative memory, which ends naturally with a person’s death). “Cultural memory is a complex, long-term project; it enables people to move within a wide time horizon.” (Aleida Assmann) In this busy “cultural work” we protect texts, sound documents and films in archives, paintings and objects in museums, books in libraries, we erect memorials for victims and celebrities, we name places after notable people, we create documentation centers, teach young people in schools about things worth knowing (or not knowing), we restore everything possible... We constantly preserve, only to later destroy or lock away things that were valid in the past: “This monument has to go!” or “These images are sexist, racist ... and don’t belong in a public space.” – There are a lot of things getting dusty in cellars, but someday they will be rediscovered. A shocking legal file, a forgotten author... Or a historiography that should no longer only be written “from above” (by “important” people), but also “from below” (by “ordinary” people). A fresh spirit of the age has arrived, society today is younger and more mixed. New debates, discourses are circulating... Cultural memory is taking on a new dynamic. – We also have public holidays, customs and commemorative rituals, such as memorial services for the dead... And for the collective, these activities (which continue beyond the horizon of one’s own life) are identity-forming.

 

The normal case is not remembering, but forgetting. (Something even Japan Railways knows: “Don’t forget your umbrella!” Where else in the world does someone remind you about that?) If we were to remember everything in our daily lives, we would be constantly overwhelmed by impressions of all kinds, and our minds would be full of unbearably diffuse images. And so we automatically forget things, prioritizing only what is important to us. Mental hygiene through automatic and selective forgetting. We create a tabula rasa – wipe everything off the table! – to start anew. Therapeutic forgetting. Or in psychoanalysis: remembering, repeating, working through has been the motto since S. Freud. The protagonist in Kaurimäki’s fairytale film The Man Without a Past (2002) undergoes involuntary “therapy”: After being mugged, he suffers total memory loss, not even remembering his name. He has no identity. Landing on Helsinki’s waterfront, he finds solidarity with the poorest and affection from a social worker… The authorities finally identify him with the help of a photo shown on television. His wife recognizes him. He doesn’t want to go back to her. So he experiences a “rebirth” thanks to his amnesia.

 

If we want to forget or should forget, we don’t forget. Because to do that you would have to forget that you want to forget... Lovesickness doesn’t go away on command! (The philosopher Nietzsche was quite radical: “Only what doesn’t stop hurting stays in the memory.”) – It’s also fascinating that sometimes memories of forgotten things reappear. But what was that again??

 

The so-called faulting memory (Elizabeth Loftus) has a far-reaching dimension in legal matters and thus in society: deceptive memories and the deceived memory. Her studies have shown the unreliability of what eyewitnesses remember during police interrogations and testimony at court. Color of hair and face, clothing, whether the perpetrator used a weapon... People can be controlled by manipulative questions. This even goes as far as getting a person to integrate an experience they never had into their memory.

 

And to conclude, turning to art, the long-term projects being undertaken by the Swiss artist Mats Staub are touching and inspiring. In 2008 – alarmed by gaps in his own knowledge – he initiated the project “What do you know about the life of your grandparents?” He opened a memory office where people could visit him and tell stories for one hour. From these stories, he created a listening installation. The motto “from grandparents to you” also inspired other people to think about this question and to do research on it. (This is about social forgetting and intergenerational memory, which declines significantly by the third generation of a family.)

The project “Ten most important events of my life” was oriented toward an international audience. Answers were in writing. The campaign went on from 2012 to 2015. Some of the answers can be found online.

“Death and Birth in my Life” began in 2014. It brings together two people from different places in the world who talk about those two most striking thresholds in our lives – in video format.

“21” presents memories of growing up from 1939 until the present. Mats Staub cuts each of the conversations to ten minutes, and after three months shows the participants their own memories, whereby he films them a second time. At festivals and galleries, visitors can follow the collected accounts on two monitors. An exciting representation mechanism that addresses the process of remembering as such. What is particularly interesting is that these events are not about celebrities, but about so-called ordinary people, people who can’t hide behind some great, exciting “stories”, who are not slick and polished. They often have to search for their words.

Let’s be inspired by the memory artist Staub and ask ourselves and others his questions... And don’t peel an onion beforehand! 

Have some tea with a madeleine...

 

Karin Ruprechter-Prenn (Feb. 2022)

translation from German: Cynthia Peck-Kubaczek

 

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