The Persistence of Memory

by William Matthew McCarter

The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels:  it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant.

Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali’s painting, The Persistence of Memory, combines representations of the everyday and the dreamlike, representations of the symbolic and the irrational, representations of the natural and technological, and seeks to both encourage and confound analysis and explanation.[1]  For the Museum of Modern Art, the painting’s watches are “irrational, fantastic, paradoxical, disquieting, baffling, alarming, hypnotic, nonsensical and mad.”[2]  Dali Museum curator William Jeffett claims that in The Persistence of Memory, the watches symbolize the passing of time, which is distorted, as memory comes to the fore in sleep.[3]  The effect they have on the viewer is twofold: watches are not only potent symbols of “time’s winded chariot hurrying near,” but their content are seemingly contradicted, and made doubly meaningful by their softness.  The resulting effect – that of time and machine coming apart – challenges our belief in a rational, natural, orderly, and rule bound world.  Some have even suggested that the painting – its title at least – pays tribute to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past[4] and “acknowledges the power of the unconscious to preserve memories over time” (Fanning, 92).  The cosmic sense of this is further heightened, as William Jeffett points out, by the fact that “the philosophers of the enlightenment had conceived of the workings of the universe as akin to that of the mechanism of a watch” (899).[5]

This explication of Dali’s work can be seen in the mythology of ancient Greece.  The ancient Greeks understood the tension between the immediacy of memory and the “abstraction” of text.  They illustrated this tension through the cultural representation of creating gods to mirror the range of human emotions and understanding.  Mnemosyne was the daughter of ignorance, the mother of wisdom, and the Greek goddess of memory.[6]  Her role as the keeper of memory – the definer of things – the inspiration in which one used to “name the world” made her a critical figure in pre-literate Greek society.[7]  Greek mythology tells us that Zeus and Mnemosyne conceived on nine separate nights and, as a result, Mnemosyne gave birth to the nine Muses – Calliope “the muse of epic and heroic poetry,” Clio, “the muse of history,” Erato, “the muse of love or erotic poetry,” Euterpe, “the muse of music and lyric poetry,” Melpomene, “the muse of tragedy,” Polyhemnia, “the singer of many sacred hymns,” Terpsichore, “the muse of choral song and dance,” Thalia, “the muse of comedy and bucolic poetry,” and Urania, “the muse of astronomy.”[8]  What is especially significant about these nine muses is that we can see within them a more codified and abstract representation of memory.  While Mnemosyne was the keeper of memories, the nine muses took those memories and were able to codify them into various discourses that served specific purposes.  As memory became discourse, one could see how a tension could develop between the immediacy of memory and the abstract text of discourse – specifically, a tension between memory and history.

This tension is expressed by the Greeks in their mythology.  The muse, Clio, brought the alphabet to Greece and many of the remaining Greek statues of the Muses show Clio with a tablet and a stylus to illustrate her textual literacy.  The tension that exists between memory and text is that by writing memories down (codifying these collective memories), we no longer have to remember them.  Plato spoke about this in his Phaedrus: “At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth…he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his greatest discovery was the use of letters.”  Plato goes on to describe how the use of letters – literacy – was seen as a huge blessing to Theuth: “But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit.”  Finally, Plato illustrates what a mixed blessing this invention will be:

O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.  The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminisce, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be a tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality (Phaedras, 275b).

 

Essentially, what Plato was getting at in his Phaedras was that textual representations were much more “abstract” than memory. While Theuth’s “elixir for memory” can be seen as a technology that is designed to enhance memory, according to Plato, it is merely a technology that divorces memory from its immediacy and plants it firmly within the grasp of the “abstract” text.[9]  This phenomenon, illustrated by the ancient Greeks as a generational phenomenon between Mnemosyne and the Muses, is the same paradigm shift that has occurred throughout our philosophical and epistemological understanding.  The tension between memory and history or epic poems or hymns, is the tension between the ancient reverence for memory and the pre-modern reverence for these other arts.  That tension is still present in terms of our understanding of human nature and how identity formation functions.

Auguste Comte illustrated positivism as the means in which society evolved through phases.  The first phase is one in which all acts are attributed to a God – what the theorist Ernst Cassirer would explain as being a pre-literate encounter with a momentary god.  Comte’s second phase – the metaphysical phase – is an episteme that persisted throughout the Enlightenment until the French Revolution.  For Comte, the final phase was the scientific phase or the positive phase.[10]  However, one could argue that positivism is just another phase in a chain of events that Comte could not have foreseen.  Surely, postmodernism has yet another episteme in which these knowledges can be conceived and that within postmodernism, alternative ways of seeing cultural representations should make themselves visible and that within these alternative means, memory will take on a more substantial role than it has occupied during the modern episteme.

Contemporary critical scholarship by Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, and others has demonstrated the erroneous claim of “scientific” objectivity that permeates the empirical work of the heirs of Comte’s positivism.  For Haraway, “recent social studies of science and technology have made available a very strong social constructionist argument for all forms of knowledge claims, most certainly and especially scientific ones” (184).  Accordingly, "both science and popular culture are intricately woven of fact and fiction" and that "fiction can be imagined as a derivative, fabricated version of the world and experience, as a kind of perverse double for the facts or as an escape through fantasy into a better world than 'that which actually happened'" (3).[11]  The work of Latour and Woolgar, writes Haraway, was primarily "interested in science as a fresh form of power in the social-material world" and explains that "scientific practice is literary practice, writing, based on jockeying for the power to stabilize definitions and standards" (6).

Practitioners of this scientific knowledge prioritize certain bodies of knowledge at the expense of others and therefore, any subsequent claim of objectivity is an ideological act because objectivity always contains within it some dimension of subjectivity.  Bruno Latour writes in The Last Critique, “I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show “the lack of scientific certainty” inherent in the construction of facts… I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts” (15).  Like Latour, Donna Haraway also strives to “detect the prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements” (Latour, 15).  Jean Francois Lyotard echoes this sentiment when he writes “but to the extent that science does not restrict itself to stating useful regularities and seeks the truth, it is obliged to legitimate the rules of its own game.  It then produces a discourse of legitimation with respect to its own status” (509).

“Scientific practice,” according to Haraway, “may be considered a kind of story-telling practice – a rule-governed, constrained, historically changing craft of narrating the history of nature” (4).  Although Haraway argues that science is not the objective science that it appears to be, she also argues that “to treat science as a narrative is not to be dismissive, quite the contrary.  But neither is it to be mystified and worshipful in the face of a past participle” (5).  Haraway is “interested in the narratives of scientific fact – those potent fictions of science” (5) but acknowledges, “Fiction’s kinship to science is close, but they are not identical twins” (4).  Her work shows that “from only a slightly different perspective, the history of science appears as a narrative about the history of technical and social means to produce facts” (4).  “I think there is an aesthetic and an ethic built into the thinking of scientific practice as story-telling” writes Haraway, and that aesthetic and ethic is a “belief in knowledge as passive reflection of ‘the way things are’” (8).[12]  Knowledge and truth are not transcendent; they are only instruments or tools that human beings invent.  However, they can never really be objective because they always serve some human purpose and therefore, must be ideologically charged. While memory, like reason, is also ideologically charged, it is ideologically charged differently.  Memory has the potentiality to be counter-hegemonic because it hasn’t gone through the mangle of authenticity that reason is subjected to.

Former United States Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own fact.”  On the surface, this premise may seem to be a given, however, we must ask, does the emergence of what we consider to be fact come out of the memory of the dominant class?  And if that is so, then doesn’t the memory of those who do not belong to the dominant class produce a different set of facts?  This is an especially important concept in terms of understanding subcultures.  Because the collective memory of subcultures is substantially different than the dominant class, it does not share the same commonplaces as the dominant class in terms of its thinking.  It’s not that the subcultures don’t think or that they are somehow incapable of reason or uneducable, it’s just that the collective memory of the subculture leads it to a different set of facts – a different history that circumscribes its identity.

Ernst Cassirer writes “Humanity really attains its insight into objective reality only through the medium of its own activity and the progressive differentiation of that activity; before man thinks in terms of logical concepts, he holds his experiences by means of clear, separate, mythical images (37).  Essentially, for Cassirer, this insight always depends upon the direction of the subject’s interest, and is determined not so much by the content of the experience as by the teleological perspective from which it is viewed (37).  In addition, Cassirer suggests that when one strips away all of the instruments or tools that human beings invent to gain insight into objective reality, all theoretical, practical, and aesthetic consciousness, are all originally tied up with mythical conceptions.  In the opening sentences of chapter six of Light in August, William Faulkner writes “memory believes before knowing remembers.  Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders” (111).  Memory, and its relationship to the present and the future, is one of Faulkner’s chief concerns in all of his novels.  Although it seems that his characters do not consciously recognize the role that both their individual and collective memory plays in terms of shaping their lives or identity and think that it is irrelevant, it is still there.

In Requiem for a Nun, Faulkner’s character, Gavin Stevens says “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past” (Act I, Scene III).  It is through this critical understanding of memory in its most immediate form – what Paulo Freire would call “a dynamic comprehension between the least coherent understanding of the word” (Reading,132), that one can come to “conscientization” – the process of becoming critically conscious of the sociohistorical world (Freire, html).  However, memory – “the least coherent understanding of the word” (Freire, Reading, 132) – in its most immediate form is often not valued by those in academia.  In the April 28, 2000 edition of The Chronicle for Higher Education, Professor Elliot Gorn writes “memory shuns the rough and tumble of scholarly infighting.  It sits serenely above the fray, blithely asserting its untroubled truths” (Gorn, html).  While Gorn acknowledges that memory does contain some elements of reasonable interpretation, “it does not subject itself to scrutiny” … “the questioning of hypothesis…skewering of logic….probing of primary sources” (html).

For Gorn, history is ideological but is aware of its own critical ideological assumptions, “while memory blithely asserts its own untroubled truths” (html).  Memory is analogous to a roll of film – the picture (memory) that exists within the film is not valuable until the image or memory is processed through the mangle of history.  Only then does it become truth.  However, Nietzsche said that “Truth is undoubtedly the sort of error that cannot be refuted because it was hardened into an unalterable form in the baking process of history (Neitzsche, Gay Science, 110 and 265).  Again, we are confronted with the tension between memory and history… and must ask ourselves what memories become “hardened into an unalterable form in the baking process of history” (Nietzsche, Gay Science, 110 and 265) and what memories simply become folk mythologies?

In Language and Myth, Ernst Cassirer analyzed the non-rational thought processes that make up cultural constructions.  For Cassirer, beneath both language and myth there lays an unconscious grammar of experience whose categories and canons are not those of logical thought.  Cassirer writes “Descartes said that theoretical science remains the same in its essence no matter what object it deals with – just as the sun’s light is the same no matter what wealth and variety of things it may illuminate” (11).  For Cassirer, the same may be said for any symbolic form, language, or myth, in that each is a particular way of seeing, and carries within itself it own particular and proper source of light (11).  According to Michel Foucault, each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth; that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true, the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned…the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true (Foucault, Power, 131).  Foucault argued that rhetoric is more than a vehicle of discourse; in fact, it constitutes a cultural reality (Order, xv-xxiv, 303-43).  Therefore, what we see within a certain perspective is not nearly as important as the perspective itself.  Once again we are confronted with a tension between history and memory.  We can see history within a certain perspective.  Trained historians can see history within a variety of perspectives.  However, memory, in its most immediate form, leads us not just to history, but to perspective itself.

Maurice Halbwachs, a French sociologist, wrote a series of studies on the dynamics of collective memory that anticipated the postmodern theory of Michel Foucault.  Halbwachs central idea is that human memory can only function within sustaining social contexts.  Individual images and memories of the past are provisional if they do not fit within the episteme of the collective and are only remembered when they are located within the conceptual structures or episteme that are defined by the community at large.  Collective memory is selective in that without group confirmation, individual memories wither away.  (Halbwachs, 22-30, 97).  According to Halbwachs, various groups have different collective memories, which in turn, give rise to different modes of behavior.

Halbwachs illustrated several different scenarios for a collective memory that is shared by members of a particular group including generational memory and the memories of particular subgroups.[13]  Halbwachs argued that remembering is shaped by participation in collective life and that different groups generate different accounts of the past.[14] While Halbwachs demonstrates that there are several different strands of collective memory and the diversity of those strands, there are three strands that are particularly important in terms of this discussion: a collective memory of the academy that becomes “history”; the collective memory of the state that becomes “the imagined community” of that state; and the collective memory of those marginal groups existing within the state that constitutes what Michel Foucault would call “counter –memory.”

The collective memory of academia becomes, according to Gorn, memory that subjects itself to scrutiny… questions hypothesis… skewers logic… and probes primary sources (html).  For Gorn, “self-reflexivity” and being aware of one’s own ideological biases is what rescues the narrative of historical studies from the bargain bins of historical fiction at the local Barnes and Noble.  However, one must ask, “Is being aware of ideological biases and being self-reflexive enough to keep from tainting ones work with ideology… Is this enough to pass one’s work off as being truth and not just a potential regime of truth among truths?”[15]  Carl Gustavson writes in A Preface to History:

In any human society, a large measure of agreement prevails among its members, and, indeed, the stability of that society depends upon this condition. Our ways of thinking, our forms of explanation, our symbols and analogies, our axiomatic premises tend to be conventionalized into certain patterns familiar and acceptable to all (html).

However, even Gustavson must acknowledge that “axiomatic premises” that are “conventionalized” and “acceptable to all” are essentially, the discursive formations that make up what Lyotard would call “language games” that help to “legitimize” one’s own status (509).  This academic knowledge is kind of like collective memory in that articles and books are peer reviewed and as a result, fit the pattern that collective memories must be shared by the majority of the members of the community.  However, this is a “gatekeeper” memory that is “hardened” through the “baking process” of history and becomes truth.  Furthermore, Barthes shows in The Discourse of History that historical discourse becomes equivalent to the fictional discourse one might find in an epic, a novel or a play because of the authors use of a drama of representation to help illustrate lived experience.[16]

Cultural critic, Raymond Williams writes, “academic subjects are not eternal categories” (14), and because we have constructed these categories, “we become bewitched by theory and idealize it, then we interpret according to the theory” (Heaton 48).  In fact, often in introductory courses on theory, theories are described as being a “lens” that one can use to see something.  Theory is a lens; however, because we are bewitched by theory, we fail to see that every lens has its own refractions and distortions and those distortions color the theory just as they color a lens. As a result, “the speculative hierarchy of learning gives way to an imminent and, as it were, “flat” network of areas of inquiry, the respective frontiers of which are constantly in a flux” (Lyotard 511).  Essentially, “Every idea originates through equating the unequal” (Nietzsche, 359) and in the end, we return to a tension between a memory that is lost in the “baking process” of history.

The “baking process” of history can and often does have material consequences.  In chapter two of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (called “The Banking Concept of Education”), Freire illustrates how talking about “reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable” (html) benefits the oppressor.  For Freire, this creates the assumption of a “dichotomy between human beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is spectator, not re-creator” (html).  However, according to Freire, seeing history as a “problem to be solved” rather than seeing it as information to be memorized, enables us to become truly human in the sense that we are connecting our knowledge to praxis.  A history that sacrifices action is simply verbalism and a memory that sacrifices reflection is simply activism.  However, action combined with reflection is praxis and is what Freire would call “authentic thinking” (html) – or thinking that is concerned about reality.  Accordingly, “if it is true that thought has meaning only when generated by action upon the world,” (html), then much of the historical thought that takes place in the ivory towers of academia cannot really be seen as thinking at all.[17]

The “collective memory” of the state functions in a very similar way to the “collective memory” of the academy in that it, too, can be seen as a Foucaultian “regime of truth.”  However, it is a Foucaultian regime of truth with real cultural power.[18] While we academics would like to think that our work has real weight and consequence, it is often dismissed as being “purely academic” by the dominant classes robbing our words of any significance that they might have. In contrast, the “collective memory” of the state is memory (knowledge) linked to power.  It not only assures the authority of “the truth” but has the power to make itself true.  All knowledge (and especially state sanctioned knowledge), once applied to the real world (through praxis), has real effects, and in that sense “becomes true.”  In this Foucaultian sense, knowledge used to regulate the conduct of subjects, entails constraint, regulation and the disciplining of practices.  Essentially, “there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations” (Foucault, Language, 27).

Delores LaGuardia makes this simple statement regarding the power relationships bound up in any conception of a “collective memory” of the state: “nations look into the mirror of their history to understand who they are… however, what they see in the mirror of history is shaped by the agendas of those who do the writing” (221).  “History is the memory of states,” writes Henry Kissinger in his book A World Restored (quoted in Zinn, html) and the writing of history is one in which the narrative of a nation, civilization, or the story of the human race is mutually agreed upon by those who are in power.  History is constrained by the disposition of power and powerlessness and is the persuasive composition of a point of view through the use of language.  Because history is, as Kissinger wrote, “the memory of states,” it is, in essence, the underpinning notion of all institutions of governance.  Once again, we return to the disconnect between memory and a “collective memory” of the state masquerading as history.

The philosopher, Karl Marx also illustrated the complications of history when he writes that men and women “make their own history, but not… under conditions that they have chosen for themselves’ rather on terms immediately existing, given and handed down to them” (287).  This “collective memory” of the state masquerading as history becomes almost a civic religion among those living in what Benedict Anderson calls the “imagined community” of the state.  For Anderson, this “imagined community” has a direct relationship with print capitalism in that it would be impossible for a large population of people to develop a “collective memory” of a state without the technology of the printing press.  This “print capitalism” enabled those living in nation states to imagine themselves as being part of a community larger than their local community.  This, in turn, enabled them to have a broader “collective memory” that was necessary to form the nation state in the first place.[19]  In forming these nation states, each nation (especially the United States) would appeal to a cultural myth of origin and for Foucault, “the origin always precedes the Fall.  It comes before the body, before the world and time; it is associated with the gods, and its story is always sung as a theogony” (Language, 143).

This “collective memory” masquerading as history is only valuable to the dominant class in that it can be seen as a “presentation of the order, stability, authority, and regulatory power of knowledge” (Said, 149) and, like academic history absent of praxis, is also hardened into the baking process of history and becomes “truth.”  Nietzsche writes “we need history, but we need it differently from the spoiled lazy-bones in the garden of knowledge” (On the Use and Abuse of History, html).  However, it is not history, as we have come to know it, that we need at all.  What we need is to reconcile the disconnect between memory and history by resurrecting memory in her most immediate sense from the ash pit of history.  After all, if our authentic thinking is thinking that is concerned about reality, we should come to the conclusion that we humans do not act on history, but we do act on memory and if it is action that we seek, then it should be memory that we call upon.

In contrast to an academic collective memory that is carefully vetted through the machinations of the academy and the collective memory of the state that masquerades as history, the “folk memory” or the collective memory of small groups that are not a part of the dominant class functions as a counter-memory to the collective memory of the academy as well as the collective memory of the state.  However, just as memory exists in conflict with history, this type of collective memory often conflicts with the collective memory of the academy and of the state.  According to Halbwachs, one of the hallmarks of collective memory is that it is tied to identity and deeply held notions about the past are often the source of pride or shame (or both) and can give rise to conflict.  Psychologist Frederick Bartlett, criticized the “more or less absolute likeness [that] has been drawn between social groups and the human individual” (Bartlett, 293), Bartlett does concede that the memory of individuals in fundamentally influenced by the social context in which they function.   A central theme to his work suggests that “social organization gives a persistent framework into which all detailed recall must fit, and it very powerfully influences both the manner and the matter of the recall” (296).  Essentially, Bartlett accepted the notion of a “memory in the group, and not memory of the group” (294) and Bartlett’s claim helps to distinguish this counter memory from the collective memory of the academy and the state. This collective memory that is “memory in the group and not memory of the group” is a more “individual” location of memory that potentially produces a more tenuous historical perspective.

It is similar to the form of history located by Michel Foucault.[20]  It is not the slow progress of consciousness or the forging of new tools which will reveal our identity within the ever so gradual evolution of historical progress.  This collective memory is a transgressive history grounded in counter-memory.  It is not “the order of things,” but instead, is the disorder of things.  Essentially, Foucault’s The Order of Things must be read with irony because it speaks of a profound disorder in much the same way as Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals must be read with irony in the sense that it is an “immoral reflection” on the bloodshed that was justified throughout history by the piety of the good (Foucault, Language, 17).  While the collective memory of the academy and the collective memory of the state become a history that depicts the continuity of time and the inevitable progress of the will to truth, the collective memory – the location of a counter memory – of the individual or small groups not represented within the dominant class – a genealogy – points to the inequality of forces as the source of values or the work of ressentiment in the production of the objective world (Foucault, Language, 22).

In the work of the philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, Foucault perceived the re-creation of an implicit genealogical method: Deleuze “carefully reintroduces the barely perceptible omissions, knowing full well that they imply a fundamental negligence” (Foucault, Language, 22).  Essentially, genealogy “operates on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times” (Foucault, Language, 139) and genealogy “must record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality; it must seek them in the most uncompromising places” (Foucault, Language, 139).  Similarly to Foucault’s analysis of Gilles Deleuze’s work, his analysis of Nietzsche’s concept of genealogy, the true objective of genealogy is not necessarily a genealogy of “origin” (Foucault, Language, 145).  Instead, Foucault argues that the idea of descent guides Nietzsche’s genealogy, which is, essentially, the ancient affiliation to a group, “unstained by the bonds of blood, tradition, or social class” (Foucault, Language, 145).  This analysis of descent permits the dissociation of the self, its recognition and displacement as an empty synthesis, in liberating a profusion of lost events (Foucault, Language, 145).

According to Michel Foucault, genealogies “disturb what was previously considered immobile; it fragments what was thought unified; it shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself” (Language, 139).  Genealogy also “refuses the certainty of absolutes” (153) and by thinking genealogically, one can avoid the pitfalls of theories that are rooted in epistemology and also avoid the ideologically charged knowledge that comes with it.  One must be willing to abandon the essentialism of epistemological inquiries and begin to think in terms of what Frederick Nietzsche would call perspectivism.  In a perspectivist model, it is not what we find through the perspective that really matters.  It is the perspective itself that is important.  However, in order to fully understand and appreciate that perspective, one must first understand the collective memory that helps to shape the cultural practices and representations of a group that has that perspective.

According to community activist, Malcolm X, “history is a people’s memory, and without memory, man is demoted to the lower animals” (html) and “a race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself” (html).[21]  In order for the members of subcultures to fulfill themselves, these members must be free to understand and articulate their own memory in order to affirm their own selfhood.  Those who are not free to do this are oppressed in that they are forced to make their history under the terms that have been handed down to them from the dominant class.  However, through a conscientization grounded in the genealogy of descent, subcultures are free to reenergize the persistence of their collective counter memory to forge a new kind of history – a history that is what Paul de Man calls “the emergence of a language of power out of a language of cognition” (Michaels, 133).

 

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Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

X, Malcolm.  www.brothermalcolm.net.  December 6th, 2006.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States.  Harper Collins.  New York.  1999.

[1] Part of this description has been paraphrased from the Salvador Dali Musuem at http://www.salvadordalimuseum.org/education/documents/clocking_in.pdf  The word “representation” has been used in the same context that Stuart Hall uses the term in his book “Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices.”  For Hall, representation is “the production of meaning through language, discourse and image that occupies a central place in current studies on culture.”

[2] See the MOMA, “What is Modern Painting?”

[3] See William Jeffett International Dictionary of Art and Artists: Art. James Vinson, Ed. St.

James Press, 1990.

[4] It is interesting to note that Proust’s title Remembrance of Things Past has also been translated into the title In Search of Lost Time.  This, in and of itself, speaks to the differing opinions about memory.  Is it simply recollection – Remembrance of Things Past? Or, is it more of a genealogy of uncovering what Foucault would call “subjugated knowledges” (Power, 82) – a search of lost time?

[5] According to the classical rhetoric of Aristotle and/ or Quintillion, the canon of memory was used like a “mnemonic device.”  Practitioners of classical rhetoric constructed easily remembered paradigms in which to place ideas so that they might be recalled at will in the appropriate sequence by using a repertoire of place and images.  These classical rhetoricians conjured up images and attached those images to their ideas.  In addition, they located those images within imaginary frameworks that functioned as vehicles for their narratives through the past.  This was a regular practice throughout the Ancient World and the Middle Ages.  We can see a “cultural turn” away from this use of the canon of memory with the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press.  After that, “literacy,” as well understand it, became more about the “abstract” text, than the images that one could conjure up through the canon of memory.  Recent scholarship (Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright’s Practices of Looking. Oxford. 2001; Nicholas Mirzoff’s An Introduction to Visual Culture. Routledge. New York. 1999; and Gillian Rose’s Visual Methodologies. Sage. London. 2001) has reintroduced the relationship between image and text to academic discussions of meaning and representation.  However, just because our academic understanding or critical consciousness of our world has been focused on the more “abstract” textual representations does not mean that the more immediate images that come from the canon of memory have not had a functioning presence in cultural representations and identity formations before the academy “rediscovered” it.  My use of Dali’s painting is a rhetorical choice that is designed to function as a metacognitive example of how this process works.  I conjured up an image that is universally understood among academics and used it to illustrate a point without a visual representation even being present.  If we academics can make that connection, what makes us think that those same representations – that same canon of memory – does not function within other discourse communities?  This use of image instead of “abstract” text seems to precede reason and runs counter to the “rational” discourse of what we could, in Foucaultian terms, call an Enlightenment or modern episteme.

[6] Again, I want to point out that I am making a rhetorical choice here.  I am framing this discussion within the commonplaces of an academic community that has some understanding or reverence for classical Greece.  Whether one is a political scientist, philosopher, or rhetorician, one is (more than likely) willing to accept classical Greece as being a starting point for an academic discussion.  We, as academics, can draw upon the image of classical Greece as a part of the “canon of memory” that exists within our commonplaces of understanding.

[7]  I am using the word “inspiration” in the context in which it would be used when one is talking about a muse – “a divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation” (Websters, html). http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=inspiration

[8] For more detailed information on the Muses or Classical Mythology, see "Muses." Encyclopedia Mythica. 2007. Encyclopedia Mythica Online.  20 Dec. 2007 <http://www.pantheon.org/articles/m/muses.html>.

[9] Many academics will be reminded of Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy” where Derrida critiques Plato’s valuing of living speech and memory over writing.  Derrida calls this a “metaphysics of presence” and eventually views Plato’s preference for speech over writing as being a manifestation of “logocentricism.”  For Derrida, writing is the orphan, or the imposter or the simulacrum.

[10] For a more detailed discussion on positivism, see Antony Flew’s A Dictionary of Philosophy. Gramercy Books.  New York. 1979. (pg. 69, 283-284)

[11]  It is interesting that philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah in Cosmopolitanism suggested that, according to positivism, beliefs were essentially “how things are,” while desires are “how things ought to be.”  For a more detailed discussion of Appiah’s critique of positivism, see chapter two of Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Norton. New York. 2007.

[12] Again, I would draw the reader’s attention to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s critique of positivism where he suggests that beliefs were essentially “how things are.”  Ibid.

[13] In this sense, one could say that a very profound collective memory that the Baby Boomer generation had was “where were you when JFK was shot?”

[14] I am not sure I fully understood the reach of Halbwachs and other studies on memory until I saw the interview with Mos Def and Cornell West on “Real Time With Bill Maher” on September 7, 2007. Maher’s interview with Mos Def and Cornell West clearly shows how September 11th affected Americans of different socio-ethnic backgrounds differently and how these memories were processed differently.  Clearly this interview illustrates the difference between memory in its most immediate sense and the history that follows it.

[15]  I am using the phrase “regime of truth” in the Foucaultian sense to illustrate that the academy has its “commonplaces” or accepted standards or practices that speaks not of “truth” in an absolute sense, but creates a discursive formation that sustains a regime of truth within the academic community.  Specifically, I am arguing that history can serve as a discursive formation, functioning within an episteme, that privileges some discourses while, at the same time, silences others.  This can be seen as a “collective memory” of the academy.

[16]  Essentially, history is a text that is written to be read by others.  There is a rhetorical situation in the writing of history.  It is not understanding in the same way that a memory serves as an understanding.  It is a mediated understanding that provides us with an organizational structure and a perceived empirical point of view.  Therefore, it functions in much the same way as literary work.  Where it differs from literary work is when mythology – an ideologically charged and particular mode of collective memory – asserts itself as history in order to fix meaning in the public sphere.  What is particularly interesting about this is that it is the “counter-memory” that is usually dismissed as being a kind of “mythology” as the “official” mythology of the state asserts itself as history.  For a more complete discussion, see Roland Barthes Discourse on History.  Note: 'Le discours de l'histoire' was first published in Social Science Information (1967). See also the translation by Peter Wexler in Michael Lane, ed., Structuralism: A Reader(London, 1970), pp. 145-55.  The essay is also located on the web at http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/pcraddoc/barthes.htm

[17]  In 2007, I had an opportunity to participate in a National Landmarks of American History Project through the We the People Initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Our group was studying the ethnic neighborhoods that existed alongside the steel mills in Cleveland, Ohio. We were investigating the ideas of class consciousness within these communities and what role that work, home, and community played in terms of developing that consciousness.  Essentially, we were using the same model that Bob Bruno used in his book, Steelworker Alley: How Class Works in Youngstown. (Ithaca, Cornell University Press.  1999). During one of our outings through these old ethnic neighborhoods, we passed by the Museum from the Christmas Story and the restored A Christmas Story House (it even had the leg lamp in the window).  Many of our historians on board the “Lolly Trolley” that day were shocked that this little piece of simulacrum from a movie had people waiting around the corner and up the block during the Christmas season.  Our own tour guide commented how nice it would be if people were that eager to come and see the exhibits at the Case Western Historical Society… thought for a moment and then said it was like that when they had the Lady Diana exhibit.  The point is that this history – whether it be photographs and relics of Lady Di or a genuine restored A Christmas Story house (complete with the leg lamp) resonate within their collective memory – not within their understanding of history, and, generates action upon the world.  Granted, this is not necessarily the kind of political or social action that many of us would like to get, but it is action, and that action is at least something.  History does nothing in terms of action.  For example, if there is no praxis in learning facts about the Second World War (and unless it can somehow be connected to the here and now, we could say that there is no praxis because it is of the world but not in it), then one is learning a history that will not lead them to action.  Historians can talk about how Adolph Hitler put forth this idea of a unified and perfect German race of Aryans and then those same historians can prove that Adolph Hitler was neither German nor Aryan.  However, their historicizing the inaccuracies of Hitler’s rhetoric does not un murder nearly six million Jews?  What part of this historical study could prevent Hitler’s “final solution?”  Wouldn’t it be a better question to ask, “What part of the collective memory of the German people could lead to such a thing?”  or “How did he get away with such a large scale deception?”  These questions also cannot un murder nearly six million Jews, but they can prevent any future “final solution” or anything constructed in a similar way.  For example, it is not necessarily the “history” of the Holocaust that the Jewish people wish to preserve.  This event is preserved through memorials that don’t necessarily historicize the event, but instead, calls upon the memory of those that suffered to ensure that something like that never happens again.

[18]  Foucault argued that not only is knowledge a form of power, but power is implicated in the question of whether and in what circumstances knowledge is to be applied or not.  For Foucault, the question of application and effectiveness of power/knowledge was more important than the question of truth.  (For a more complete discussion, see Stuart Hall’s Representations, p.48)

[19]  For a more complete discussion of Anderson’s idea of an “imagined community,” see Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (Verso, New York, 2006); Especially “Cultural Roots” (Chapter Two) and “Origins of National Consciousness” (Chapter Three).

[20] This form of history also fits in nicely with the postmodern ideas of rejecting grand meta narratives in favor of more localized narratives.  However, I do want to clarify that when I use the term “individual”, I am referring to a more “localized” narrative and not the bourgeois idea of an “individual” in terms of modern society.

[21]  I think it is important to note that Malcolm X isn’t really making a distinction between history and memory in the way that the differences are illustrated in academia and in this particular text.  Because he fails to make this distinction, I want to clarify what I think is implicit in his argument.  The counter memory of oppressed groups is always suppressed by the dominant class.  This is necessary for the dominant class to continue to promulgate a rendering of history that maintains the political, social, and economic order.  Because a “collective memory” is the first step toward a “history” of any “oppressed” group and is necessary for what Freire would call “conscientization” and becoming more “fully human,” cultural memory is what separates us from animals and is a necessary step toward a “collective memory” that leads to action – a history grounded in praxis.

William Matthew McCarter has published work in The Dead Mule School and Midwestern Gothic.  He has also published an academic book (Homo Redneckus: On Being Not White in America).