January 22, 2013

What do Readers Remember?

Literary Theory and Social Memory Theory have developed independently, but I've been studying them together and they seem very much connected to me. Here are some fresh personal reflections, considerations and contentions:

 * If a text attempts to evoke reader knowledge of historical information, that reader knowledge is likely a form of social memory. The writer may be expecting that reader (singular) to draw from a particular community's general or standard or preferred recollections about their historical past.

 * If a text featuring an unexplained historical reference was specifically written to be read, shared and/or performed in community, then that text may work best by evoking the memory of readers (plural) in collaborative recollection. That is, whatever prior reader knowledge is being expected of each individual reader is all the more likely to be fully recalled by an entire community of readers/listeners sharing their individual recollections.

 * If a writer has aimed at readers from one particular social group, who not only share the same preferred version of past history but who can also collaborate actively to recall details more fully, then the writer most likely expected to evoke specific historical knowledge and opinions from the community of readers.

 * If a writer has aimed at readers from various social groups, whose familiarity with the past diverges somewhat in recalling history differently, then the writer most likely expected to evoke only generally agreed upon recollections of historical knowledge, without assuming opinions from any particular community.

 * Any significant words which a text does not overtly explain can be taken as words the writer hoped or expected would be recognized by the reader(s). If a collected sample of such words displays any pattern of appearing to require greater amounts (*or lesser amounts*) of historical knowledge, that pattern might stand as possible evidence that the actual writer intentionally wrote for a specific community (*or a more general audience, respectively*).

Update: in hindsight, these next two points are the biggies!

 * If it cannot be determined, or has not yet been determined, whether a text (as we have it) was written for a specific community, then the safer hermeneutical strategy is to assume the writer is only capable of evoking recollections of historical knowledge that would find broad based agreement across social groups. In performing such analysis, if a reasonable reconstruction can be proposed for what evocations were potentially accessible with a general audience of various social groups, then the same evocations (at least) should be equally accessible for a specific community audience.

 * At any rate, it is difficult to suppose how one might determine how MUCH expected knowledge to assign for any imaginary reading community. However, if the cross section of all possible communities provides a basic or minimum level of historical memory from which to begin, then it should be completely reasonable to assume any writer requires at least so much - which is to say, merely so much - from any contemporary audience.

In retrospect, these points are an attempt to re-formulate and to strengthen the basic thinking behind the new "Posterity Theory" I've been working on recently, beginning with trying to figure out what all got into the brain soup to begin with. Also, of course, I'm trying to get these thoughts into more precise terms, and into more acceptable, or presentable, or at least recognizable (!) terms, for an SBL audience. (That's specific AND general!)

I've been reading and I'll keep reading, but I've not yet found anyone combining Social Memory Theory with Literary Theory, certainly not as a foundation towards any methods of teasing new historical data out of a text by ascertaining literary/narrative implications. I have noticed that Narrative Criticism for one seems to have been originally designed to steer clear of historical issues altogether, and though I have heard multiple Narrative Critics say they believe it should lead to connections with history, they may be hamstrung by allegiance to tools that simply prevent any connection with history. I'm only beginning to learn about "implied readers" and "implied writers", but I don't think those concepts would have gotten me here, tonight.

At any rate, as always, any public or private feedback will be greatly appreciated.

Anon, then...

6 comments:

Larry said...

Bill, interesting stuff! As I’ve encountered Le Donne and Allison on memory-based history, it’s occurred to me that their thinking does not neatly apply to texts. We might say that the historical Jesus is a historian’s accounting of existing identifiable memory trajectories. That is fine as far as it goes, and it probably works perfectly in a purely oral culture, but what do we do when text gets introduced? Specifically, how do we deal with the New Testament in memory terms?

We can start with the idea that in Jesus’ lifetime, the impact of Jesus’ words and deeds created multiple memory trajectories. The eyewitnesses to Jesus interpreted this impact so that it could be remembered, and each eyewitness’ memory was further interpreted (and thus distorted or refracted) each time a Jesus memory was recalled. In each case, the interpretation was made in accordance with what Le Donne calls the “ever-changing now”. These memories were shared, so that many “nows” were involved in the interpretation, while at the same time the constraint of social memory acted to keep individual memories from deviating too far from the group. This is complex stuff, but completely in line with what Le Donne describes.

Next we have the NT. Each Gospel in the NT is itself an accounting for memory trajectories existing at the time the account was written, and in each case the interpretation is made in accordance with the NT author’s “now”. We also have a bunch of important people who thought about the NT, and wrote about the NT. Some of these early authors may have had access to the oral tradition used to create the NT, though that tradition-trajectory would have travelled further (with more “nows”, interpretation and distortion/refraction) since the NT was written. And of course, these authors had the NT (the very early ones may not have had the whole NT), and of course each author interpreted in accordance with his “now”. Naturally, the later authors had access to the earlier authors, and the “nows” of those earlier authors.

Flash forward to you and me. Our respective (and doubtless very different) memories of the historical Jesus are 99.9999% based in texts. Sure, you learned about Jesus before you could read, but the information came from the texts or ultimately from other people who had read texts. We no longer have a memory tradition of Jesus – what we now have is a tradition of people who have read the NT and other texts about Jesus. This functions something like a memory trajectory. For example, if you’ve read Krister Stendahl’s “Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West”, you can see an argument that we (mis)read the epistles of the Apostle Paul through a framework largely established by Martin Luther – we don’t see the text itself as much as we see how Luther saw it.

Ultimately, though, I think we’re talking about something different when we’re talking about texts. Le Donne talks about how we interpret the impact of events through “familiar thought categories”, and I think that Luther’s introspective conscience is one of these thought categories: we think introspectively, we use categories of faith and works, we think of ourselves as possessing consciences and seeking salvation, and so forth. It’s not so much that Luther’s memory of Jesus is in our Jesus memory trajectory, but that Luther is in our heads, PERIOD.

So … I’d argue that we might only be able to use memory theory to describe the creation of recent histories. Memory theory might well work to help us understand the production of the NT, but if we want to understand how you or I “remember” Jesus, I think this is more a matter of how we read and understand text.

Bill Heroman said...

Welcome, Larry. What a long and interesting thought train. Thanks for sharing it!

I think Memory Theory in general tries to work out how textual content reflects memories of the past. That is, how is memory being refracted by the writer?

What I did in this post was consider how memory works in the reader, perhaps at the deliberate instigation of the writer. The writer is still involved, but it's the readers' memories I was interested in, for this post.

It's not mem theory. It's lit theory that incorporates concepts from mem theory. One cannot have literature or readers without having texts.

Larry said...

OK. It sounds like we're in the space of hermeneutics. Here, I am influenced by Gadamer, and I find the meaning of text in the interaction of text and reader. The reader brings "prejudice" (not intended as a negative term) to the text, and the meaning emerges onto a "horizon" between reader and text, in an iterative and creative process that relates to both reader and text but is controlled by neither.

One might see memory in all stages of this process. Our encounter with text is an encounter with a real world event; we perceive the impact of this encounter, interpret it and place it within our familiar thought categories, just like any other memory. So, we might say that we remember our reading. But our familiar thought categories are also products of memory; they are formed and shaped by prior impacts. Moreover, the texts we read shape these thought categories, and this is taking place in real time. As we read a book, the book changes our thought categories, probably in subtle ways, so that we're not the same person towards the end of the reading and we're no longer processing memory in the same way. Going back to the idea of a "horizon", we can say that the reading broadens our horizon.

But I think that memory is not the exclusive construct we should use in hermeneutics, or even the primary one. I'd probably start with language itself. If I write a word like "dog", you might say that I intend to evoke the reader's memory of dogs, but I think that language works in ways that go beyond memory and are more complicated. "Dog" carries with it not just my memory of dogs, or our collective memory of dogs, but also my experience of the way the word was used in the past, and the way it relates to similar words ("wolf", "pup"). If your response is that all this is memory, then you're stretching the meaning of memory so that it's something closer to thought, or cognition. That's fine, so long as we recognize what we're doing.

Also, I would discard the idea of the author's intended message. The communication exists independently of the communicator. I'm fine with the idea of reconstructing the author's intended audience, and if you wish, to imagine how the text might have impacted that audience. For example, we might imagine that Matthew's intended audience were Jewish Christians under pressure from both Gentile Christians and Jewish non-Christians. We might say in shorthand that Matthew "intended" to address the concerns of this community. But really, we have no access to Matthew, only to the text he created, and it's more correct to say that we should read this text with the expectation ("prejudice") that it addresses these concerns.

Unless we're attempting something highly technical and specialized, like Biblical Theology, we're always encountering texts in a "now". We can inform our "now" with understanding of "then", but this is a thought exercise.

But I am diverging away from your topic of "what readers remember". Are we getting closer to being on the same page? Regardless, this is an interesting discussion.

Bill Heroman said...

I'd say all writers work with intentions, and whether it turns out effectively or not is a communications experiment.

Also, I'm not trying to suss out Matthew's intended audience, which would be wild speculation. I know I wrote quite a lot, but the bullet points were supposed to build towards a more practical method, as expressed in the last two points.

The idea is that we can bypass BOTH author's mind/intention AND the social make-up of his intended community IFF dealing with cases of historical reference.

For example, in my current study is Archelaus, I'm considering what basic and minimally identifying information should be assignable to the memory of ANY audience, regarding Archelaus. As it happens, there are elements of the text which (I will soon argue) play with and against the evocatable knowledge, and that combination shows that Matthew did intend for the reader to rely on prior historical knowledge for interpreting the passage. (As I say, this is all to come in future posts.)

But in that example, note that authorial intent was a part of the conclusion. Not the assumption.

The only assumptions being brought to the text in this type of a formulation would be based on historical data and/or reconstruction, but not before reducing that content to a basic minimum, plausibly known to posterity, as I have described.

Making more sense yet?

Larry said...

I'm not sure I'm getting this. But you have more posts planned, so we can continue to discuss there. Sometimes I'm better with concrete examples.

Thanks for your patience! I may be confused, but this is quite interesting stuff.

Bill Heroman said...

Well thanks, Larry. That's very gracious of you and I'm very much looking forward to more from me also!

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