June 29, 2014

Memory & Narrative, 2

Intentional remembering requires efficiency. That's my primary contention. Our actual lived experience is too vast and diverse. Think merely of all the sensory input you get in a single day, or think of James Joyce's Ulysses, which spends hundreds of pages describing a single day and still doesn't get all of it. If a written account of a single day can't be memorized, then remembering all-of-life day-after-day is impossible.

Apart from the accidentally memorable, then, how do we intentionally foster memories from our life? We reduce the existential, or the experiential (whether lived experiences, vicarious experiences, projected experiences or imaginary experiences) to the form of a narrative. To remember life, we tell ourselves stories.

My contention is that memory needs story. The limitations of human memory have shaped the contours and conventions of the way we construct stories. The story is a type of representation that was perhaps even born from human attempts to maximize what we are capable of purposely memorizing.

Maybe. That's my working hypothesis. Here's how I got to that point.

I'd been impressed by the "memory approach" of Dale Allison, Anthony Le Donne and Chris Keith, so much that I wanted to dig deeper. But as I worked through Oxford's Collective Memory Reader (a fabulous anthology assembled by Jeffrey Olick and others, by the way; get a copy!) and was now moving quickly from author to author, I began to feel more and more that the word "memory" was often being used as a synonym for "narrative". Scholars of memory were making points in the early to mid 20th century that sounded very familiar from more recent discussions of narrative. Again and again, I kept noticing this link.

As it turns out, a lot of memory studies are intensively focused on stories - how we modify and adjust stories in the process of re-remembering and re-telling those stories, and how we foster and institutionalize certain versions of stories at the expense of older and less desirable versions of those stories, and how our present needs drive these dynamic engagements with the constant re-remembering of the past... but always, seemingly, that past gets remembered in the form of a story.

Naturally, that's about as unsurprising as a fish doing everything that it does on the inside of some body of water. Fish swim in water like we live in stories. Much of our consciousness and perception and communication exists in the form of a story. Why shouldn't memory also take the form of a story? Of course it should. At least, being smarter than fish, we're aware of our habitat. Therefore memory studies, I suppose, have every right to assume the importance of story just like any other kind of scholarship these days.

Unless it's not merely our atmospheric conditioning.

What if one of these leads to the other?

I kept wondering about a deeper link. If memory is about the past in the present and the present in the past, narrative can also be defined in quite similar terms. To whatever extent both Memory and Narrative are fundamentally methods of preserving the past, what is the bedrock? What is the basic foundation of these two processes? And if there's a deep connection between memory and story, between memory and history, then what about memory and chronology? Chronology, as you may know, is never far from my thoughts in any area of research. And Time itself, as you may also know, is a subject of particular fascination to me.

If the primary benefit of our memory studies (for historical reconstruction of the actual past) is to realize how profoundly Memory distorts and refracts, rather than records and recalls, and yet to embrace that difficult truth as a starting point for historical research, rather than a deal-breaker (as some have sadly done)... and If the primary benefit of our narrative studies (in the field of historiography) is to realize how profoundly a Story is not quite like Lived Experience, how Narrative History is technically always a distortion of actual history, and yet this is also not a reason to quit but another historical process to embrace in our studies... and If I was correct that a lot of earlier scholars of memory were essentially talking about the phenomena of competition among narratives... Then what is the nature of this link between Story and Memory?

With my chronological mindset I couldn't help asking this question in terms of psychological sequence.

Which comes first? Do we construct a story with immediate gestalt perceptivity and then work to remember it? Or do we form short-term memories of experience and then construct a story selectively from among that matieral?

A lot of memory theorists have written extensively about how we memorialize various narratives. What I became most interested in was trying to figure out something I've yet to find anyone else writing about: How do we narrativize our immediate memories?

Is it possible that the nature of Memory is responsible for the invention of Story?

To be continued...

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