August 7, 2014

Memory & Narrative, 6

In terms of narrative and causality, history and memory are usually somewhat at odds. The task of historians is to explain complex reality but the first task of memory, of remembering the infinitely unwieldy past, is to retain much by a little. Memory must be efficient - to reduce a life into a story, to retain words and images merely representative of an experience, to preserve by conflating and distorting when necessary. Where historians proliferate documents and look to say as much as possible, remembering can only hope to wrap everything up inside of whatever stands out. Historians can talk for centuries about a day, and memory can hold a precious world within a name.

In other words, history is endlessly complicated while memory is constantly simplifying.

For better or worse, this rabbit hole seems to go pretty far down. 

To explain the past more accurately requires greater complexity, but to remember the past more indelibly (and, as always, efficiently) requires greater simplicity. However, complexity and simplicity are strictly relative concepts, and this point leaves both history and memory in need of some reliable grounding for their, shall we say, respective perspectives. We can say "the truth is usually more complicated" and we can say "memory distorts helpfully" (like maps, or stories, or drawings, or most any figural representations) but in each of these statements we imply something of an opposite pole. Yet those opposites do not exist. Reality is more complex than perception, okay, and the interpreted past is all that can be preserved, quite correct. But where is the nexus, or the root of this strange "past/reality", this more complex, always interpreted past and/or reality?

What miraculous quantum bedrock allows that we can both realize the past was more complex than it seemed and yet also recognize the remembered past as that same past in some form despite both misperceptions and memory distortions?

If simplicity and complexity were purely relative, to one another, then how could we succeed at such cross-purposed contortions?

If Memory and History are opposed in their narrativizations, then how can they be so very closely related? What "reality" do they both begin trying to re-present? Or, at what point can our analysis of all this find a practical landing to settle on? Is there some non-relative point between too much complexity and too much simplicity? How do we both realize there was so much more and yet also recognize all that as so much less? What is our 'homing frequency' (so to speak) for knowing anything with confidence about the remembered past, in reality?

Causality provides one way of examining this problem, and I believe it provides a very worthy solution. We advance by considering contingency.

Causality has an underlying objectivity. This foundation stands out, empirically and on its own merits, despite both philosophical idealism and subjective prioritizing. As is well known, historians locate this aspect of objectivity in their distinction between causes "necessary" and "sufficient". They say, we can often observe that basic contingent conditions are "necessary" for a result to occur, although those conditions alone were not "sufficient" to cause the result. In common experience, we know that sometimes Point A precedes Point B by necessity. If there had not been A,there could not have come B. In such cases, of course, we cannot say that A causes B but we can see a way in which A leads to B. In terms of causality, we call A "necessary but not sufficient" for B to occur as a result. In other words, B was contingent on A, or Point A was itself an observable contingency of the eventual result at Point B.

Such contingency, I declare, is the aforementioned "quantum bedrock" - the critical root of real narrativity (lived experience) that human beings can freely minimize or inflate. In less dramatic terminology, I am merely suggesting this contingency* is just "necessary causality" - the root of causality which can be made more complex by historians and which can alternately be simplified in our personal, collective, and cultural memories. 

(Note: As a more general term, philosophically speaking, contingency itself can be quite a relative property. I'll address that view as well in the near future, the application of which may bear Leibniz-ian significance, but for now it should be clear enough what I mean. A "contingency" is any dynamic condition which allows possible change, or any static condition which holds potential for change. Think about anything larger than marbles and we should understand one another, I think.)

Now, consider a case in which A leads to B. The historian's job is to explain how that eventual development or progression took place. The historian asks questions and finds more to examine. Causation grows in complexity, but the critical root of Point A's basic contingency remains plainly the same, throughout any rational analysis. However, in popular memory, we find the same critical root being processed by the precise inverse of the function of history. Instead of challenging or explaining the relation between point A and point B, the task of memory is simply to preserve that progression, to remember points A and B, both as a relation together as well as each for their own sake. Therefore, the mnemonic function simplifies.

If a mnemonic narrative of this event happens to 'inflate' causality, so that "necessary" is seen as "sufficient", so that Point B now becomes the presumed consequence of Point A, that mnemonic story becomes informationally twice as memorable, if not more so. As I hope you recall we established during post #3, this increase comes not because causality is a magic bullet for remembering things but demonstrably because the declaration of causality embeds both sequence and connectedness into the nature of these 'facts' themselves.

The historian fusses correctly that sequence does not imply consequence, but the mnemonic narrative features dubious consequence that absolutely implies actual sequence, and that, by the way is narrativity. Sequence is the experience of temporality. Sequence is order, the only logical aspect which 'makes sense' of the past. What is more, sequence happens to be the sole, solitary commonality between both form and content of our narrative recollections. It is how we tell stories. It is how we think, shape and understand stories. Sequence is the only comprehensible way we ever manage to keep track of time, times, and Time. However, sequence without consequence requires records and archives and studies and libraries. To remember the past without emphasizing causality would be like trying to memorize the library of congress by the Dewey Decimal System. There is too much of it all to remember without sequence. To recall sequence also would become exponentially demanding.

Sequence without consequence is like being asked to memorize the order in which Van Gough produced all his paintings, but without knowing any details about how he progressed as an artist or what motivated his creative development, taste, and choices. Even with consequence, Van Gough's oeuvre may not be easily memorized per chronology, but even concocting a story, inventing explanations with his sequenced paintings at hand, would vastly reduce the amount of mnemonic work needed.

Sequence does not imply consequence, but contingency does imply sequence. To increase memorability, we inflate baseline contingencies jnto full blown causalities. Necessities inflate to sufficiencies. Thus, consequence orders the past. 

To successfully remember the past, as a four-dimensional past, as a developing story, as a reality that was narratively shaped and progressively experienced in sequence... the most efficient method of mnemonic preservation is to presume, to entrench, and to reify causality.

Memory inflates sequence into consequence for multiple reasons, one of which is the preservation of sequence. But the 'quantum bedrock' beneath all our narrativizings and oversimplifications is any reasonably observable series of contingencies. This is what journalists most often describe. This is the practical parallel of logical proof. This is what historians typically argue about least. ("If not a cause, A was at least B's antecedent." We literally back off from causality by deflation to sequence!)

When causality feels certain, from a subjective position, then "Plot" can be the stability within variations of memory. When causality seems dubious, from an objective position, then contingency yet preserves a stability of order. Without subjectivity, perhaps all change is to some degree stabilizing for memory... But I'm getting ahead of myself with that bit.

To conclude:

Hume was fully correct about causation being inscrutable. To a large degree, in the historical sense, causality is just "a gag we use to hold the game together". What we're actually doing, mnemonically, is "perceiving time in terms of change". We're orienting and re-orienting ourselves within time by remembering change

The truth is, there is no (objective) causality, there is no such thing as Time, and there is no actuality for "the past" (so to speak). But absolutely, profoundly, and unequivocally (albeit equivocatingly), we most definitely do find ways to preserve memories about change. And mostly, we do this by observing contingencies.

Let all that sink in for as long as you like.

In my next post, I plan to illustrate these phenomena thoroughly...

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