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Memory’s Reliability and the Struggle for Memory

It is 1971, and Mirek says that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. ((Kundera, Milan. 1981. The book of laughter and forgetting. New York: Penguin.))

Milan Kundera’s famous quotation has been mirrored outside of literary circles by hosts of leftists and especially the ‘Fourth World’ or ‘Host World’ movements associated with varying ideologies of indigenism and autonomism. There is no doubt that Kundera, like many others, sees memory as a crucial, and crucially human, part of a struggle for humanity against those modern powers which seek to dominate and homogenize humankind. Many influential writers in the last two decades have written on memory using narratives and styles that more normally are applied to belles lettres than scholarship. They have mourned the loss of memory from reasons of a general secularization and from technological causes. ((Nora, Pierre. 1989. Between memory and history: Les Lieux de Memoire. Representations (26):7-24; Huyssen, Andreas. 1994. Twilight memories: marking time in a culture of amnesia. London: Routledge; and ———. 2000. Present pasts: media, politics, amnesia. Public Culture 12 (1):21-38.)) Others have hailed it as a means to counter history’s generally triumphal tone as history’s victims are silently trampled. ((Young, James E. 2000. Against redemption: the arts of countermemory in Germany today. In Symbolic loss: the ambiguity of mourning and memory at century’s end, edited by P. Homans. Charlottesville (VA) & London: University Press of Virginia;  Caruth, Cathy, ed. 1995. Trauma: explorations in memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. Much of the indigenist use of ‘memory’ falls into this category, though memory here is much less a form of mournful witness and more a claim to a legitimate defensibility and priority.))
Slightly differently, others have examined the malleability of memory and its potential in terms of social cohesion and even ‘societies of control,’ in ways which are morally multivalent: anthropological, sociological, and even post-human. ((Societies of control is Gilles Deleuze’s expansion of a concept originating in Burrough’s classic novel/autobiography Naked Lunch. See Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch: the Restored Text, Grauerholz and Miles (eds.), (New York, 2001); Deleuze, Gilles, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, in OCTOBER 59, (Winter 1992). Anthropological approaches can be seen in many places, including Connerton, Paul. 1989. How societies remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. 1991. Of revelation and revolution. Vol. I. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. The post-human approach may be considered a too-facile rendering of Stiegler’s fascinating work in what he things of as ‘mnemotechnics:’ Stiegler, Bernard. “Nanomutations, Hypomnemata and Grammatisation” (Online) ))

The powers of memory are conceived in different ways by different thinkers, but always in an oppositional or power-based mode. Memory is never allowed to simply exist, instead it must always be the site of conflict and contest.
This oppositional stance of ‘memory’ to power lends a romantic cast to the idea of memory, which is enough of a reason for most academics to immediately want to dismiss it, without examining what else is might express. The valorization of memory in academic discourse is occasionally even ridiculed, as in Kerwin Lee Klein’s vicious yet mostly-accurate attack on the abuses of the concept of ‘memory’ in scholarship. Klein determines that memory has no fixed meaning and cannot accurately be studied, and therefore has no legitimate place in social science, since this ‘memory’ seems more prophetic and messianic than properly scholastic. ((Klein, Kerwin Lee. 2000. On the emergence of memory in historical discourse. Representations (Special Issue: Grounds for remembering):127-150.))
For the most part, I agree: many of us have abused the concept of memory in ways more approaching the prophetic and messianic than the academic and properly scholastic, though these abuses more often, I think, emerge from within the academic world than in the world of the activists, who use memory more consistently without ever defining it.
But I also think Klein overstates his case, and makes a straw man of many of those who engage quite seriously with memory. To return to Kundera again: Mirek, who is credited with what is perhaps the most famous sentence Kundera ever penned, is not a man who relies on his memory. Instead, he is a man who obsessively documents his every move, and all the secret political meetings or even casual political discussions he and his friends have. He is not remembering, but attempting to write history. He writes his histories against the official histories, which obliterate reality and attempt to erase from the record what most can still remember. But it is precisely this attempt to write a counterhistory which gets him and his friends jailed.
Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, Mirek’s memory is profoundly unreliable. He’s been telling stories to himself and his friends for years, creating an image of himself that he wishes to believe in, rather than one which remembers what actually was. This is brought out most clearly in Mirek’s story, in his encounter with his earliest and most passionate love. She happens to be an unattractive woman who has matched his misrememberings of her with her own deformation of herself, in a strange attempt to prove her fidelity. For Mirek, her unattractive appearance is now an embarrassment to him. He has insisted for years that he was not in love with her, but was using her for her political connections. But it is all untrue. He is soon attacked by involuntary accesses of memory, which horrifyingly display his love for her.

The reason he wanted to remove her picture from the album of his life was not that he hadn’t loved her, but that he had. By erasing her from his mind, he erased his love for her. He airbrushed her out of the picture in the same way the Party propoganda section airbrushed Clementis from the balcony where Gottwald gave his historic speech. Mirek is as much a rewriter of history as the Communst Party, all political parties, all nations, all men. People are always shouting that they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten. ((Op. Cit., 21-22))

Clearly, Kundera has an ambivalent attitude toward the type of memorialization that Mirek was engaged in at the beginning of his story. But his attitude toward memory itself is left somewhat unclear. Are we not to master our past? Is it possible to master our future? What is the relationship between recollection and our future direction?
The unreliability of memory crops up again and again in works on memory. Proust’s massive tome In Search of Lost Time has several sections which discuss the fleeting and untrustworthy character of memory. ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Search_of_Lost_Time))
Samuel R. Delany, in his autobiography, discusses the same effect in his own life. In telling the story of his life, he had given himself an age, for certain events, which he only later discovered was untrue. And yet, it felt true when he was telling it. (( Delany, Samuel R. “The motion of light in water.” ))
This is perhaps the greatest power that memory has over history – it can occasionally be as pliable as history (though this is obviated in cases of traumatic or involuntary memory), but is always more intimate, personal, and hence more real, regardless of the relation of the memory to the events of the past. There is something about memory which is irresistible to the individual, or nearly so: memory is at least partly about the retreat of details into an unquestioned reality, which makes the remembered parts of the memory all the more vivid. Memory is not only recall, but belief and ontology.

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