Memory, Facebook, and the Narrative Unity of a Life

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Below are links to three essays in conversation with one another on the relative merits of Facebook as augmented memory. Jurgenson argues that expressing the “glad I didn’t have Facebook” sentiment is likely to reinforce what he considers an unhealthy preoccupation with consistency of identity over time. Boesel and Horning each offer diverging perspectives on Jurgenson’s piece. I’m glad for the exchange since it foregrounds an aspect of social media’s consequences that seems to get less attention than it deserves. What follows is not really a response to these essays so much as another reflection on the theme.

“Glad I Didn’t Have Facebook In High School” by Nathan Jurgenson

“Let Sleeping Memories Lie: High School and the Facebookless Past” by Whitney Erin Boesel

“Everyday schadenfreude” by Rob Horning

Several months back I wrote a couple of posts on Facebook and memory. The first considered Facebook as a form of social remembering, and the second suggested that Facebook is a contemporary form of the ancient arts of memory tradition.

My thinking on the relationship between memory and Facebook remains largely unchanged from when I wrote those posts and is summed up rather nicely by Jacques Derrida when he writes, “They tell, and here is the enigma, that those consulting the oracle of Trophonios in Boetia found there two springs and were supposed to drink from each, from the spring of memory and from the spring of forgetting.”

We must be able to do both — remember and forget. The ability to do so in the appropriate proportion seems essential to living with ourselves in some meaningful and morally responsible manner. What that proportion is, every one must discover for themselves. But it seems to involve some delicate balance between the past, present, and future which acknowledges their entanglement while also respecting the integrity of each.

In any case, memory is tied up intimately with identity; this much has been apparent since antiquity. Augustine’s Confessions, an autobiographical account of his journey toward conversion, includes an eloquent chapter on memory which remains a classic text in what we might call the philosophy of memory. And while it may be the case that there is, in some quarters, an unhealthy fixation on a rigidly construed consistency of identity over time, it seems to me that this is not really the issue. We know, most of us, that we evolve over time, sometimes gradually and sometimes dramatically, while, indeed, some aspects of our personality remain stubbornly persistent. This was, in fact, the theme of Confessions. (Certainly if Augustine had Facebook, he would have been bemused by the enduring record of all those “Likes” of Manichaeism.) We change over time and thank God for it.

But that change may still be taken into account within what Alasdair MacIntyre has called the narrative unity of a human life. “The unity of a human life,” MacIntyre writes, “is the unity of a narrative quest.” Facebook enters into this narrative quest with potentially significant and not entirely benign consequences. It amounts, we might say, to an outsourcing of the quest and consequently to an evacuation of the quest’s moral significance.

Richard Terdiman’s discussion of Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the city happens to articulate some of  these concerns rather well:

“[Benjamin] argued that the nineteenth-century city produced a particularly acute experience of disconnection and abstraction. Such abstraction defeats the associative structure of natural memory and induces in its place a different form of the habitus or technology of recollection that we could call ‘archival consciousness.’ Its principle would be the increasingly randomized isolation of the individual item of information, to the detriment of its relation to any whole, and the consignment of such information to what earlier I called ‘extrindividual’ mnemonic mechanisms.”

It is no small thing to substitute an archive, Facebook’s in this case, with its particular structure, for the “associative structure of natural memory.” Or, I would add, for the moral work of memory — the weighing of guilt and regret, for example, and the coming responsibily to terms with one’s past.

It would seem as well, that the rhythms of natural memory have their own consolations. Near the end of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens writes the following exchange between Carton and Lorry:

Sydney turned his eyes again upon the fire, and, after a silence of a few moments, said:

“I should like to ask you:—Does your childhood seem far off? Do the days when you sat at your mother’s knee, seem days of very long ago?”

Responding to his softened manner, Mr. Lorry answered:

“Twenty years back, yes; at this time of my life, no. For, as I draw closer and closer to the end, I travel in the circle, nearer and nearer to the beginning. It seems to be one of the kind smoothings and preparings of the way. My heart is touched now, by many remembrances that had long fallen asleep, of my pretty young mother (and I so old!), and by many associations of the days when what we call the World was not so real with me, and my faults were not confirmed in me.”

Sentimentalized perhaps, but not, I believe, dishonestly so. It is perhaps how our memory may seek to help us along in the quest for the narrative unity of our life.

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4 thoughts on “Memory, Facebook, and the Narrative Unity of a Life

  1. I like this but I don’t quite follow one element here. I’m not sure what you are saying about the relationship between our actual memories and archives.

    We create archives of various sorts that do help us remember and connect us to our past- photo albums (in books, or as files to be displayed), collections of writings, etc. But I don’t see how this replaces our natural memory. You quote Terdiman’s analysis of Benjamin’s writings about cities and then say “It is no small thing to substitute an archive, Facebook’s in this case, with its particular structure, for the “associative structure of natural memory.”

    Isn’t this somehow going a little too far to think this is even possible (yes, you do say its no small thing)- that an archive even works in the same way and plays the same role as our actual memory process?

    I am reminded of a time when I was in the process of deleting old photographs and statuses from Facebook and I would post statuses saying I was doing this. Say, “Deleting all posts 2010 to six months ago”. I felt it was responsible since in the process of deleting, I was deleting other people’s comments, in case they cared. I remember that I got a response to one such status update from a particularly heavy Facebook user asking me why I would want to delete my memories during that time period. This struck me as so far off from my way of thinking about Facebook, that I couldn’t even respond. I suppose it was meant in a similar way as if asking why I might destroy a photo album, or a painting, or a collection of writings. But it was phrased in this way as if I would be destroying my actual memories in my head… seeing this mentality did hasten my continual removal of material from the site until I was not on it any longer.

    I suppose there is an analogy between archives and documents to our actual memories. But I feel its one we should be extremely careful about, and personally, I would try to think of these archives in a traditional sense as external documents that can aid our memory, rather than as cyborg extensions of our memory- as if we are adding some further RAM or hard drive space to our heads.

    • I would agree that the language of replacing/substituting is too strong. Obviously, our natural memory remains and these external aides to memory are not quite, as you say, a matter of adding some more RAM to our internal hard drives (although a disconcerting number of people like to talk that way).

      These external archives, whether they be a shoebox filled with photographs or a computer file of pictures or Facebook, are aides to memory, but they are something more as well. They are in some cases the memory itself. I’m thinking here, for example, of how the natural memories (images in my mind) of certain events I’ve come to realize are really a remembrance of photographs of those events. There is in such cases a more complicated relationship between the archive and the natural memory, particularly before I realized it was the case.

      Also, there are some memories that would pass into oblivion if it were not for the external record. I recently went through a shoebox of items from my high school years and was surprised by how much I had forgotten, or how the character of certain kinds of relationships (to take one example) had been altered in my mind over time even when I did remember. So in some cases, expunging the external record is functionally equivalent to erasing the natural memory. The possibility of future remembering is practically nil.

      So, no, it’s not quite like adding RAM, but it is more complicated, I think, than simply taking external and internal memories as wholly independent of one another. This is the case, in fact, because of the unique properties of each. The flexibility or elasticity (I’m not sure those are the best words) of our internal memories make their contact with durability of external archives a potentially transformative rather than merely additive encounter.

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