Mnenosyme and Lethe

In an interview with the Boston Review, writer Philip Gourevitch, who has written a book length treatment of the Rwandan genocide, reflects on memory:

“There’s a kind of fetishization of memory in our culture. Some of it comes from the experience and the memorial culture of the Holocaust—the injunction to remember. And it also comes from the strange collision of Freud and human rights thinking—the belief that anything that is not exposed and addressed and dealt with is festering and going to come back to destroy you. This is obviously not true. Memory is not such a cure-all. On the contrary, many of the great political crimes of recent history were committed in large part in the name of memory. The difference between memory and grudge is not always clean. Memories can hold you back, they can be a terrible burden, even an illness. Yes, memory—hallowed memory—can be a kind of disease. That’s one of the reasons that in every culture we have memorial structures and memorial days, whether for personal grief or for collective historical traumas. Because you need to get on with life the rest of the time and not feel the past too badly. I’m not talking about letting memory go. The thing is to contain memory, and then, on those days, or in those places, you can turn on the tap and really touch and feel it. The idea is not oblivion or even denial of memory. It’s about not poisoning ourselves with memory.”

From Technology Review’s “History, As Recorded on Twitter, Is Vanishing From The Web, Say Computer Scientists”:

“On 25 January 2011, a popular uprising began in Egypt that  led to the overthrow of the country’s brutal president and to the first truly free elections. One of the defining features of this uprising and of others in the Arab Spring was the way people used social media to organise protests and to spread news.

Several websites have since begun the task of curating this content, which is an important record of events and how they unfolded. That led Hany SalahEldeen and Michael Nelson at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, to take a deeper look at the material to see how much the shared  were still live.

What they found has serious implications. SalahEldeen and Nelson say a significant proportion of the websites that this social media points to has disappeared. And the same pattern occurs for other culturally significant events, such as the the H1N1 virus outbreak, Michael Jackson’s death and the Syrian uprising.

In other words, our history, as recorded by social media, is slowly leaking away.”

Jacques Derrida:

“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.”


The Waters of Lethe by the Plains of Elysium – John Spencer Stanhope

7 thoughts on “Mnenosyme and Lethe

  1. Leads me to wonder…

    Who gets to decide what is to be forgotten? There seems to be benefit in both memory and in forgetting, but here, consciousness is whose instrument? For Gourevitch, it’s ours, which leaves it in the most satisfying hands, I think.

    Seems it should be someone’s, at the very least, and not left to the whims of incidental archiving.

  2. Gourevitch’s idea is somewhat close to Robert Pfaller’s notion of interpassivity. A memorial is an object that exists to relieve us of the burden of memory – it remembers on our behalf. If social media can’t remember, then we can’t ever forget.

  3. Interesting that web content is slowly disappearing. However, it is most likely still archived somewhere and could see the light of day again. I can understand websites shutting down once they have served their purpose, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are gone and lost forever. Just like our own memories, we sometimes only need a small key to remember something from our past.

  4. Research is one of my favorite things to do. And if the information about one of the most important times in Egyptian history is missing, where does a researcher go? Balancing the images of a pyramid and an ephemeral computer screen in my researcher’s mind causes a tip, no doubt about it. But the question of preserving electronic data of historical events seems a very different question than what must we remember and what forget.

    To visit the Oracle of Trophonios, the petitioner had to first cleanse the body. And petitioner to be admitted. “The priests then made him drink from the well of oblivion (Λήθη) that he might forget all his former thoughts, and from the well of recollection (Μνημοσύνη) that he might remember the visions which he was going to have.”

    So I wonder if the forgetting “former thoughts” would be akin to a meditation where the practitioner “empties” his/her mind in order to receive clearity. Or letting go of old hurts in order to have new experiences, in a psychological manner.

    In other words, perhaps it’s necessary to forget the unnecessary head chatter in order to remain clear in our vision.

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