An Addendum: On Memory and Loss

Despite just writing an overlong post on memory, I find myself thinking about it still.

I’m intrigued by how the past, in an age of pervasive documentation, never quite achieves the condition of being past. Our social media streams constitute the past as an always accessible substratum of the present. The past emanates like low-level radiation from this substratum, not always detectable but always having its effect.

I don’t mean by this what Faulkner meant when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Of course, the past is always operative in the present. Instead, I’m thinking of the past in a more limited, individual sense. My past history, as it were, or my past selves.

When I think about my life before the advent of pervasive documentation, I experience it as something irretrievably lost. Memory acts as a temporary bridge to that world, but the gap it bridges is deep and uncrossable. Indeed, if memory is like a bridge, it is a bridge that at best spans the gap only far enough to bring the other side into hazy view. But this yields for me the experience of having lost aspects of myself, it grants the realization that I am not now who I was then, at least not entirely. Sometimes I tempted to bridge the gap altogether, to recover something of what has been lost, but failure in the attempt always confirms the futility of the project.

But does this development or, hopefully, growth partly depend on a natural forgetting of the past self, that is of the opening up of those chasm dug by loss? I suppose what I am asking can be put this way: Is forgetting or allowing parts of ourselves to be lost to the past an essential aspect of personal development?

And, if that proves to be the case, then how does our present economy of persistent remembering, driven by the desire “save everything,” effect this dynamic?

6 thoughts on “An Addendum: On Memory and Loss

  1. Check out these passages from p. 278 in Morozov’s _To Save Everything__:

    “Thus notes Todorov, ‘it is baffling that the ability computers have to save information is termed memory, since they lack a basic feature of memory, the ability to select.’ In other words, retention or storage of information without selection is not memory….Or, in the memorable phrase of French anthropologist Marc Auge, ‘Memories are crafted by oblivion as the outlines of the shore are created by the sea.'”

  2. But it isn’t persistent remembering. I have to agree with Luke. It is persistent storage of information through utilization of technology. When you “save everything” you have a kitchen junk drawer of a life. It is not enhancing personal development but making personality a product, which might be helpful if one feels there is a market for one’s memoirs, but for most of us it is a misplaced hope that the flotsam and jetsam might be stitched together to make a more beautiful/authentic/important self. And this reliance on technological data collection may further diminish our ability to identify the truly valuable parts of our lives because this information is stripped bare of emotion. Do memories exist without their emotional habitat?

  3. Thanks for that quotation, Luke. Very well put. And, L.A., I agree with your assessment. I don’t think “persistent remembering” is the best phrase to get at what I was aiming at. Perhaps simply calling it persistent documentation is better.

    My point, in any case, was not that this amounted to the equivalent of what we ordinarily understand as human memory. I’ve argued elsewhere that we’ve mistakenly reversed the metaphor by now thinking of human memory in terms of computer “memory.”

    The phenomenon I’m trying to get at, though, is the difference between, for example, never seeing a good friend again after parting ways when you graduate high school, on the one hand, and never seeing them again but remaining faintly aware of them indefinitely via social media on the other. Our links with the past stretch and stretch, but never quite break in this particular regime of technological remembering. I think that’s significant and I was trying to get at what that significance might be in this post.

    Does that makes sense? Thoughts?

    1. I think an element to this that you’re not really getting into is the art and craft of creating meaningful collages or combinations from past “data” such as photographs. Just the existence of a continuous stream of images of our life, for example, isn’t very meaningful on its own. There is significant work in the combining and selection of images. Having opaque algorithms do this for us is indeed a kind of outsourcing of meaning building in our lives.

      Regarding the once good friend that we never see again, our memories can give a kind of respect and meaning to who this person was and what they meant to us. We may even have a few photographs that bring back some of this meaning at times and emphasize for us what the connection was about. If instead of our own memory, or self created photo albums, we have social media giving us occasional reminders of this person, then the meaning may be polluted.

      So, persistent documentation gives the material to create meaningful ways of representing and remembering, but also the material to overwhelm artfully created remembrances with garbage?

  4. Just shortly:

    I think the driving force behind the “document everything” is first and foremost (and boringly so) the design and business models of social media. And only secondly (but also more interestingly) a human desire to stretch the “now”; to never leave anything behind and to maximise the value of the present by keeping hold on the soon to be past.

    The *effect* of this might very well be a barrier to “personal development”, as you put it. It seems plausible. But you might also consider, that most people would describe their personal development as ongoing and constantly happening, which includes the “extended now” connected to the past. The development is documented together with the identity.

  5. Great ideas and you raise a very valid concern that I’ve also held with regards to the perpetual connectedness that social media provides. In the past it was a perfectly natural part of life to lose touch with people and have relationships lost to history so to speak. Now, as you you pointed out, we remain somewhat connected to these relationships that would otherwise be relegated to a personal history.
    What concerns me is whether social media has impacted how we feel about the relationships we build – are they any less significant, do relationships of all kinds have less value since social media provides the ‘we’ll keep in touch’ button almost mechanically? I am personally all for the notion that relationships worth maintaining are those that you actively participate in and accept that and ultimately we may think of some relationships as naturally fleeting.

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