3 minute read


The Fragility Of Memory In A Postmodern Age

In the twenty-first century, we know more about memory than ever before, but trust its resources less. The idea of memory, conceived as the keystone of identity for the nineteenth century, has been reconceived as the debris of lost identities, the free-stones of aging memory palaces that have fallen into ruins. Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, the topic has inspired intense interest among historians, literary critics, folklorists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and neurobiologists. Across the curriculum, scholars are as one in noting that memory is easily and often remodeled, almost always distorted, and hence unreliable as a guide to the realities of the past. The idea of memory, therefore, is noteworthy for its fragility, vulnerable as it is not only to the vagaries of the mind but also to social, political, and cultural forces that would alter or obliterate it.

On the edge of fragile memory lies nostalgia, the most elusive of memory's protean forms and one beginning to receive critical attention. An admixture of sweetness and sorrow, it expresses a longing for a vanishing past often more imaginary than real in its idealized remembrance. Nostalgia exercised a powerful appeal in the Romantic sentiments of the nineteenth century, tied as it was to regret over the passing of ways of life eroded by economic and social change, a generalized popular enthusiasm for innovation, and rising expectations about what the future might hold. Nostalgia was the shadow side of progress. Chastened by the disappointments of the twentieth century, however, the idea of progress has fallen on hard times, and nostalgia presents itself as an even more diffuse longing for a fantasy world that never existed (for example, the classless society in Communist propaganda). So reconceived, nostalgia has come to be criticized as a dangerous surrender to anarchistic illusion that contributes to memory's vulnerability to exploitation and misuse.

Situated at an interdisciplinary crossroads, the idea of memory has yet to promote an exchange between humanists and scientists, though they make their way along converging avenues of research. Scientists have moved away from Freud's claim about the integrity of memory's images. Steady research in psychology over the course of the twentieth century exposed the intricacies of the mental process of remembering, which involves complex transactions among various regions of the brain. For psychologists, remembering is conceived as a dynamic act of remodeling the brachial pathways along which neurons travel as they respond to sensory stimuli. The images of memory are encoded in neural networks, some in short-term and some in long-term configurations, and so are mobilized as conscious memories in multifold and continually changing ways. Memory resides in these ephemeral expressions, and its images are constantly subject to revision in the interplay of well-established patterns and chance circumstances that governs recall.

Some neuroscientists propose that memory is an adaptive strategy in the biological life process. Drawing on Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, the American neuroscientist Gerald Edelman (1929–) argues that there is a selective process by which memory cells cluster in the neuronal groups that map neural pathways. He identifies two repertoires of such clusters in the gestation of the brain, one, primarily genetic, in embryo, and the other, primarily adaptive, after birth. They establish the categories of recognition through which the brain thenceforth processes external stimuli, though these categories are continually modified as the brain adapts to new life experience. In this sense, each act of recollection is a creative process that entails a reconfiguration of synaptic connections. There is an intriguing analogy between Edelman's two stages of memory cell formation and the mnemonist's two-step reinforcement of memory in repertoires of places and images. There is a resonance as well between Edelman's notion of the brain's mapping of neural pathways and Halbwachs's conception of the topographical localization of social memory. Both affirm the constructive nature of the act of memory in the interplay of recognition and context.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mathematics to Methanal trimerMemory - The Ancient Art Of Memory, Modern Memory And Personal Identity, The Social Frameworks Of Collective Memory