Memories are Made of This
Recent polls indicate that George Bush’s standing with the public is becoming more favorable. That’s depressing, but not very surprising. Unless there’s something wrong with your own memory, you ought to have learned by now that the public’s memory is extremely short. In fact, for most people, most of the time, memory is a social phenomenon even though it manifests itself through individual nervous systems. Small wonder, then, that a great many people can’t recall the several disasters of Bush’s reign since the communal recollection engine isn’t doing its work and, of course, our justice system has decisively flunked its vital mnemonic role.
That memory is predominately a sociological fact has got to be the most unpopular idea I’ve ever tried to float in a lifetime of floating unpopular ideas, at a minimum right up there with the claim that thought is not something contained in brains, that the self is in the world and not in the skull. I admit that reading Maurice Halbwachs’ La memoire collective is more a chore than a pleasure. He not only writes as a sociologist. He writes like a sociologist. What really makes his ideas hateful, however, isn’t just a matter of prose style. We really don’t want to admit that the human world is not built out of individual minds the way that a wall is made out of bricks. Perhaps that’s why, though the social nature of memory is a basic part of Nietzsche’s outlook and Nietzsche could certainly write, nobody gets that part. As Nietzsche himself wrote someplace, in such cases there is an auditory hallucination. It seems like something was said and heard, but no transaction took place.
Well, as the case of Bush’s rehabilitation shows, Halbwachs and Nietzsche were optimists. Nietzsche took it that memory stopped with the grandparents. The Heidelberg Egyptologist Jan Assmann, following Halbwachs, estimates that social memory stretches back 70 years or so. Before that is the imminently ignorable history written in books and entombed in museums, the dead zone between lived experience and the sacred origin stories. You’d think that longer lifespans would lengthen social memory—lots of people know their great grandparents these days—but the reverse appears to be the case. I once read about an anthropologist who visited an isolated tribe of aborigines twice. On his second visit, which only took place a few years after the first, he asked whether anybody remembered him. “Yes, there’s an old story about that…” When I talk to San Francisco State students about Vietnam, it might as well have occurred in the dreamtime. They’ve heard about it. They saw the movie, but It is not a part of their experience in the same way that World War II was a part of my experience though I was born almost exactly halfway between VE and VJ day.
Memory is social; and forgetting, which is an integral part of memory, is also social. Jon Stewart delivered a memorable rant last night on the Middle East under the rubric Learning Curves are for Pussies. He focused on what we refuse to learn, but he could have as easily spoken about we refuse to remember, namely the long roll of disastrous American interventions in the region. If you understand memory in a psychological way, you may figure that the recollection of events decays exponentially so that old wars have a half life like U235. That perspective may not be entirely wrong, but it is profoundly misleading because in real situations our purely personal memories are repeatedly refreshed like the image on a computer screen. Of course, if the organs that ordinarily do our thinking for us, e.g., our families, our spouses, our friends, the internet, television, and the rest, neglect to restore the fading impression or decide to ignore it for some ideological or commercial reason, we have to fall back on our own resources. In other words, unless we belong to the small group that make it our business to actively remember, we forget. So what was so bad about Bush?