Abracadabra: Language, Memory, Representation


Experiments with and on memory.

Moderns distrust memory. The detective's lament is the untrustworthiness of memory. Witnesses lie, they misremember, they miss important details. Worse than that, our mistrust of memory extends past people to other kinds of memory: do we trust what is written, what we find on the internet, what the secretary of state tells the UN, what the dictionary says. Umberto Eco generalizes this to concern to the status of a general science: Semiotics (the science of signs and meaning) is according to him, "the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie." (Theory of Semiotics, p.7)

What exactly is it we distrust? Why is it that we might trust "logic" (assuming we do) and not memory? What makes it so unstable? The following are all experiments that seek to investigate the structure of memory, its reliability, and its relationship either to logic or to lying.

Jorge Luis Borges "Funes, His Memory"

Funes, as we have seen, is most interesting because his memory is so exquisite as to render logic and analysis unnecessary. Funes is the inverse of the scientific genius: he is as individualized, as eccentric, but his genius is not in generalization and abstraction but in specification and exactitude. What makes the story so troubling is that such exactitude means he can communicate with no one at all because he shares images and meanings in common with no one.

A. R. Luria The Mind of a Mnemonist

S. is Funes, but he is also Peter of Ravenna and Simonides. His memory, which is clearly excellent, is structured in precisely the ways that the ad Herrenium directs us. Like an ancient rhetorician, he associates images with what he must remember, locates them in a familiar place (a walk through Moscow) and can return, in any order, to pick them out. Like Funes, he is incapable of seeing even a simple logical relation of similarity or number.

Akira Kurosawa Rashomon

Kurosawa's film is a classic in film history for its innovative structure. The flashback structure and the relation of story to storytellers is complex, demanding. The basic point of the film being that what we see on screen is also a story told by one of the people we see. It equates the image on the screen with the memory in the brain, and disrupts our casual convention of seeing the image in common as truth. The four testimonies are all the more disturbing because the participants do not each claim innocence, but guilt. Only one fact is held in common: the death of the man. All else is uncertain, summed up in the first words of the film spoken by the woodcutter "I don't understand, I just don't understand."

Chirstopher Nolan Memento

Christopher Nolan's film Memento takes Rashoman one step further. Like S. and Funes, Leonard has an abnormal memory-- no long term memory, only short term memory. As opposed to Funes and S. for whom the ancient arts of memory come naturally, Leonard must invent a whole new system: he must write everything down. Leonard can still read, still drive, still feel emotion, but the narrative that structured his whole life-- literally, the memories which would give his present and future life meaning-- are available only in the pictures he takes and the notes he writes to himself.

J.L. Borges "The Library of Babel"

Borges story of the Library of Babel then is a kind of radicalization of Memento-- a world in which all possible stories, all possible outcomes and meaning enough for everyone have been written down. Unfortunately, there is no system for finding them. There is no anchor around which the infinite possible meanings can be moored. Everyone goes through life a little bit like Leonard-- reading books, searching finally for the one that will answer the questions they have long since forgotten. Our narrator is convinced only of one thing: that this universe is infinite, but periodic. It repeats itself somewhere rather than-- like a story or a film or a life-- ending abruptly.

Vannevar Bush "As we may think" (The Memex)

Finally, Vannevar Bush's famous article on the Memex is a curious mixture of memory systems and Memento. For Bush, we are all leonard: we work in specialized realms producing memories (science) and contributing to a vast library of knowledge which no one person can know in total. His proposal is to build a machine that helps us navigate it, that will help us organize our polaroids and yellow post-it notes and legal pads. The activity of filling up this archive includes not just the facts (res) but also the images and the "trails" or loci which allow us to revisit our own and other people's memories in the future.

Memory Memory Memory Memory Memory
Christopher M. Kelty
Last modified: Mon Mar 3 09:55:02 CST 2003