Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Remembering the Past in Out of the Silent Planet

"A pleasure is full grown 
only when it is remembered... 
You say you have poets in your world. 
Do they not teach you this?"

CS Lewis 

Out of the Silent Planet

I. Forgetting the Past

Another semester is over, a blur, which in places is hard to remember. Another return home for the holidays, a queer confrontation with the past. With Fall term papers over, as well as numerous applications sent for jobs and academic opportunities for my friends and me, it is often hard to remember where the last couple months went. Part of that is neurological/chemical. In times of intense emotion, when endorphin and adrenaline are surging through constricted blood vessels in the body, we can do a lot in what appears to be a much shorter period of time. The eyes dilate, the brain's processing is heightened, and we could very well deliver a KO against a bus that is blocking the cross-walk. Good for the moment, bad for memory. 

Likewise, lack of sleep  is a common partner to periods of stress and greatly inhibits the complexity, creativity, and speed of thought, in addition to being absolutely terrible for memory production. Sleep, neurologists generally agree, helps the brain process the events of the day and establish the networks which will allow for memories to be recalled at a later date. Little sleep, little memory. Often why the day after conferences I may earnestly ask "how did my paper go?" I am not (necessarily) being vain, I may not remember it very well. We have often had that experience of remembering stepping onto stage and the rest being a big blur. In clinical terms, this is called Trauma.

If the brain usually functions in such a way as to be able to retain certain connections and impressions, while letting others pass over without significant impact, trauma exhibits the interesting characteristics of being so memorable that it over-loads the system so as to short-circuit storage. It can be pleasurable as well as painful. An emotional first-date and a funeral may both be hard to remember at a later date because in the moment our mental networks were disoriented by intense jouissance.

The effect of such trauma is also interesting, as the lack of memory might seem like only a minor problem or even a blessing which helps us move on with our lives without the burden of the intense emotional baggage. This may in many situations be the case, but complications can arise, among other avenues, from the incomplete storage of memory. The body has a memory it is holding on to but can't process out, so it becomes a cyclical occurrence. The traumatic event is relived. The traumatic event is relived. The traumatic event is relived, and it can cause cycles of hurtful behavior. The army vet hears a car back fire and begins uncontrollably shaking and taking cover. The graduate student calls up Mr. Bad-News to hook up, takes up smoking again, or just has panic attacks for weeks after a particularly bad round of papers because they were unable to process the bodily/mental intensity in the moment.

This irony is exemplified in ritual terms by the Roman practice of Damnatio Memoriae in which a person hated by the state is not only killed, all record and memorial of him is destroyed as well. The intent was to erase the person's presence in the past, the now, and the future completely. What often came of this was that these persons took on an infamy and are passed down to historians through hidden but public references. By making it so that the person was hard to remember, the memory created by and around their absence took on a mythic dimension. This not only speaks to the allure of the forbidden, but the way memory encapsulates and continually revisits sites of trauma.


II. Memorials and Pharmakons

During the Holidays we repeat these rituals and mark time in relation to the past, to perform an act in the present and to affirm that this ritual will be practiced again in the future. For me, in addition to being one of the few things that has made the dark, dreary months of winter a little more cheery, the Holidays also remind me of how terrible my memory is. While I can recall the book and page numbers, even the place on the page, where I read a certain quote or repeat from memory the lines of a favorite play or movie, the details of events often are lost to me. This has lead me personally to blog, facebook, tweet, buy souvenirs, and take a lot of photos. It has been commented that I will have a very well documented life when all is said and done; but usually its less aimed at future generations remembering what I have done, and more so I can. Thus I can only conclude that societies enjoy rituals and holidays for very similar reasons. It is a personal point of relief, and a public point of frustration, observing how quick society forgets things.

However: is it worth it to remember? what can memorials possibly give? A chief irony and use of memory/memorials is that they re-present things which no longer exist. They are performances, like fictions and fantasies. They are not the things they claim are important and for which they claim to stand in. Hence the horror many people feel for seeing statues carved, portraits hung or biographies delivered on their lives, while they are still alive. It is not simply a matter of humility, its often a matter of threat. By remembering me and encapsulating me in this way, are you not eschewing all that I am/doing right now and in the future? Are you not erasing me as you inscribe my memorial?

This is the concern which prompted Plato/Socrate's discussion in the Phaedrus, which Jacques Derrida took up in Plato's Pharmacy. Articulating his objection to having his teachings written down, Socrates explains to his interlocutor(s; including us) that putting words down into a more enduring material has the double threat of encouraging the loss of memory and the loss of control over the text by the author. This perhaps argues against Shakespeare's argument in the Sonnets that a poem shall live forever while the poet fades; and that we should prize the eternal over the temporary.

The formation of these "two" sides seem to depend on the issue which I have discussed often of alienation versus identification. Where the consider the poem a part of our body, our mental network, then it does in fact have the power to last longer (although not forever) than our brain tissue and to engage with other networks in far off places. Where we consider the poem separate from ourselves then we would not take comfort at its publication because it is no longer "in" us or our control. It has a life of its own now (which it had before but in a subjugated state) and may do "us" as much harm as good, as any other thing externalized to us may. Thus it may be said that in the ritual or memorial, we are brought together with those that we have lost. It is also true that the ritual, an event of the now, has become something very different from what it was. Not all rituals or memorials may bring the honor, use, or joy we might claim they deliver, and so we may chose to change the map of the past which we have created.


III. Reliving the Past

The past is a queer thing. Normative visions of the past paint a picture of home. "Remember where you came from" and "Never forget who you are," things like that. What this seems to tell us is that things transform. That is a disorienting experience. You go home and you look back (at yourself), and it seems unfriendly or otherworldly beautiful. We don't need to fall into cliches about idealizing the past to account for this. The past is wonderful and awful. It is something familiar yet strange. It is something we cannot look at, speak about, or hold. We are its inheritors, and it is with us, but no longer what it was. Jonathan Gil Harris talks about Untimely Matter and Temporally Explosive Matter. In a sense, both in the Derridian sense, but also how Harris articulates the concept, all matter is in a sense untimely or explosive. We have discusses the Hole or the Chaos which in a sense constitutes what we can speculate is the material universe, which depends on a kind of timelessness. Things become multi-locational, in time and space and quality. Physicists such as Einstein and Hawking likewise suggest that Space-Time behaves in such a material, folding, mixing manner. This is to say, that the past is a queer thing in more than how we remember it, but in how it remains present to us. It is "lost" but more like how knight errants may be lost in the fairy realm of our present reality.

Thus dividing this place, in time, space, and quality, is performative. It is undermined as we assert it but it is difficult (if possible) to become constituted without the performance. With different ecologies/maps of space-time ever competing and interpenetrating, "home" or "here" serves like the pronoun "I" insofar as it defines a space which Sara Ahmed says we expand into and saturate; thus expelling and asserting "others" in the process. Memories then can be seen as the "other" in us, because it speaks to a place and a person which has been abjectively rejected from the here and now. It is little surprise then that we may look on them with wonder, fear and awe. We have no escape from the past, because we cannot become impenetrable. We have no essential exteriority to the past. Although we cannot escape the past, we may learn how to find a life livable with it.

This is in a sense, one possible way to conceive of "Hell" without necessarily asserting an "after-life" or "judgement" as such. It merely requires the assertion that all time is in a sense always-already present with us. Every act leading up to, participating, and reverberating off from our present actions are bound up together. We cannot escape our past or the futures it created. Nor can we escape our present. There is suffering, insofar as there is suffering. But there is also the hope that together, there may be a sense of goodness (or at very least justice) however it might be understood. Thus, defining what may be a livable, good, or just life is a project for many many more attempted projects. And yet for the moment, we may tentatively say, that there is some sort of ethical imperative to find a way to live the past and I would hope in a way which "betters" both the past and present. It requires in a sense recognizing the past for its stark identity, but also its mutability and activity in the present which may lead to forgiveness, even self-forgiveness.

We may see this in such performances as Renaissance Fairs or Sci-Fi Conventions, both play with the idea of the past as a hard thing but also play with it as a present thing which we can transform to suit our needs. Having a Queen Elizabeth I which defies documented gender/racial/etc data may not be "historical" but it is a type of memory; memory as a map which may be remade or altered to perform the ethical demands of the present rather than enforce a perpetuation of traced/inscribed violence. We give up one way of knowing the past for another. Sometimes and places we need the past to be hard and distant. Other times and places we need the past to be soft and close. Looking back on a semester of academic and non-academic trauma, memory and performances, I can say as CS Lewis did, that what it means will continue to become itself as I become cognizant of more past, presents, and futures. What joys and suffering I experienced then, what joys and suffering I experience now in recalling it, and how I will experience them when I see the fruit (or lack there of) that came from it will undoubtedly change. I take a certain amount of comfort that it will continue to be with me and thus be in a sense at my disposal. I also take a degree of frustration that, yes, even while on vacation, the labor of the past sticks with me and I cannot escape it. Or at least, what I can remember.

More on the Space Trilogy

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