Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Blog as an Aid to Forgetting

The sitemeter to my blog tells me several things, one of which is to which blog post someone traveled. Occasionally I follow the trail to see where they went. So the other day someone in Ohio went to this blog post. As I read it, I realized that I had forgotten reading Hix's book, let alone writing about it seven months ago. Re-reading what I had written was an aid to memory. A complicated memory, that, in which I recovered the memory of the book by way of remembering (mentally reconstructing) the post I wrote about it. And then I remembered caring about the book, feeling its affects.

In fits and starts, I'm reading Jonathan K. Foster's Memory: A Very Short Introduction. Early on, he offers up the conundrum that our memory of ordinary objects is not as good as we might think. Consider coins: penny, nickel, quarter. I quickly realized that I could not draw any of these coins accurately (beyond making them round). Which direction does Lincoln's head face? Washington's? What and where is the writing on these coins, and what the images on the back? Where are the dates? What extra markings are there on each coin? My husband remembered a bit better; he used to collect coins, after all. But even he failed to remember significant details about each coin.

[click to enlarge--or better remember]

It's hardly important to remember the content of the coin, since it is all symbolic (actual) value. If I give you a quarter, neither of us needs to know what's on it. (Though I now feel bad for whoever designed the coin; their work is so very present to its audience that no one attends to it!). I enjoy remembering that Wallace Stevens's wife's face graced the dime before Roosevelt took her place, although she too was rendered into symbol, Winged Liberty. And I sure couldn't draw it, so here's Wikipedia to the rescue.

What does it mean that we never actually look at those things we use habitually? That forgetting them means not attending to them in the first place (forgetting to look, that is, instead of forgetting what one saw)? It's surely a different problem from that of forgetting habits, like talking, like walking, like swallowing, which are part of Alzheimer's disease. But it does suggest a kind if dis- or perhaps over-ease with our surroundings.

This Fall I'm teaching Foundations of Creative Writing to incoming MA students. I hope none of them is reading this blog post, because I intend to start out by asking them to draw coins. We will then read Kathleen Stewart's wonderful, odd book, Ordinary Affects. The first line of copy about the book reads as follows: "Ordinary Affects is a singular argument for attention to the affective dimensions of everyday life and the potential that animates the ordinary." Suffice it to say that, having read it a couple of years back, I don't remember it very well, but I do recall its effects. They were much like those I felt in watching the short film about Glenn Gould sitting in the truck stop listening to voices and sounds become a fugue. Stewart enters public places and sits down. She allows the world to come to her, and she sets it down. That is not just what she does, that is also her theory of what she does.

This is what sitting with memories does. Not as violent or as dramatic as the Roman aids to memory, where events or lines of speeches were mentally staged for quick retrieval, this notion of memory involves quiet sitting. One has an audience for one's memories. (Picture yourself either the Pope or Mickey Mouse.) They come to call, then depart. They call in another. And sometimes they are very strange indeed. I have a persistent memory of walking between buildings at the University of New South Wales with Hazel Smith in 2001. I have no idea what we were saying to one another. The buildings were ordinary. The sky was blue. Nothing about the scene called for re-collection (unlike Harvey Hix's book about a woman who discovers late that she was adopted, a subject close to my concerns as an adoptive mother). So why did it stick? Even more oddly, perhaps, that memory does not stick to other memories, except perhaps to the young man hawking a newspaper on the same campus whose headline was loudly anti-American. When I reached for the newspaper, he said it cost $2 and I made an awkward quip about Americans taking things as I walked past. But most often, the campus memory is discrete--so discrete I cannot say why it is there. (And "there" is where, I wonder.)

Jonathan K. Foster describes two kinds of memories, the flashbulb memory (what a fossil metaphor that is!) and the reminiscence bump. The former involves a public memory, the assassination of Kennedy, the Challenger disaster, 9/11; the latter tells us that we remember best what happened during late adolescence and early adulthood. These are dramatic events, years of sturm und drang (speaking only for myself, of course). But what of those ordinary, bland, dumb memories like the walkway between buildings at UNSW? Of course it happened in a place to which I'm not accustomed; there is that. But more dramatic events happened in Australia.

Which brings me back to the ordinary. Even in that rather ordinary dictionary, Merriam-Webster, the word has several meanings in advance of the one I consider ordinary. Before the sense of "regular" and "predictable" and "habitual," I find this: "a clergyman appointed formerly in England to attend condemned criminals ." The ordinary has the power (he is higher on the hierarchy than the condemned criminal); he also has the power in the church to govern. To govern the tongue is to be an ordinary of speech? And ordinary speech is then one that is governed?

A fellow editor described my book on dementia as being about "the quotidian." I was a bit taken aback, as Alzheimer's disease hardly seems ordinary. (Although I was also taken aback because he grouped together "books by women about the quotidian" in his sentence.) But in the sense that the ordinary is what governs our attention, and our attention is what gives us meaning, then so be it. According to M-W, attention is not simply the act of paying . . . of noticing, but also " to go or stay with as a companion, nurse, or servant." Let us be companions, then, and attend to the ordinary, even if it is (best? inevitably?) forgotten. Condemned, even.


Bill said...

Reading of "reminiscent memory" of youth made me glad I was hitting the books then, a lot of memories come not just as objects but have subjective duration. Then the problem for me is that these longer strings of thought are boiled down into opinion, not tested by the developments of new thinking.

susan said...

But aren't memories perpetually rewoven? Many of my memories from that time are awful, but re-encountering them sometimes alters their charge. Anyway, thanks for reading, and also for the zen memoir on your blog.

Bill said...

Yes. A charge. I see what you mean. Fixing the house has led me to get zapped by a live wire and it is a very strong memory. Interesting how awful memories can cloud all others. I am starting to remember good things, not just the bad, from then.
Thanks. And thanks for looking at the zen blog. I'm still editing. I get lost with quotes that end a sentence. Have to look that up again.