(above) Memory Field 1.
Human memory is an especially contemporary mystery. For all the advances in knowledge in the past century or so, we really don’t know how memory works, that is, how we are able to remember things that happened in the past. For much of that past, it has been assumed that memories are stored in the brain, much as in a storage cabinet or, more recently, in a digital computer. And yet. the more we understand about the brain, the less likely this seems. For one thing, there is simply not enough neural capacity in the brain to store a lifetime of memories, if we consider them as discrete little packages that we retrieve on demand. For another, if memory were simply a matter of retrieval, then memory would be more nearly perfect than it is. Not only do different people have different memories of the same past things, but each of us remembers the same thing differently at different times. This suggests that memories are not discrete packages, but fluid in their form and content, and the act of remembering is almost a matter of their being assembled anew for every recollection. This, in turn, suggests that memories are not stored at all, but rather continually reinvented from some kind of mental raw material available in the brain at any given time. There is no accepted scientific theory of memory that would explain such a process.
Jorge Luis Borges. in his short story, Funes the Memorious, forcefully introduces the antithesis of memory, which is forgetting. His protagonist is a man who has locked himself into a completely dark and silent room because he remembers everything and can’t forget anything. Overwhelmed, he is simply unable to endure any new experiences and the memories they produce. It’s a nightmarish dilemma, one that makes us realize how important forgetting is and also gives us some insight into how memory might work. Whatever the neural mechanism, there is a limit that can be reached emotionally: each of us can only cope with so many memories before a breakdown looms. The human psyche is limited by the personality of the individual who possesses it, which is formed by precise, unique experiences, different for each of us. Funes had his limits—we will certainly have our own, different ones.
Our limits are significantly defined by our capacity for forgetting. Funes could not forget. Fortunately, most of us can. What is the mental/neural process of forgetting? How do we un-remember? This is equally important as how we remember. Whether forgetting clears neural space for more remembering, or whether it prepares us emotionally to handle new memories, is not clear. Indeed the processes of remembering and forgetting may be linked in ways we do not yet know or imagine, but they are almost certainly mutually interdependent.
In a recent review of the book, “Memory: Fragments of a Modern History,” by Alison Winter, author-critic Jenny Diski writes a summary of findings by neuro-physiologists of the chemistry of remembering:
“A traumatic experience is accompanied by a surge of adrenal stress hormones which increases the strength of the memory. and each time the event is recalled, a renewed rush of epinephrine and cortisol reinforces the event’s emotional impact and its ease of recall. In other words, each time you recall something awful, the memory and its associated distress are strengthened. The trauma is recreated and enhanced with every recollection.”
If this is true, then forgetting is especially important in our coping with traumatic experiences, such as those arising from 9/11, written about on my last post here. Memorials celebrating death, destruction, and loss keep the wounds caused by the trauma they cause painfully open, rather than help heal them. Whether this is desirable or not is a matter of personal and social choice, and how important it is for individuals and their community to keep feeling the pain caused by particular experiences. This choice will shape the character of an individual and his or her community.
Learning—the creation of knowledge—often emerges from painful experiences. We learn not to put our hand in a fire because, no matter how tempting it is to find out what fire feels like, the pain has taught us that it doesn’t feel good. That is a memory we would do well not to forget. But there are other painful experiences that have taught us little or nothing, or have taught us something we don’t know what to do with, such as being caught in the crossfire of a war-zone, a situation that has nothing to do with our volition or choice, but with decisions made by others. The only thing we can learn from the experience is how to recover from it, and that is a creative act of our choice that requires our transcending the pain, that is, not merely reliving it by remembering, but transforming the memory into something entirely new and affirmative.
This is what I had in mind in the War and Architecture projects of the 1990s, which addressed war-damaged buildings and their reconstruction. The SCAR constructions don’t celebrate violence, destruction and death, but rather the creative healing of the wounds they have caused.
This is a critical distinction to make and I must admit that many have had trouble making it. Perhaps only artists of one sort or another—including what might be called ‘artists of life’—can make the distinction and act upon it. I was convinced when I made the projects—but not so now—that those who had lived through the trauma of war were best able to understand deeply its losses and also the necessity to transcend them, in short, to build a new society and its city. It was a romantic and much too heroic vision that badly underestimated most people’s need to regain what had been lost, impossible as that is. For this reason, the War and Architecture projects and those for the reconstruction of Sarajevo, have not been useful in the reconstruction of that war-damaged city. People have preferred to remember what they lost through war than to ‘cut their losses’—forget it—and move on, making for themselves and others to follow something new from the ruins of the old.
(above) SCAR construction, Sarajevo, 1993.
(below) Memory Field 1+n: