Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Memory As Activity: Collin Brooke and Proteins

I have finally gotten around to remembering to post this.

In his Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media, Collin Brooke, to make a long story short, rewrites the rhetorical canons through the lens of new media. I was particularly interested in his treatment of memory, given my own interests in cognitive science and the extended mind. With respect to memory, Brooke argues that with new media we can move away from the traditional and Platonic model of memory as absence/presence (or memory as storage) and towards memory as pattern and randomness. Brooke writes,
Perhaps more than any of the other five canons, memory is the one canon whose status as practice is in need of rehabilitation.
That is, memory is not simply or only about absence or presence (you either have a memory that is complete or incomplete), but is also, and perhaps more importantly, about the activity of constructing and dissolving "patterns over time," or what Brooke calls persistence. In this model, memory is not about accurately representing some past event (getting it right), but about constructing memories in particular ways for particular uses (and a lot of this, my psychoanalytical colleagues will justly point out, is unconscious, driven by desire, and thus exceeds critical engagement). Memory, in short, is not something we have; it is something we do.

All of which leads me to fascinating article in Smithsonian about "Making Memories." While the article is haunted by the specter of absence/presence (i.e., speaking of inaccurate or incomplete memories), it deals with memory research and therapeutic practice that are both very much in sync with Brooke's practical take on memory. Researcher Karim Nader has advanced the hypothesis that each time we remember something that memory is literally (at the level of proteins) rebuilt in the mind. That is, we do not simply access a memory in a brain as we remember it. Each time we remember we re-make the memory. For a bit of shorthand: as the Michael Keaton movie Multiplicity demonstrates, each time we re-make something it is slightly different from the original version. The organic reproduction of memory seems to work the same way. It explains, for instance, why Nader, and 73% of the rest of us, remember
seeing television footage on September 11 of the first plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center. But he was surprised to learn that such footage aired for the first time the following day.
The "very act of remembering," Nader argues, "can change our memories." We rebuild them, we reorganize them, new or related information is blended into them. It is not about storage so much as it is about stories.

The second part of this article, however, really puts this hypothesis to work (and in a way equally relevant to rhetoric and the work of moving people. I would nod her to Diane Davis' work on rhetoric and suggestion in her treatment of Kenneth Burke and Freud.). Alain Brunet, a psychologist, works with sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The hope is that caregivers might be able to weaken the hold of traumatic memories that haunt patients during the day and invade their dreams at night.
And they do this, simply put, by having PTSD sufferer remember their trauma while they are on drugs that inhibit the brain's ability to rebuild the memory, which Nader argues we do each time to remember something. Thus, each time the traumatic memory is remembered it is rebuilt weaker (it is made, to borrow from Brooke, less persistent). It is not, however, just that the memory goes away (this is to re-inscribe the presence/absence understanding of memory). It is, Brunet puts it,
They start to care less about that memory.
The ability to rewrite memories, far from ruining them in terms of accuracy (the presence or absence of true details) reconstructs memories that are less painful and debilitating.
In other words [the article concludes], it just might be what keeps us from living in the past.
And that, I guess, is kairos too.


  1. Have you checked out Ulmer's textbook Internet Invention? Its interest in the crossroads of subjective experience and collective history (resulting in mystory) seems right up your alley here--especially the Nader section.

  2. I like that you use the word "practice," because that lends itself to me making a point against Theory and for Literature: unlike theory, which can only allude to memory-as-practice, literature can actually give the reader practice in memory. Nothing against Brooke, but isn't this what Proust was doing more than 100 years ago? And doing better, I think, because he took a theory of memory and gave it life in the reader.

    But anyway, yeah! Right on.