August 8, 2009

Memory. Ethics.

I love NPR. I was listening to the local NPR station here in Seattle this morning and came across a little program about memory. When it comes down to it, memory seems to be the crux of what matters - if we don't remember or make connections between our past and current selves, between past events and present and future ones, very little matters - at least to us.

Well, there was a researcher in psychology on the program and she was asked how early we actually begin to remember. Apparently, there is this phenomenon called 'infant amnesia', where we often don't have memories before the age of three years old. She said there are a multitude of theories on why this is the case, but she mentioned one that was particularly compelling to me. She said that before the age of three, little humans are not capable of autobiographical recall. In other words, before this age, we don't know how to tell stories about ourselves. Around three years old, we begin to craft the world around us into a narrative and we center ourselves on that stage. It is only with this telling that we begin to form memories. I was really fascinated by this because of the emphasis on storytelling and narrative as a means of not just shaping the world, but actually as the root of memory.

Now, of course, memory comes in many forms. For example, I always use a Mac - except where I work in Paris - there I use a PC. Those PCs have French keyboards on them and the letters are jumbled a bit to match the French language. Now every time I sit down at a PC, in France or not, I type as if it were a French keyboard. It is like my fingers have memory.

Relatedly, I play the piano. We all played the piano at my parent's house and there were years where I played a lot of piano here. I sat down again to play while I've been home and I picked out a Chopin Nocturne I learned and teased out and played over and over on the piano here. My fingers flew through the difficult passages that always trip me up when I play elsewhere. My fingers remembered. They recognized the feel of the keys, the weight of them, or maybe the piano remembered me.

And there are many more forms of memory that probably have nothing to do with storytelling. But back to that. Storytelling. So, I've thought about it. My sister Julie and my dad read more than anyone else I know. They devour books. Julie thinks in narrative form. When we talk, I often feel that I am following a narrative and am compelled by this. She went on a Mormon mission to South Africa and her letters home were gripping narratives of unlikely characters, tragic and strong in the same moment. I admire Julie's stories because she is so articulate. It comes from reading. Similarly, anyone who knows my dad is stunned by his recall - in political events, or figures, or the chronology of a famous life - he kills us in trivial pursuit. The narrative line drives him less, perhaps, but he retains so much because he reads so much.

While I was doing my master's degree in Oxford, I came across a philosopher named Emmanuel Levinas. I was focusing on ethics, feminist ethics, and was interested in Levinas' ideas about 'the other.' Lots of philosophers have dealt with the idea of the other and its relation to ethics, but Levinas, for me, stood apart in his view. To Levinas, subjectivity (even ontology) is dependent on the other. We are not if we are not responsible for the other. So, taken to its end, ontology (being) cannot be separated from ethics.

I really related to this. Ethics is often treated as just a branch of philosophy, but here, I appreciated his insistance on the primordial nature of the human relationship. And then philosophy is always slippery, because ideas are so potent and gripping, yet their application is often so futile and frustrating. At the time, I was looking at policy surrounding gender issues and how a theory like Levinas' could actually influence this type of policy formation. I came across a grippping idea about literature and empathy. (So, now I am coming back to the storytelling bit and memory). Literature is a tool for ethics. In our struggle to face the other - in essence, to be - empathy is required. And it is sometimes through storytelling and narrative that we can actually perform our ethical duty to the other because it allows for an affective (emotional) projection into another perspective.

So, I guess my point is stories are powerful. Stories are the bedrock of memory. We 'are' by telling stories and reading stories and hearing stories.



Jill said...

I love stories. I love your stories. Keep telling them!

Cindy said...

Oh Emilie, I love the way you think! I love the way you took this idea about memory and extended it into an exploration of stories. I especially appreciate your thoughts about how memory needs to be extended into something relational in order for it to become a practical reality. It makes me wonder about the development of ourselves as we begin life so overwhelmed by the presence of others that before the age of three we are simply reacting to them and unable to recognize that we have an essence at all? After that does our self image become reliant on the reactions of others to us? Do we begin to adjust ourselves by observing the responses of those we love to our actions? Personally, that seems to have been the process for me, and at this point in my life, I am also experiencing the remarkable joy of recognizing the way that God might see me. It changes my vision of myself and frees me to live more authentically with those around me. I find myself spending less energy trying to interact in the "right" way with others (in order to get good responses) and more energy expressing this new joy and inviting others to experience it as well. I see that joy in you seem to have a confidence in who God created you to pours out of you and is truly beautiful. Thanks for this thoughtful posting...

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