Ideally, memory is constituted from psychic materials retained from past experiences which are manifested explicitly within the individual’s comportment as learnt rules for life. Memory is retrievable and manipulatable. It is therefore more often than not, false memory. That is, false if that psychic material retained from the past and remaining active within present comportment, and as constituted by the unconscious, is true.
It is in the interest of social institutions to minimise the difficulty of memories. Social institutions have no other purpose than the processing of pre-approved memories as these are made to appear within populations. Approved memory is the raw material of social reproduction.
Tradition is a term used by social bodies (religions, political organisations, solidarity unions, cultural formations) for the dislocation from present awareness of those memory traces that are not directly contributory to social reproduction.
On the divergence of memory: the interest of the individual runs counter to that of social reproduction. For the individual, memory is divergent. His memories persuade him of the specificity of his own path, his own experiences. He seeks to realise, validate and objectify them. Social reproduction is convergent, it attempts to convince populations of the shared narrative of their experiences – that which is not collectively recalled may only be assigned marginal significance.
Jorge Luis Borges speculates that the Emperor Qin Shi Huang, in order to be rid himself of the memory of his libertine mother, ordered that the entire past of China be abolished. In this way, history would begin cleanly with himself, and thus without the contradictory and inexplicable complications of divergent memory (The Wall and the Books.)
The present seeks to restrict those psychic materials which are recalled as memories of the past. This is called voluntary memory. And it implies that the present is less a product of its history than history is a creation of the present. During the years from 213 to 206 BCE, Qin Shi Huang suppressed all histories that did not conform to ‘Legalist’ Confucianism. His goal was to suppress satire (and opposition) at its source. The convention of satire at that time was confined to making unfavourable comparisons between the lapsed present and the rigours of the past, as these were recorded in ancient texts.
Some 230 years earlier, the Greek lyric poet, Simonides of Ceo, had already invented voluntary memory which has since been called, The Method of Loci. This mnemonic method involves the creation of an imagined topography in which objects are consciously associated with locations (for example with the rooms of a house). The objects are then recalled by means of an imagined journey through the imagined locations. After Simonides, recorded memory has retroactively threaded through the process of social reproduction without ever having to meet the criteria of verification or accuracy. Retrieval and precedent have always proved sufficient in the short run.
Aessop’s fable The Lark visualises what might, by contrast, be called involuntary memory as this sits within the apparatus of inherited acquired traits. Involuntary memory is the primary means for reflecting upon the processes by which formations in the present have been shaped invisibly by the past.
The larks of the sky flew so high, and so early, that they preceded even the creation of the earth. They had neither need nor desire for a ground to which they could return. Whenever a lark died it was saved from falling forever, which is how the larks understood forgetting, by its nearest and dearest, who buried the beloved in their own skulls. In this way, the larks gained their distinctive crest.
Involuntary memory is the primary source of reflection upon, and thus divergence from, unconscious determination. It brings to consciousness, in violent realisation, a signal event, hitherto ‘forgotten’, which thereupon illuminates an entire set of hidden relations.
In the past, the past could be destroyed by the issuing of orders for the destruction of books. However, the anti-mnemonic methods of capitalist reproduction cannot be traced to deliberate strategies. It is probable that the obliteration of a sense of the significance of the past and of memory, in capitalised populations, is a fortuitous ‘exaptation’ in the reproduction of capital’s social institutions. The accidental, or secondary, etiolation of memory in populations, as realised by the invention of pseudo-traditions, has served a necessary ideological function: patriotism, cultural preferences, behavioural norms, political ideals are all predicated on a foundational loss of memory.
Dead labour is a weak term which does not convey what it actually is but instead seems to suggest that which is dormant or neutral. In reality, dead labour refers to that forgotten element of past human activity which remains active, and dominating, in present human relations. It is the socialised form of expropriated memory.
The increasing automation of human relations since the industrial revolution is the result of compression and storage of long sequences of human activity in machine form. When operational, such machines undertake long sequences of activity in a fraction of the time it would take ‘living’ labour to perform them. By this means, the machine achieves an identity between its programmed memory and its present function which thereby excludes both active memory and remembered activity from its space.
Entire sequences of life are coded and stored as capitalised memory. These sequences are retrieved only within the confines of industrial production and are deployed only to further the accumulation of further of capital.
Where machines perform in the places in which humans once endeavoured, capitalised memory restricts that space, and is itself restricted, to a specific convergent form.
Where machines remember, lived experience is limited to an eternalised present.
Extraneous memory is no longer suppressed as it once was by despotic social institutions but is drowned in a flood of surplus-accessible information, amongst which autonomous purpose loses its way.
The individual scale of memory, the scale by which significant past experience may inform decisions in the present is neither repressed nor negated by capitalism. However, it is fortuitously overwhelmed in the marketplace by the flows of de-signified memory traces, the greater part of which can have no functional purchase on the individual’s existence.
If the capacity for memory has been by-passed, it remains to be seen whether the divergent unconscious has been similarly disabled. If instantaneous information retrieval, and a surplus of irrelevant communication has disrupted the individual’s ability to focus, reflect, and decide upon that information which has direct relevance to his own existence, it is still not yet clear whether the individual is sensitive to convulsive memory.
The etiolation in popular memory of other models, by implication, increases the chances for survival of this model.
Penetration by the commodity form into the political practice of opposition has been commented upon since 1968. As a consequence, the problem set before communists since that year has always revolved around the degree of the commodity form’s reach into that which opposes it: is there anything in the social body which revolt might retrieve from itself that is not also already commodified?
The form taken by the events of the ‘Arab Spring’ (itself the corporate branding of the concept of revolt) seems to indicate that even involuntary memory has been colonised. Revolts in Egypt, for example, that were directed against the state were also staged openly in favour of specific brands of communications technology.