Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Total Recall

During my continuing efforts to repopulate the memory centers of my computer, I've started noticing how often the concept of memory itself comes up in everyday life. As I was attempting (for about the four hundredth time since I formally retired) to clear off my desk, I noticed a little 3.5" floppy disk labeled with my old airmail dot net e-mail address, "netscape mail files," and the date 07 14 01. Now this isn't exactly what I lost in The Big Dump, but using the little USB drive I mentioned last post, I discovered that there were about three years worth of correspondence between my Dad, stepmother, me, and my children on the diskette. This amounts to about 800 or so pages of text, describing the events of the moment: my grandmother's hundredth birthday, my son's twenty-first, my mother's deportation from Taiwan (and subsequent arrival in Dallas)--and I'm only up to about p. 229.

All of this fills in great gaps in my physiological memory, and in many ways brings my father back to me (he died in 2004) because his voice is so present in his letters.

At the same time, I just finished rereading Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars (and some of the short stories in The Martians), in which the question of how memory works when people live to be 300 years old comes up frequently. In one story, a couple of characters who had met many years before discuss who remembers whom (one does remember the meeting, the other doesn't)--and after yesterday's romp through my own half-forgotten life, this reinforces the idea that if we do want to remember stuff, we need to work at it.

When I was teaching my introduction to the humanities course, one of the topics I explored every quarter was memory, and the role art plays in preserving it. The Annenberg Learner resources provide a lovely video on this very topic, called "History and Memory," a segment of their Art Through Time: A Global View series, and the film provided my students with a brief introduction to the importance of art as a means of preserving cultural and personal histories. The more I thought about it, the more it became clear that art is central to the whole idea, and that arts like sculpture, painting, literature, music--all the creative efforts we undertake--are means of preserving memory.

One of my favorite objects, used to illustrate discussions of both memory and the development of writing, is the Lukasa, or "memory board" developed by the Luba People of the Congo. I first learned about it on CBS Sunday Morning episode (which I remember clearly because I bought a VHS copy of the segment and showed it frequently in class) which featured an exhibit entitled Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (1996) curated by anthropologist Mary Nooter Roberts. The boards are covered by beads and/or bumps in patterns and arrangements that allow the Mbudye (a specially trained tribal historian who uses the Lukasa) to recall the past. The patterns vary widely, but on one early image search (in about 1997) I remember (!) seeing an aerial view of a Luba village which contained a number of circular houses that reminded me of the protrusions on one of the Lukasas I had seen in the film (probably this one, from the Met). The Lukasa is not, however, a physical map of a particular place, but more like a conceptual map of cultural experience. The one below is from the Brooklyn Museum, and contains both carved areas and beads. By fingering the elements, the storyteller remembers and recites stories and events.

I often thought of asking my students to create their own memory boards, but never did get around to it. I still think it would be a great personal project, especially for someone who wanted to reconnect with an African ancestral path.

Since one of my abiding interests is in museology (see Owl's Cabinet of Wonders--soon to undergo revamping and updating), the physical evidence of history as a tool of memory has been equally important, not only in my pedagogical life, but in my role as the unofficial family historian. I knew I'd taken over the mantle from my grandmother and my father when my stepmother handed over boxes of family documents during our visit in 2014. Hence my current efforts on Ancestry to tidy up the family tree, and my cataloguing projects associated with sorting through documents, photos, and memorabilia from both the paternal and maternal branches of my family.

In many ways, the human proclivity for preserving memories--and the numerous ways we find to do it--has been the focus of my academic life: archaeology, history of ideas, the role of technology in human creativity. So, despite the painful exercise I've undergone in the last couple of weeks, the loss of some documentary evidence has helped me uncover other sources, and has made me much more conscious of the necessity of backing things up.

The last two days have also taught me just how fast technological change occurs. The tiny memory and glacial speed of the machines and the internet in 1997 (when we gave my father a computer we had outgrown) seem positively archaic today. As I read the earliest of the letters (about setting up the machine and an e-mail account through Juno), I remembered sitting at my desk in our little Dallas hovel, listening to the sound of dial-up connections and experiencing the very long waiting times. Realizing that this all occurred nearly twenty years ago is even more astonishing to me, since in the intervening time span the Beloved Spouse and I have gone from debt-ridden, impoverished grad students (only one of whom had a full-time job) living in a now-demolished shack in East Dallas, to retired or nearly-retired debt-free home owners.  At the time, I could barely imagine what that might be like, or that it would ever be possible. And then I read the letters that recount how hard we worked to get here, and it somehow makes sense.

I often describe myself as an intentional pessimist, in the sense that if I expect the worst I won't be too awfully surprised or disappointed if bad stuff happens.  In truth, however, I tend to be more optimistic than I let on, and try to make the best of unhappy circumstances. So the recent loss of memory, whilst reminding me that I'll never be able to remember everything, has made me much more conscious of how important it is to curate the palace of memory rather more carefully in the future than I had been doing in the past.

Image credits: Mémoire Morte, by Michel Royon; Lukasa Memory Board, Brooklyn Museum. Both via Wikimedia Commons.

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