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April 20, 2009

A discussion of memory, matter and media…

So where’s this “edge” we’ve been hearing about for a good twenty years? First it was “cutting,” then it was “leading”. Somewhere along the way it acquired a “y” and became an adjective. Then “edge” lost its edge, and “edgy” joined “quirky” and “snarky” on the list of unfortunate millennial terms that had the meaning squeezed from them.

It seems the further we head down the media river, the more we see that the creation of the new is a process of remembering and reprocessing the old. As Henri Bergson argued more than a century ago in Matter and Memory, our very perception of the material world is conditioned by the memories we bring to bear on it. We are in constant interaction with this world, taking in its dangers and roadblocks and mysteries and rewards. The more we take in, the more memory we can bring to bear on the next thing we see or sense. Memory, as Bergson puts it, “comes out to meet” the perception, enriching what we see, fleshing out the vision, adding conceptual awareness, and provoking associations. We collage past and present visions and see the object as it exists for us not only in space but in time.

What happens when perceived matter collides with memory? How do we begin to see not only the matter before our eyes, but the various “memory-images” within our imagination? Bergson argued that memories are not simply “stored up” in our mind as full-spectrum sensory phenomenon. Rather, he argued that a triggered memory consists of “vibrations” along a “thread”; these vibrations call upon distant sensory centers of the brain to recompose an image in the mind.

Subsequent scientific research has borne out Bergon’s extraordinary insights from 1896. In their 2000 book, Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination, the neuroscientists Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tononi describe a process very much like Bergson’s: With no central processor running the show, the brain’s far frontiers communicate and coordinate with one another to reassemble –and often recombine– images from our past. Edelman and Tononi call this process reentry. It is, they say, at the very root of human consciousness. The remaking of past perceptions is the key to current perception, effective action, reflection, imagination, and creativity. It is my belief that this internal, individual process is recapitulated in the wider processes of social communication, artistic creation, and the forging of cultural identity.

I hope this space will provide a useful forum for the discussion of memory, image, and society. In future posts, I will return to Bergson, and will discuss media and, especially, cinematic artifacts both as works of art and in their cultural contexts. I have two primary goals for this discussion: first, to gain insight into the creative process itself, and to identify the ways in which memory, deployed in different ways, can enrich or stifle it; second, to consider how memory functions in the social arena to either create a hegemonic narrowing of the range of expression, or to enlarge that range by injecting idiosyncratic, even ambiguous, perception into the cultural conversation.

You will find that a good number of my observations come from the world of Russian cinema, which I have studied for a number of years and am always happy to discuss.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 20, 2009 1:13 pm

    Hi, this is a comment.
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