Let me step back, for a moment, from the abstract contemplation of concrete phenomena in the world, to consider how it is that we think abstractly at all. I’ve been fascinated, for a few years now, by the possibility of historicizing epistemology by connecting abstract thinking with processes of abstraction that operate in everyday life in capitalism; the path-breaking work here is that of Alfred Sohn-Rethel and his theory of the “real abstraction”.
I was provoked to return to this line of thought by a news story about a remarkable medical case, a woman with perfect memory:
James McGaugh is one of the world’s leading experts on how the human memory system works. But these days, he admits he’s stumped.
McGaugh’s journey through an intellectual purgatory began six years ago when a woman now known only as AJ wrote him a letter detailing her astonishing ability to remember with remarkable clarity even trivial events that happened decades ago.
Give her any date, she said, and she could recall the day of the week, usually what the weather was like on that day, personal details of her life at that time, and major news events that occurred on that date.
. . .
McGaugh has spent decades studying how such things as stress hormones and emotions affect memory, and at first he thought AJ’s memories were of such emotional power that she couldn’t forget them.
But that hypothesis fell short of the mark when it became obvious that “the woman who can’t forget” remembers trivial details as clearly as major events. Asked what happened on Aug 16, 1977, she knew that Elvis Presley had died, but she also knew that a California tax initiative passed on June 6 of the following year, and a plane crashed in Chicago on May 25 of the next year, and so forth. Some may have had a personal meaning for her, but some did not.
This remarkable case, if it is indeed as described, is a real life version of Ireneo Funes, the protagonist of the Jorge Luis Borges story “Funes the Memorious” (or, in the 1998 Hurley translation, “Funes, His Memory”). Here is Borges’ narrator describing Funes:
With one quick look, you and I perceive three wineglasses on a table; Funes perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Rio Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho. Nor were those memories simple–every visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, and so on. He was able to reconstruct every dream, every daydream he had ever had. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day; he had never once erred or faltered, but each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day. “I, myself, alone, have more memories than all mankind since the world began,” he said to me. And also: “My dreams are like other people’s waking hours.” And again, toward dawn: “My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap.” A circle drawn on a blackboard, a right triangle, a rhombus–all these are forms we can fully intuit; Ireneo could do the same with the stormy mane of a young colt, a small herd of cattle on a mountainside, a flickering fire and its uncountable ashes, and the many faces of a dead man at a wake. I had no idea how many stars he saw in the sky.
But for Funes, perfect memory is not an asset–it is a curse:
I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very good at thinking. To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars–and they were virtually immediate particulars.
One wonders, then, what sort of thinker is AJ, our real life Funes? In the story, Funes is physically crippled; Borges implies that he is also intellectually crippled by his “gift”. AJ is not, as one might expect, incapacitated by her prodigious memory–she has lived a fairly normal, functional life. Yet it does seem that she is subject to some of the same limitations as Funes, according to the original press release about her:
There are limits to AJ’s memory. While she has nearly perfect recall of what she was doing on any given date and instantly can identify the date and day of the week when an important historical event in her lifetime occurred, she has difficulty with rote memorization and did not always do well in school. She scored perfectly on a formal neuropsychological test to measure her autobiographical memory, but during the testing had difficulty organizing and categorizing information. She refers to her ongoing remembering of her life’s experiences as “a movie in her mind that never stops”.
So it is true, as Borges supposed, that perfect memory is at odds with the actual process of thinking. This has implications for social theory, for it demonstrates the complex relationship between empirical sense-data and conceptual abstraction–and it supports the type of dialectical thought recommended by Marxists like Bertell Ollman:
Dialectics restructures our thinking about reality by replacing the common sense notion of “thing” (as something that has a history and has external connections with other things) with notions of “process” (which contains its history and possible futures) and “relation” (which contains as part of what it is its ties with other relations). Nothing that didn’t already exist has been added here. Rather, it is a matter of where and how one draws boundaries and establishes units (the dialectical term is “abstracts”) in which to think about the world. The assumption is that while the qualities we perceive with our five senses actually exist as parts of nature, the conceptual distinctions that tell us where one thing ends and the next one begins both in space and across time are social and mental constructs. However great the influence of what the world is on how we draw these boundaries, it is ultimately we who draw the boundaries, and people coming from different cultures and from different philosophical traditions can and do draw them differently.
Ollman’s methodology, Borges’s narrative, and AJ’s example all militate against the misconception that we can arrive at truth through a mere accumulation of information; to Ollman’s principle of drawing boundaries between sensory qualities, we can add the importance of excluding some sense-data while retaining others. These examples are therefore a defense of the usefulness of social theory, both for understanding the world and for changing it. But I think the discussion of memory and abstraction also has something to say about a little discussion I had with Geoff recently, about the new types of subjectivity that are encouraged by the Internet. In a way, the Internet is a cyborg appendage which gives us all Funesian memory: a machine which preserves every random bit of information, and every comment on that information, eternally. The argument I have sketched so far suggests that this is as likely to imped
e our ability to think, as it is to facilitate it.
So perhaps the question facing us is: in an environment where every memory is preserved, how do we devise new principles for forgetting?