Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Memory And The Imagination

This is a brief note. But it is something I've been thinking about for a little while not.

The best reference I can make is to Nicholas Carr's chapter on memory in his book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. In that chapter, he responds to claims that the internet has made memory obsolete because we can look up anything at any moment.

Carr claims that this is false because it misunderstands that practical benefits of human memory, namely, the relationship between memory and creativity. He cites an author who says something about how building a great memory of other writers is different from pure recording because memories mix in your mind and create a unique combination, a nectar of your own mind.

When I read something, I don't read it independently of all the other things I have read. My understanding from other books melds and blends with this new book. My memory of those books mingles with my forming memories of this new book. I then come up with something new, I take something away from the book that wasn't in the book because I have managed to combine my reading of that book with prior learning.

How am I to conceptualize this process? Why is memory so important?

I think Collingwood's theory of the imagination can help with these questions.

Collingwood defines the imagination as the space between raw sensations and ideas. In that space we can consciously manipulate traces of sensation, re-experience them, recombine them, and come up with something new. Every passing feeling leaves a trace, an echo, of itself. By using consciousness we can focus on an emotional trace, imagine it more firmly in our minds, and transform it into an idea, a clearly held image.

Collingwood claims that memory is merely a property of the imagination: "it is probable that what we call remembering an emotion is never anything but thus focusing our attention on the traces it has left in our present feeling. The same is perhaps true of recalling a colour, or sound, or scent. Memory, in this sense of a somewhat ambiguous word, is perhaps only fresh attention to the traces of a sensuous-emotional experience which has not yet entirely passed away" (The Principles Of Art, 211).

Thus we can see the relationship between memory, imagination, and creativity. Not really. I haven't explained it entirely.

I also wanted to talk about Zizek's claim that freedom is inherently retroactive and how Collingwood's work on the imagination also helps illuminate that idea. I first read about it in In Defense Of Lost Causes, which was published in 2006. I then watched a lecture of his from 2009 where he referred to it. In both cases he cannot explain this idea very clearly. Put most succinctly, freedom is inherently retroactive because every true act 'retroactively creates the conditions for its own possibility'. He likes to use Kafka as an example. He talked on both occasions about how authors before Kafka like Proust or someone else were seen as Kafka's predecessors. But before Kafka those people weren't somehow inevitably leading to Kafka. It is Kafka's choices and actions that make them his predecessors. This somehow means that Kafka retroactively created the conditions of his own possibility.

The only way I have been able to think about this is with Collingwood's ideas about the imagination. What I take Zizek to mean is that what we take in, our raw experiences, are a huge variety of traces that we can choose or not to choose to seize upon. That our experiences are always deterministic in some ways, we only experience what we are exposed to, especially as children. But through the use of consciousness and the imagination we can seize on our experiences and recombine them in certain ways to make new decisions. Why is this a retroactive creation of the conditions of possibility of that action? Because I could potentially have traces in my mind that could lead to fruitful new ideas, but I could fail to cease on those possibilities through lack of imaginative exertion. But if I do seize on a combination of traces, it is only through my will, my consciousness and imagination that I have coalesced those traces into a clear idea. Thus somehow, through will retroactively creating the conditions of possibility for that thought or action.

I don't know if that makes sense.

But like I said I'm struggling for ways to think about Zizek's claim that freedom is inherently retroactive. His examples aren't entirely clear and he seemed at a loss on how to express it in his 2009 lecture. So far Collingwood's theory of the imagination is the only thing helping me.

I hope to write more on this issue of retroactive freedom.

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