April 8, 2008

The Habits of Remembrance by Steve Rushton is a text in response to Rehearsing Memory, 2007. 

It has appeared in The Collapse of Several Pillars, an exhibition catalogue for the exhibition Knowing Nothing of Agility, TENT, Rotterdam, 2007.


Let’s imagine that four people meet in order to remember something that happened a long time ago. Three of the people experienced the event and the fourth person was not alive when it happened. Now, they all agree that the event took place but each has a different interpretation of those events.

This collective remembering happens in the present and speaks of the past. So, let’s briefly consider time and its relation to memory.


There are different ways of understanding memory and each has its own technological logic. Some think of memory as a series of ‘snapshots’, others like to believe that memories are recorded like the ‘flash-back sequence’ in a movie, others think of the brain as some kind of sophisticated ‘hard drive’ that can retrieve and organize  ‘data’. An even older idea is the religious notion that memories are ‘transmitted’ in the same way that God transmits the truth of his existence to believers – this idea passed over to the age of radio, which at its inception was regarded as a strangely supernatural medium (disembodied voices floating on the ether). Today we are entering the era of ‘wearable memory’ – this is a little mobile camera that records the faces and voices of the people you encounter and, using recognition software, whispers their name in your ear when you next meet. In this final scheme memory becomes something radically exterior to us – memory can only be understood as ‘information’ and we also become in some way information machines, exchanging information with other machines. The camera has always been the prosthesis of memory (a tool of verification of the past) but today our mobile phone can take any number of snapshots of the most trivial thing – why memorise something when you can take a more reliable snap shot? Why remember a name when your wearable memory can do it for you?

But such an argument avoids asking what memory actually is – is it something more than information, is memory more than a retrieval system, or more than the flashing dance of synapses – those tiny transmitters in our dark skulls?



To talk about memory as a snapshot is an interesting starting point (principally because there’s so much wrong with the notion that it helps us think about other modals of what memory might be). We can imagine the snapshot as a particle of the past that is fixed – and this very idea encourages us to believe that there is such a thing as the past, present and future. But maybe the past, present and future aren’t what we assume them to be.


Bergson uses a photographic metaphor to help us understand a different conception of time to the one we habitually understand. The snapshot in Bergson is the object which divides and which underlines the artificiality of the ‘thing’ and the ‘state’. When we understand a memory as a snapshot it betrays our natural tendency, our habit, of dividing time from the continuity of our inner life But the metaphor of the snapshot is useful to make us aware of our habits of thinking, so that he can then describe time as the “very fluidity of our inner life”, or as “The present ceaselessly reborn” To help us understand this idea the fluidity of our inner life, which is embodied time and memory, Bergson tells us this story:


“A melody to which we listen with our eyes closed, heeding it alone, comes close to coinciding with this time which is the very fluidity of our inner life; but it still has too many qualities, too much definition, and we must efface the difference among the sounds, then do away with the distinctive features of sound itself, retaining of it only the continuation of what precedes into what follows and the uninterrupted transition, multiplicity without divisibility and succession without separation, in order finally to rediscover basic time. Such is immediately perceived duration, without which we would have no idea of time.”…



In considering the nature of time Bergson finds it necessary to proceed through negative definition, to describe what time is not in order to construct a notion of what time is. He proceeds by describing time as proceeding from the very fluidity of our inner life. He then goes on to describe how we pass from an ‘inner time’ to the ‘time of things’. Here Bergson breaks the illusion of the division between the interior and exterior self (“a surface film of matter in which perceiver and perceived coincide”) by suggesting that such divisions are illusory. In the above quotation we are invited to imagine the nature of time by progressively denuding a property that passes through it (music) of its characteristics, and we are consequently left with the mere experience of embodied time. It is common for us to lose touch with the nature of basic time because we habitually tend to spacalize it, cutting into its indivisible continuity and viewing aspects of the world as if they are static entities (snapshots). But Bergson’s time is not essentially logical, in the sense that it can be examined on the scientific bases which philosophy traditionally accords it. As Wildon puts it: “[Bergson’s notion of] time as duration [durée] can only be lived through intuition, a form of apprehension that is qualitatively distinct from representation and that overcomes spacalization through effectuating a certain fusion with the very flux of time itself.” In Bergson, therefore, we can see a means through which we can recognize the various technologies that spatialised time, that materialize and memorialize it, as well as philosophical notions that attend such technologisation. These technological views of time, these habits of thinking, are set against a view of life as being constitutive of the flow and change that is duration itself. Similarly consciousness and memory are indivisible from the same flux and represent an indeterminate interval, a virtual state between states which is nevertheless real. To commit only a slight injustice to Proust, memory might be seen as: “real without being actual, ideal without being abstract.” The influence of Bergson on Proust centers on Proust’s understanding of time as movement. Time is ‘regained’, for instance, precisely through this movement – memory is transformed in remembering, where the past is remade in a present ceaselessly reborn.




Financial Times, Digital Bussiness section, p.5 May 30, 2007

Bergson, H., Duration and Simultaneity, Clinamen,1999, p.30

ibid, p.p30

ibid, p 30

ibid, p., p.30

ibid, p.p 31

Wildon, C., “Bergson’s Theory of Knowledge and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity”, Lecture to the Lyceum Club, 2000, p.1

Proust, M., in Remembrance of Things Past, speaks of the past as “real without being actual, ideal without being abstract.” Proust, M., À la recherche du temps perdu, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1987-9, volume four, p.453..


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