Thursday, May 8, 2008

Memory, Experience, & Records

Tyler Cowen has touched off a vicious flame war with his musings on the virtues of taking photographs as a means of supplementing, if not prospectively constructing, memories. Andrew Sullivan responds:

Sometimes, being there, without mediation, without worrying about whether one day it will be forgotten, just being there is what matters. Life is now; and when we obsess about storing it for the future, we forget to experience it in the only way we truly can: in the present. [emphasis in original]
From across the sea, Norm Geras responds to both Sullivan and Cowen:
[E]ven if it is true that recording the event - taking photos, taking notes - while you're there obliges you to pay attention in a way you otherwise might not, it doesn't always follow that your memory of it will be more vivid. The process of recording can itself get in the way of observing with full concentration. It can also happen that the record you have made itself becomes your memory of it, displacing images or aspects that might otherwise have remained with you.
OK, OK, it's not a flame war at all, and there's nothing approaching viciousness. Sometimes I exaggerate for effect, other times simply because I can.

I am an obsessive keeper of records: not only the taker of photographs but the writer of this precious, precious blog, one of whose purposes is to leave a record of the kinds of things I thought I could get away with whining about publicly at specific times in my life. I have always been a backward-looking, melancholic sort of troll; I can literally recall being a second-grader and waxing wistfully about my memories of first grade and kindergarten. Ah, those were the times. (See what I mean?)

As I look over the fields of memory, I see an expanse of nested golden springtimes, each tragically lost to the glare and heat of subsequent experience. (I am also irresistably drawn to horrible, overcooked figuration. It's a sickness, like itchy genital warts. See what I mean?) My writing from two months ago is always funnier, sharper, and better phrased than the crap I'm extruding today, and I guarantee I thought the same thing two months ago about my writing from four months ago, just as I'm sure I'll say the same thing two months from now about what I'm writing now. Apparently I believe I was writing at a Shakespearean level if I follow it back enough two-month intervals. So go the delusions I can't quit for all the sense they fail to make.

As for photography, I tend to Norm's view on this: not only do I accept that photographs will often displace my direct memories of experiences, I am glad they will because my long-term memory is poor. I have been taking at least one photograph of my son every day since he was born, and I'm pleased to say I've kept that going with few and brief breaks in his nine years. I am glad I have done so because I know I would lose track of his appearance and growth over time without the long trail of records, and knowing how I do like to return to the past, I would regret not having the ability to review and reflect.

Whereas my son is forming countless memories of his dad pointing a camera at him during the most unremarkable of moments -- sitting in a chair, taking a bite of food, coming down the stairs -- and we've had to agree to disagree about the wisdom of this obsessive record-keeping. If his memory turns out to be as as poor as mine and similarly warped, I like to believe he'll someday manage to see all those camera flashes as the glint from a bright byegone Eden.

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