memory. culture. art.
Conceiving of reality
Text by Zoran Terzić

The following abstract is taken from the contribution “Making up time. Art, Memory and the Presence of Power” at the Berlin conference “Memory, Culture and Art”, July 2008

Our brain is structured in a way that enables or even forces us to detect meaningful forms in our surrounding even when there is no meaningful intention. Imagine coming across a branch of a tree that looks like an arm waving towards you. Once an object looks like something familiar it is difficult if not impossible to ignore the familiarity of it. That is to say, we cannot ignore familiarity even if we wanted to.

Similarly, whatever we anticipate or remember we always strive to adjust the form to a specific (familiar) content. And this is basically what for me the discourse or the politics of commemoration is about. Imagine instead of a tree a monument, a flag, a ritual, a speech – it always will “greet” you, remind you, and trigger specific memory contents that relate to you. You virtually cannot escape those contents. This is by the way the background of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s notion that it is impossible to step out of reality. However, at the same time nobody can really bear to deal with sheer factualness (e.g. the fact that one has to die or the experience of a crime etc.) which is why we delegate notions outside or beyond us, we invent "truth", "meaning" and other signifying tools in order to have something unreal to believe in to create an alternative reality (e.g. life after death, transcendent power of art, cultural identity, history etc.).

The concept of memory is such an invention, and in the current political arena it almost has the status of a religion. Festivities during memorial days have the taste of sermons. Accordingly, it is not facts and circumstances, but imagination, communication, and belief that are critical for cultural discourses that are usually discourses of the past. Contrary to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s axiom “the world is everything what is the case” our world is actually everything that is not the case or that once has been the case. We create memories in order to create consequences and thus: “cases”.

Our brains do not simply stockpile information like computers. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus. And every time we recall specific information our brain activates and re-creates the according neuronal patterns again. In time, facts are gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and are separated from the context in which they were originally learned. For example, you know that if you turn the light switch the light goes off, but you probably don't remember how you learned it. So, if you will, every light switch is a memorial for unconscious knowledge.

This phenomenon is known as source amnesia, and it can also lead people to deliberately forget whether a statement is false or true. Nietzsche writes somewhere that what is remembered and what one’s pride wishes to remember may be contradictory. Someone committed a crime, but his pride disclaims it. As Nietzsche points out, eventually the pride overcomes the memory. This is why some murderers or war criminals are “objectively” convinced that they did not commit a crime (after a while they truly believe in their innocence). Also, false memories can spread by emotional selection, rather than by their factual merits, encouraging the persistence of myths. The question arises how the process of inner commemoration – whether triggered by trivial objects, state ideology or by martial gestures – relates to externalized forms of commemoration. How does an official monument or other signifiers shape the process of inner recollection? What does it represent or trigger? And how does personal remembrance shape the politics and the strategy of externalization?
We need first to question our conception of memory, to find the right answers.


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