Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Memory & Time
Marla Morris considers both by philosophically remembering her teacher’s lectures, and his torn, yellowed lecture notes.
Andrew Reck was the most influential philosophy professor I studied with at Tulane University in the 1980s. Why is this important? Because our teachers matter; our professors matter. It is curious that hardly any academic philosophers write about their college professors. It must be said that I got the courage to write this piece because of an interview I read with philosopher Michael Zimmerman in Figure/Ground (May 24, 2015) who also stated that Andrew Reck was a major influence in his career.
I am now approaching sixty years of age. I still think about Dr Reck’s course on American Philosophy. I remember his handwritten lecture notes on yellowed paper. The paper was torn and ragged. The handwriting was scribbled. Or perhaps his lecture notes were typed. My memory is not exact. Perhaps it is totally wrong. Perhaps my mismemory – if that is what it is – is a wish fantasy, as Freud would say; it is my love affair with the romance of handwriting that I want to remember.
Whether the memory is true or not matters little to me. The memory in and of itself matters – even if I get it wrong. As the literary critic Harold Bloom once said about the interpretation of texts: every reading is a misreading. Well, perhaps every memory is a mismemory.
Image © Amy Baker 2020. Please visit instagram.com/amy_louisebaker
Twentieth century continental philosophers have had a lot to say about memory and time. Jacques Derrida’s work on archives demonstrates that an archive is never a monolithic, static thing. Archives, memory, and history are intertwined. Even if the contents of an archive remain unchanged, the archive will be seen in a new and ever changing light as time passes, memories evolve and more history accumulates. Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) argues that knowledge – that is, an inherited canon of beliefs – is completely fluid as the concepts involved continually change over time. What is taken for granted as true today is, more than likely, not the way things were taken as true one hundred years ago. Likewise, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) partly concerns the idea that being is time – that being itself (which in practice he largely equates with consciousness) is always already in motion. Being is not a ‘static substance’. I won’t get into the tedious discussion of the differences between beings and Being for Heidegger, but importantly, he points out that Western philosophy overflows with the idea that being is a substance, a static thing, not something always changing. (There are exceptions. Some of the pre-Socratics, such as Heraclitus, believed that everything is in flux.)
Time is one of the most difficult philosophical problems to untangle [but see our next issue! Ed]. The differences and similarities between history – events occurring in time – and memory – the way in which individuals recall what has happened – are fascinating. Does time passing matter when one tries to remember one’s own past? What does the past really mean? Can we really get at the past? Are our memories real? These questions that fascinated Sigmund Freud too. He intimated that in some ways it does not matter whether we get it right: in fact, we always misremember the past. What is important, Freud suggested, is what we do with memories psychologically. Do we use them to gloss over the past or forget certain things that trouble us?
Certainly Freud’s psychoanalytic method is based more on what we forget than what we remember. The repression of unacceptable thoughts and ideas is in play all the time as a psychological defense mechanism, whether we are aware of it or not. Repression pushes memories into a subconscious black hole so that it becomes almost impossible to get them out voluntarily. If we do have any success retrieving memories deeply buried in the unconscious, they are probably mismemories, or wish fantasies of a past that never was, or memories that are partly true but not exactly. Historians so distrust the memories of victims of trauma that they literally write them out of their narratives. Historians are not big fans of first person narratives.
Autobiographical Memory & Time
As far as my own story goes, I wonder whether my memories of Dr Reck’s handwritten lecture notes are partly wrong. Or totally wrong. Does it matter? Freud would say, emphatically, no. What matters is that the mismemory, or whatever it is, has done something to me psychologically.
This psychological impression has lasted a long time, some forty years. Why would that be? My undergraduate days are long gone. My memories of the 1980s are not crystal clear; perhaps they are even wish fantasies, as Freud would put it. Nonetheless, the thing that strikes me is that those classes with Dr Reck – and his lecture notes – still have meaning for me, for whatever reason. Perhaps it is my own romance with the handwritten word; an art most have forgotten. A few years later I wrote my entire three-hundred-and-twenty page dissertation in long hand before I typed it up. I was so paranoid that the computer would crash; that I would lose everything. Indeed, I was so neurotic that I carried those handwritten pages on a trip to Europe in a backpack – worried that if my house burned down I would lose my dissertation. When I arrived back home Stateside, I made two copies of it. I put one copy in a bank vault, and another in the freezer.
Ironically, during my trip, I left my backpack on the seat on a train to Sicily. It was just my luck that there were two criminals on the train stealing peoples’ belongings. They passed by my compartment, and when I turned around and spotted them I ran back to grab my backpack! So I almost got my handwritten dissertation stolen. Derrida wrote about Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter; I might have had to write the story of The Purloined Dissertation.
Freud would say that I unconsciously set myself up to get robbed. Why would I unconsciously want my dissertation to be stolen? The very thing we fear, unwittingly we do. The unconscious (a concept philosophers are uncomfortable with) works in uncanny ways, Freud argued. The unconscious, however, has everything to do with how we remember things. Consciously, we remember things one way; unconsciously, Psyche plays tricks.
Autobiographical Memory of Dr Reck
Whatever I think I remember about Dr Reck’s lectures may not be the case. A long time has passed since I was an undergraduate at Tulane. But the difference matters not. What matters is that what was on those yellowed, torn pieces of paper that Dr Reck worked from made an indelible mark on my psyche. I fell in love with philosophy as an undergraduate student at Tulane because of Reck’s class. Nearly forty years later, I am still inspired by the memories I have of them. Today, I teach doctoral seminars in philosophy. I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr Reck for opening the doorway to philosophy.
Our experiences, pedagogically, matter. But what exactly was that experience? That is my question.
Memory works in funny ways. Recently I happened upon an interview with Oliver Sacks, the well-known popularizer of neurology. He began talking about his correspondence with the Russian A.R. Luria, another well-known neurologist. What struck me in Sacks’ interview was the importance of a letter he received from Luria; Sacks compared it to getting a letter from Freud.
Sacks was excited about that letter. Was that letter handwritten? Back then, probably. But perhaps not. Then it dawned on me: Sacks’ love affair with the letter A.R. Luria sent to him brought back to me memories of Dr Reck’s yellowed, torn lecture notes. I’m not entirely certain why those notes make such an indelible impression upon me, but I can say that I was as excited by Dr Reck’s lecture notes as Sacks was about A.R. Luria’s letter.
Michel Serres says that the only way to contribute anything of value in philosophy is to move – figuratively – away from one’s teachers. What we learn we need to forget, Serres says, in order to progress in new directions. But Freud said that we never really forget anything – it’s all buried in the archeology of the psyche. Of course, one wouldn’t want to consciously remember everything, as William James pointed out, because one would go crazy. (Perhaps James knew this first-hand, since he did have a nervous breakdown, although what caused it I do not know.)
Although American philosophy – the subject of Dr Reck’s course – made an impact on me when I was younger, as I got older I did begin moving in different directions philosophically. I have never really had a traditional research agenda. In terms of topics, my writings hop all over the place. In my early forties, Continental thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Michel Serres, Jacques Derrida, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Albert Camus, Søren Kierkegaard, Simone de Beauvoir, Donna Haraway, and Gaston Bachelard became well integrated into my work. My university, thankfully, has not punished me for doing diverse work.
Memory, Speech & Writing
Still, Reck’s lecture notes have stuck in my mind all these years. I recall hanging onto every word he uttered. Part of the allure for me were those notes, falling apart, pencilled in.
Perhaps I misremember. But that is not the point. My memory might be faulty, but the meaning remains. Those lecture notes mean something to me. (I know I am repeating myself. Forgive me for the repetition. Ludwig Wittgenstein said that philosophical work needs repetition to hammer out ideas.)
Derrida pointed out that there is a direct connection between the spoken and written word; the second cannot be detached from the first. However, the history of Western philosophy, Derrida suggested, has involved separating speech from writing, while demonizing writing, oddly enough. Derrida argued that historically, the spoken word was thought to be closer to the truth than the written word, because the speaker is present. Therefore one can hear and see the speaker, and ask them questions if necessary. However, when one reads the written word, the speaker is not present. The question for philosophy, here, is then, how do we get at what the writer really intended to say?
That’s what hermeneutics, the analysis of the meaning of texts, is all about. Friedrich Schleiermacher believed that one could get into a writer’s head if only one did a close enough reading. Paul Ricoeur, however, dissented. He argued that getting inside a writers’ mind is impossible, and that what we glean from a text is not the meaning of the text in and of itself, but the meaning the text makes for the reader. In reading, it is the reader who is important. The question should be asked thusly: How is the reader changed by what the writer says? It matters little what the writer intended, because, as Harold Bloom once pointed out, every reading is a misreading.
Perhaps he’s right. After all, every text we read is always already out of context. The question becomes, then, what if the writer’s written words are spoken by the writer him or herself? Do listeners glean any more truth this way than reading the writer’s words? Perhaps not. Perhaps they misunderstand what they hear. In any case, as Derrida points out, speaking is always already in the writing. And if that is the case, the spoken word is not closer to the truth than the written word, because you cannot separate them. Rather, both the written word and the spoken word get (mis)interpreted.
Do I remember what Dr Reck said in his lectures? No. Why would that be of importance? Or would it? Even if I did remember what he said, I would probably get it wrong. The issue to me is this: Why did something significant take place during those lectures? What – precisely – was of significance?
This remains a mystery. I recall reading Derrida’s The Post Card (1980). Here he asks philosophically, what does a post card say to you? What does a post card mean? What can be said of any importance about a post card? Or is the post card mere trivia? A post card is something we do not often give serious consideration to. But what if we did? What can a post card say, in a philosophical sense?
I am asking a similar question: What do Dr Reck’s lecture notes really say to me? Why do they still speak to me, even though I cannot remember them clearly? And does it matter whether they were handwritten or not? Why does it matter that Reck’s lecture notes were torn and yellowed? The answer to these questions is: I do not know.
Wittgenstein mistakenly intimated that one should not speak of things one does not know; we should remain silent on things not understood. But then philosophy would be without mystery, and my love affair with torn, yellowed lecture notes would be of no importance; and Dr Reck would no longer be in my memory.
© Dr Marla Morris 2020
Marla Morris is Professor of Education at Georgia Southern University.