Sunday, March 20, 2011


  Imagination and memory are inseparable from each other.  There is no imagination without memory, but also, vice versa, there is no memory without imagination.  Contemporary cognitive science and neuroscience (see for instance Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff & Johnson) tend to obfuscate this relationship because they insist on an information-processing model of memory: the brain is like a computer that stores various images and scenes according to complex classification schemes.  Recovering memories depends on figuring which part of the scheme (or which scheme) they are filed under.  In this framework memory—or rather recollection, as I should like to call the phenomenon that is ostensibly the subject of these discussions—is the most straightforward stuff in the world, namely that one can remember what happened last week or last year using certain rather easily quantifiable neuronal mechanisms.
  My own thinking about this takes me in another direction.  There is, I think, a difference between memory and recollection.  The latter is a sort of passive coding of information that happens when we try to remember something according to norms not of our own making—like remembering you atm code or your phone number.  Under this category I would also place traumatic recollections, which is to say recollections of moments in which we were acted rather than acting, as well as “souvenirs”, i.e. moments in which our becoming (de-venir) was ruled under (sous) a principle not our own.  So for instance, when you see an old friend you remember the last time you saw him or you see in a flash an image of the dispute that led to your breaking off contact.  Whether happy or sad the image and its attendant emotions are dictated by the situation itself, that is to say by a dynamism that penetrates the mind from elsewhere.
  Memories, on the other hand, are archeological forays into the present itself.  And this is what, it seems to me, Proust is talking about.  The present has the depth of eternity.  It cannot be a moment that can be separated from the past (when would it begin—now?  Now?).  In fact all of the past is present right now, in this instant, which is eternal.  From this it follows, as Bergson argued a long time ago, that there is no such thing as remembering, only forgetting.  We must forget in order to act, otherwise all of our perceptions, all of our incipient intentions would be drowned in the tsunami of the impossible depth of the present which we habitually call the past.  If I am right about this then memory can be nothing else than a nearly impossible effort at piercing through the floodgates of forgetfulness in order to grasp the eternal in the now—to act, but to act on the conditions of possibility of action themselves.  What Marcel experiences when he dips the madeleine in his tea is the sudden surge of the presence of his childhood in adulthood.  This is memory in the Proustian sense: to re-live what is both irreversibly gone and yet miraculously still here.  It’s that moment when eternity loops in upon itself to repeat the unrepeatable.  And it can do so precisely because the repetition itself is simply a figure of consciousness, a figment.  There is in fact no repetition since the moment remembered has always been right here, on the other bank of the Lethe that mercifully protects our minds from the ruthless storm of time.  This kind of memory, unlike recollection—materialist anamnesis rather than mere mnemonics—is an amazing feast of spontaneity that is uncoded by any instance external to it: it is the experience of time itself rather than submission to the conventions which we spend most of our days bowing to and that are really nothing but idols in need of hammers.  That’s why I think Marcel goes into the most minute observations of the world around him, each element in it revealing an infinite depth that cannot be quenched even by those beautiful endless sentences and paragraphs of his—he is trying to live the present in the present, that is to say to have a free, uncoded, relationship to the real.
  What is a free relationship to the real?  What is freedom?  Ultimately, I think that is the question that motivates the long philosophical meditation that is Á la recherche du temps perdu.  Proust’s answer, so far as I can discern it, is involved in the ongoing phenomenology of the imagination which he unfolds throughout the entirety of the work.  At one point, at the beginning of Guermantes’ Way he writes of “the parcels of reality which my imagination glimpsed” (Pleiade, 1954 ed., II: 36).  The expression reminds me of the Kabbalistic conception of the sparks of God exiled into the material world by the act of creation (check out Scholem’s discussion of Isaac Luria’s Kabbalistic theology  in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism).  The role of the mystic is to redeem the sparks of God through mitzvahs.  Perhaps a useful way to think about Proust’s concept of imagination is as a mitzvah after the death of God.  The imagination redeems parcels of reality.  The creative act, the act of the poet is to invent uncoded ways to express the real.  In doing so, he or she redeems it from its fallenness into the banality of dead metaphors, cultural codes that have become so rote as to hide rather than reveal the astonishing creativity of the real.  Proust’s poet, then, participates in the godhead (or, in kabbalistic terms, clings to it) by inventing it.  Poetry or literature as the source of religion, but in a rather different sense than the one Spinoza had intended in his Theologico-political Treatise: whereas for Spinoza, the imagination is the source of what is most obtuse and superstitious in religion (scripture, prophecy, visions of God, miracles, etc…), the Proust I am inventing here for our mutual enjoyment understands poetic action as the power to express the real (i.e. God) and to add to it (in the mode of linguistic form).  The two are of course not mutually exclusive.  Scripture is in fact a collection of poems whose authors cannot be held responsible if what they wrote was later interpreted as theology or metaphysics.  They were, after all, only doing what poets do: inventing images and symbols that expand the range of our modes of expression, and therefore of our being (since being is expression).  Blake makes the same point quite well in a passage of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
  The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive.  And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity.  Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslaved the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects.  Thus began priesthood.
  Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales, And at length they pronounced that the Gods had ordered such things.

Poetry as the gateway to freedom, then, is also—necessarily so—the path to slavery.  It cannot bear the one possibility without also, immediately being responsible to the other. 
Sartre argued in a short book he wrote on The Imagination in the mid-30s that what distinguishes imagination from actual perception is the poverty of the former’s images compared with the almost infinite plethora of details contained in the percept.  What Proust shows, however, is that the relationship between image and percept cannot be thought on a quantitative continuum: it’s not so much that the image is poorer (if freer) than its counterparts in perception or memory.  Rather, the choice has to be made at the level of perception and memory themselves:  to perceive and remember according to the normative codes that rule the existing regime of signification or to act on the perceptual and mnemonic apparatuses so as to break free of those codes and, in turn, to become capable of acting and imagining in new ways, themselves undetermined by the dominant codes (though obviously in dialogue with them, i.e. intent on the interruption or détournement of those codes).
  This is a good way to think about the relationship between imagination and science on the one hand and imagination and history on the other—and more generally, I suppose, to think about the epistemological status of the imagination.  The work of the imagination in history for instance, is not to introduce fictions into the representation of facts as positivist historians like to argue.  Rather, it is to break free of the dominant canons that rule the interpretation of historical facts.  This revisionist history can be done in two ways, as Holocaust revisionism and American revisionist history respectively illustrate.  On the one hand, as in the case of Holocaust revisionism one can simply replace the dominant code with another code, i.e. another way of systematizing blindness: rather than sustaining the blindnesses implicit in the dominant narrative of the Holocaust as paradigmatic evil (cf. Badiou’s critique of this view in his Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil) it simply superimposes on historical memory its own blindnesses (primarily through a systematic erasure of the victims—Jewish and other—of the Holocaust).  On the other, as American revisionist history (or the New Labor History of the 1960s) demonstrates, the imagination can punch a hole through the canonical blindnesses of the dominant mnemonic codes, exceed their limits so as to reveal previously invisible subjects of history.  In this latter case the issue is to interrupt the statist narratives of diplomats and bureaucrats, politicians and high-flying businessmen with an examination of the constituent social forces whose work is largely subterranean but shapes the conditions of elite rule.  I say that this kind of history punches a hole through the dominant canons of American historiography because it introduces a universal conception of action (through thinking agency as collective), it opens up historical narrative rather than closing it down.
  It is in the historian’s work, after all, that memory and imagination share the greatest intimacy.  History is memorial work which at once preconditions the possibilities of the imagination and which, at least in some cases, can be redeemed by an act of imagination.  But the same thing applies for any field of knowledge: what Thomas Kuhn had described as “scientific revolutions” in the early 60s are nothing if not the interruption of the status quo of scientists’ common sense by a creative mathematical or observational act that refuses to abide by the dominant canons of conceptual or perceptual logic: think here of Einstein refusing to begin from Newtonian premises in his examination of gravitational force or of Darwin’s break with Lamarckian biological voluntarism in his observation of the faunal diversity on the Gallapagos islands.  In both cases it is the act of inventing a new frame through which to look at the world that makes scientific discovery possible.   
  In future entries for this blog I plan on coming back to the problem of the relationship between history/memory as well as science and imagination by discussing, on the one hand, the line of inquiry opened by Domenico Losurdo, Alain Badiou, and Alberto Toscano on the history of 20th century Communism and militantism more generally, and on the other by taking a closer look at theories of memory such as those of Bergson, Hawlbachs and how they might contribute toward transforming contemporary cognitivist accounts of imagination.  This is a long-term project, however, since I am still parsing through the sources, but I think it should yield some interesting results.  Losurdo, for instance, has been involved in a decades-long project of revising the history of the Communist left (including, of all things, the figure of Stalin) so as to counter Cold War interpretations, much of which has not yet been translated into English.  Can his revision help us to re-imagine the project of Communism in a different light than as a simple rejection of Party politics (which is what it has meant for me and, I think, for a lot of other American leftists up till now)?  We shall see.

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