lds-herm blog

Discussion of hermeneutics, esp. as it pertains to LDS scripture

Chapter 2: “The Exercise of Memory: Uses and Abuses”

Posted by joespencer on March 14, 2008

The curious movement of this chapter intrigues me. Though there is clearly a well-devised order to it, it is riddled with what appear (in the moment, merely?) to be gratuitous strolls down side alleys. Riddled, indeed: the chapter ends up something like a riddle, something I wish Ricoeur would have been a bit more forthcoming about. What follows, as a result, is perhaps little more than a collection of musings—all written, though, with the intent of sorting out what Ricoeur intends to accomplish overall in this chapter.

The most crucial moment of the chapter, it seems to me, is pp. 88-89, where Ricoeur allows the theme of justice at last into the project. Ricoeur sees “the duty of memory considered as the imperative of justice” (p. 88) as being a point of convergence for truth and praxis. This is, of course, the logic that underpins the whole of this first part of Memory, History, Forgetting: Ricoeur proceeds from the what of memory (truth), through the how of memory (praxis), toward the who of memory (a theme to be governed by the imperative of justice). The pathway Ricoeur has chosen is brilliant: in order to avoid the difficulties that would inevitably plague a project beginning with the question of the remembering subject or the remembering ego, Ricoeur has traced his way from the remembered through remembering to arrive at a rememberer that is defined in advance as oriented by the other (victim). An interesting strategy, to say the least.

The chapter as a whole, imposing praxis on the question of truth, thus doubles the first chapter’s sense of memory’s fragility: memory is not only endangered by its intertwining relationship with imagination, but also by its inevitably intersubjective setting. He introduces this intersubjectivity through the didactic situation, interestingly enough: the teacher requires memorization from the student. This opens quite early in the chapter onto the theme of abuse, but Ricoeur pushes it aside in order to take up at some length the history of ars memoriae, a fascinating history to say the least! But, as Yates’ final questions, quoted on page 65, make clear, memorization eventually began/begins (with hermetic science… with science generally?) to fail to disambiguate itself from imagination. The collapse of the boundary so necessary for the maintenance of a strong conception of truth, vital at the conclusion of chapter 1, summons Ricoeur to the task of delimiting the ars memoriae, and so he explains: “There are two ways to follow up on these primary considerations that reintroduce the idea of limit into a project that excludes it. . . . [T]he second is to take into consideration the abuses that are grafted onto its use, once this use becomes a form of manipulation under the guise of artificial memory.” (p. 67) Thus he returns—and at length—to the theme of abuse.

Abuse thus comes into Ricoeur’s argument twice, or rather, through a double move: it first imposes itself through the eminently intersubjective relation of teaching; second, it reemerges as the articulation of a (pragmatic) limit that reinforces the boundary between memory and imagination. This double move nicely parallels the superimposition of chapter 2 onto chapter 1: the intersubjectivity that characterizes the practice of memorization reinforces (perhaps secures) the defining limit of imagination (over against memory). It is evident, then, to me at least, that Ricoeur pragmatic concerns are not entirely a distraction or a disruption of the cognitive themes of chapter 1: they are the only means of maintaining the points gained in the course of the first chapter.

Ricoeur’s work here is thus characterized through and through—is it not?—by the understanding that the good secures the truth. He thus concludes his discussion of ideological manipulation of memory with these words from Todorov: “The work of the historian, like every work on the past, never consists solely in establishing the facts but also in choosing certain among them as being more salient and more significant than others, then placing them in relation to one another; now this work of selecting and combining is necessarily guided by the search, not for truth, but for the good.” (p. 86) I can’t help but wonder, then, whether Ricoeur ends up securing the point gained in his first chapter, or whether he all the more radically betrays it: truth is a function of justice for him, a relationism if not a relativism.

Does he not—at least to this point—thus remain Freudian, all too Freudian? History trumps memory—he argues through Pierre Nora at the end of the chapter—so soon as the subject’s (or community’s?) truth is constituted, a constitution accomplished in the process of analysis, indeed, of critical analysis.



14 Responses to “Chapter 2: “The Exercise of Memory: Uses and Abuses””

  1. Clark said

    Let me move my earlier comment here to the chapter in which it belongs:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the art of memory in this chapter.

    I’m not sure Ricoeur is entirely fair to the art of memory here. It’s true that it is both a kind of “machine memory” and tied to imagination. And arguably what is most interesting about the art of memory is the creative aspects rather than the memory machine aspects. Yet I think that because it’s roughly a kind of “place” with objects (more than just images) that through allegorical associations allows a string of connections to retrieve a memory. But there’s a lot of possibility of error (that can also generate creativity).

    I’m sure Ricoeur will get to external memory in depth. But it seems to me that the art of memory is an interesting middle ground.

    While I’m glad Ricouer placed the art (arts?) of memory here I think he really doesn’t grasp it well.

  2. Clark said

    To add the Art of Memory clearly is quite relevant in an LDS context due to its connection with the endowment via masonry. That is in certain ways our modern endowment has roots in the Renaissance art of memory. If we read this book with LDS connections in mind I think one has to ask about the art of remembering in ritual and especially LDS ritual.

    Certainly LDS ritual brings out the question of memory. (Think the sacrament with the demand or call to memory or remembrance) But there are other questions. In this chapter Ricoeur is starting to bring out communial memory versus individual memory. Which is an interesting if problematic issue. (That is how do we handle societal memory and if we handle it what implications does that bring semiotically to external signs as memories)

    The art of memory involves memorizing tokens in a spatial and kinematic scheme so as to produce associations that allow one to memorize other tokens. While initially based upon a neoPlatonic ontology elevated to memory-method at its heart is memory as practices and imagination as the tranversing of signs. I assume Ricoeur will push this but it is quite interesting. (Especially when we get to his more problematic work on Freud)

  3. Robert C. said

    I’m trying to understand better what Ricoeur means by “artificial memory” in the “Abuses of Artificial Memory” section of the reading—and, more specifically, Ricoeur’s use of the term passion on p. 66. About 3/5 of the way down he says “For the artificial memory, all is action, nothing is passion.” I’m guessing he’s linking passion with the kind of “being-affected by an event” that he mentions in the line above (and a several lines later). It seems this “passion” and “being-affected” is referring to a singular past evental experience and the trace such an event leaves (or could potentially leave, if we it were not forgotten)—this standing in contrast to a more atemporal image that captures or incorporates a past event in a way that adheres with the present. In this sense, it seems that artifical memory is similar to the Bergsonian habit discussed in chapter 1 (pp. 24ff), where memorization was also discussed….

    If I’m understanding this correctly, I find the use of the term passion here, in contrast to the action-focus of artificial memory (and habit), very interesting. In the Bergsonian discussion, and in the discussion of artist-performers in this seciton, I was thinking of memorization in more bodily, less conscious terms. However, to think of passions as having more of a temporal singularity breaks this way of thinking so that the distinction Ricoeur is getting at in talking about artificial memory cannot be reduced to mind-body, voluntary-involuntary, or conscious-unconscious polarities.

    Thus, I think my “being moved by music” example in the previous thread was a bit off track, or at least muddled. It seems the passionate response I experience during a (temporally-)specific musical performance would stand in contrast to artificial memory and habit—although in whatever manner that experience is incorporated by me and preserved to “now” would be considered a habit kind of memory by Bergson, and my memory of that specific being-moved experience would be an opposite kind of memory that preserves the pastness of the experience…. Is anyone following me well enough to say if this is on the right track or not?!

  4. Clark said

    I think by artificial memory he is almost thinking of Ramon_Llull although I recall him mentioning Bruno which is weird given his discussion. Lull’s work was much more an attempt to achieve an almost mechanistic approach to artificial memory. But most works took on mystical and occult meanings due to the neoPlatonic influences.

    While it has only excerpts Google Books does have up The Search for the Perfect Language by Eco which delves into most of these issues. (And is just a great book in general that I frequently recommend)

  5. joespencer said

    Robert, I think you are on the right track here.

    Clark, I worry that wherever your own interests don’t meet up with Ricoeur’s, you are concerned that he is misunderstanding something. I don’t think that he means to suggest, whenever he deals with something relatively quickly, that that subject or discipline or field is therefore without problems! Rather, he sees it as unnecessary, for his present purposes, to go into that subject or discipline or field in any greater detail than he does. Every word Ricoeur employs is connected with various problematics, and Ricoeur could thus have written a five-hundred page book out of his first three pages of this one, but I don’t think he would have accomplished his own purposes. When he says something that must be argued against (where we negate his position), then it seems to complaints are in order, but it seems less than charitable to point out what he doesn’t address, unless the lack would somehow change his conclusions. Or am I misunderstanding you?

  6. Clark said

    The problem is that how he uses all these things he discusses in passing isn’t clear and it’s not clear he’s being fair to the movements, ideas, or problems he refers to. We’ll see if that improves.

    Put an other way he probably would have been better off either explaining his point and then listing a few examples. Instead he gives examples without really explaining the point they illustrate and then it’s not clear (when one attempts to read between the lines) that they illustrate well the point he’s making.

    I admit that thus far I’m a fair bit dissatisfied with the book. Maybe I’m the only one but I find it vastly inferior to his trilogy on narrative or his Oneself as Another.

    Maybe that dissatisfaction is coming through too much and starting to bias how I’m reading the book. We’ll see.

  7. joespencer said

    Thanks, Clark, for this clarification of your developing overall attitude. I wasn’t sure if I was reading too much negativity into your words.

    I will confess that this book seems, among Ricoeur’s works, to expect a good deal more familiarity on the reader’s part with the authors Ricoeur has studied. I’m not sure whether that means that he was writing only to people he thought would have read all the same authors he had, or whether that means that he intended only to write a kind of guide to the relevant literature. I suspect, however, that neither of these descriptions would have much impressed him, and that he saw himself doing something rather different. It does seem quite clear (from the dozen or so explicit hints Ricoeur has already left us) that this first part of the book (on memory) is for Ricoeur “only” a kind of necessary point (or two…) of clarification that must be made on the way to dealing with what he really intends to discuss: history. I suppose I’ve been a bit more inclined to treat Ricoeur with (excessive?) charity because I trust he has good reason to treat all this “philosophy of mind” stuff (there’s my own dismissive gesture to add into the mix!) rather briefly.

    But, as you say, we’ll see.

  8. Clark said

    It seems odd to discount “philosophy of mind” so briefly if one is interested in the phenomenology of memory.

    I’ll read the next two chapters tomorrow (I’ve been swamped) but I just can’t see him making the move you suggest. Although history and intersubjectivity and communial memory obviously will be part of the move he makes.

    The problem ultimately is one of reference vs. description. He calls to mind movements largely via reference rather than description. This leads to problems if one isn’t reading them as he does. (To be charitable one first has to understand what one is being charitable in terms of – the very point of contention between Gadamer and Derrida and perhaps ultimately between Derrida and Ricoeur) Put an other way while what you suggest may be true it seems the semiotic abundance that his references provide may well undermine the moves he makes with them. His discourse follows a play of its own and isn’t fully under his control.

  9. Robert C. said

    Pellauer says, in relation to Ricoeur’s later work on justice which comment on Rawls, Weber, Kant, Arendt, and Walzer, “These essays are worth reading for their own sake, as examples of how Ricoeur reads others’ works and seeks to think with them, rather than against them” (p. 134) I wonder if this book isn’t best read in a similar spirit, as sort of witnessing firsthand how Ricoeur began thinking about these things, beginning with others’ works—much like The Rule of Metaphor, which seems not to be one of his most famous works, but it’s probably (I haven’t read it, of course!) an interesting source to see where Ricoeur got many of his ideas from, and to think more carefully about how his thinking fits into the history of ideas, etc. Also, I think this history-tour through the world of ideas pertaining to this topic is an interesting way to loosen things up and to set the stage for what he’ll be talking about later—which means that I also am hoping Ricoeur’s thought will crescendo through the book as he works these historical ideas and leads to his own new ways of thinking about these issues….

  10. joespencer said

    Well put, Robert. That is precisely what I see Ricoeur doing: “reading with” rather than “against” is a great way of summing it up.

    To read Ricoeur (whether here or elsewhere) strictly within the bounds of semiotics is at least to do some violence to his stated purposes, is it not? I can concede the discourse’s “play of its own” that “isn’t fully under [the author’s] control,” but only if the emphasis remains on the word “fully”: it is, after all, at least in part under Ricoeur’s control, and I trust him to deliver. I’m far less interested—personally, I should add—in what other directions this or that reference in his study may lead (on a first read at least!).

    Another way to put this same point is this: I’m reading Ricoeur because I’m interested in Ricoeur’s position on these issues, not because I’m interested in coming to answers right now about these issues on the whole. But of course I can totally understand why someone would read this book for other purposes as well. Just a point of clarification, I suppose.

  11. Clark said

    I think if one merely wants to know what Ricoeur thinks there are easier (and much shorter) ways of doing that. What’s more interesting is following the logic of getting there and deciding where you part ways.

  12. Robert C. said

    The three “natural memory” sections of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3, which I’ve only just begun, have gotten me very excited about the rest of the book. I’m guessing this is in direct contrast to Clark’s level of excitement, because as a social scientist I’m very interested in the ethical and society questions, and how they relate to the more cognitive/objective issues discussed in chapter 1 (which, in and of themselves, I’m less interested in…).

    In the “Reading Guidelines” for chapter 3 Ricoeur writes that “the younger tradition of objectivity” and “the ancient tradition of reflexivity” (I’m not quite sure what he means by “reflexivity” here—any help anyone?) “do not oppose one another on the same plane, but occupy universes of discourse that have become estranged from each other. Having said this, the task of a philosophy concerned with understanding how historiography articulates its discourse in terms of that of the phenomenology of memory is, first, to discern the reasons for this radical misunderstanding through an examination of the internal functioning of the discourses proffered on either side; the task is, then, to throw some lines between the two discourses, in the hope of providing some credibility to the hypothesis of a distinct, yet reciprocal and interconnected, constitution of individual memory and of collective memory” (p. 95).

    I had a bit of an epiphany reading this in that I think this is precisely why I’m so drawn to Ricoeur, b/c this kind of estrangement between discourses is precisely what I feel as a social scientist when I try to read work in other disciplines—esp. in the gap between social science and cultural studies, at least in American scholarship. So, Ricoeur’s work which tries to “throw some lines” between discourses is particularly refreshing for me. I also think this aspect of his work is closely related to his method—which Clark has expressed frustration about—of “sketching out a loosely knit typology” (p. 57) of various issues and problems related to memory. I agree that this approach Ricoeur has chosen takes patience to read (500+ pages of patience!), but because I’m deeply interested in these lines between discourses, as well as seeing how the shift in Ricoeur’s work toward questions of society and justice comes about, I’m feeling much more optimistic about the expected payoffs from reading this tome, at least for me personally (also, I was a bit relieved that ch. 2 was noticeably easier to read than ch. 1 for me…).

  13. Clark said

    The worst readers are those who behave like plundering troops: they take away a few things they can use, dirty and confound the remainder, and revile the whole. –Nietzsche

  14. Clark said

    To note, in case it wasn’t obvious. That quote was aimed at Ricoeur. I think to the degree we excuse misreadings we have Ricoeur as plunderer. The more interesting question is whether Ricoeur is actually acting in a fashion similar to deconstruciton, albeit focused on the plentitude rather than the vessel for the plentitude.

    That is does he present references that exceed his presentation intentionally such that as we trace his path we can and ought see different things.

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