10. Fernand Deligny, Cahiers de l'immuable, vol.1 voix et voir, Recherches, no.8 (April 1975)
When considering my angle for this research event, I automatically focused on the word recherches - not purely because it translates as 'research' (though this will come relevant I'm sure) but it made the sentence 'A la recherches du temps perdu.' come to mind, and not because I want to talk directly about Marcel Proust's seven-volume novel, but because of a memory which in turn sparked my path of research.
When I was studying in Amsterdam I had this sentence, the title of Proust's novel, written on a piece of wood on my desk because it had been stuck in my head for a number of days. I'd obviously read it somewhere but I didn't know what it referred to. The translation is 'In Search of Lost Time' and it was the idea of turning over, or looking for the past that became my main focus while living away from the UK - having the distance to be able to reflect on what seemed like a past life. During that time away I spent a lot of energy going over old ground; family stories, specific events from the past and semantic memories, which are more like associated feelings and images, as a way of mapping or understanding some thing that I couldn't put my finger on.
"All the same, for a hundred dead stories there remain one or two living ones. These I evoke cautiously, occasionally, not too often, for fear of wearing them out. I fish one out, I see once more the setting, the characters, the attitudes. All of a sudden I stop: I have felt a worn patch, I have seen a word poking through the web of sensations. I sense that before long that word is going to take place of several pictures I love. Straight away I stop and quickly think of something else; I don't want to tire my memories. In vain; the next time I evoke them, a good part will have congealed. "
- From Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre
From here I want to talk a little about memory distortion and the majority of what I'm about to point to has been gleaned from an archive of lectures from the The Philoctetes Centre in New York. Their main focus at the centre is a multidisciplinary study of imagination which is arrived at through input from a variety of disciplines in both science and art.
But back to memory...Neuroscience has arrived at a stage where brain activity can be pointed to in a particular areas of the brain when a subject is in the act of remembering and also imagining. It is the stance of neuroscience that memory is not an accessible data-bank of stored information, there in nothing 'there' so to speak, but it is to be likened to imagination in the sense that if you were to suffer brain damage in this area of the brain you would be unable to tell what has actually happened and what you have made up. Memories 'happen' like imaginings do, they are not once fixed and then distorted from that point onwards.
For psychology, William Hirst, a leading expert on memory and a professor of psychology describes memory distortion in this way;
Our present attitude shapes our past, in some ways our past is stuck in our present...you are constantly reconstructing your past to make it consistent. All memory is selective in that it distorts to give meaning...we distort to make ourselves comfortable with ourselves and comfortable with each other.
I was taken with this idea of constantly reconstructing the past to make it consistent, rather than memory distorting itself and leaving you at a loss, or Sartre's suggestion that memory is worn away the more it is handled. It brings to mind something Alain Robbe-Grillet quoted in an article titled Commitment, and that was something said by a Soviet writer (Ilya Ehrenburg), "Anguish is a bourgeois vice. Our answer lies in reconstruction." And though the context of that sentence was originally political, I think it has relevance when talking about psychology and memory and also if I am to begin talking about artistic practice.
The notion of distorting to make ourselves comfortable with ourselves seems relevant to artistic practice as it reflects the idea that writers have pre-existing narratives within themselves eager to speak themselves. I would say that we all have a theme as artists or researchers and even just as people, whether general or specific and we selectively remember or reconstruct information that corroborates our narratives at that particular moment, given to our needs/projects.
And as a side note, even through researching and the retelling of the research for this event, I am reminded of sentences or quotes or sections of text that I have underlined, repeated to myself and written down as being of importance, or of relevance, or as having some personal truth in the same way that you would experience and place emphasis on a particular memory or memories.
In the question and answer section of one of the lectures I refer to, a student commented that memories are a reflection of how we process experience, that we take in information and associate it with the models we understand in the physical world and that in this sense, memories are an asset that we call upon to make sense of other associated situations a degree of separation away.
The focus on the process of association seems important and it brings to mind an observation made by neurologist Russell Epstein when talking about aesthetic experience during a discussion called Psychogeography. He likens the experience of art, place and memory in this way;
Aesthetic experience is a judgement about how you feel about an object, a cognitive emotion. We make the judgement because we can't see all the aspects at once. We understand the relationship between all the aspects of a place or a work of art, and we can understand that to be beautiful...
The emotions we feel about place are very much like aesthetic emotions. For example in Proust when Baldassare remembers things or people, he remembers them as a unified whole - there is something beautiful about that/them that he longs for or misses. The reason we feel like this about places and likewise about art, is that our brains aren't set up to take all the information in at once. Instead we think, 'There's something there that I can't grasp, but it's there and it's really important.'
I have no conclusions to draw from anything I've undertaken to say, only that what is being discovered about memory and what I have read about it's function as the happening of associations rather than the recall of stored facts is mirrored in the concept of research itself and is certainly the model I have used in considering the footnote assigned to me.