Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Volf on Memory

Our theology reading group met last night for our second session on Miroslav Volf's book The End of Memory and it was a really good evening. We had two new students show up and the discussion was lively. There were some interesting connections with what we had discussed the night before at Unchurch about the dangers of knowledge too.

Volf has some very interesting things to say about the connection of memory to personal identity both in terms of how we are shaped by memory and of how we shape our memory. We ended up getting into a long discussion of the ways in which formative memory may be both personal memory and collective memory.

We also talked about the problem memory poses for us now when we have the technology to record so much of what is happening and yet seem to lack the cultural tools to interpret and remember events. The example one of the students gave was of parties where everyone is taking lots and lots of pictures so that they can run home and post them on facebook rather than actually participating in the party. Experience becomes a form of commodity.

Volf says this:

Currently added to this dangerous moral ambiguity of memories is a powerful sense of their importance. There is today something of a memory boom, a widespread desire to memorialize events -- at times almost an obsession with remembering. This memory boom has, I surmise, two principal causes (plus many subsidiary ones). Almost paradoxically, the first is the fast-paced, novelty-obsessed, entertainment-saturated culture in which we live. On the one hand, it makes most of us quick to forget -- forget even those things that once meant a great deal to us. As the media nail us to a narrow strip of the extended present, and as the new replaces the old with breathtaking speed, the past seems like a landscape viewed from a fast-moving train -- a blur that quickly fades to black. On the other hand, as we lean forward in time we extol memory and memorialize experiences to counter the slipping of the past into oblivion, to prevent our memories from faltering "like old veterans parading," as E.L.Doctorow puts it in City of God.

Witness the readiness in the U.S. to erect memorials to events that have only just happened. Debate about the appropriate monument for the victims of "9/11" was running full speed only a few weeks after the terrorist attack, when we could not possibly have had enough time to absorb the impact of the disaster and reflect on its meaning! We demand immediate memorials as outward symbols because the hold of memory on our inner lives is so tenuous. And then, because we have tangible, observable memorials, we feel absolved of the obligation to remember on our own; we feel free, in good conscience, to immerse ourselves in the blur of the present. Thus does the memory boom try to compensate for an actual memory bust.

The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006, pp. 39-40.


learnerpriest said...

I'm looking forward to getting stuck into Volf properly - I skimmed through After our likeness a while back, but haven't had time to read anything else.

This is clearly a very high-powered reading group!

Erin said...

I haven't read After Our LIkeness - although it is sitting on my shelf - but I loved Exclusion and Embrace. I read it with this reading group and a clergy reading group but it went better with this group. It is a high-powered group! Mostly philosophers and philosophy students...