20 April 2012


Alison Winter. Memory: Fragments of a Modern History. The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Memory, remembering, remembrance and forgetting are all political acts as well as scientific, and in this book Alison Winter tracks how popular culture has influenced and been influenced the ‘scientific’ treatment of memory. There are the courtroom battles over memory, from role of Hugo Munsternberg in seeking to construct a scientific courtroom expertise in the fields of memory in the courtrooms at the end of the ninetieth century and beginnings of the twentieth; to end of twentieth century debates about recovered memory. 🔻
There the roles of memory therapy in the treatment of combat stress and its modern counterpart post traumatic stress disorder; the politics of consent and the notions of brainwashing; the recovery of lost memories of everything from childhood abuse to past lives and alien adduction.

These concerns all run into one another, the development of memory therapies to deal with battlefield traumatic amnesia led to the rise of ‘truth drugs’ on the one hand and the rise of hypnotic regression on the other. Winter gives an excellent overview of the Bridey Murphy story, one of the best I have seen, and the argument surrounding it (these included not only the expected scientific ones but cultural ones as well, with accusations that her story reinforced traditional stereotypical views about the Irish, and accusations from clergy that it challenged the correct theological party line). This work with regression is of course what led rise to the alien abduction beliefs - though this is only briefly touched upon in this book - and help stimulate the rise of the repressed memory movement.

Winter traces the development of the controversy surrounding the ‘recovered memories’ and the rise of the False Memory Foundation, with the resultant polarisation. Her treatment of this issue is likewise measured, pointing the difficulties and nuances rather than taking an absolute stand on one side or other.

Concepts of memory are clearly influenced by changes in technology, the development of cheap snapshot cameras, cine-photography, tape and cassette recorders all help to construct notions of memory. The work of Wilder Penfield, who claimed he could evoke vivid memories by stimulating specific brain regions of his patients when operating under local anaesthetics, evoked notions of engrams in the brain, rather like the grooves on a vinyl record. The development of snapshot cameras, particularly that of the Polaroid, helped provided a cultural background to the theory of ‘flashbulb memories’, the idea that dramatic events were highlighted by snapshot like memories (along with the idea that particular dramatic events could somehow burn themselves into the brain). Both Penfield’s engrams and the flash memories were later shown to be more than rather suspect. The former may well have just been vivid memory-like hallucinations, and the later were often subject to compression and distortion, with people remembering sometimes how they should ideally have had that experience, rather than what actually happened).

Winter suggests that changes in camera technology, from one-take snapshots to the digital camera’s multiple takes, might have aided the idea of memory as being in some sense reconstructive. This idea went back to the work of Frederic Bartlett early in the last century. This had been largely overlooked for many years and was actually resurrected as part of the ‘strong programme’ for the sociological study of science, developed by workers such as David Bloor, a thesis often seen as a precursor of post-modernism. Bartlett’s work influenced researchers such as Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues, who became among the main opponents of the recovered memory movement, and who conducted experiments which showed (or seemed to show) that the construction of false memories was a relatively easy task.

Of course the idea of the fragility, malleability and possible falsity of memory is a rather disturbing one, making us question as how we can know anything for certain. The idea of making, breaking and remaking memories has been around for some times. The possibly it false memory and hence false confession was one of the concerns first raised by Munsterberg, a concern rejected by the legal and political elites of the time.

One manifestation of this was the fear that false memories might be implanted by hypnosis which became particularly prevalent at the time of the Korean War, when some US personnel appeared to confess to various improbable war crimes and condemn the US. Ideologically based societies such as the United States or the former Soviet Union which imagine or pretend they have created the perfect society can only regard dissent as a form of madness, hence the concept of brainwashing. The belief that ‘The Reds’ used all sorts of mysterious psychological processes to ‘break’ service personnel led to the development of counter programmes of more than dubious ethics, and the rise of the notion of the remote controlled assassin, as in the film The Manchurian Candidate (left), now reprised in the series Homeland. This spilled into real life with the allegations that all the presumed presidential assassins and would be assassins were really under the hypnotic control of mysterious conspirators.

Some attempts to remodel memory were fuelled by a genuine desire to help the mentally ill or the traumatised, though some of the cures were certainly worse than the disease. The latest manifestation, discussed in the last chapter, are attempts to defuse the power of, or even remove, traumatic memories by neurochemical means. Of course if one can remodel memories by chemistry or the charisma of suggestion then it might be possible to rewrite history, something that the movement from print to on-line media makes rather more possible, and in a small way was does as an online experiment mentioned here (among other changes to history they introduced was a picture showing Obama shaking hands with Ahmadinejad).

An important book for anyone with an interest in the history and politics of memory. -- Peter Rogerson

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