Monday, 3 March 2014

Constructive Metaphors / Visualizing Memory

The Waters of Lethe, Thomas Benjamin Kennington. Source:

Whether we speak of “sites of memory” or “travelling memory”, most attempts to grasp memory inevitably employ metaphors. Citing Harald Weinrich, Astrid Erll claims that “’[w]e cannot conceive of an object such as memory without metaphors. […] (They) are valuable as (hypothetical) cognitive models’”[1] The resulting openness of concepts of memory is both a blessing and a curse.

Metaphors of memory in relation to water appear ubiquitously in the literature concerned with the topic. In “Contemporary Art and Memory” (2007) Joan Gibbons writes: “The idea of ‘places’ in which memory is harboured is central to the work of contemporary French theorist Pierre Nora.” (p. 6) Using the metaphor of the harbour Gibbons doubles the stabilizing effect of the site for memory that Nora stresses. Liedeke Plate even pitched the term of “liquid memories” with regard to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s concepts of “liquid times.”[2]

This blog, too, uses a metaphor from the realm of water and sea to bring to light some truth about memory, diasporic memory in particular. The water metaphor indeed goes back to ancient Greece. In the Greek mythology there exist two springs, Lethe on the left (Forgetting) and Mnemosyne (Remembering) on the right.[3] To drink from river Lethe (depicted above in a drawing by T. B. Kennington) means to plunge into the floods of forgetfulness. Unforgetfullness = A-Letheia on the other hand means truth, and is as Heidegger claims the counterpart of forgetting. This is why for me the metaphor of floating memory is so powerful. It implicates both forgetting and remembrance, as both springs from the Greek mythology are evoked and as the truth stems from the river Lethe in the way that Heidegger paves out. 

As highlighted above, the water metaphor also resonates in many academic texts on memory. Again and again one can read about the harbouring of memories and so on and so forth. In this respect, too, is the metaphor a useful visualization for the floating concept of memory. However, as Erll admits, “as a […] ‘whole’ cultural memory is elusive.”[4] Which is why “[r]esearchers can only study discrete acts, or performances of memory.”[5] And this is where (contemporary) art enters the scene.

[1] Harald Weinrich after Astrid Erll. Astrid Erll, Memory in Culture, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011: 96.

[2] Liedeke Plate, Liquid Memories: Women’s Rewriting in the Present, in: Liedeke Plate, Anneke Smelik (Eds.), technologies of memory in the arts, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009: 101.

[3] Francesca Rigotti, Schleier und Fluss – Metaphern des Vergessens (veil and river – metaphors of forgetting [translation MLN]), in: Michael B. Buchholz (Ed.), Metaphernanalyse, Vandenhoek&Ruprecht, 1993: pp. 229-252.

[4] Astrid Erll, Memory in Culture, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011: 104.

[5] Ibid..

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