Some notes on information storage (2): Libraries, prosthetic memories

I’ve been continuing to think about libraries and information organization. I keep recalling prosthetic memory, a concept developed by Alison Landsberg most recently in her 2004 book of the same name. What is this concept, so evocative to me?

Alison Landsberg, who has coined the striking term “prosthetic memory” to describe the way mass cultural technologies of memory enable individuals to experience, as if they were memories, events through which they themselves did not live. She cites the growing popularity of experiential museums, such as the Holocaust Museum, historical reenactments, including the recent D-Day celebrations, and historical films such as Schindler’s list as evidence of a widespread cultural desire to reexperience the past in a sensuous form, and stresses the power of what she calls experiential mass cultural forms to make historical or political events meaningful in a personal, local way. The new modes of experience, sensation, and history that are made available in American mass culture, she writes, “have profoundly altered the individual’s relationship to both their own memories and to the archive of collective cultural memories.” Defining the concept of prosthetic memory as “memories that circulate publicly, that are not organically based, but that are nonetheless experienced with one’s own body — by means of a wide range of cultural technologies,” Landsberg argues that prosthetic memories, especially those afforded by the cinema, “become part of one’s personal archive of experience.” [. . .] Although the production and dissemination of memories that are defined not by organic, individual experience but by simulation and reenactment are potentially dangerous, posing the threat of alienation and revisionism, prosthetic memories also enable a sensuous engagement with past lives and past experiences that, Landsberg argues, can serve as “the basis for mediated collective identification.”

As someone at Everything2 notes that “[i]ndividual identity and how we define ourselves relies largely on past experience and memories. Our beliefs, our actions, our whole essence of “self” then is not necessarily inside us and our minds, but “outside it in all forms of bodily and mental relations – in supermarket isles and university hallways, on computer drives and in the cinema”. It becomes such that there is so much outside influence “guiding” our desires and choices, that at what point does it stop being “ours”? In this sense, an increasing reliance on external stimuli and medium means of remembering, suggests a decreasing reliance on personal experience as the basis of our identities.” One thing of note, as one relevant Wiki notes, is the fact that there is no clear dividing line between internal and external memory, that it blurs.

How is this relevant?

Some of my books

This blurry webcam pictures shows just some of the books on parts of the two bookcases in the corner of my study. These bookcases go higher; I have more bookcases; I have books not on bookcases; I have far more books still at home, neatly organized in any number of fashions (shelved, boxed, loose). Most of these books I’ve read; nearly all of these books have associations for me (the places I bought them, the reasons I bought them, how I initially reacted to them, how I react to them now); every book acts, for me, as an extension, as a source of insights that I couldn’t (or didn’t) get via online databases, as an element of my ongoing romance with the printed book. My queer-themed books helped me plug into queer life. My poetry and fiction books provide entertainment. The books piled on the bookcase to the left of the image are left over from my years at the academia, and have any number of associations.

In turn, these books have let me escape my own consciousness to whatever degree I can, helping me learn things I’d not have learned, even helping my understand perspectives and attitudes I’d not have grasped. Without those queer-themed books, I’d have found it a lot harder to adapt.

In the end, libraries–prosthetic memory generally–can produce empathy, as I noted in my review of Landsberg.

Landsberg argues, sub-national groups have generally lacked the cultural influence necessary to communicate their own collective memories beyond their group memberships. These memories–remembrances of past sufferings, or of past joys, or of past endeavours–remained relatively private, with circulations limited to these groups. The development of inexpensive mass media with broad circulation, however–television, museums, movies, perhaps now the Internet and its associated technologies–has allowed these memories to propagate widely, with major ramifications for American society generally. The movie Blade Runner is a central text for Landsberg, inasmuch as this excellent science-fiction movie makes the ability of humans to empathize with their peers the cornerstone of just what it means to be human, creating communities based on experience shared directly or indirectly.

Prosthetic memory, in each of Landsberg’s case studies, plays significant roles. In the early 20th century, for instance, immigrants could access, via cinema and print, narratives describing how others in similar conditions were successfully assimilated in an America relatively intolerant of hybridity. Later in our contemporary era, research into the material and cultural history of African-American slavery was reproduced in a wide variety of cultural works, like the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History and the novels of Toni Morrison and the 1996 movie Rosewood and the television series Roots, communicating the African-American historical experience to people who otherwise would have been unaware of it. Landsberg’s final case study on America and the Holocaust is a fascinating piece of cultural history, examining the development of American knowledge of the Holocaust from the relative obscurity it had suffered up until the 1970s to its highly prominent status now in the early 21st century.

Landsberg argues that prosthetic memory has a dual function. On the most superficial level, it acts as a commodity, as a consumer good acquired by people curious for more experiences. More profoundly, though, prosthetic memory in whatever form can be used to create new communities and new forms of social organization, by establishing empathic links between people who otherwise would not have had any contact. Prosthetic memory can potentially radically recreate social structures and attitudes, making people feel things and do things which they otherwise would not have done, making people care about the fate of that which was formerly Other. Landsberg’s analysis seems plausible, though I suspect that her emphasis on the radical potential of prosthetic memory is a bit too accentuated.

Or is it too accentuated? These days, six years later, I’m starting to think I was too harsh. Libraries, I now think, can free people.

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