The Lost Maps of Reality

 

 

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

Henry V

William Shakespeare

History is more than a record of past events. It is the story of the actions and decisions of people, and as in this scene from Henry V, the shared experience of endeavor. The Spectacle of the Real, on the other hand, wants no part in the kind of history shared by King Harry and his "band of brothers" on the fields of Agincourt. Rather, they seek the public's passive attention to their opinions, in effect to nullify the living presence of the past.

In my post, The Map of Memory, I write,

"History, in its simplest form, is a story in the context of a specific time and place.  It provides perspective for understanding how we got here, and, possibly, where we are going. The map of memory helps us decide today what is true or real within the culture of the spectacle because it reveals the embodied relationship we have to the past.This is what a well-told story does for us. Places us into a context of meaning that helps us to know ourselves within the larger scope of history.

History, as a living narrative, is accessed through memory and recollection. Seeing history as the facts of chronological time, retrieved as lists of dates, events and personalities is to fail to see that the meaning of the past has meaning for today."

History carries a deeper resonance than simply my story or your story. It is even more than our story. It is the story that illuminates the present so that we can understand why life is the way it is, how we got here, and where we might go in the future.

There is a great divide, greater than the span of the Grand Canyon, greater than the length from our world to the end of the universe, greater than the distance from mind to heart. It is the divide between individual initiative and acquiescent passivity.

This difference is the one that exists between a life lived to the full, and a life that is viewed vicariously through personalities portrayed in the virtual world of the screen. This latter existence is what I see as The Spectacle.

Look, watch, observe and be a spectator; don't speak out, just listen; don't think, just comment; don't imagine, just accept; don't act on your own initiative, just do as you are told; don't remember, just be in the moment.

This is the message of The Spectacle of the Real. A life suspended in order to absorb the opinions and conjectures of others. To do this, one must detach oneself from time and the course of history. One must live only in the moment, and forget the continuity that exists in time.

But history does exist. It is all around us. It is discovered in places of honor, remembrance, restoration and reenaction. It is where families gather to remember lost love ones. It is where communities restore historic districts. It is where people gather to commemorate significant historical events.  In these settings, history can live as an act of remembrance. In others, the commemoration is The Spectacle, where the historic occasion is just the excuse to direct people's attention elsewhere. Where history lives, we can become a part of the story as it connects to a past that informs us of the realities of the world in which we live.

William Cronon writes about what American historian Frederick Jackson Turner told his students,

"... they must bring to the past their most urgent concerns of the present. "Each age", said Turner in 1891, "writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions upper-most in its own time. Pursuing that idea, he argued for a history that would study not just politics and elites, but the social history of ordinary people: "the focal point of modern interest," he wrote, "is the fourth estate, the great mass of the people.' A history that would do those people justice would have to study many fields-literature, politics, religion, economics, culture. It would have to focus on places and regions which past historians had ignored, places which, as luck would have it, were also home to many of Turner's students. It would have to turn to untapped documentary sources and apply new statistical techniques to their interpretation. It would have to set American history in the context of world history, and it would do so not by simple narrative but by studying problems. If these things were done, then the histories of ordinary people in places like Wisconsin or Kansas or California might come to have the significance they deserved. "History has a unity and a continuity," wrote Turner; "the present needs the past to explain it; and local history must be read as a part of world history." "

This is The Map of Memory, where the connections between generations, between past and present, between my story and our story becomes a panorama of understanding that we can share.

This living narrative is lost in The Spectacle of the Real. History is swallowed up, digested and regurgitated, as the authorized perspective replaces historical context. We, then, suspend our skepticism, that is at the heart of learning, in favor of a passive acceptance of expert opinion.

Without critical awareness, understanding the causes and meaning of moments in time becomes unnecessary. The goal of those who profit from The Spectacle is a passive, attentive following, who believe what they are told and accept what they see as true.

The Spectacle, therefore, is the active nullification of individual initiative and thought.

History Must Be Destroyed

French critic Guy Debord, writing in the context of Europe between the 1960s and 1980s, makes this point about the Spectacle's effect.

"With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning. ... One aspect of the disappearance of all objective historical knowledge can be seen in the way that individual reputations have become malleable and alterable at will by those who control all information: information which is gathered and also – an entirely different matter – information which is broadcast.  Their ability to falsify is thus unlimited. Historical evidence which the spectacle does not need to know ceases to be evidence. ... Never before has censorship been so perfect. Never before have those who are still lead to believe, in a few countries, that they remain free citizens, been less entitled to make their opinions heard, wherever it is a matter of choices affecting their real lives. Never before has it been possible to lie to them so brazenly. The spectator is simply supposed to know nothing, and deserve nothing. Those who are always watching to see what happens next will never act: such must be the spectator’s condition."

The Spectacle is a form of domesticated thought control. It is the efficient management of public opinion through self-censorship and collective shame. 

All we need to know about what to think, who to trust, what to buy, who to vote for and what not to say is gained by listening to the expert pundits who fill the internet and television programming with their opinions and prejudices. To doubt is to court humiliation and shunning. To be a person free of having to think for him or her self, and take responsibility for making a better world is to listen, follow and do nothing. It is a kind of noble passivity where one feels apart of some great following, while contributing very little.

Bloggers know that embedded in the comment section of their weblogs lies a public seeking intellectual communion with others. The comments may be rude and disrespectful in many cases. And many are parrots and trolls who simply comment to suppress alternative comments. Yet, seeing one's ideas in print along side dozens or hundreds of other commenters creates the sense that individual contribution and mass support is possible, and can make a difference.

That difference can be made only if our perspective is broader than whatever is on the screen of our computer or television. To think independently, we must learn to read the Map of our Memories within the context of history. We need to realize that the context that we are often fed online is non-existent.

In order to think, to understand, to make our own choices, and act upon them, we must reconnect with our history.  We must look beyond the moment and recognize that what is happening now is a product of what happened in the past. It is all connected, and by making the connections, we gain wisdom for our lives, our families and communities. Here's an example of what I mean.

The Context for Understanding

Torkham - Kyber Pass - Afghan-Pak border
The border village of Torkham - Kyber Pass - Afghanistan-Pakistan border - July 1981

If we knew our history and the history of other peoples, would we have ventured into a war in the mountains and on the plains of Afghanistan?

But we did go. Do you know why? Was it to fight the war on terror or secure our rights to oil? Did we go because we didn't not want to show weakness in the face of terrorist destruction? Or, did we go to project American strength and confidence in the world?

See how confused our reasoning was. All those reasons are not reasons, but attempts to justify what essentially was an unclear context of understanding. These are the reasons that are derived from The Spectacle, which is founded upon the projection of unquestioned authority. For all the bright and intelligent experts who have continued to speak about the war on terror, not a one, in my opinion, has yet to provide a clear historical context for our actions, both domestic and foreign, since 9/11.

What do you think? Are we in a better place as a nation today than in 2001?

While I do believe America is exceptional, I also believe that it requires us to be far more humble and circumspect than we have been in our response to terrorism.

To know the history of the Afghan region is to know that war is not occasional, but perpetual. It is to recognize that no one invades and conquers. Rather one leaves as a stalemate is reached. It happened to the Soviets. It is now happening to us.

Without historical perspective, we believe anything. Collect the right images together, and anyone can be fooled for a fortnight. Then the next Spectacle is upon us because there is no real historical continuity, only momentary linkages.

Without historical perspective, we believe that history is on ourside. We look at the outcome of the Second World War, and think, we can do it again. We tried in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and now on the steppes of Central Asia. What has been the outcome? What is the endgame? Can there be a perfect outcome? Can there ever be an ending? These questions are much more easily answered when we have a understanding of history's continuity over time.

At the heart of that history is remembering the failures that brought perspective. What did we learn from our past wars?

From the Civil War on through to the current war on terror, what we learned is that if we apply enough technology, enough young creative minds and bodies to the battle, then we can defeat any foe. At least that is what we tell ourselves. In other words, we learned not humility, but hubris.

As a mindset, this hubris is applied every where American power can be exercised home or abroad.

I see this because as a person born and raised in the American South. As the descendent of men who fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War, I grew up in a region that understands what it means to lose a war, and the consequences of that loss. Many of those who fought in the Vietnam conflict feel in similar ways. Yet, their loss is not to the Communist forces they faced but rather from their conviction that their country failed to stand by them as they put their lives on the line for their country.

NCMemorialGettysburg
North Carolina Memorial at Gettysburg

Two members of my family served with the 55th North Carolina Vounteers, one, my great, great grandfather, Alfred Belo commanded the regiment at Gettysburg, and another, his brother Henry, died later, during the Battle of The Wilderness. The following two quotes are taken from Jeffrey Girvan's history of the regiment.

"Once in the Confederacy, North Carolina made important contributions to the South's quest for independence. Approximately one-fifth of all the provisions and supplies used by all Rebel armies came from the Old North State. An estimated 125,000 men from North Carolina eventually served in Confederate regiments and state militia units ... at least one-eighth of all soldiers who fought for the South were from the Old North State. Only 19,000 of these fighting men were draftees. Over 23,000 North Carolinians deserted during the war, more than from any other state in the Confederacy. By the end of the war approximately 40,275 North Carolina soldiers had been killed in battle or had died from disease while serving in the army. One-fourth of all Confederate soldiers killed on the battlefield were from North Carolina."

This is part of the historical context of the Civil War. Why did all these men leave their homes and venture off to fight in a war? Is it simply to preserve the institution of slavery as we are informed today during the 150th anniversary of the war? Or is there something more going on that gives reason to their service.

"The 55th North Carolina was probably one of the least homogeneous regiments from that state. The ranks of the unit were filled by men from every region in the state and represented over 20 counties. This regiment was a microcosm of the state. These counties varied in political ideology, social institutions, total population, slave count, and economic stability. The majority of the counties represented in the regiment contained less that 4,500 slaves, but the unit had a company of men from Granville which according to the 1860 Federal Census had more slaves than any other county in North Carolina. ... Most of the soldiers who fought with the 55th owned no slaves and worked as yeoman farmers or farm laborers. Although farmers constituted the majority of the regiment, there were also blacksmiths, teachers, merchants, lawyers, doctors, and mechanics. it is reasonable to assume, on the basis of the soldiers' letters and the 1860 Federal Census information, that most of the men who fought for the 55th were not strongly motivated by questions regarding slavery. However, they still felt motivated to resist when "outsiders" invaded their soil, and they were not about to let Yankees dictate how they should live their lives."

There is much more to be said about the historical context of the reasons why these men from North Carolina and the South would go to war against their own countrymen. It is the story that is missed in the coverage of the 150th. anniversary observance. It doesn't fit the narrative because it isn't simple or image based. This lost of historical reference points means a loss of perspective about what it means to be an American.

What is it that drives people to visit a battlefield like Gettysburg? Is it a shared experience of battle as soldiers? Is it family history? Is it a desire to understand this pivotal moment in our nation's history?

Today, what does the Civil War, understood both from a Northern and Southern perspective, tell us about how we should have approached the war on terror?  What about other threats to the nation?

In the end, what drove these mostly farm boys to war was an ancient notion of honor. This idea is gone, totally eradicated, from The Spectacle that is presented to us each day in Washington, on Wall Street, and through the media. If you look there, you will not see it. You must look away to those who do not seek your attention, but rather live quiet lives of service to their families, neighbors and communities.

What has not been lost by the public is an understanding of the importance of trust in relationships. People who venture to military parks like Gettysburg, whether they are aware of it or not, come because honor is, ultimately, the only answer to Why did they fight. And they seek, whether they realize it or not, the lost virtues of honor and trust that are fought for on battlefields wherever citizen soldiers fight.

Recovering the Lost Map of Reality

In my post, The Map of Memory, I present a perspective that characterizes our memory as a map. The more connections there are, the more detailed the map of memory, and the greater our understanding of the landscape of meaning.

French theorist Jean Baudlliard's Simulacra and Simulation, written a quarter century ago, is today more relevant than ever. He writes,

The great event of this period, the great trauma, is this decline of strong referentials, these death pangs of the real and of the rational that open onto an age of simulation. Whereas so many generations, and particularly the last, lived in the march of history, in the euphoric or castastrophic expectation of a revolution - today one has the impression that history has retreated, leaving behind it an indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references.

Walking the battlefields of Gettysburg during the 150th. anniversary of the battle, I wondered whether there were sufficient reference points for the thousands of people present to understand what had taken place. More than anything, as troop movements are described, cannons fired, and heroism celebrated, I wondered if anyone would leave with an understanding that these thousands of young men did not come to play war games, shoot their cannons recreationally, and go to battle to have stories of heroes to tell their grandchildren. They came to kill as many men on the other side of the battlefield as possible in the name of honor.

The Spectacle avoids death in these terms. Death as the purpose of fighting wars. Death to the Spectacle is something to sensationalize, as the daily murder trials that fill newspapers and televised news shows. We become immune to death when the killers become celebrity personalities. It becomes a game whose purpose is to divert us from reality.

The nation's awareness of the deaths on 9/11 are the exception. Within a few short months, though, we loss our historical perspective as Americans cheered the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I am not a pacifist. I believe that war is often necessary and unavoidable. I respect and honor the men and women who go to war. But I do not at the same time view it as a game, a Spectacle for our amusement. I hate the deaths that result, the loss to families and communities, and the desensitization to death that results.

French cultural philosopher Guy Debord, who was the first to write this phenomenon in Society of the Spectacle and two decades later, in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, writes,

History’s domain was the memorable, the totality of events whose consequences would be lastingly apparent. And thus, inseparably, history was knowledge that should endure and aid in understanding, at least in part, what was to come: ‘an everlasting possession’, according to Thucydides. In this way history was the measure of genuine novelty. It is in the interests of those who sell novelty at any price to eradicate the means of measuring it. When social significance is attributed to what is immediate, and to what will be immediate immediately afterwards, always replacing another, identical, immediacy, it can be seen that the uses of the media guarantee a kind of eternity of noisy insignificance.

This is how we came to lose our maps of reality. What is reality, if not a clear perspective where we can see ourselves in both a positive and critical light. We have lost this capacity for self-criticism as individuals and as a nation.

The things that provide us a basis for understanding the past are being lost in the unreality of the Spectacle.

History isn't simply facts, dates and names or a rationale for contemporary ideologies. History is a living human context of conversations about who we are as people and how we inhabit time and space on both a local and a global scale. It is also what has truly mattered in our lives when we reach our lives' end.

George Santayana is famous for having written, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

If we are to recover reality from the nullification of our minds and souls, then we must reclaim the context of history as a the map of memory, connecting past and present together as a living reality. 

All this requires is a willingness to think for ourselves and take responsibility for what we learn. That's all.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.

The Map of Memory

ParkerHomesteadThreeForks

Parker Homestead near Three Forks, Montana

                                         

                                         Time past and time future

    Allow but a little consciousness.

                                    But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

                          The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

                              The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

                           Be remembered; involved with past and future,

          Only through time time is conquered.

Burnt Norton

Four Quartets

T.S. Eliot

Time is the nemesis of progress. Time is change. Yet, not all change is progress. Instead, change is the natural state of all things. Things grow and decline simultaneously. To see this reality requires perspective, the perspective of memory.

To remember is to see the past as integral to the present and instructive for the future. But memory is difficult in a time of images and spectacle.

William Faulkner wrote in his novel Light in August,

"Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders."

Our memories are a presence that lives in, some say haunts, time. History is not just collections of the facts of time, place, person and institution. History is memory. Representations of the reality of our lives: of our past successes and failures, of love, rejection, boredom and abandonment, of joy and suffering, of life and death. Memory is the record of life lived.

Living in a time where images and spectacle dominate and dissimulate, we distance ourselves from the reality of the past as it lives in the present. There is an unfortunate prejudice against the past as less progressive, modern, forward and complete. The result is the lost of a context for perspective for knowing who we are, and why our lives, and our world is as it is. In remembering, we reclaim time as the past is present for us.

Remembering in Context.

Anyone who has a shared past with others realizes that our perception of the past is highly individualized. It is personal. Listen to a group of friends who have shared a concert, and they each remember something unique to their own experience, even as they stood and clapped and cheered together. The richness of the experience is both shared and individual.

Our memory is a patchwork quilt of recollections that help us to see the past. We don't remember facts, but the connections that link what we call facts into a picture that helps us to remember the past as present. As that recollection lives, it changes, becomes clearer, and its value grows.

I don't remember every meal I've ever eaten. I do remember the ones where there was a significant human encounter with another person or persons. I remember Thanksgiving at my mother's parent's home; how the cousins ate in the foyer of the house; how we played football in the front yard, and roamed the woods surrounding the house. These moments in time remain with me, and form the bond that I have with my sisters and my cousins. Time remembered and cherished.

In The Spectacle of the Real, the past is not history as it happened last week or a century ago.  It is a platform for the sensationalization of the current moment. This past no longer represents the past, but rather a simulacrum, a replacement of what happened to serve the moment of attraction. The past becomes a Disney-like hyper-reality, pristine and sanitized for consumer consumption. 

In this way, our memories are valid only if they fit a narrative structure that is contrived and hidden. The spectacle nature of hyper-reality makes it difficult for the real of the past to live in the real of the present. There is no connection, no relation that allows for this blending of time past and time present to make sense.  As a result, memories, instead of serving us by connecting us to meaning, are treated as illusions.

Is it any wonder, then, why life in the modern world feels so disconnected and unstable. These are not just feelings, but recollections of our embodied memories telling us that something is awry, not quite right. We must listen to reclaim the real.

Our memories, therefore, are the ligaments and tendons of time that tie together the events of the past into a body of remembrance that gives us perspective and meaning. The more we remember, the better able we are to discern the real from the hyper-real, the true from the false, the good from the meaningless.

Memory in a Lockbox

Memory in modern thought has been treated as if it was a container for objects of remembrance. We retrieve the past as snippets of data that are contained in a book or an encyclopedia, sealed in a bank lockbox or in a computer harddrive to be shared on Twitter, Pinterest or Tumblr. David Farrell Krell describes this perspective.

"'Memory,' says John Locke, ' is as it were the Store-house of our Ideas.' ... Memory is a storehouse whose stores are nothing stored nowhere. ... Call it then a power to revive perceptions of 'Ideas' once perceived, along with the assurance that one has perceived them before; a power of the mind to paint its 'ideas' afresh on itself, though with varying degrees of verisimilitude. Verisimilitude? To what should memories approximate? Whence the assurance that one has perceived this or that before? Apparently memory is a storehouse?"

The Wikipedia entry on memory provides a similar description.

"In "Psychology", memory is the process by which information is encoded, stored, and retrieved. Encoding allows information that is from the outside world to reach our senses in the forms of chemical and physical stimuli."

I find this not only an inadequate perspective, but misleading about human experience. It suggests that memory is a fixed object of information that can be isolated from our experience. Maybe, in a laboratory, a memory can be isolated in such an pristine manner.

However, we don't live in research labs, but in the real world, where our memories, good or bad, live with us. We don't have the option, if we desire to live healthy lives, to isolate parts of our lives, like the past, our memories, as if they don't matter. We are whole beings, not mechanical thinking contraptions that can simply shut down one function so others may continue unhindered by remembrance.

Our memories function within our intellectual, emotional and spiritual selves. We are not separate from our memories. They live with us. We can choose to embrace them or deny their presence, and that is where the challenge of recovering the real in our lives exists.

Memory in Context

Our memory exists in a context of space and time, and in relation to the people who were present then, and who are present now.

I remember many events as a child. I remember being lost at the county fair, fearful of never seeing my parents again, and then standing at the gate, relieved to see them approach. I see and feel it as if it was yesterday.

I remember the days that I spent as a refugee worker during the summer spent in Pakistan in 1981. I remember how those eight weeks were a progression of days of travel, on foot, by jeep, van and plane, every day, to a new corner of the mountains of northern Pakistan, engaging new and different people every day. I remember those days as if they were one long epic story that occurred yesterday. The pictures that I took, the map that I carried, and the journal I wrote in that summer, all contribute to memories remaining vivid to this very day.

As a result, my memory of Pakistan, is not that which we see on the evening news. My memory is not the televised spectacle of the war on terror taking place on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead, I see a country divided by terror, no different than ours. I see mothers and fathers, and their children suffering because of wars, both internal and external, that have been their constant experience for centuries.

Is memory just data, like a commodity, stored and retrieved at will? Or is our memory a context of living history that influences how we live, relate to others, and find direction in life?

This is the question that we must answer to find reality for our lives today.

The Map of Memory

A better analogy for our memories is that of the map, an interactive map of connections, personal, physical and cultural. There are points on the map, the "facts" of history, like a birthday date, the name of your 4th grade teacher or that song from your first junior high school dance. Our recollection moves between these kind of facts to create a landscape of memory that we remember as a story.  Tied together they create a landscape of recollection that places us back in the moment of time.

When I was five or six years old, I swiped a pack of gum from the drug store that my parents patronized. As we drove home, my father asked where I got the gum that I was chewing. I said at the store. He turned the car around, and took me back to the store, where I apologized, and my father paid the clerk. That early childhood moment, I remember vividly, the layout of the store, the moment in the car, the place on the route home when my petty theft was discovered. But the central memory of that moment in my childhood isn't the fact of my thievery, but rather the shame I felt.

In this sense, the map of memory cannot be just facts, but rather the connections between those facts. These connections are paths that link the parts of our experiences into a whole picture, like a map, which guides us through our memories. The more complete the map, the more complete our memories.

Our memory is part of the moral context of our lives. We access meaning and purpose for our lives through our embodied sensory experience.  To remember is to be ever present in that memory. With that memory, we remember what matters and why.

Where do those connections come from? Our memories are not created out of nothing. They don't originate with themselves. They are not like the false memories of the Spectacle. They are representative perceptions of the world that we experienced at the time, that remain with us as memories.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in Phenomenology of Perception,

"... in order to fill out perception, memories need to have been made possible by the physiognomic character of the data. Before any contribution by memory, what is seen must at the present moment so organize itself as to present a picture to me in which I can recognize my former experiences. ... ."

We are embodied persons, not memory containers, or mechanical thinking machines. Our memories are links to past perceptions that are recollected in the context of current ones. This linking creates a map of memory that is constantly being evaluated and reformed in the blink of an eye. Merleau-Ponty writes,

"No sooner is the recollection of memories made possible than it becomes superfluous, since the work it is being asked to do is already done."

Living memories, therefore, no longer live in the past, but in the present, and become part of the moment itself. This is the unfolding character of time and history. It is not linear, but whole, opening itself up to new "maps" or landscapes of understanding.

A Map of a Moment in Time

I see it in my minds eye. I see the precise moment, the place in my fifth-grade classroom, the angle of my head as I looked at the speaker on the wall, as the principal of my elementary school announced to us that President Kennedy had been shot and killed.

That memory is a map of a whole series of moments all linked together like a network of pathways that will forever remain with me.

I remember vividly what happened from that moment on Friday afternoon through Sunday morning in late November 1963. The Friday afternoon in the classroom. The Saturday I spent at my friend Steve's house where every channel on the television was about the assassination. The Sunday morning as our family watched coverage on the television, then seeing Lee Harvey Oswald being escorted out of the Dallas police station only to be shot dead by Jack Ruby. 

All those recollections of moments within that three day time frame serve as a map through those days. It is not the linear record of the clock, but rather a map of the landscape of time. Landscape as in a panorama of images and emotions all connected together to create a whole, embodied memory though my own personal, quite selective recollection. What is remembered is the connections that link the various parts of those days. This is how memory works. It is a landscape canvas that captures a moment in time that continues to live, past and present together.

Memory as a Living, Ever Present Story

History, in its simplest form, is a story in the context of a specific time and place.  It provides perspective for understanding how we got here, and, possibly, where we are going. The map of memory helps us decide today what is true or real within the culture of the spectacle because it reveals the embodied relationship we have to the past.This is what a well-told story does for us. Places us into a context of meaning that helps us to know ourselves within the larger scope of history.

History, as a living narrative, is accessed through memory and recollection. Seeing history as the facts of chronological time, retrieved as lists of dates, events and personalities is to fail to see that the meaning of the past has meaning for today.

This is why the novels of William Faulkner have had such a powerful influence upon people in the South. We are brought into a world of living memory that resonates as true and real, even though we live in a different time and place. Few of us alive today, lived in the culture of the Deep South in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. Faulkner's stories are narrative histories of human imagination that place us in a time remembered that is as contemporary as it is historic.

Lee Anne Fennell describes Faulkner's literary world as,

"... a 'land haunted by memory' ... too little attention has been given to memory's overarching role in elucidating such distinctively Faulknerian elements as disordered time, preoccupation with the past, the influence of the dead, and, most importantly, determinism. It is memory ... that pulls pieces of the past into the present, resurrects the dead and remakes family history. ... Time collapses for Faulkner's people: the past is conflated with the present, the dead share narrative space with the living, and childhood traumas lie just beneath the skin of the present moment."

This is not the container view of memory, but rather a living context, a living presence, that is more spiritual than informational.

Faulkner's intentional disordering of time brings the past into the present as a living reality that is not just personal, but a shared experience of human community, at its best and worst.

French novelist Jean-Paul Sartre in his essay about about Faulkner's use of time in The Sound and The Fury, writes,

"In the classical novel, the action has a focus ... It would be futile to look for this kind of focus in The Sound and The Fury: is it Benjy's castration? Caddy's unfortunate love affair? Quentin's suicide? Jason's hatred for his niece? Each episode, once it has been grasped, invokes others - in fact, all the other episodes connected with it. Nothing happens, the story does not progress; rather, we discover it behind each word as an oppressive and hateful presence, varying in intensity with each situation. ...

It is man's misfortune to be confined in time. '... a man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you'd think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune. ...'  This is the true subject of the novel. And if the technique adopted by Faulkner seems at first to be a negation of time, that is because we confuse time with chronology. Dates and clocks were invented by man: ' ... constant speculation regarding the position of mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial which is a symptom of mind-function. Excrement Father said like sweating. To reach real time, we must abandon these devices, which measure nothing: '... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.' Quenton's breaking his watch has, therefore, a symbolic value; it forces us to see time without the aid of clocks. The time of the idiot, Benjy, is also unmeasured by clocks, for he does not understand them." (emphasis in the original)

Faulkner's treatment of time, as Sartre describes, is quite similar to what I see as the map of memory. It is landscape of recollection that travels with us.

Faulkner is famously remembered for the quote from Requiem for a Nun, "The past is not dead. It is not even past."  I find this to be true. It is a living presence that fills in the gaps of perspective so we can better see the world as it is. This is not just an alternative to the Spectacle, but its opposite.

Mapping Our Memories

In order to regain our sense of the past as a living reality, we need to make one important shift in the way we perceive the world.

We need to see that the world is not a collection of parts, of time and history as simply a linear list of dates, names and events, and that our lives are lived in a meaningless succession of discrete moments in time. We need to see life as whole, as integral and complete when the linkages of time and space are recognized and recalled.

"The past is not dead. It is not even past."

To recognize this to be true requires us to be skeptical of all claims to authority by those who produce The Spectacle of the Real. They must earn their credibility and our trust by demonstrating a respect for the past as meaningful in itself for making sense of the present.

It is, therefore, not enough to simply understand that history is the map of memory. We must understand how to use the map of memory to reclaim the real that has been lost. I'll address this in my next post, The Lost Maps of Reality.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


The Path to the Real

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All that passes descends and ascends again unseen into the light: the river coming down from sky to hills, from hills to sea, and carving as it moves, to rise invisible, gathered to light to return again. ... Gravity is grace.

The Gift of Gravity (1982)

Wendell Berry

In my previous post - The Spectacle of the Real - I take us on a long excursion to show how in many areas of our lives, we live in an unreal world of hyper-reality, spectacle and simulacra. This last term - an unusual one - is the simulation of one reality as a mask for another. It isn't a replacement, an alternative perspective, but something different. It accomplishes this diversion from reality through the use of images and the presentation of spectacles as a means to grab our attention.

The effect of living in this unreality is that it ill-prepares us for a time when reality surfaces in the form of disaster, disease or disappointment.

The Liberating Limits of the Real

This is what happens for the victims of a house fire, or a cancer diagnosis or the sudden discovery that a trusted business partner has been embezzling funds. Reality in this sense, accompanied by some kind of pain, awakens our perception to a world that we've been ignoring.

I've seen this in people who have suffered through economic hardships and loss. One response is denial and diversion.  Another is anger followed by bitterness and cynicism.

Then, there are those who wake up, fight through the pain to recreate their lives. For these people, they embrace the reality of their pain and use it as a lever to change their lives. In the words of Fredrich Nietzsche, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."

Pain, suffering or failure confront us with the reality that there are genuine limitations to our existence. We discover a horizon to our lives when we discover we can't do it all "by my ownself", finding that we need help in completing a project or doing our best work requires collaboration with others or recovering from injury. Our limits are liberating as a result as they open us to possibilities that weren't present. Our limits are mainly time and space, the strength of our bodies, the capacity of our spirit, and our minds' imagination.

 The Embodiment of the Real in Time.

Without a grasp of reality, creating continuity in our work over time can be difficult. There is a transitional nature to life. Most of us speak of this, with teeth clinched, as change. Time and change are indelibly linked together as Aristotle writes,

Time is a measure of change and of being changed, and it measures change by defining some change which will exactly measure out the whole process of change ... .

We move through stages that flow enabling us to build upon both the good and the hard in life. Without a grasp of the real, we see life as random, intermittent, and disconnected from purpose and meaning. This perspective is the perfect platform for the spectacle to become the default culture of our time. It is embodiment of the irrationality of change.

As a result, we don't see the gaps, the in-between spaces, the transition points, the ways that creating openness or vacuum in processes lead to opportunities that can carry us beyond our horizons.  We don't discover the flow, where life flourishes. Without the real, sustainability is difficult to establish.

The problem of time in an age of hyper-reality and spectacle is that we believe that we can make time stop. Time is not a quantity. It is not really minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years or a lifetime. Rather, it is the way we recognize the embodiment of change as life. If all time is is a measure of an endless series of days, then we have a life of random spectacle. However, if time is a measure of change, then we can see meaning unfold in ways that help us to see how our lives can make a difference that matters. To do so requires that we recover the reality of time as change.

It is change that represents time better than the clock or the calendar. I take this thought from Albert Einstein to his life-long friend Michele Besso as an indicator of what this means.

For us who are convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.

Change is what we experience in life. Some of it is welcomed, some of it not. But change, none-the-less, is what we live with each day. To face reality is to recognize that the boundary between the past and the future is a transitional one. What we call the present is just a way to identify the activity of change, those transition points, that we all experience. 

The border between past and future is porous, not defined. Some transitions are hard and fast, others slow and gradual, blending what was before into what will be. There is no static present that can be claimed and fixed in time. There is only the movement of time forward measured by change.

The illusion of time as something fixed is seen in our sense of having lost or wasted time. What we are really lamenting in those moments is the loss of opportunity or the failure to take advantage of a moment of change.

Along the path to the real, we recognized the importance and value of change in our lives. To resist change is to fail to understand life as it is. To embrace change is find the flow of life and time as synonymous. 

The Embodiment of the Real in Space.

Being able to distinguish the real from the fake or from the simulacrum of the virtual requires us to think differently about how we perceive the world we are in. Instead of taking statements and images at face value, we need to look at the wider context, which is always greater than the event or the presentation itself.

Almost seventy years ago, French writer Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote,

“We must not, therefore, wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive. In more general terms we must not wonder whether our self-evident truths are real truths, or whether, through some perversity inherent in relation to some truths, that which is self-evident for us might not be illusory in relation to some truth in itself. …  The world is not what I think, but what I live through. I am open to the world, I have no doubt that I am in communication with it, but I do not possess it; it is inexhaustible.” (emphasis mine)

We each inhabit a space. We move into and through other spaces to inhabit them along with others. The limitations and horizons of our lives are porous. We move into spaces and become a part of that space. There is a relational character to the way we move through spaces.

I sit in my favorite chair to read, but I do not become the chair. The chair and I do have a relationship that joins us together. It is not just momentary, but historic. It is my mother's chair from her childhood. I think of her as I sit. I remember other times, like the time I discovered a new way of looking at the world because of a passage in a book.

The same is true with other objects of which I am largely unaware yet within reach as I sit and read. The lamp behind me. The small table beside me. The pen and pad for taking notes. 

As I sit down, into my chair, for a brief moment, I feel the comfort of the cushion and tactile softness of the fabric. Then my awareness of the chair is gone, transferred to the book that is in my hands. Then to the words on the page, but not to the individual words but to the string of words that create a sentence, but not even the sentence or the paragraphs, but the meaning that the author's words suggest. Even then, I do not see the words, but the image or thoughts that the words conjure up in my mind, until I come across a word that I do not know. I stop, refocus to that word as the object of my awareness.

Our perception of things is whole, but our conscious awareness is always selective, governed by how and why we are moving through spaces.

I walk into a grocery store. I'm looking for things on my list. I ignore most of the things on the shelves that my eye catches. I don't see them. There is no conscious acknowledgement of those products. Yet, I am perceiving them because something triggers a recollection of a kind of cheese that I had a party last week. I go over to the cheese section, and find that special cheese that was not on my list, but is now in my cart.

We see more than we acknowledged. A part of these spaces are our memories, or recollections of things past. These are memories that are triggered by our senses. I've heard that smell is the sense most rooted to our memory. We remember things, not in our conscious awareness, but instead as an awareness of the wholeness of the spaces we enter.

We are watching a movie, and, we think, "I've seen this before." But where? We trace back through our memory. We are not thinking about the movie itself, but rather the context, the place in which we saw it. We try to remember the room, the people, the conversation afterward, the time of day, and other happenings in our daily lives at the time. Then our recollection of the space clicks into our awareness and we are there, in the past watching the same film. We relax, satisfied in our recollection, and settled back into watching the film in the present.

We move within physical spaces and encounter people and places that not only help form memories, but impact us as persons.

Educational programs that primarily focus on the development of intellectual knowledge are less effective in educating the whole person than those that create a range of behavioral responses to the situations we encounter. Aristotle wrote,  

"Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it; people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate acts, brave by performing brave ones."

This learning does not take place only in our minds, but in our bodies within the places we live and move, work and play.

To see these spaces as they are means that we must get out of our heads and recognize that we are fully embodied persons moving in a world of fully embodied persons who, like me, inhabit a world of objects that also inhabit a space. In this sense, it can be said that in whatever space that I am in, that I have a relationship to those things, those physical objects, like chairs, lamps, cabinets, refrigerators and the like.

A wood worker becomes a master craftsperson by developing a relationship with the tools of her trade and the wood that is her canvas. That relation becomes less conscious and more second nature as she develops that relationship.

It is just like learning to ride a bike. Once learned, being conscious of maintaining balance is not necessary. That knowledge is now in our bones, and it was not learned solely in the mind, but in the bodies that we have.

When you go to a restaurant, do you care where you sit? Of course you do. If they put you in the kitchen, by the backdoor, near the dish washer, you would be offended and leave.  The spaces we inhabit matter to us because each part operates as a part of the whole context.

When we enter the restaurant, we look for a space that is a network of relationships between the chairs, the tables, the lighting, the placement within the room and its proximity to people. We do not identify each of those separately, but as a whole set of relationships.

This is how we interact with reality, as a relationship to a whole context of space and time.

The Path through Space and Time

The virtual, online world lacks this context. We have the surface of the screen in front of us. The view could be Antarctica, but we are in shorts and a T-shirt on a ninety degree day in Miami. In virtual space, our body is mostly disconnected from the context that our mind inhabits.The connection is more emotional as we find ourselves immersed in a narrative of virtual reality. It can be compelling because it does touch us, but is still incomplete, because the embodied experience is missing.

We are more than thinking machines. We are more than feeling response mechanisms. We are embodied, perceiving, relating persons moving in and the through the spaces that we inhabit.

To recover reality, we need to recover our awareness, our perception, of the physical spaces that we live in each day. We need to immerse ourselves in the processes of change that carry us forward. To do so is to seek to discover the fullness of human experience within the world as it exists.

Over the next few posts we'll look at how to recover the real in some specifics ways of living and understanding.

We'll consider how reclaiming a context of history helps us understand why, where and how our lives unfold.

We'll look at the nature of meaning or values as reflections and guides to the real.

We'll explore how our relationships with one another are the most the best and most beneficial context for recovering the real.

And finally, we look at the nature of personal leadership within the context of social, institutional and organizational life.

The recovery of the real follows a path. As a result, it is a journey of discovery that will bring both pain and joy, freedom and obligation. It is the journey of living.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.