Memories may light the corners of our minds, but where there is light there is sure to be shadow. The truth about memories lies less in the past than the present and the projected pasts of futures not yet realized. Memories are often more about the things we desire than the facts we observe or the things we’ve done. In this sense, (re)membering is something we do in the struggle to be present, a constant process of building a useful world out of bits and pieces that survive in our minds from experience or hearsay. Thus it is that memory has two lives in this world, one a utilitarian form determined by the present and the future, the other a matter of art and emotion in the afterglow of things that are gone forever.
The apple and the tree
One of the great memories of my life is my father singing to me a song that I knew only as “The Kodak Song.” However dim that memory may be, it’s held steady for forty years now, changing little and always bringing a sense of warmth and comfort regardless of the circumstances of my life.
Where are you going, my little one, little one,
Where are you going, my baby, my own?
Turn around and you’re two,
Turn around and you’re four,
Turn around and you’re a young [man] going out of my door.
The song is called “Turn Around” and was written by Harry Belafonte, Malvina Reyonolds and Alan Greene, originally sung for a “young girl going out my door.” Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the song, after its haunting melody, is the way it captures the essential act of remembering the future by filling it with the desire of the present.
It must have been 1967, when we stayed at my grandparents’ house in Monessen, Pennsylvania. He sang the song to me in the bedroom my mother had slept in as a child. That was right after my father left the military service. He always said that the main reason he left the service was that the Army was coming between him and his family, and I believe this is true. Yet it’s also true that 1967 was a very good time to leave the US Army if you could, since the war in Viet Nam was heating up and the rumor among officers was that Viet Nam was a deathtrap. In any event, his commission had expired and he had served all the time the Army had asked of him, so there we were in Monessen, staying with my grandparents while my father figured out what to do with his new civilian life.
He was (and still is) a singer, my father. The Kodak song is my earliest memory of his soothing tenor voice, a voice that I inherited but readily admit is not as good as his. The way he sang the song captured both the marvelous awe of a man watching his three year old son get ready for bed and the inevitable sadness of knowing that the boy would one day walk away to live his own life. I’ve heard that voice from him so many times, and I hear it from my own mouth as well, for as apples go I didn’t fall very fall from the tree.
What we choose to remember
William Faulkner famously wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That’s because the past is useful. We remember what we want to remember, and we use those memories to shape relationships, to win or survive struggles, to create things both new and old. What we call the study of “history” itself is little more than a formally willful consciousness of past events, and the fact is that regardless of one’s academic training or intentions, we all do “history” from time to time in order to fix up the present the way we want it to be.
As useful as memories are, however, our capacity to remember is ironically limited. In an essay about the meaning of contemporary art in relation to time and history, the Raqs Media Collective sketched the problem like this: “As time passes and we grow more into the contemporary, the reasons for remembering other times grow, while the ability to recall them weakens.” For this simple fact alone, we must choose what to remember and what to forget. Not to choose is not an option, whether we admit or not. For Sigmund Freud and generations of psychologists since (and even some before), what we choose to remember says a lot about who we are. Even if our choices about memory are mostly unconscious, our constructions of memory have consequences.
One effect of how we remember is that some people are left out of history. Others have their stories changed in ways that are damaging and unjust. Memories and histories can turn lies into truths and elevate the emotions of the moment into reasons to cause others great harm. Memory, as it turns out, is as easily an act of violence as it is a beautiful and heart-warming thing.
Not all damage to memory (or history) is bad, however. Thinking about how art contends with the loss of cultures and places, Raqs wrote, “We could say that the ethics of memory have something to do with the urgent negotiation between having to remember (which sometimes includes the obligation to mourn) and the requirement to move on (which sometimes includes the need to forget).”
In this light, any single memory carries with it layers of desire and competing emotions that give it texture and depth. Side by side, our memories impact each other, changing the past again and making it even more difficult to pinpoint true events from times gone by. How I remember my mother’s death affects how I remember my grandmother’s death, even though they happened thirty years apart, and this will affect how I experience death in the future, be it the death of a relative, a friend, or a stranger. When memories fit together with a certain complementarity, they reinforce simpler, more general impressions of past events that become a shorthand for experience and truth, frequently shortchanging both while at the same increasing our capacity to “remember.”
To remember, which seems to us like no work at all, is no such thing. And yet here it is, our memory, providing for us the threads that connect each piece of our lives together into a story. Eric Kandel, reflecting on his life as a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winning biologist and pioneer of memory studies, says that memory “gives us a coherent picture of the past that puts current experience in perspective. The picture may not be rational or accurate, but it persists. Without the binding force or memory, experience would be splintered into as many fragments as there are moments in life.”
Those fragments would be impossible organize without stories, and we write those stories every day of our lives, writing and re-writing not so much to make our lives perfect as to make them livable. In the end, the stories that knit together our memories become the memories themselves, completing the transformations of past into present, present into past, desire into reality.
Notes and Credits
My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic. It was originally my grandmother’s, and she gave it to me when she got a new one. I was in the fourth or fifth grade and remember taking pictures of the French Quarter with it on our field trip there. Somewhere in my house, among my things, are a set of old photographs taken with that camera, but alas in my many moves I have either lost the photographs or have packed them away in some old box stuffed somewhere in a corner of a closet or under my bed. I looked around for some time, but to no avail. Likely I will find them not long after publishing this post.
The photograph of me and my father was taken by my mother in 1966 when I was 2 years old.
Faulkner’s “past is never dead” quote is from Reqiuem for a Nun (Random House, 1951). The Raqs Media Collective is a New Delhi-based multi-media contemporary art group founded in 1992 by Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. They operate across varied media and are active in the international contemporary art world. The quotes above are taken from an essay, “Now and Elsewhere,” in the e-flux journal What Is Contemporary Art? (New York: Sternberg Press, 2010), p. 49. For the Kandel quote, see p. 10 of his In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006). An interesting post on the Kodak Song, which helped me gather context for the essay, comes from “Nicholas Stix, Uncensored,” in which he sorts out some mysteries about the song’s authorship and speculation as to who is singing the song in the commercial.
Selling memories is big business. Kodak used the song “Turn Around” to create an iconic television advertisement that itself is a classic memory for many in my and my parents’ generations. Kodak sold their cameras as memory machines, using the flawed but commonplace idea that memory is an act of freezing the present and keeping it, like frozen leftovers in Tupperwares, for some date in the future. A recent advertisement by Disney features families videotaping themselves in the theme park and finishes with the tag line, “Let the Memories Begin.” The time that rewrites every line of our lives is the present.
As I had was collecting ideas for this posting and putting together the initial paragraphs, news broke that that Eastman Kodak, Inc., was filing for bankruptcy. On June 22, 2009, Kodak stopped making Kodachrome, its legendary film that has filled so many memory books and inspired the classic song by Paul Simon. The power of Kodak’s product in our society can be seen in the comments on the company’s blog – quite stirring and heartwarming.
There are an endless (or seemingly endless) number of Kodak-related videos on Youtube. In this one, a woman demonstrates how to use her grandmother’s Kodak Brownie box camera from 1922. After the company filed for bankruptcy, Time Magazine collected 10 of the most memorable Kodak commercials on its Website. The memories have piled up, and its striking to consider what a major force Kodak was in the forging of memory for three or four generations of Americans. At the height of its run, Kodak created a remarkable pavilionfor the New York World’s Fair in 1964. The photo below was taken by Doug Coldwell and can be found on the Wikimedia Commons.
And now, at long last, I give you Dick Cavett giving you Barbra Streisand.