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On Memory Atrophy

Maël Renouard

The Twilight of Classi­fication?

Translated by Jordan Lee Schnee

Published: 11.12.2017

Two or three times recently I’ve found myself unable to remember a proper name that I’m familiar with. I don’t know if I should blame my own aging biology – a well known source of such mistakes since the dawn of time – or rather a global phenomenon that belongs to our era. It could be designated the degeneration or atrophying of the faculty of memory, denied exercise by the permanent availability of its infinite digital auxiliary.

The hypothesis of memory atrophy is at its root that of Plato in the Phaedrus, when he presents the written word as a dangerous invention. Plato describes the fear of writing in an ingenious, striking way. It is nevertheless difficult to uphold that the development of written language has led to a weakening of humanity’s psychological faculties across the centuries. Without the widespread use of writing, we would have no way to experience that which would otherwise be an individual memory. It is possible to dream of a golden age where the ability, reigning supreme and constantly subject to a sort of athletic exercise, would have been powerful, infallible, and docile; but it’s probable that this is just a myth.

This is why it is important to exercise caution in estimating the extent of the weakening wrought on memory by the internet. On the other hand, what shocks me in the dismaying moments when I’m struggling with my failing memory is the way in which the internet has transformed our internal picturing of the ability. Like on Google, I enter key words that sum up the career of the man whose name I’m desperately searching for (it’s got an Alsatian echo, I tick that box to refine my “advanced search”); like on Facebook I run through the list of our mutual friends; not even a single page of results is returned. I’ve run up against a black wall. It’s obtuse and slippery, there’s nothing to grab onto. I try to find another way to remember. I can’t. The internet’s way of doing things screens me in; it has seized the picturing of memory. The name I was hunting for eventually comes to me the next morning, but how can we remember the way we used to remember?

In the fascinating Chapter IX of Gesture and Speech, “The Expanding Memory”, Leroi-Gourhan remarks that the first forms of writing have a...

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