Monday, 29 November 2021

At the Crossroads of 'Memory in the Head' and 'Memory in the Wild'

This is part of one week series of posts on a new journal, Memory, Mind & Media. Today's post is by Andrew Hoskins (University of Glasgow) and Amanda Barnier (Macquarie University), Founding Co-Editors-in-Chief of the journal.

Andrew Hoskins


In September 2018, Dr Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh appeared before the United States Judiciary Committee as part of Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a new US Supreme Court Justice. During the confirmation process, Blasey Ford alleged that in the summer of 1982 when she and Kavanaugh were in high school, he sexually assaulted her at a party. Blasey Ford recalled the assault in detail, describing the events as “seared” into her memory. But when given his opportunity before the Committee, Kavanaugh unequivocally and angrily denied this accusation.

We, Andrew and Amanda, were in the same place at the same time – in Glasgow – when Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh gave their testimony. Together, we watched the questions and reactions of the Senators and other people in the Senate room. And we followed on mainstream news, social media and blogs the evolving reactions to their competing claims. We noticed how much Blasey Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s conflicting memories spilled out into the world, offering a fascinating case study of the collision of memory in the head (the study of the human world of remembering) and memory in the wild (the study of the social/cultural world of remembering). We also noticed what each of us noticed about the case, which often was quite different.

Amanda Barnier

What we saw were multiple, colliding “ecologies” of memory; reporting and discussion of personal memories in many different settings. Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s memories were described and then challenged in the Senate Judiciary Hearing Room, dissected as a live televised “event”, and spread and interpreted in real-time across social and other media.

As Andrew has argued, such memories are not “something purely personal to be treated in terms of accuracy and error”. Rather, they illustrate “a new memory ecology, a new twenty-first century (re)ordering of the past by and through multiple connectivities of times, actors, events and so on”.

Social media enables new ways for memories to “travel”. One Australian journalist, reacting to Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s memory disclosures on the other side of the world, wrote:


I am sixteen-and-a-half thousand kilometres away from the rooms in which these events have transpired, yet late at night and in moments of quietude, I am in all of them – rendered something supernatural and out of space and time by a rage that’s as hot and thick as lava. And I’m not alone.

These memories also “travelled” via misinformation and conspiracies; strange claims shared and reshared thousands of times on the internet.

And yet, in terms of scholarly responses and analyses of this event, commentary and published contributions overwhelmingly came from psychologists. The hearings and testimony were reported as mostly in the head issues by experts on cognition, trauma and individual remembering and forgetting. There didn’t seem to be much, if any, coverage devoted to memory in the wild perspectives. There was almost no focus on the evolving contexts in which memories were formed, expressed, changed and of course, lost.

Is it that psychologists are wary about making claims about memory in the wild, or what Daniel Schacter in our Inaugural Essay calls ‘domain-general’ effects? Are social and cultural worlds seen as beyond the scope of traditional psychological experimentation because they are not easily replicable or testable? And why didn’t non psychologists – sociologists, historians, cultural studies or media scholars – see this case as within their scope?


Perhaps because the memory phenomena at play in the case of Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh are not reduceable to head or wild. Instead, to invoke Schacter’s essay again, they are always multi-domain. To accept this we must combine our disciplinary perspectives to navigate complex collisions of individual and social/cultural memory; of intersecting “memory ecologies”. This seems especially so when environments for reporting and interpreting memories are far from neutral; when memory can become “radicalised” and expertise about memory and its impacts questioned.

Our journal, Memory, Mind & Media published by Cambridge University Press, offers a unique new venue for these complex cases and interdisciplinary conversations as we explore the impact of media and technology on individual, social and cultural remembering and forgetting.

Our journal is situated at a juncture of transformational digital change. Today, the “connective turn” – the abundance, scale and immediacy of digital media, communication networks and archives – forces a view unprecedented in history. It has re-engineered memory, liberating it from traditional bounds of the spatial archive, the organization, the institution, and distributed it on a continuous basis via connectivity across minds, bodies, and personal and public lives. This opening up of new ways of finding, sorting, sifting, using, seeing, losing and abusing the past, both imprisons and liberates active (intentional, conscious, purposive) human remembering and forgetting.


Another rationale for Memory, Mind & Media is a persistent question we have asked one another and others in our more than decade long collaboration: is it possible to journey from individual, disciplinary, separate perspectives about memory, mind and media to find common, transformative language, questions and approaches? We think yes!

So, we welcome your contributions. We want the journal to be a home for scholars working within, across and beyond history, philosophy, media, communication and cultural studies, law, literature, anthropology, political science, sociology, neuroscience, psychology, computational science and more.

We seek high-quality, interdisciplinary conversations that combine scientific and humanistic approaches to the study of memory in the digital era. And we will preference jargon-free contributions that encourage cross-disciplinary dialogue and debate as well as engagement by non-experts and student readers. 

All this week on the Imperfect Cognitions blog, authors of the agenda-setting papers from our Inaugural Collection will describe their work, including:
Please visit us at Memory, Mind & Media, follow us on Twitter and send us your work!

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