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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Demolishing Memory Palaces


In connection with some Earhart research, I’ve been reading Joshua Foer’s entertaining bestseller Moonwalking with Einstein – about “memory athletes” and the methods they use to train their brains to perform remarkable feats of memorization.  A central – and very ancient – system turns out to be what Foer calls the “loci method” – associating things-to-be-remembered with vivid images placed in familiar places.  Memory athletes construct imaginary (though grounded in reality) “memory palaces” in which to stash things they need to retrieve, but such “palaces” don’t have to be buildings.  In one striking paragraph Foer throws some inadvertent light on why the loss of what we call “traditional cultural properties” is so damaging to a society’s cultural integrity – regardless of whether the “TCP” is technically “sacred” or meets the National Register criteria.  His reference below to the Apache is of course the result of reading Keith Basso’s spectacular work, but the same observation applies, I think, to indigenous people (and indeed people, period) everywhere.

“In Australia and the American Southwest, Aborigines and Apache Indians independently invented forms of the loci method.  But instead of using buildings, they relied on the local topography to plot their narratives, and sang them across the landscape.  Each hillock, boulder, and stream held part of the story.  ‘Myth and map became coincident,’ says John Foley, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Missouri who studies memory and oral traditions.  One of the tragic consequences of embedding narrative into the landscape is that when Native Americans had land taken from them by the USA government, they lost not only their home but their mythology as well” (Foer 2011:97).

Of course, losing legal possession of a landscape (not always a well-developed concept among indigenous societies anyway) doesn’t necessarily sever one’s memory-links with it, as long as one continues to have access to it, and as long as the landscape isn’t too desperately transformed.  So members of Indian tribes in the western U.S., for instance, have been able to maintain their associations with traditional landscapes that have gone into federal ownership, and hence to maintain the integrity of their place-linked cultural traditions.

This is what makes the federal government’s rush to develop wind and solar energy projects all over those “unused” federal lands in the west so sad – and so reprehensible in view of the Obama administration’s pious platitudes about environmental protection and tribal consultation.  Those aren’t just chunks of land being torn up for wind turbines and solar arrays – they’re the memory palaces of tribal story-tellers, whose demolition strikes at the heart of tribal identity.

2 comments:

PMaxon said...

Tom - While it doesn't compare (and it might be something that indeed should happen), as the DOD closes, dismantles, and evacuates Heidelberg, Germany, I am, and I suspect many of my military "brat" compatriots who call it home are, feeling that our own memory palaces are being demolished.

As you wisely point out, this phenomenon applies to all people.

Thanks for sharing.
Patrick Maxon

PMaxon said...

Tom - While it doesn't compare (and it might be something that indeed should happen), as the DOD closes, dismantles, and evacuates Heidelberg, Germany, I am, and I suspect many of my military "brat" compatriots who call it home are, feeling that our own memory palaces are being demolished.

As you wisely point out, this phenomenon applies to all people.

Thanks for sharing.
Patrick Maxon