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Memory: Encounters with the Strange and the Familiar by John Scanlan (review)
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Reviewed by
John Scanlan. Memory: Encounters with the Strange and the Familiar. London: Reaktion Books, 2013. 188pp. Ill. $29.00 (978-1-78023-178-5).

In popular and medical discourses, human memory is usually taken to mean nothing more nor less than the crucial mental processes of encoding, storing and retrieving information. John Scanlan’s ambition in this book is to explore the broader sociocultural meanings of memory. He argues that memory is not only the province of the individual, the central constituent of personal identity, the psychological glue that provides a unified experience of self between past and present. Memory is also a social process giving collective structure to the experience of being part of the world. For modern people, it paradoxically creates a feeling of both intimate familiarity and estrangement, of being both at home and forever lost.

According to Scanlan, social memory is a peculiarly modern phenomenon, driven by the feeling of nostalgia and loss that accompanied economic, social and technological change. But if nostalgia has been central characteristic of modern philosophical thinking in the West, its origins lie in Greek myth and Homeric poetry. Following the work of many scholars, Scanlan sees The Odyssey as the prototypical narrative of modern selfhood, and memory is a central part of it. It is Odysseus’s longing for home that leads him to reject the eternal, unchanging life offered him by the nymph Calypso, break free from the imprisonment of a timeless present, and enter history to become a self-determined agent of his own will. In this modern reading, Calypso’s island paradise stands as the archaic prerational past, and Odysseus’s choice and wily actions as rational, goal-directed progress. The modern hero is thus defined both by nostalgia for a world he has left and the relentless will to continually reshape the present through rational choices and action that determine the future.

Scanlon shows that major historical ruptures, especially the great wars of modern Europe, have repeatedly stimulated interest in preserving past experiences as a source for understanding who we really are. This interest has taken the form of both historical scholarship, seeking to reconstruct a verifiable understanding of past experience through objective analysis of evidence, and a fascination with the preservation of evocative artifacts of the past or in subjective reenactments of past experience.

But in addition to being deliberately preserved and rehearsed to establish a sense of familiarity and order, Scanlon explores how the past can also disrupt the present—as in the intrusions of remembered sensations in the novels of Marcel Proust, or the excavation and critical analysis of the material culture of bygone ways of living in the work of Walter Benjamin. If the fascination with history and [End Page 333] heritage has a strongly conservative valence that explains if not defends the status quo, Benjamin thought that the continued existence of infinitesimal traces of the past could pose a radical alternative to the dominance of urban industrial capitalism.

The development of mass media technologies has greatly increased the disruptive potential of the past. Photography, audio recording, and cinema not only exponentially increased the number of historical representations available in the present; they opened up past experience to technical manipulation. All of these technologies allowed for a magnification of sensory detail that revealed new facets of reality, challenging the idea that our simple sense experience and individual memory could produce an adequate rendering of the past. Scanlon argues that the digital revolution and the expansion of the World Wide Web have so accelerated these processes that the surfeit of available past experience threatens to overwhelm the present. The distinction between past and present, between memory and forgetting becomes blurred and undermines any possible sense of tangible reality. We now longer live lives tightly tethered to a particular time and place, but skim along the surfeit of experience, dipping in where and when we please. Scanlon is ambivalent about this new way of living. He sees the potential for playful engagement with the world, but worries about a deepening culture of forgetfulness.

Scanlon’s book is a useful entry point into the growing scholarship on history and collective memory. For...