Saturday, April 19, 2014

Fromm on Alienated Memory

Erich Fromm claims in To Have or to Be that:
Remembering can occur in either the having or the being mode. What matters most for the difference between the two forms of remembering is the kind of connection that is made. In the having mode of remembering, the connection is entirely mechanical, as when the connection between one word and the next becomes firmly established by the frequency with which it is made. Or the connections may be purely logical, such as the connection between opposites, or between converging concepts, or with time, space, size, color, or within a given system of thought.

In the being mode, remembering is actively recalling words, ideas, sights, paintings, music; that is, connecting the single datum to be remembered and the many other data that it is connected with. The connections in the case of being are neither mechanical nor purely logical, but alive. One concept is connected with another by a productive act of thinking (or feeling) that is mobilized when one searches for the right word.
Fromm was, of course, a Marxist of sorts, though also deeply influenced by by more existentialist themes. He would have us believe that merely to "have" or "possess" something is deeply deficient. The point of the entire book is that we should strive "to be" rather than merely "to have." This idea is suggestive, but in the end incredibly naive. To say that I "have" cancer or that I "have" Alzheimer's is not really to say that I merely "own" it and could discard it at will. It is rather a short-hand way of saying that I am a person with cancer or Alzheimer's. But be that as it may, Fromm's simple-minded opposition also shows up in this definition of "alienated memory." Thus, he also claims:
Memory entrusted to paper is another form of alienated remembering. By writing down what I want to remember I am sure to
have that information, and I do not try to engrave it on my brain. I am sure of my possession—except that when I have lost my notes, I have lost my memory of the information, too. My capacity to remember has left me, for my memory bank had become an externalized part of me, in the form of my notes.
Fromm does not want to deny entirely that, "considering the multitude of data that people in our contemporary society need to remember, a certain amount of notemaking and information deposited in books is unavoidable," but he also thinks the "tendency away from remembering is growing beyond all sensible proportions. One can easily and best observe in oneself that writing down things diminishes one's power of remembering."

Fromm is talking here about the phenomenon that I have referred to as "external memory" before, and I think he is missing the boat by a mile. External memory is not "alienated" memory," and in any case is nothing new or restricted to "contemporary society." The critique he offers is old as Plato's critique of reading or writing in the Phaedrus.[1] External memory is not, in my book (and indeed in any book), deficient memory, but rather what some people would call an "affordance." The parallel would be between using a bicycle or a car and walking. Riding is not "alienated walking." To use wheels is not ontologically inferior to carrying things in your arms, or so I would argue.

1. I am grateful to Christian Mähler of the Notizbuchblog for calling my attention to this passage by Fromm (in German). I do not take myself to disagree with him in the specifics. Rather, I make a more general point.

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