Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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July 31, 2007
calculated forgetability

The magazine Brooklyn Rail has given me two big reasons to like the artist Richard Tuttle even more.

The first reason is the following passage from a 2005 interview with Tuttle, about how he beat the draft during the Vietnam War:

I had this idea to study very hard for a multiple choice test and color in the answer to the left of the correct one.

It worked like a charm. They sent me right to the intensive ward of the nuthouse and then gave me an honorable discharge because they thought that it was their fault that I had gone nuts.

And still to this day, I don’t know if in fact I was nuts.

That last sentence is the kicker.

The second reason is contained in the following, recently published commentary on Tuttle's work, by Jeremy Sigler:

After viewing a Tuttle show, I instantly forget what I’ve seen.

I find myself unable to recreate mentally, while what I retain is the work’s considerable poetic impact. In memory, the work fails to function and then fails to exist.

But this actually contributes to its longevity. For their foggy impressions always leave reason for a refresher course in Tuttle's native tongue.

You might even say that the work becomes subversive through its knack at creating such an impression while simultaneously erasing the short-term memory, causing one to forget ever having seen it. Each time I return to Tuttle, it is therefore in real time and real space, and for the first time and in the first place.

The above observation is fascinating. But what on earth does it mean, exactly? I wonder about some possibilities.

Least likely: Tuttle's work contains some kind of aesthetic MSG. The viewer gets hungry all over again for the same meal. It hides empty calories. Filler. Maybe Tuttle sneaks through, buried in his art's presence, the lack of something that only going to another Tuttle exhibition promises to fill, but then does not fill.

Compare: What if an evil baker created a very delicious kind of donut in which, unbeknownst to the eater, the hole got eaten too, and caused hunger for more of the same donuts?

Would Tuttle's artwork not thereby create an ever expanding market for itself? Clever.

Or: Tuttle's work contains some kind of subtle cognitive copy protection. Maybe the pieces mess with the brain's duplication "standards," or contain an embedded mental encryption key. If the brain tries to burn a permanent, duplicate image, the file is automatically erased.

Sigler concedes that he does not forget Tuttle's art completely. Nor does he seem to want to. At least part of his memory remembers at least part of the experience. For example, he seems to remember the artist's name.

But how does his brain decide what to remember and what to forget? Does his brain retain a lot of the subjective, emotional feel of the artworks but few objective "facts" about them? As if the input goes straight to the amygdala for long-term storage? Somehow bypassing usual channels?

Does the overwhelming, immersive, sensory intensity of the artistic experience trigger a variety of selective amnesia? The very same thing happens to me when I go the opera. So I can understand and relate to saying to oneself, "I don't remember much of anything about the experience except that I loved it at the time. So I am anxious to go back and experience it again."

Thus the art guarantees that it can only be experienced "in the moment."

I wonder whether this example of selective amnesia has something to do with the more common and seductive but tricky, dualistic desire to know what it's like to "forget . . . but remember" something. To step out of time, to float alongside history.

Whenever I hear people (e.g., myself) express a desire to "forget" about an experience, I realize, they rarely mean that they want totally to forget about it.

Usually, they're talking in general about some unpleasant experience that they never want to repeat. So, they want to forget some parts, like the full memory of the physical pain, the burn of moral shame or the embarrassment at the failure to foresee and prevent disaster. However, they badly want to remember other parts, like the general facts of how horrible the situation was, or the warnings signs of the bad habits or dangerous circumstances that led to the previous trouble.

It is difficult to wield forgetfulness with the control and scalpel-like precision necessary to get the balance right; to carve away and separate the sticky, interconnected lobes of a seemingly unified experience; to remember and forget the correct categories of things, always in the proper proportion, at the right times.

Sigler provides a wonderful example of a case in which it is OK to let go and embrace a spontaneous forgetfulness, even if it is a kind that wants to stage an endless return to the same events.

A related question: How does the brain overcome a dispute among its various parts about whether a particular memory should be forgotten or kept -- or invented?

This question is asked indirectly by a very interesting online paper, "The Time of Unrememberable Being: Wordsworth's Autobiography of the Imagination," by Francis F. Steen of the fascinating CogWeb.

The paper is great for at least three reasons:
  • it contains a very cool diagram of how our brains "formulate a calibrated intention . . . that draws on the sensorimotor memories of the neocortex and is informed by the priorities set by the limbic system."

  • it uses a form of the word "ecphorize," and

  • it includes many snippets of the writing of Wordsworth, a person whose appreciation of the beauty of forgetfulness we previously have noted.

I will now proceed to try to forget this post.

[update 2/23/08:


[T]he art of forgetting is not the same as forgetfulness. It is also easy to see what very little understanding people in general have of this art, for usually it is only the unpleasant they want to forget, not the pleasant. This betrays a complete one-sidedness. . . .

Forgetting is the shears with which one clips away what one cannot use -- thought, mind you, under the overall supervision of memory. Forgetting and memory are thus identical, and the skilfuly achieved identify is the Archimedean point with which one lifts the whole world. In saying that we consign something to oblivion, we suggest that it is simultaneously forgotten yet preserved.

SK then goes on to warn against the dangers of friendship.

The foregoing is from Either/Or, part 1, chapter 6 ("Crop Rotation"), from the Penguin edition translated by Alastair Hannay.]