While other people are being snatched away from us, we are being filched away surreptitiously from ourselves. –Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter CIV
When Seneca wrote these words, he was trying to convince us that it was pointless to grieve for the loss of loved ones, because we are ourselves are being changed and worn down by the passage of time, the departed have merely suffered time’s final blow.
I think he has missed a deeper point, however, that the death of someone we loved, with whom we spent a great deal of time and shared many experiences represents a significant change and loss for us because of the oft overlooked collective and social nature of memory. When a friend or family member dies, a huge section of our memory is erased; we still have our memories of them, but we have lost their memories of us.
In our individualistic society we like to delude ourselves that we are autonomous, freestanding entities, including our minds and memories, but it just ain’t so. Memory is collective in the sense that communities are built on shared common experiences and social in the sense that we rely on family and friends to revive (and revise) important experiences.
In traditional, stable societies collective and social memories would be fairly synonymous. If you stay in the same community and consort with the same people all your life, what you remember as a group and as an individual have a much larger overlap than if you are constantly on the move, changing cities, social groups, employment, careers, family members, friends and lovers.
This is where the power of modern media comes in. It is crucial for creating collective memories in such a mobile mass: Where were you when Kennedy was shot? What were you doing when the Twin Towers came down? I don’t remember the Canada-Soviet Hockey series of ’72, how about you?
Social memory has become more and more estranged from collective memory and ever more fragile. When we used to have life-long contact with our families, there were usually several generations who knew us from childhood, not anymore. Families are scattered and old people locked in lodges. Particularly tragic is when stroke, dementia or Alzheimer’s prematurely rob us of our shared social memories.
It seems to me that the explosion of popularity in social media like Facebook, Twitter, blogging and Tumblr is due in part to a desire to reinforce not just collective memory, but , more importantly, social memory. We can no longer rely on a stable group of lifelong acquaintances to mutually reinforce identity through shared memory creation, re-creation and re-vision, so we pass around Internet memes in an attempt to find shared reference points and entrust our photos and stories to the Web and the Cloud, vainly hoping that cyber chatter and networks can replace shared lived experience.
For a concrete example of what I am talking about here, check out my poem Facebook Photo.