Art illustrating the concept of memoryWhat do we remember, what do we forget and why? It’s a complicated question, one that defies easy answers. It becomes even more challenging as we consider that remembering can be both a profoundly personal act as well as something taken on collectively—and that even those memories widely considered tangible or true are remarkably malleable, vulnerable to both internal factors, like emotion, and external ones, like time.

It’s precisely the complexity of memory that has drawn so many at Williams to study it deeply. At the start of the semester, Williams Magazine convened a conversation among a handful of people who have focused on memory in their work. Their scholarship represents a variety of disciplines—among them Arabic studies, cognitive and developmental psychology, comparative literature, English and sociology—coming together in a lively and multi-faceted discussion. Together the participants considered how we use memory to try to make meaning and sense of ourselves and the world around us—and what happens when the work of remembering, or forgetting, fails.

Susan Engel (moderator) Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Class of 1959 Director of the Program in Teaching
Susan Engel (moderator), Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Class of 1959 Director of the Program in Teaching

SUSAN ENGEL: What questions are you trying to answer with your work on memory?

SAFA ZAKI: I think of memory as the scaffolding for other cognitive processes. In my work, I try to figure out how we parse the world into categories. How do we know that one thing is a glass and something else is a book? It seems like a simple process, but what we do is incredible. When you try to get a computer to do it, you realize it’s highly complicated. Try doing a Google image search with “dog or food?” as the search term. You’ll get pictures of muffins that look just like puppies, and we can tell the difference, but computers can’t. To understand how we are able to make the distinction between images of different categories, I have to understand memory.

CHRISTINA SIMKO: For me, memory was the answer rather than the question. My first book focused on collective representations of Sept. 11, 2001, in the U.S., especially political speeches. After 9/11, people turned immediately to the past to find orientation in the present. Major news outlets in the U.S. and abroad used the headline “Infamy,” a reference to FDR’s speech after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 9/11 was framed as the first “battle” in a so-called “war on terrorism,” yet we could just as easily have framed it as a heinous international crime. In my course Memory and Forgetting, I try to get students to see that when we jam 9/11 into a war framework, we forget all the aspects that don’t fit. Political figures compared the people aboard United Airlines Flight 93 to the citizen soldiers of Lexington and Concord, yet the people who got on board that plane were not soldiers entering a field of battle but rather people just trying to get across the country. Some of them would have identified as patriotic American citizens, and some were not American citizens at all.

KAREN SHEPARD: I wrote a short story inspired by the “Portraits of Grief”—mini-profiles published in The New York Times of all the victims of 9/11 with their photos. As often happens when somebody dies in a traumatic way, they were all portraits of saints. I kept thinking, “Certainly there may be someone, somewhere, happy that this person is gone.” So, I wrote a story about what we want to remember and what we want to forget. I often think about the way in which memory supports a version of the characters that is wholly innocent, and I try to work against that.

Brahim El Guabli Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies
Brahim El Guabli, Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies

BRAHIM EL GUABLI: I grew up in Morocco, and when I became conscious of politics, I started talking to my parents about what I read in newspapers. They would say, “Shh, don’t talk about that. Walls have ears.” Then, in 1999, the king died, and a deluge of narratives and memoirs emerged about secret imprisonment in Morocco. When I went to graduate school, the question for me was: How could those survivors’ narratives transform the state? In my understanding, memory became a way for the people who suffered to create a space for democratization and advocacy for citizenship based on their suffering.

ENGEL: The way you discuss it, memory comes across as a fairly deliberative process: “I’m going to choose this to focus on. I’m going to ignore this.” As a psychologist, I have a hard time with that, because so much of our thinking goes on outside of our control and conscious awareness.

SHEPARD: I’m not suggesting that it’s in our control. If, as a writing exercise, I asked you to write down the most shameful thing you’ve ever done, William Gass (the late writer, critic and philosophy professor) would say you’re going to “confess to the lesser sin”—write the second-most shameful thing, not the most shameful, because that’s too fraught. He’s not suggesting, nor am I, that you’re in control of making that choice.

ENGEL: As a writer, do you poke at that? Do you eventually remember the most shameful thing?

Karen Shepard, Senior Lecturer in English
Karen Shepard, Senior Lecturer in English

SHEPARD: You try. You fail. You keep trying. Any memoir writer is saying both, “I want to try to remember,” and, “I’m not going to be able to fully do that,” which creates an interesting narrative conflict that plays out on the page. That’s where we get great literature. The bad literature is where the writer just says, “Look at all the things I’ve suffered.”

EL GUABLI: It depends on the genre of writing. In testimonial literature, the idea of truth—even when it’s inconvenient—permeates the work. Political prisoners are victims of the state and have an ethical agency to share everything. They say, “We remember because we don’t want other victims to be forgotten,” or, “We are witnessing for the victims and those others who are not able to remember or share their stories.” They remember both the heroic and the shameful aspects of the experience, and truth becomes central to memory. There is a deliberate act of remembering, from the minutiae of torture to suffering in isolation to seeing friends die. And the degree of detail that goes into that is phenomenal.

SHEPARD: But are they in control of what they remember and what they don’t?Art illustrating the concept of memory

ZAKI: Psychologist Beth Loftus at the University of California Irvine suggests that people in difficult situations can be led to misremember details. She did a study with people going through military training in which they are interrogated by someone abusive and asked to recall the experience. After the exercise, the soldiers— who were taking part in survival-school training, which simulates being captured as a prisoner of war—were shown photos of someone who wasn’t their interrogator and asked questions about their capture, as if the person in the photo had been the one who interrogated them. Loftus could get the soldiers to misremember who their interrogator was. So even in those traumatic moments, when the intent is there to remember every detail, sometimes memory can’t be trusted.

SIMKO: I don’t think the processes of remembering and encoding the past are deliberative, even when they take place at a collective level. There are substantial constraints, the most significant being the narratives we inherit from the past. At the level of the nation, the image we have of ourselves is as a unit moving through time and as “the kind of people we are.”

ENGEL: Of good people versus bad people? Or brave people versus timid people?

Christina Simko Assistant Professor of Sociology
Christina Simko, Assistant Professor of Sociology

SIMKO: Or innocent people versus fallible people. One of the most powerful things the sociology of memory can do is give us the capacity to step back from some of these implicit or intuitive processes and interrupt them to act back on them.

ENGEL: Cognitive psychologist Dick Neisser talked about the five different selves—one of which is the remembered self, formed from a complicated combination of the memories you collect and rework. So, we use memory processes to make sense of ourselves and our history but also to make ourselves feel good about who we are.

ZAKI: There’s good evidence that memory is the basis for reasoning. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown that something called “availability” is extremely important in reasoning. People are more likely to believe that violent crimes are more prevalent than, say, diabetes and therefore more of a problem for society, because crimes are reported more often in the news and so become a part of our available memory.

SIMKO: This returns me to my question about how we construct collective narratives in the face of deeply disruptive events that threaten the core of our identities. The Pentagon is struck by a plane on 9/11, and that’s a real threat to the United States’ canonical narrative of its military might. How does the nation recover from that? The answer is memory. Turning to Pearl Harbor, this moment of suffering that was followed by victory at war. Memory is precisely the place we turn to when we have to make sense of something that doesn’t fit our existing heuristics.

EL GUABLI: For me and the work I do, 9/11 was a transformative moment in terms of the remapping of the Middle East and how a traumatic event that took place in the U.S. changed an entire region.

ENGEL: So, with emotionally or politically loaded memories you might uncover several different perspectives on that same event. One person might have several different versions of the same memory, many people might remember the same event in completely different ways. Over time, people often revise a memory or give up one version for another. You can say of 9/11, “Actually, it wasn’t the destruction of the American people, it was the beginning of the destruction of so many people in the Middle East.” Can you hold on to several memories of the same event at the same time?

SHEPARD: That’s my definition of good literature and, probably, our definition of good teaching. And it would be my definition of the kind of people we should aspire to be: nuanced and complicated. We have so many pressures, both internal and external, at this moment in American history to say things are not complicated or nuanced. It’s this or that—both things cannot be true. But in a classroom or on the page, I’m trying to access and articulate that part of myself that believes all of these things can be true at the same time. It’s not a linear progression from “I felt this way, and now I feel this other way.” It is, simultaneously, “I feel multiple ways.”

Safa Zaki Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Cognitive Science Program
Safa Zaki, Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Cognitive Science Program

ZAKI: I would answer differently. I would say, no, in the moment of the first experience, you have potentially different interpretations that are bubbling up. But as the memory solidifies, as you rehearse it over time, how long does it take before you have a single narrative? You might lose that nuance over time. I would imagine that, over time, our memories feel much more real. People have the wrong intuition about their own memories—that they’re tangible—and that leads us to believe so strongly that our memories are real. As time goes by, they become more real.

SHEPARD: I totally agree with that, but I’m trying to hang on to the ambiguity that gets cemented away as time passes. It’s scary to feel complicated. It feels destabilizing, disorienting. And we haven’t taught people how to experience that complication.

ENGEL: We haven’t taught people how to dive into it and hold two things in their head at once. But in everyday life, isn’t the impulse toward clarity a good thing? It’s why we can function.

SIMKO: Well, we don’t and we do hold on to two thingsat once. In Memory and Forgetting, we talk about MauriceHalbwachs, who is the figure most associated with coiningthe term “collective memory.” He makes the argument thatmemory is always a social phenomenon—that even ourmost private individual memories are filtered through socialframeworks and elicited in specific social environmentsand contexts, even if we’re just recalling them privately. But there is always a multiplicity of frameworks in any collectivity. And what makes our memories seem unique is not that we are unique individuals but that we participate in a unique configuration of social groups. So, our identities, our affiliations are all bearing down upon the particular memories that we construct and the memories that are elicited situationally. I imagine your memories of 9/11 would take different shape if you were sitting around a dinner table with your family instead of sitting in this context talking about your work on memory. I argue that our memories are always already multiple and that the idea that they become these boiled-down little images is the fiction.

ENGEL: You’ve just put your finger on a helpful distinction between memories as something you construct and the act of remembering. Memories and remembering are not exactly the same thing. Remembering is a mental process that may include others, at every level. I don’t think psychologists agree on the best metaphor for memory. A file cabinet of photographs? A series of stories? Are you making a new video every single day?

ZAKI: Yet we all understand memory through these metaphors. I was recently trying to teach students an idea about one particular system in memory which has to do with a loop you can play back, and that comes from understanding tape recorder technology. Without that technology, they had no idea why it was called a loop, and I got so many questions about auditory loops.

EL GUABLI: Consider how states officially remember and what they officially repress. France repressed the Algerian War (1954-1962) and the looting of African villages, creating convenient memories of its own. Anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler talks about aphasia among French scholars—how they don’t even have the words to talk about what happened in the 1960s, when 3 million French men served in Algeria, or how, on Oct. 17, 1961, almost 400 Algerians were drowned in the Seine in Paris. These events were repressed, just forgotten, until historical scholarship brought them back. This tension between history and memory is important to think about. In Morocco, memory is central to citizenship today—being Moroccan means being able to remember your story or writing it, making it available to other people. Trauma studies are emerging in North Africa and the Middle East. It used to be that if you wanted to study trauma and memory, you would go to Berlin or Paris or come here to the U.S., but now there are communities based in Lebanon, Cairo and Rabat that are using their local resources to investigate these types of questions.

ENGEL: This all has given me a new insight. Social psychologist Tony Greenwald talks about the totalitarian ego, the way your individual mind is always dictating and directing things inside so that you make yourself feel consistent, sensible and understandable. We’ve talked about the terrible version of that on the political level—the state that dictates memories—and I’m thinking it’s good to dismantle that type of ego as well. What you’ve all brought to light is that once you’ve established your totalitarian ego at around age 4, you have to learn to stray from it. I wonder, as a way to conclude, if you could say what has surprised you as you study memory?

EL GUABLI: For me, it’s about language and memory. In the case of the Algerian War, people assume that if France does not remember, the Algerians don’t, either. But it’s a question of language. Because people who are writing from the States or France don’t read Arabic or local languages, they don’t have access to the literature that’s produced about that memory or about that past, which creates the assumption that there is a generalized repression of colonial memories.

SHEPARD: I’m constantly surprised, maybe paradoxically, that the better you get at holding the possibility that multiple things are true, the more reparative and orienting it feels.

SIMKO: I continue to be surprised at the pervasiveness of memory, its orienting power. Even when we think we’re talking about the future, we’re intuitively reaching back for guidance from the past.

ZAKI: The surprise for me comes from working with students at Williams and the insights they force me to have. It’s not so hard for them to see connections between big open questions because they are not entangled in the details. My students push me to understand the big questions.