Tuesday, February 05, 2013

"Memory as Performance" - An Old, First Draft of an Old, Neglected Article . . .

I'm resurrecting several old articles in the hope of publishing them now, some of them from several years ago. The passage below is the introduction to an article titled "Memory as Performance: Toward a Biblical Soteriology of Remembering." I wrote it about ten years ago when I had 'tenure' and access to a theology library, just slightly prior to the time when that particular university decided that foreigners couldn't have tenure in Korean universities -- which I never believed and which doesn't appear to have been true -- and relabled me as a "Visiting Professor" on temporary contract. I put the article aside, partly from being shot off the course of my career trajectory, partly from lack of time to pursue the project, partly from je ne sais quoi . . . Anyway, here's the introduction to that nearly forty-page paper:
The exponential growth of information that characterizes the modern and inchoate postmodern ages has placed an enormous burden upon memory, whether individual or cultural.[2] Indeed, the emerging postmodern age stems in part from the breakdown of memory's integrative function,[3] for postmodernism's explicitly declared mistrust of metanarratives partially derives from recognizing that finite memory’s necessary selectiveness excludes an ever-vaster temporal landscape of events, perspectives, values, practices, and narratives. Postmodernists therefore reject metanarratives such as those propounded by Marxists, positivists, free-market liberals, and Christians and embrace instead a multifold particularity of experience. We see a material analogy to this in postmodern architecture, which often picks and chooses randomly from various architectural styles -- both past and present -- in its constructions. We thus would not find ourselves at all surprised if confronted by a Gothic church with glaring neon images flashing religious icons from recesses in the walls where traditional Gothic windows would originally have displayed their stained glass beauty. Postmodernism, then, employs allusion where previous epochs (including the modernist one) would have attempted to achieve integration. Yet, allusion itself relies upon memory -- even if merely of discrete memories linked at random. Such discrete memories, moreover, presuppose a memory of narratives within which each has an integrated sense borrowed even in its postmodern negation. Despite the burden placed on memory by the exponential growth of information, despite postmodernism's distrust of memory's integrative function, we confront the ineluctability of memory. Yet, how should we understand a Christian Biblical soteriology[4] of memory?[5] I suggest that we note two corresponding aspects of remembering as "doing": 1) memory as actively remembering the inauguration of the covenant through a symbolic re-enacting of the original covenantal institution as though one were reliving a personally experienced event; and 2) memory as actively remembering the covenant itself through the lived enacting of the covenantal principles in one's daily actions.[6] This article will present a number of Biblical passages relevant to memory in order to examine the evidence that these two aspects of remembering mutually characterize a Christian Biblical soteriology of remembering.
Here are the footnotes to this introduction, which start with footnote 2 because footnote 1 belongs with a quote that goes with the article's title:
[2] This is the case not only despite new technologies of information processing, transmission, and storage but especially because of them. See Aleida Assmann, Erinnerungsräume: Formen und Wandlungen des kulterellen Gedächtnisses (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1999): "In der westlichen Zivilisation verschärft sich das Problem des kulturellen Gedächtnisses unter den Druck der neuen Medien, die zugleich unvorstellbare Speicherkapazitäten freisetzen und Information in immer schnelleren Rhythmen zirkulieren lassen. Immer dichtere Kommunikationsnetze vergellschaften entfernteste Regionen. Radio und Fernsehen schicken ihre Programme pausenlos und gedankenschnell über Satelliten um den Globus. Die Speicherkapazität neuer Datenträger und Archive sprengt die Konturen eines kulturellen Gedächtnisses. Die Bilderflut des Fernsehens macht die Schrift als zentrales Gedächtnis-Medien obsolet; neue Speicher- und Informationstechnologien basieren auf einer anderen Art von Schrift, nämlich der digitalen, die in ihrer flüssigen Gestalt nichts mehr zu tun hat mit dem alten Gestus des Einschreibens. Diese Schrift läßt keinen trennscharfen Unterschied mehr zu zwischen Erinnern und Vergessen" (213-214). Translation: "In western civilization, the problem of cultural memory is growing ever sharper under the pressure of new media that simultaneously create unimaginable storage capacities and allow information to circulate in ever faster rhythms. An ever tighter communication net draws distant regions into society. Radio and television send their programs without pause and as quick as thought by satellite around the globe. The storage capacity of new databases and archives explodes the contours of cultural memory. The flood of images from television make writing as the central medium of memory obsolete; new storage- and information-technologies base themselves on a different manner of writing, namely, the digital, which in its fluid form has nothing more to do with the old gesture of inscribing. This writing no longer allows a sharp distinction between remembering and forgetting." Assmann here apparently means cultural remembering and forgetting, not personal remembering and forgetting.

[3] In fact, an earlier breakup of "comprehensive social memory," as Danièle Hervieu-Léger notes, "came with the emergence and historical development of modernity," itself as "[t]he affirmation of the autonomous individual, the advance of rationalization breaking up the 'sacred canopies,' and the process of institutional differentiation denote the end of societies based upon memory," in Religion as a Chain of Memory (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 127. However, Hervieu-Léger also notes the more recent loss of memory that Assmann analyzes, and she points to much the same reason for this loss, i.e., overabundance of information: "The complexity of the world shown in the vast incoherent mass of available information is decreasingly amenable to being ordered in the more or less impromptu way that collective memory was able to achieve by finding explanatory links," 128. The growth of the internet is exacerbating this overabundance and constructing an informational ediface that evermore resembles that seductive and baffling labyrinth of an endless library described by Jorge Luis Borges in his story "The Library of Babel" (see the fine anthology of several of Borges's short stories: Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (Norton, 1988), edited by James E. Irby and Donald A. Yates).

[4] Some would question the possibility of a Biblical soteriology (or theology) of anything since the Bible is a collection of various documents written at various times by various individuals. This misses two points: 1) these documents were written within a religious tradition in communication with itself over the same central religious experiences and issues, and 2) the historical process of the early Common Era that resulted in the Bible as the Christian canon has conferred upon the Church the privilege of interpreting for itself what this self-communication means to say. In other words, the method should not be one of simply adding up what the individual texts state as an expression of what the individual authors meant but one of working toward a more unified Biblical soteriology by looking at the texts within the context of the canon as a whole as interpreted by the Church. For the purposes of this article, I will be working within the general framework of what is known as canon criticism, an interpretive approach in which "exegesis endeavors to determine what a given passage means not only in the immediate context of its date, authorship and setting but in the wider context of the canon in which it was ultimately incorporated" (Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 99a). Further on the issue of the canon, see Luke Timothy Johnson's "Epilogue: The New Testament as the Church's Book," in The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1999), 595–619.

[5] Memory as cultural artefact has been the subject of analysis by cultural theorists. Aside, from Assmann, mentioned above, many others have addressed this issue. For instance, Harold Weinrich, Sprache in Texten (Stuttgart: 1976), pp. 291-294, analyzes two metaphors of memory: "Gedächtnis-Magazin" ("Memory-Storehouse") and "Tafel der Erinnering" ("Table of Recollection"). The former is a spatial metaphor, the latter more of a visual one. Both, however, are purely mental and mostly static. My suggestion in this paper is that the Biblical tradition presents a yet another understanding of memory in addition to storehouse and table. In the Bible, "to remember" very often means "to do." Thus, to remember God's covenant means to fulfill God's covenant. This does not rule out other meanings of memory -- memory as table emerges in a few places -- but the understanding of memory as action is pervasive in the Bible.

[6] This conceptualization of memory has a secular counterpart in that "to remember" can also mean to "to do." For example, the imperatival expression "Remember your promise!" means far more than simply to recall it intellectually; it implicitly means "Keep your promise!" Thus, the present article does not intend to draw a pragmatic-linguistics distinction between Biblical and secular expressions of remembering but, rather, to focus upon a neglected aspect of the Biblical understanding of remembering -- and which may also be neglected in its secular counterpart. Of course, the Biblical sense of remembering has a powerful soteriological significance lacking in its secular counterpart.
Such is the project upon which I labored, a hard labor cut short by a miscarriage of justice -- one might well call it the literary equivalent of a partial birth abortion! Actually, though, I did finish a draft of the projected article before the university terminated my tenure and put me on temporary contract, and I now hope to polish this article and send it off for publication somewhere or other. I confess that the writing sounds so much better than anything I could attempt today -- I can't even recall how I managed to write it, though I suppose that I still had hopes of a career in religious studies back then, and thus had the motivation to push myself beyond my usual intellectual limitations.

Wish me luck . . .

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