November 8, 2009

A Memory of Now

Justin Katz

If you're of a mind to direct your thoughts away from the particulars of the day — shootings and bombs and recession and government expansion — David Goldman's essay on the use of rhythm and expectation to imbue a sense of the sacred into music is worth your time. There is a point, though, where our imaginative limitations strain the grand theories:

Augustine is not concerned with time in the abstract, but rather with the possibility of communication between God and humankind. "Lord, since ­eternity is yours, are you ignorant of what I say to you? Or do you see in time, what passes in time?" Aristotle's Prime Mover has no need to communicate with humans and, for that matter, no means of doing so. Aristotle's static time can have no interaction with the eternity of the biblical God—which means that if Aristotle’s description of time as a sequence of moments were adequate, we could not hope to commune with an eternal being.

But Aristotle's theory, in Augustine's view, leads to absurdities. To consider durations in time, we must measure what is past, for the moment as such has no duration. Events that have passed no longer exist, leaving us in the paradoxical position of seeking to measure what does not exist. Augustine's solution is that memory of events, rather than the events themselves, is what we compare. "It is in you, my mind, that I measure times," he concludes. If the measurement of small intervals of time occurs in the mind, then what can we say about our perception of distant past and future? If our perception of past events depends on memory, then our thoughts about future events depend on expectation, and what links both is "
"consideration." For "the mind expects, it considers, it remembers; so that which it expects, through that which it considers, passes into that which it remembers."

Expectation and memory, Augustine adds, determine our perception of distant past and future: "It is not then future time that is long, for as yet it is not: But a long future, is 'a long expectation of the future,' nor is it time past, which now is not, that is long; but a long past is 'a long memory of the past.'" This is the insight that allows Augustine to link perception of time to the remembrance of revelation and the expectation of redemption.

If one knows the rules that a particular piece of music is following, then the musical moment has a sort of intrinsic memory even apart from the past and future, telling the tale of what's been and what is yet to come. In life, this is especially true. Imagine that you could freeze everything else but you in time; you could pick somebody you don't know and inspect the incidentals of his or her life and learn quite a bit the individual's past and future. Layer into that an ability to measure momentary emotions, and differences in perception of the passage of time aren't really an obstacle to communication.

My point is this (I suppose): We communicate with each other and with God through our actions. Indeed, it's central to the Christian understanding of Jesus that God communicated with us in precisely that manner.

Of course, my remarks, here, are wholly tangential to Goldman's discussion of the intersection of philosophical and musical theory, which, dealing in two human conventions, can be complete of its own accord.

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Another key component of memory and thought is language. Language, from biological, social, and philosophical/theological perspectives, has always had a privileged postion. I suppose language could be translated as a type of action - linguists refer to individual speech acts. When we consider thought and memory, there appear to be two key components: the sensational/emotional and the linguistic. The sensational/emotional components are tied to what is called episodic memory - the visual images, smells, sounds, and feelings that one experienced at a certain time and in a certain place. It is generally understood that animals have this type of memory. Initially, young babies would have this type of memory as well and as language develops, words to describe those sensations and emotions become attached to the episodic memory. Over time, this develops into an internal monologue. I highly recommend the book Thought and Language by Lev Vygotstky, who studied young children as they developed linguistic capacity. I took a course a couple of summers ago on Vygotsky and found his theoretical framework quite interesting.

As for the communication that takes place with a higher power and the conception of time, I have always thought of the difference being one of physical world constraits, with humanity constrained by the physical parameters of corporeal existence and a Creator not constrained by any such boundaries. The Creator could then always have ongoing communication with the Created because the Created would be part of the Creator. The Creator would have the panoramic view while we, as the Created, are bound by our own physicality and the limited understanding of the part attempting to undestand the whole. The part could never gain a full understanding of the whole but might observe how various parts seem to fit together in ways that flesh out the puzzle.

Our primary tool for sorting through the philosophical morass is thus language. It is the way in which we attempt to understand ourselves, our relationships to other parts (i.e., other people) and our relationship with a higher being that begat us. It is the way in which we try to make sense of events and emotions and other actions that are constantly occuring around us.

From a bibilical perspective, Jesus Christ is often interpreted as the Word, as in, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God."

Other world religions also tend to privilege the word as a unique act of communication among humans and between humans and their Creator.

Coming back to memory, memories while partly episodic in nature, are very much defined by the way in which we discuss and describe them. People feel the need to write memoirs, to discuss current events, to pen newspaper articles and blog posts. Perhaps this is because language is so tied to thought and as social creatures, we feel the impetus to share and connect thoughts and to make sense of events and our memory of events in a communal manner. Perhaps this is part of working out how the pieces fit into the portrait of the whole, which we cannot ever fully understand from our limited perspective, but which we might better understand from the perspective of interaction with others' thoughts and memories. And the best way to engage in such interaction is through language.

Posted by: Tabetha at November 8, 2009 5:07 PM
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