Cult Of Memory: Simon Critchley Interviewed

Daniel Fraser speaks to Simon Critchley about the architecture of memory and a move toward its obliteration, the culture of stigma surrounding death in our current civilisation (as well as his distaste for that term) and his recent genre-bending philosophical treatise-cum-novel Memory Theatre

"There is a sense in which the way we enforce remembrance produces obliteration" Simon Critchley explains, in reference to the insurmountable position memory has attained in the human world. Our ability to remember is something we value above all other brain functions. It defines all of us as who we are. But is memory also dangerous? Should things be forgotten altogether? And what would happen if you tried to build a space where all your memories could be stored forever?

For those unfamiliar, Simon Critchley is a philosopher who has written on subjects from the divide between the continental and analytic traditions, to the centrality of finitude in contemporary thought and many subjects in between (including, naturally, David Bowie). His work manages the difficult task of drawing both accessibility and depth from his vast range of references and his work has a wit and vitality which always makes his books high on my to-read list whenever they appear.

His new book, Memory Theatre, shifts between the already difficult textual spaces of ‘fiction’, ‘memoir’ and ‘essay’, exploring the history of memory and those who dared to construct ‘memory theatres’ architectural spaces of both the mind and the material world in which might house all their knowledge. Drawing on Hegel, Giordano Bruno, The Fall and much more, Memory Theatre questions the validity of memory and whether it can be anything more than ‘Repetition, repetition, repetition.’

Near the end of the book you mention Hegel’s genius in conceiving of memory as a kind of ‘perpetual motion machine’ do you see this idea of motion as being essential to art also?

I don’t know, that’s a good question. In the book the way it works is that the memory theatre that the protagonist builds ends up being a static two-dimensional structure which there’s then a critique of towards the end. After which I fantasise about this total work of art, a work of a kind that would be a self-perpetuating, self-generating system.

There is a fantasy about art as kind of a non-human self-perpetuating environment, that’s the fantasy that the protagonist ends up with. Whether I think that all art has that character or not, I don’t really know. It’s a question of what we think about what that character thinks about at the end of the book: there’s this fantasy of this projection of an island which would regenerate and repeat and then art would become indistinguishable from nature and we would become nature itself, the second sun. Yet you are left with this character waiting outside this provincial library in the Netherlands, waiting for it to open so that he can consult title charts: a pathetic spectacle which exposes as fantasy the idea which artists have submitted themselves to.

One thing I was thinking of, there’s an artist called Philippe Parreno who did this piece a couple of years ago called CHZ: Continuously Habitable Zones where he was he was basically designing a garden in Portugal which ended up taking on strange proportions but the fantasy that was driving it was the idea of an artwork that would have an organic repetitive quality to it, it was his response to mortality which is analogous to memory theatre. That was on my mind continually when I was writing the book.

I wanted to ask you about the images in the book, by Liam Gillick, and why the photographic representation of a process of dismantling, or the illusion of such which has been created by their arrangement, was necessary. And further, what it is about Gillick’s work which particularly resonates with this project?

Everything I do is completely contingent and driven by chance, I just know Liam and when I finished the Memory Theatre I didn’t show it to anybody, it came out quite quickly, in a different form and it felt like it had to be said and flowed very easily in a strange way — it was an oddly easy thing to write. After a while showed it to Liam, I can’t remember why I showed it to him, but he read it and immediately he said I see what you’re up to here, we can put it together with this series of photographs I’ve been doing from my apartment window of this building being built.

Originally the plan was for it to be a kind of art book which would have 30-40 pictures by Liam and the text would go alongside it, but then the Fitzcarraldo project emerged and it changed form. In terms of its meaning the book is a kind of worst case scenario for people like me: how life might end up for me. I hope it doesn’t but it might. And Liam is someone who is in the same boat and he recognised some commonalities. I don’t really have any taste or judgement when it comes to anything visual at all, I really don’t, so when Liam said he got it I was pleased and then he said that it would go together with this I said OK, and then we did it. So there’s no necessity to it, I like the idea of the decomposition of the building as a reverse commentary of the construction of the memory theatre, a visual critique on some level. It does give a kind of punctuating sequence which I like a lot. I’m pleased how it turned out.

I was wondering how you thought the failure of architecture to encapsulate memory might relate to the idea of the memorial, the edifice of remembrance?

Yeah, the idea of memory theatre comes out of this in a sense. I re-read one of the source texts the other week, which is this apocryphal text attributed to Cicero called the Rhetorica ad Herennium which gives this distinction between natural and artificial memory. It’s a twenty page discussion, and there was clearly a whole literature on this subject – most of which has been lost. It’s just this not-particularly-interesting rhetorical manual which has survived, and its description of artificial memory always links it to images and space and defines it in architectural terms. So artificial memory, something one cultivates, is a cultivation of an architectural space which is a space that you imagine and then inhabit and then it’s taken a step further in the physical incarnation of that space.

There is a sequence in the book, which might be my favourite part of the book, there’s a dream of a series of gothic cathedrals which were things which fascinated me particularly when I was in my twenties, I was obsessed with English gothic architecture, but a penny dropped two or three years ago that these spaces are memory theatres: These cathedrals are architectural spaces which are designed to evoke certain memories in this case: creation, fall, redemption, last judgement.

There’s a scene in the book where the protagonist, we have to say the protagonist I guess, whoever it is, drives into work and the landscape itself appears as a kind of memory theatre which you can then link to a psycho-geographical set of concerns: to inhabit the space of a city or a town or a village is to inhabit a memory theatre. So the concept can be wildly generalised it seems to me.

The question of monuments is a central one as the book is, in some sense, the story of the construction of a failed monument. Separately I’ve got problems with monuments, and with architecture too. In a way, I’m against architecture. There’s that book by Denis Hollier about Bataille which begins with Bataille looking at Chartres cathedral and thinking ‘this is shit and I want to destroy it’ and there is something about architecture which stirs this impulse in me. There is a way which architecture is merely an oppressive monumentalisation of memory which obliterates other possible memories, other possible lines.

One thing which has concerned me over the years in response to this is thr question ‘could you have a monument to something immemorial’, or, could you have a kind of im-monument? Could you have a different notion of architecture which wouldn’t be prey to this memorialisation? I’m thinking of this particularly in relation to the cult of memory surrounding Holocaust memorials, the issues they have thrown up in recent years and, more specifically, I’m thinking of the things that Thomas Hirschhorn was trying to do with his monuments, which are different, almost im-monuments. They are these precarious, badly constructed, transient structures used for a social purpose and then dismantled. Which I guess is what the memory theatre ends up becoming in the back garden at the end.

(Thomas Hirschhorn, Bataille Monument, 2002)

Reading the book, I was reminded of Bolano’s 2666 and the printing of the murders and its play with the idea of memory and forgetting, the reader finding themselves skipping and skimming past them after a certain point, as though by their very presence they are forgotten. Do you think writing is better at articulating forgetting than remembrance? Is this true of architecture?

That’s a very tricky question. It’s like what will happen here in New York on September the 11th, there will be the 911 memorial event at ground zero and the names will be read out again and you’ll hear the first few and then the cameras will switch to something else or you’ll lose interest. There’s something to the listing of names which produces a kind of obliteration because you can’t take it in, it becomes a list.

I don’t want the dead to be forgotten but there is a sense in which the way we enforce remembrance produces obliteration, and it’s counterproductive.

There then is the huge philosophical issue of whether you should remember or whether you should forget, and there is an overwhelming preponderance in all traditions including the philosophical tradition, towards remembering. The idea of recollection in Plato, anamnesis, and through to Hegel, that I discuss in a sense philosophy becomes this total recall and that’s meant to be good because that’s knowledge. Knowledge is recollection based on whatever metaphysical theory that you have. Now on the one hand to remember is good, and the purpose of art is to make us remember. However the flip side of it which I am always conscious of is Nietzsche’s argument that we should actively forget, that we are flayed alive and tortured by memory as Beckett would say, and what has to be cultivated is the attempt to forget the ways in which we’ve been programmed as memory machines.

So there are two options: philosophy, or art, as total recall and then the counter proposal that what we should be cultivating is a kind of obliteration in the name of some kind of freedom from the past and I don’t come down on one side or another, they are merely opposing strategies.

Do you think then that there is some sense that writing offers a third way, a plane in between these oppositional forces?

Yes, definitely. One moral of Memory Theatre is that it is a kind of parable of writing. Here is someone who writes and then goes crazy and then that writing becomes a sort of monumentalisation of death in this fantasy of total recall where everything would become meaningful at the moment of the extinction of one’s life in death. Which is a very reassuring picture of writing, writing helps us to remember but in many ways writing should be pushing us towards that which we can’t remember, that which escapes memory, that which really haunts us. Or again to push us towards something which actually involves other people rather than this masturbatory activity of writing which can lead to catastrophe.

I think there is a way of writing, a kind of Derridean theme: you can try to write in a way which encourages a certain otherness in the self, a certain self-distancing, and Memory Theatre therefore is a negative example, something to be avoided. However, Memory Theatre is also importantly a universe without love, this is what an existence without love looks like and love is also a kind of other-ing. It engenders a disposition in you which is orientated towards something which you cannot control or recollect. It is the same way I see psychoanalysis which again is not premised on a fantasy of total recall, it’s about an orientation towards something which is in you that is maybe not in your conscious memory, and is not really memorialisable in any way.

At the end of the book you visualise a memory theatre as a kind of second sun. Bataille famously conceived of two suns, one which was the highest concept of mankind and the other, the one gazed directly into, was horrific and led to madness. Do you see an echo of this dichotomy in the concept of memory?

Bataille is of particular interest to me because you could see Bataille condemning the memory theatre and in particular the memory theatre that is Hegel’s fantasy of absolute knowledge, the closed economy of the theatrical space in the book, and opposing that in the name of what he calls throughout his work ‘sovereignty’. Sovereignty is an odd word to use in many ways, because what Bataille was interested in wasn’t sovereignty as the capacity to make a decision or act in a certain way but rather to engage in an experience where you give up who you were and be free of that fantasy of a closed economy.

So in Bataille you’ve got this cultivation of a series of experiences: eroticism, squandering, sacrifice and so on and so forth which are about staging something which would let that memory theatre go in a way; would let go of the delusion of absolute knowledge.

In many ways you can read the book as a negative moral: the point of the book is what’s not in it in many ways. I wrote the book in order to try to correct that tendency in myself which of course you fail to do but nonetheless you have to try.

To write at all is to construct some kind of delusional memory theatre which so often leads to you becoming like some machine which just produces words, like Zizek, just saying the same things over and over again. How do you stop doing that? Does it mean stopping writing? Maybe. Maybe it means writing in a different way such as writing collaboratively, something I’ve tried to do over the years to try and give up the authority of the voice.

Good question though, I don’t have a good answer!

Discussing memory often leads us to death. In Very Little… Almost Nothing you discuss the concept of finitude and its central importance to modern philosophy, do you think death is politicised?

Yes, it’s true in an obvious way. There was a story on the radio this morning about the way people die in the US and it is an empirical fact that people who die in New York spend much more time in hospitals than people who die in other cities because of the number of specialists here. If you get sick there are so many people you can see that you become completely medicalised which leads to absurd situations where, in the name of keeping people alive, people suffer miserable deaths from – let’s say – cancer where they could be given a last few months of life with palliative care and they could live at home with their loved ones in some dignity, but instead they’re given aggressive therapies and die on an intensive care unit. There is some sense then that the medicalisation of death is an obscenity and something which I feel very strongly about.

Do you think that this increased medicalisation of death forces us to define ourselves increasingly through death?

There’s no question that the civilisation that we are coming to the end of, whether we even call it a civilisation, I think it’s the wrong word even though that itself is a pejorative term, but the thing which we are coming to the end of is certainly the culture that’s the most scared of death of any culture that I’m familiar with. Part of my ruminations on death over the years have led me into looking at anthropological material, such as mourning practices and the rituals around death, I think these are very important things. We are just a mess when it comes to death and it’s just got worse and worse.

One of my earliest memories in Liverpool with my family was of my great-grandmother dying and the open coffin funeral and the Irish wake. You kissed the corpse and there were old men sitting round the sides of the room, the chairs were pushed to the edge of the room, the curtains were drawn and people were drinking whiskey telling us jokes and stories and who knows what that meant but there was a corpse: and you kissed that corpse and were related to that corpse. There were a set of practices around death – people knew what to do and they knew what to say, not that it helped enormously but at least they could say something.

It seems to be that death has become increasingly politicised and medicalised but it has dropped out of language. We don’t know what to do or say anymore, and this is particularly the case in relation to suicide. I think I might write something soon in defence of suicide, which I have been thinking about writing for a long time. Part of which is the confusion which follows the suicide of someone that you know or someone you don’t, like Robin Williams or Philip Seymour Hofmann. They kill themselves and people don’t know want to say. People want to say on the one hand that it was an act of cowardice, or if it was a free act then it was a cowardly act, or people will say it was because of depression or because of addiction, and therefore it wasn’t a free act, and therefore was ok. But the idea of there being a freely chosen act of suicide which was what basically defined what we think of as antiquity is now abhorrent to our modes of thinking.

In Greek and Roman antiquity and most other versions of antiquity suicide was a practice people would engage in, not willy-nilly, but when the situation demanded. Now we are still locked within a Christian metaphysics when it comes to thinking about suicide and death but at least a couple of generations back there was the patina of Christian ritual, or just ritual, which meant that people knew how to cope by performing certain actions. So there is this politicisation and medicalisation of death but we remain the culture which is most terrified of death. If you look at all the monotheisms, but more than that, if you look at any cultural formation across the world, its existence is predicated on a relationship to the ancestors and the dead and it is that relationship to the dead which allows things to continue. This relationship has broken down radically for us and it has left us terrified and silent. We have become anti-Victorians in the sense that we imagine the Victorians had a problem with sex but seemingly had no problem with death: expressing themselves in those wonderful cemeteries and funereal monuments. On the other hand, we think we can talk about sex – even though we can’t – but death is off limits for us. We’re in really bad shape I think.

There are a number of great works of literature which might be read as attempts at the construction of a memory theatre, Proust, inevitably, and Benjamin’s Arcades project spring to mind. In one sense they are failures in the same way as the one constructed by the protagonist in Memory Theatre, how important is it to keep failing?

I think the one which is closest to the surface of the book and the one which is closest to my mind is Joyce’s Ulysses which, again, is clearly an act of memory – an attempt to reconstruct a place – it is a memory theatre from beginning to end. I think Derrida said of Joyce that he was the most Hegelian of novelists and you can see Joyce as wanting to produce a kind of memory machine that is Ulysses. The brilliance of Ulysses for me is that you don’t end up with absolute knowledge – you end up with two men, an older man and a younger man, one whose son has died and has had a vision of the dead son, Rudy, and the other whose father is alive but wants him dead, Stephen Daedalus, who after one hundred and twenty pages of catechistic third person back and forth end up urinating in the back garden and their streams of piss intersect and then they part. There’s no kind of reconciliation, no ending to it. Upstairs is Molly Bloom who is doing something else whilst their streams of piss are intersecting; she is menstruating and fantasising, engaged in another act of memory. In that sense I don’t think Ulysses is a failure, more a parable of how things are.

To live in a non-place where there is no memory is a problem. You know that feeling when you go to the West of the US or to Australia where you think ‘why are white people here? What are they doing?’ It’s preposterous; they’re just sitting on the surface of this place: it feels like a place which is the obliteration of another landscape of memory. The disconnection of memory and place is a problem but Joyce would be a paradigm of someone who is able to project place and leave it sufficiently open at the end and then also imagine how it might be for someone else, like Molly Bloom, who is not imprisoned within the central memory theatre but is doing something else. On that level then Joyce goes beyond memory theatre.

It’s interesting what you said about Derrida saying Joyce was the most Hegelian of writers. It reminds me of Eisenstein who wanted to make Marx’s Capital using the framework of Ulysses.

I was doing these things with Tom McCarthy years ago on Joyce and Shakespeare but we began with Joyce and we were trying to think of Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses in relation to the way Capital is invoked as a kind of theological term that makes people feel good and how so much of Joyce is about money changing hands and about debt. The first story – the story that’s the origin of Finnegan’s Wake – it’s a story that Joyce finds in a provincial Irish newspaper about somebody getting their money stolen in a park, and it reminds him about a story his father told about getting his money stolen in Phoenix Park in Dublin. So at the basis of it all is a financial transaction in the same way that the protagonist of Memory Theatre uses the money he makes from a book which allows him to build the memory theatre.

TJ Clark wrote that the more he looked at the art of the 20th century the more he saw a current of retrogression running through it. Are modernism, and postmodernism, always projects of memory? And does the concept of memory inherently entail a rejection of the present/future?

If one considers literary modernism to be someone like Joyce or Eliot then yes, they are acts of memory but they are acts of memory which occur after the deluge, and there remains only a wasteland. The acts of memory always take place after the fall, after everything has fallen apart and modernism is that process of attempting to shore up these fragments against the ruins. That would also be true of Benjamin’s entire project, most obviously in The Origin of German Tragic Drama where the analogy that is implicit in that book between the time he is writing about and his time. In Weimar Germany in the ‘20s, the catastrophe has happened and one is trying to shore certain things up: fragments of text in libraries, emblems, whatever it might be, against the possibility of total erasure.

I don’t think that would change significantly in whatever postmodernism might mean. I think postmodernism makes sense as an architectural category, where it is a category of work that plays off the architecture of modernism but as a literary category I’ve always found it to be a non-starter. I don’t see it as a historical category either because I don’t believe in historical categories. I spent much of this year teaching a lot of Greek material, ancient tragedy, and the more you spend time reading people like Euripides and Sophocles, the more you realise it was exactly the same for them. They were dealing with a civilisation that had collapsed and the remnants were just these myths which were still kind of in the air, being told, but they weren’t believed and they seemed to have a difficult relationship to the institutions of the state – in particular the operation of law, the courts, democracy such as it existed back then.

It’s not that nothing has happened historically but I think that if radical historical change was possible then the past would be illegible to us. I think the most extraordinary thing is not that you can pick up the Epic of Gilgamesh and read it and think ‘that was ok’ but that you can read Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and you can completely get what it is about without any kind of classical education whatsoever. There is something about the legibility of the past which for me suggest there are structures and patterns which are still haunting us and therefore any kind of distinction into ancient, modern and postmodern falls away. For me it is about always trying to work in a way which promiscuously ignores those categories: to just use whatever there is and shoring up those fragments in a certain way.

The relationship between literature and space is more important for me than the relationship between literature and time. If you begin with space rather than time you end up in some interesting places, whereas the study of literature has always been attached to this time-based fantasy: of Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, Early Modern, Modern, and Postmodern which to me is ludicrous. We should be working in all periods simultaneously and using whatever we can use. The way to do that is to think spatially rather than temporally.

Memory Theatre is out now, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

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