6.0703 R: Literacy/Memory/Legend (1/116)

Wed, 5 May 1993 18:31:57 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 6, No. 0703. Wednesday, 5 May 1993.

Date: Wed, 5 May 93 07:30:34 EDT
Subject: Literacy/Memory/Legend

I find it fascinating that two msgs have coincidentally arrived
in the same post. The second from Robert Kraft continues
references to literacy serving as a reminder but perhaps
weakening memory. The first from Stan Kulikowski includes
>i recall reading that there were organized protests staged when edison
> started the electrification of cities-- they predicted 10000 deaths a year
> due to accidental eletrocution if people put power lines into their homes.
> this has been shown to be absolutely true, and our a society adopted to
> these deaths as if they were perfectly natural.
What caught my attention are the words "this has been shown
to be absolutely true." Now I have no *memory* of anyone's
electrocution and I've been alive quite a while, so I looked
in my 1993 *World Almanac and Book of Facts*. The incandescent
bulb was invented in 1879, so I suppose that Edison's proposal
to electrify America couldn't have been too long after that.
The population of the U.S. in 1880 was approximately 50 million.
Now the almanac lists the "Principal Types of Accidental Deaths"
in descending order of fatalities. Unfortunately, the list goes
back only to 1970 and is most complete only for 1991. But here
Motor vehicle: 43,500
Falls: 12,200
Poison (solid, liquid): 5,600
Drowning: 4,600
Fires, Burns: 4,200
Injection of Food,Object:2,900
Firearms: 1,400
Poison (gases): 800
Plus, according to a footnote, "12,800 other accidental
deaths in 1991; the most frequently occurring types were
medical complications, machinery, air transport, excessive
cold, and mechanical suffocation."
Given these numbers, if one infers that electrocution somehow
counts as burns and then figures the rate as 10% of all fire
deaths, we have 420 electrocutions...but the population of
the U.S. in 1990 was approximately 249 million, that is,
five times that in 1880, so the comparable figure then
might have been 84 deaths. (True, electrical safety
devices and education were not so well developed, but
neither was electricity ubiquitous.) If we infer that
electrocution was among those residual 12,800 deaths,
then it clearly is less common than mechanical suffocation
and probably constitutes a very small number indeed since
it isn't even listed while poison gases with only 800
deaths is a "principal type."

Why do I mention this? Because I am fascinated by this
question of "memory." Stan Kulikowski "recalls" his reading
and the result "has been shown." I think we all--or at least
I--sometimes develop powerful senses of what simply must
have been the case and ever after report those feelings not
simply nakedly but dressed in the language of written authority.
If we grant the almanac authority, that is, assume the figures
are correct as far as they go, then those powerful senses are
doubtless sometimes wrong...in a factual sense. But that does
not mean that they are wrong in all senses.

I for one travel without a camera. If I want a picture of
the Duomo in Florence, I know a postcard will be readiluy
available. I have no interest in a graphic proof that I
stood in front of it. But I have noticed that if one
has photos, they often supplant memories (just as, I presume,
Plato and others feared writing would; that is, the question
was not merely weakening the faculty of memory but the
displacement of particular memories by giving priority to
the subset of possibilities that actually got written
down). A similar phenomenon, I find, is that the last
image I have of someone in an open-casket funeral, when
I can fix on his/her immobile face at a time of high
emotion, often remains more vivid than many memories of
that person in action. So, rather than risk losing my
memories of, say, Florence, I go there without a camera.
Yes, that means that my memories may be inaccurate *from
a factual standpoint*, but *my* memories don't need
factual accuracy. As I say, I can always buy the postcard
or consult the almanac. My memories need to be part of
my emotional life and if they evolve, so be it.

All of this, I hope, has some implications for writing
of different types. Usually we think of writing as
fiction or non-fiction, but I'd like to suggest three
types: fiction, argument, and exposition. The almanac
and written statutes are two examples of exposition and
these are generally thought to be memory aids and unalloyed
goods. Fiction is generally thought to properly reflect
emotional lives and this is generally thought to
be an unalloyed good (except by those who fear that
there will be no memory exercise as compelling as
*The Odyssey* on which to develop that faculty). It is
only "argument" that Plato really mentions and the
problem with argument is not, I think, that writing it
displaces memory so much as it preempts invention, the
interrogation of memory. (I know Plato views memory as
anamnesis, so for him these would be virtually the same,
but most of us, I think do not.)

Where does this leave us? With powerful memories of
facts that never were and failing memories of arguments
that matter still. And with powerful memories of
facts that certainly were and strong memories of
arguments that matter still. That is, no one has ever
run the experiment to see if the same person has a
better or worse memory when s/he is and isn't literate.
But the fact that we fear and praise this insinuating
technology suggests how easily writing itself becomes
the stuff of legend.


Eric Rabkin esrabkin@umichum.bitnet
Department of English esrabkin@um.cc.umich.edu
University of Michigan office : 313-764-2553
Ann Arbor MI 48109-1045 dept : 313-764-6330
voice msgs: 313-763-3130