The Art of Identity: Memory as the Maker


In his recently published memoir, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, the novelist Julian Barnes offers a succinct view of memory:


Memory is identity. I have believed this since… oh, since I can remember. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life, you cease to be, even before death.


Memory is identity. The reader nods, in agreement. Barnes boils it down to three words and the equation is enticing in its simplicity. It defines two otherwise ambiguous concepts with finality; it is both compact enough to be remembered with ease and grand enough to impress in conversation.

Memory is identity. The letters and words combine to contain a myriad of concepts. The specific order suggests a clear connection. Yet, the phrase ultimately reveals itself to be a paradox, rather than a definition.

Barnes’ definition is one of equating, presenting memory and identity as one in the same. His following logic implies that memory is the active variable, the prerequisite to identity and therefore existence. Yet, he cannot refer to memory without also giving agency to a higher sense of self. It is not memory, but the entity of “you” which dictates what is remembered and what is not. Memory is simultaneously in control of and controlled by identity. The phrase loses its appealing simplicity.

Barnes’ memoir is focused on his thanatophobia, an abnormal and excessive fear of death, and so his excerpt is focused on personal identity. But the connection between memory and the self resonates with the relationship of memory to collective identity, which encounters the same paradox. Archivists often use the metaphor of memory to describe their work of collecting and parsing through information, aiming to preserve the history of a culture, society, institution, or event.

In Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, philosopher Jacques Derrida purports that an archive can only be defined as such if it is exterior to actual memory. The work of archivists is therefore bounded and largely directed by the technology of their times. The writing down of a memoir, for example, is a type of archive, as is a museum. In addition to these traditionally recognized archives, a word document, a saved text, or e-mail are also external forms of memory. Regardless of which technology is employed, it is clear that the archivist, if capable of controlling it, is also in control over what that given technology preserves or discards.

Derrida questions whether these new technological advances actually improve the external representation of an individual’s psychic interior or whether they affect the functioning of that interior, perhaps permanently altering it. Looking back at the history of memory, it seems that technology does have the powerful ability to change the psychic interior.

In the classical western world of the first century BC, when the simplest tools of external memory (paper and printing) were unavailable, actual internal memories functioned in an entirely different way. Memory was seen as an intensely visual and internal art that had to be mastered in the pursuit of spreading the art of rhetoric, meant to animate people to action through well-argued speeches, or orations.

Memory was divided into two categories, the natural and the artificial. Natural memory those captured spontaneously, during experiences. Artificial memory was that which could be organized and improved, a step-by-step mental process that orators were taught by their instructors of rhetoric.

First, a student of artificial memory chose an image of a place that they were familiar with. This place, called a locus was to be a common structure or building, such as a theatre or a house. Once the locus was visualized, powerful images, called simulacra, could be placed within the rooms of the house or on and between the columns of a theatre. It was possible to choose more than one locus, the number dependent on how much experience and material an orator had and aimed to possess.

Within this visual realm, the mood for memory was to be set with the perfect lighting, so as not to obscure or dazzle the images. And the actual structures themselves were subject to zoning, as they were not to be placed more than thirty feet apart.

The strict structure and organization of the art of memory implies control on the part of the individual. But teachers of rhetoric recognized that natural memory was not entirely in their hands. Instead, the method of artificial memory looked to makes use of how the natural memory functioned when free from intense concentration and study.

The orator and philosopher Cicero advised that cues be taken from the observed tendency of natural memory to discard images that were “petty, banal, or ordinary.” For Cicero, this meant sunsets and sunrises, because they happened everyday. Ultimately, whatever images were chosen, the art of memory was “inner writing,” as historian Frances Yates defines it. Images were used in place of words, the inner mind in place of paper.

It was ultimately the dissemination of knowledge in the form of moral rhetoric that the art of memory pursued, not collective or personal identity. Instead of looking to define the inner content of the self through an external archive, the art of memory looked to influence the external world by creating an inner archive in the expansive space of the mind.

In the age of an overflow of technology that can be used to compile external memory, archiving can be seen as a riff on the classical art of memory. Archivists themselves metaphorically acquire the role of natural memory, deciding whether to filter the sunsets and sunrises that Cicero marked for deletion. They decide what is to be most vividly preserved in the collective mind of a society. They also acquire the role of orator, compiling artifacts from the collective history of any given subject, and organizing them in their physical loci so that the public may access them.

This metaphor sheds light on one side of Barnes’ original equation. Yet, the meticulous organization of memory and history is not a bridge to identity. Jorge Luis Borges masterfully uses fantasy to bridge gaps between how reality is understood and experienced. He plays with the notion of the universe as an archive in his short story, “The Library of Babel.”

The library itself is enigmatic, its shape and size unknown to those who wander it, but its contents complete. It contains all books, organized to the best ability of its librarians. Some men organize by destroying useless work, others search for ciphers, and still others are designated as inquisitors, or official searchers:


I have observed them carrying out their functions: they are always exhausted. They speak of a staircase without steps where they were almost killed. They speak of galleries and stairs with the local librarian. From time to time they will pick up the nearest book and leaf through its pages, in search of infamous words. Obviously, no one expects to discover anything.


Borges’ tale introduces the issue of discovery into the work of the archivist. It implies that something new would have to found among the unintelligible substance of the library, to free the searchers from their doomed exhaustion and failure. Derrida also addresses this issue of novelty stating that in order for the archiving of any knowledge to be worthwhile and not merely an indulgent act, it must introduce something new and be connected to the future in some way.

The archive of the universe does no such thing in Borges’ story. Is an archive of the collective self so expansive in its stated goal as to ultimately be useless, as well? Derrida offers a more hopeful assessment:


Like every history, the history of a culture no doubt presupposes an identifiable heading, a telos toward which the movement, the memory and the promise, the identity—even if it be as difference to itself—dreams of gathering itself.


With a telos, memory becomes a deliberate act-—used to moved history forward—largely through the work of the archivist. A telos separates identity, the second variable in Barnes’ equation, into three temporal types: past, present, and future. Of those three identities, it is the future that is most important. With the promise of an identity ahead, discovery is possible, not only the discovery of an evolving telos, but of how to arrive at that future identity as well.

Personal identities are driven by personal telos as well. But the speed of the development of personal identity leaves it vulnerable to volatility. In his short prose poem, “The Maker,” Borges describes a moment in which his protagonist, a man who might be interpreted as the poet Homer, discovers his telos. Borges’ description shows personal identity to depart from the temporal structure that Derrida offers to cultural memory. As Borges’ protagonist loses his sight, he dips into his well of memories, which are described in active terms, as springing forward, effectively overtaking the entity that contains them:


With sober surprise, he understood. Love and risk awaited him in this night of the mortal eyes into which he now descended: Ares and Aphrodite, for he now made out, since it was all around him, the sound of glory and hexameters, the sounds of men defending a temple the gods will do nothing to save and of black ships searching the sea for a beloved island, the sound of the Odysseys and Iliads that it was his destiny to sing and make resound reciprocally in the memories of men.


Here, personal identity is being driven by memory, rather than driving it. Yet it is only once the protagonist can no longer form new visual memories that he gains access to his most powerful memories and can develop a future telos. Essentially, he must be removed from the present in order to do so, and in this case, blindness is his route to this disengagement.

Borges takes the fantastical study of personal memory further in “Funes, the Memorious.” In comparison to the protagonist of “The Maker,” Ireneo Funes has the opposite relationship with his present reality. He is completely engaged with the present, a young man left physically paralyzed after falling off of a horse, an accident that also gives him perfect memory and perception, or perhaps more accurately, robs him of forgetfulness:


In effect, Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it. He determined to reduce all of his past experience to some seventy thousand recollections, which he would later define numerically. Two considerations dissuaded him: the thought that the task was interminable and the thought that it was useless.


In the narrator’s recollection of Funes before his accident, he describes the boy in very human terms. Funes is sharp and mocking, wears loose trousers, and is best known for his eccentricities, such as always knowing the time. When the narrator finally gets a glimpse of Funes’ face, when he meets with him after the accident, the boy seems ancient and monumental. His wit is absent, his eccentricities untraceable. Funes’ gift of perfect memory robs him of the ability to engage with it, and with that loss, his paralysis becomes mental as well. Without the gift of selectivity his inner being has no “dreams of gathering itself,” as Derrida puts it in Archive Fever.

In collective identity, remembering is an act driven by the knowledge of what future identity a culture or a society is moving toward. But personal identity is a less directed process, more informed by the past than in control of it. What is common between collective and personal identity is that both must be understood in relation to time, just as memory is.

Still, those relationships with time differ. If collective identity is more driven by a future telos than personal identity, it is logical that Julian Barnes’ preoccupation with personal mortality plays a role in this distinction. An archivist does not seek to establish a collective identity that will expire. An individual always faces an end date, when identity is no longer of the present or future, but a trace of what is left behind. It is then that memory can directly be equated with identity.

Until then, Barnes’ phrase is better interpreted as a representation of the three factors involved in the dynamic creation of identity: past memory, present existence, and the future self. Sixteen letters arranged into three words. An archive, but not a discovery: memory is identity.