The Retroactive and the Phenomenology of Childhood Memory

A friend recently described the experience of a return to a childhood home, sparking a discussion about the phenomenology of the memory of childhood space.* A memory of a childhood space retains a certain internal self-consistency, as long, it might be said, as one avoids a return.  But a return to such spaces often breeds a startling disorientation.  Faced with the, often traumatic, reintroduction to or secondary experience of the space of my elementary school classrooms, my old rickety treehouse, that small crawl space under the basement staircase; my body no longer “fits” these spaces of memory. It is not I who have grown, my primordial experience insists, rather, these spaces have clearly shrunk: the walls have enclosed upon me,the door handle is too low, the rope swing unimpressive.

Lagging behind this traumatic event, though, is a second trauma, a retroactive violence against memory.  Once I have become reacquainted with these spaces (once, that is, that I have overcome the first trauma of disorientation), this new sense of space, this new orientation, leaks backwards, infecting my past recollections. I no longer become capable of recollecting the towering ladder as towering. Rather, it is the childhood I who now shrinks; the mystique of this childhood world is retroactively demystified, and subsequently so am I.

The retroactive appears to function as a measure of authenticity; revelatory of the “true size” of the space, for instance. But is it truly the case that the retroactive is more “true” in a meaningful sense; is this move not simply a repetition of the prioritization of the present so lamented by Levinas and Derrida? Where is the legitimization of such a prioritization found? Phenomenologically, Edmund Husserl describes this experience of this “retroactive positing” in his discussion of retention. There, he describes the process by which the present “primoridial givenness” of “impressionality” leaks backwards, fixing itself in our memory and reconstructing the memorial. But one must therefore ask: where is the authentic bodily relationship to my childhood spaces found: in my initially recollected experience, my later reorientation, the disorienting moment of suspension between the two? Is truth found only in the purity of the primordial perception, only in the retroactively “edited” memory, or somehow in both (or even neither)?

*Framed within a broader discussion of  Dylan Trigg’s Memory of Place.


About jleavittpearl

Philosopher and Theologian out of Pittsburgh PA.

Posted on March 20, 2013, in Thoughts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. How could truth be anything but *both* our primordial experience and our edited memory of that experience?

    We were born with the ability to experience the present (the traditional five senses) and the past (memory, which is perhaps a sort of ‘sense,’ itself?). We were born with the ability to experience, and to remember that experience. So what, other than social conditioning and a cultural obsession with freshness, concepts like ‘purity’ and ‘innocence,’ could possibly move us to prioritize one over the other? Or to devalue both!?

    That said, I’m not sure whether making choices based on conditioning and culture-bolstered belief systems is necessarily a bad or wrong thing. And perhaps by suggesting that it is wrong/bad, I’m perpetuating the same obsession with ‘purity’ that I claim to refute, and proving myself a hypocrite. Hmph.

    This reminds me of the question of authenticity in memoir. (For the record, I generally dislike the memoir genre, but I appreciate the question.) What makes something a ‘memoir,’ as opposed to an ‘autobiography’? I think it has something to do with this question of truth you’re asking. Memoir is more open, perhaps, to involving MEMORY in the telling of a person’s history. Since memory is a more mysterious, pliable, subjective, and less ‘factual’ process, we can’t rely on memoir as “fact.” Autobiography, on the other hand, is perhaps expected to be more of a historical document: a record of experience, as it happened, no memory to morph it. But does this make the autobiography more true than the memoir? Many of us might emphatically say, “YES!” But I’m not so sure. I find just as much ‘truth’ in someone’s memory of an event (even if they’re bald-faced lying) as I do in a historical document of that event—or, even more objective, a video recording of the event in real-time.

    So maybe this just comes down to semantics. What is “truth”? I consider a memory no less true than a present experience or televised real-time event, even when I know the memory has likely changed the fact. Heck, I even consider dreams, ideas, and concepts to be true. So perhaps my definition of truth is too broad? Too encompassing? I’m still working on the definition, editing it, changing it, not sure if I’ll ever have a final edition… And I am by no means a philosopher, so finalizing it isn’t essential for me. In fact, the thought of defining existence both fascinates and frightens me a lot… It’s like, the biggest commitment of all.

    Still, this was some Sunday morning fun. Great post!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: