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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.