Collective Memory Personified: an Analogy
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Annex I of the report Utilisation
of International Documentation
and its alternative version Societal
Learning and the Erosion of Collective Memory (Version francaise de l'Annexe)
The description below seems to provide a perfect, if tragic, summary of the
condition of world society -- particularly in terms of the condition of collective
memory. It is in fact Ronald Laing's description of a patient suffering
from chronic schizophrenia. Readers can replace "Julie" in the text by "world
society" or "international community" bearing in mind their relationship to
"Even when one felt that what was being said was an expression of someone,
the fragment of a self behind the words or actions was not Julie. There might
be someone addressing us, but in listening to a schizophrenic, it is very
difficult to know " who" is talking, and it is just as difficult to know "whom"
one is addressing... One may begin to recognise patches of speech or fragments
of behaviour cropping up at different times, which seem to belong together
by reason of similarities of the intonation, the vocabulary, syntax, the preoccupations
in the uttrance or to cohere as behaviour by reason of certain sterotyped
gestures or mannerisms. It seemed therefore that one was in the presence of
various fragments, or incomplete elements, of different a personalities e
in operation at thence time...
With Julie it was not difficult to carry on a verbal exchange of a kind,
but without her seeming to have any overall unity but rather a constellation
of quasi-autonomous partial systems, it was difficult to speak to "her". However...
even this state of near chaotic nonentity was by no means irreversible and
fixed in its disintegration. She would sometimes marvellously come together
again and display a most pathetic realisation of her plight. But she
was terrified of these moments of integration, for various reasons. Among
others, because she had to sustain in them intense anxiety; and because the
process of disintegration appeared to be remembered and dreaded as an experience
so awful that there was refuge for her in her unintegration, unrealness, and
deadness. Julie's being as a chronic schizophrenic was thus characterised
by lack of unity and by division into what might variously be called partial
"assemblies", complexes, partial systems, or "internal objects". Each of these
partial systems had recognisable features and distinctive ways of its own.
By following through these postulates, many features of her behaviour became
The fact that her self-being was not assembled in an allover manner, but
was split into various partial assemblies or systems, allows us to understand
that various functions which presuppose the achievement of personal unity
or at least a high degree of personal unity could not be present in her, as
indeed they were not.
Personal unity is a prerequisite of reflective awareness, that is, the ability
to be aware of one's self acting relatively unself-consciously, or with a
simple primary non-reflective awareness. In Julie, each partial system could
be aware of objects, but a system might not be aware of the processes going
on in another system which was split off from it. For example, if in talking
to me, one system was "speaking", there seemed to be no overall unity within
her whereby "she" as a unified person could be aware of what this system was
saying or doing.
In so far as reflective awareness was absent, "memory" for which reflective
awareness would seem to be prerequisite, was very patchy... The absence of
a total experience of her being as a whole meant that she lacked the unified
experience on which to base a clear idea of the "boundary" of her being. Such
an overall "boundary" was not, however, entirely lacking... Rather, each system
seemed to have a boundary of its own. That is to say, to the awareness that
characterised one system, another system was liable to appear outside itself...
It was only "from the outside" that one could see that different conflicting
systems of her being were active at the same time. Each partial system seemed
to have within it its own focus of centre of awareness: it had its
own very limited memory schemata and limited ways of structuring percepts;
its own quasi-autonomous drives or component drives; its own tendency to preserve
its autonomy, and special dangers which threatened its autonomy. She would
refer to these diverse aspects as "he", or "she", or address them as "you".
That is, instead of having a reflective awareness of those aspects of herself,
"she" would perceive the operation of a partial system as though it was not
where, but belonged outside. She would be "hallucinated".
(R.D. Laing. The Divided Self; a study of sanity and madness. London,
Tavistock, 1960, pp. 214-7).