Memory and Place as Shared Experience

As I approach 65 years on this planet, May 24, 2014, I find my dreams increasingly populated by people from my past. I’m happy to say that the dreams are uniformly pleasant, if typically inscrutable. Gerontologists tend towards a view of memory as a psychological phenomenon and I suppose these dreams are a form of memory, an interior experience. Yet, as for these people, I believe it is their “thereness” that perhaps carries the meaning, aside from any symbolic or psychological interpretation one could craft. Better said, it is their “hereness” again in my life that is the key to understanding.

In a world of individuals self-absorbed with personal growth, pop psychology, and aging as a uniquely internal experience, memory becomes equated with the self and, conversely, the loss of memory is seen as the loss of self. But there is an alternative way to view memory.

Not simply “self-serving,” memory exists in the social world as a cultural resource – a device by which people do things together. Memory doesn’t merely represent or signify me, or the group, but helps to build it, to sustain it in an active, constitutive process. This does not require us to ignore the personal uses of memory but challenges us to understand memory as it lives outside of people’s heads and, I would argue, in people’s lived, collective, and bodily experiences of place. *

Having recently attended a Reunion of the Hobart High School Class of ’67, I can report that, in these circumstances, in conversation, we sometimes quickly run out of things to say, especially when we realize our lives and political convictions may have diverged significantly. I think the pleasure I experience from these reunions is not derived from what is said, nor what we have done but from the fact that we are, once again, together in place.

So memory and, I would suggest, “sense of place” is not a psychological phenomenon that can be measured. It exists only in its manifestation, its emergence into the real world. So many concepts in gerontology – memory, attachment, home, identity, age itself – are characterized (and measured) as individual and subjective phenomena, I have to agree with philosophers who would see the very science itself as representative of the modern project of self-absorption. We see the same history in the field of disability, where disability was, and often is, seen as a quality of the person. I am happy to report this field is increasingly moving towards an understanding of the reality of disability being found not in the individual but in the relationship between the individual and the environment. Would that gerontology move in the same direction.

About memory, Molly Schuchat once told me, “It only counts if you share it.” As for being old, I would say it is not psychological metaphors that we need, but locational ones. “Oldness” is a place-based phenomenon.


*paragraph adapted from Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America, 2009, p 85 ff. (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO)

 See Phil’s Adventures in May 2009 for Turning Sixty 🙂

13 Responses to Memory and Place as Shared Experience

  1. socialbridge says:

    Brilliant post, Phil. Happy Birthday on the 24th which you happen to share with my son, turning 19! I must ask him to do some reflecting on memory!

  2. intellmkt says:

    At my last high school reunion, and I’m a much older man than Phil, as I’m about to celebrate 66, I certainly enjoyed catching up with so many people and was fascinated where there lives had taken them. I’m actually interested in their process of living and aging, so it was easy keeping the conversations going. I didn’t even feel too bad that few had many questions for me, because listening is almost always a more rewarding experience than talking.

    • True, so true. I think we need to re-structure our reunion program to better enable this to happen. Shouldn’t be hard, since we don’t dance to loud music as much as we used to. Thanks!

  3. Maybe it’s why I love the springtime season best of all! Clearly, it’s beautiful where you are.

  4. For a tool to help share memories, esp. with kids and grandkids, check out or Life Diagrams,

    We have found this to be a great way to share memories. I think that I learned more from filling this out with my 90 year old grandpa that I had in 30 years of weekly family gatherings.

    The way we did this was for us younger generation to record the events on the Life Diagram graph while our grandpa told the stories around each event.

  5. Karen says:

    Nice Blog Phil! – Karen

  6. Phil, I had an elderly friend who passed away last year–he was very influential in my life. He once told me that his job now (at 85) was to remember…

    Thoughtful post.

  7. Phil, I think this is a profound and thought provoking article. Thank you for sharing and happy upcoming birthday!

  8. Jon Goodfellow says:

    I am reminded of the European concept of memoire ouvriere: memory as shared experience embodied in objects or places which evokes collective memory among people who share a particular defining time or sense of place. One finds this all over Western Europe from France to the Low Countries and Germany with many community institutions designed to elicit the local constitutive process Phil describes. Americans know this as distributed cognition. It’s implicit in European understanding of age and culture, but not so much in the US.

    • How interesting. I believe that, in the U.S., our obsession with brain rather than mind (which is a relationship between brain and environment in Bateson’s sense, may account for our narrower view.

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