Memory and Place as Shared Experience

May 2, 2014

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 🙂

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