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The Traumatic Birth of Memory

The human being’s capacity for memory is truly phenomenal. Other non-human animals just seem to live in the moment, more or less. Sure, animals can recognise individuals, objects and patterns they have come across before and they learn from their experiences, but a horse doesn’t appear to rehash its past, wondering if it made the right life choices. Similarly, animals don’t seem to fantasise and agonise about hypothetical futures like people do. A tiger probably does not daydream. A dog does not suffer insomnia – not unless it is in physical pain. Where did human beings get this vivid and prodigious ability to visualise the past and the future?

In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche writes about the creation of memory in the human animal. He describes a brutal process, beginning at the very dawn of civilisation. In short, his account describes a stronger group of humans, the ‘masters’, taking control of a more numerous but less organised population and enslaving them. This might be considered the birth of the feudal society – a highly stratified and exploitative culture with a tiny aristocracy, the so-called ‘nobility’, at the top who run things and a vast peasantry at the bottom who serve the interests of this master-class.

Prior to this feudal era, humans had lived in tribes - social structures based around extended family groups. These tribes had their own internal hierarchical relations, probably with seniority based on a combination of familial and social loyalties, age-maturity, practical skill and martial prowess. Therefore those who made the most friends, were elders of the tribe, were good at hunting, gathering or constructing shelters, or were successful in battle, would tend to have the most authority and be candidates for leading the tribe.

Not that we should assume that these pre-civilised societies were necessarily idyllic (one can’t help but think of Rousseau’s ‘Noble Savage’). Life may still have been brutal and exploitative, but these early peoples are likely to have had a much more secure sense of being a component in a close-knit group. They did not see themselves as sovereign individuals as we do, nor did they feel themselves to be mere functionaries, tools or even slaves as most people in the feudal society probably did. In as much as they were part of the tribe, they were the tribe.

Though the shift from tribal to feudal societies provides a convenient model for examining the emerging dominance of the masters, we shouldn’t necessarily see this change in such neat terms or assume that this event occurred at a particular point in history. It may be that as well as tribes enslaving other tribes and thereby becoming masters, a family within a wider tribe of multiple families might win the leadership of the group by legitimate means, such as success in battle. Then that family might seek to consolidate and entrench its power by establishing hereditary rule – the chief passing on his authority to his son, whether or not that son merits the role. But the tribal/feudal contrast provides a convenient model, so let us use it.

Though their culture and customs were more sophisticated, these earliest tribes were not unlike a pack of wolves or a colony of rabbits - they were, to all intents and purposes, wild animals. They did not dwell on the past unduly and did not fret about the future much either. But to function as the masters wished them to in the new larger, social framework, labouring beneath the master’s yoke, their forgetfulness needed to be addressed; they needed to be ‘civilised’.

Their former tribal culture included a ‘morality of custom’. This meant that things were right or wrong, good or bad, simply because this was the way your tribe did things. Often there were practical reasons that promoted the welfare of the tribe behind the injunctions of the morality of custom. However it was fidelity to the tribal ways themselves that determined the morality of any action, not any practical considerations. Sometimes these practical reasons could be entirely forgotten and lost, so there might be taboos around, for example, eating certain foods without any understanding as to the why of it. The tribe might rationalise that it is the will of the gods, in such cases.

With the advent of the masters, the morality of custom was to be replaced with a code of obedience tothe masters. This was their new canon of law. But as we have said, humans at this time, like other animals, were creatures of healthy forgetting. So the masters asked themselves ‘How does one make a memory for the human animal? How does one impress something onto this partly dull, partly scattered momentary understanding, this forgetfulness in the flesh, so that it remains present?’

Nietzsche responds:

‘As one can imagine, the answers and means used to solve this age-old problem were not exactly delicate; there is perhaps nothing more terrible and more uncanny in all of man’s prehistory than his mnemo-technique. One burns something in so that it remains in one’s memory: only what does not cease to give pain remains in one’s memory - that is a first principle from the most ancient (unfortunately also longest) psychology on earth.’

Thus, the horrific, gruesome and agonising punishments for the breakers of laws and of oaths, so characteristic of human history. These were performed publicly, of course, to serve as a spectacular and, crucially, unforgettable example to others.

‘With the help of such images and processes one finally retains in memory five, six “I will nots”’

Furthermore, in the new society, natural and unshakeable tribal loyalties are absent. Remember, as a component of your tribe, you were your tribe. That framework has been broken. Now, in order to facilitate the military power of this new society as well as its economic functioning, it is necessary to create the conditions that guarantee the pledges of allegiance from vassals to their lords and the honouring of contracts between debtors and creditors. Therefore, it is necessary ‘To breed an animal that is permitted to promise’. Once again, the human/animal natural propensity to forget must be violently purged from the population. In order to enter into a contract - to promise - the debtor must be able to remember his obligation and he must be able to predict his future sufficiently enough to be able to enter into a promise at all. For the first time, the human became calculable.

‘In order to instil trust in his promise of repayment, to provide a guarantee for the seriousness and the sacredness of his promise, to impress repayment on his conscience as a duty, as an obligation, the debtor - by virtue of a contract - pledges to the creditor in the case of non-payment something else that he “possesses,” over which he still has power, for example his body or his wife or his freedom or even his life’

Nietzsche argues that this forcible imposition of the capacity to remember the past and be mindful of the future, necessitated the formation of a concept of personal identity for the first time.

Before, I was my tribe, living in the timeless moment.

After, I am an individual, only too keenly aware of my past, accountable for my debts, duties and oaths, with a future plan so that I might deliver on them.

I am now, for the first time a ‘self’, existing in a timeline, with a narrative history and a trajectory. This innovation, Nietzsche argues, even created the conditions for reason itself.

Next Time: Mastering the memory

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