The Memory Mavens, Part 4: The Analytical Power of Failure

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by Tim Widowfield

Another lifetime ago, back when I was a U.S. Air Force field training detachment commander, one of our instructors came into my office with a worried look. He told me he had been teaching basic circuitry to a group of enlisted students. “Lieutenant,” he asked, “when you were in school what did they teach you about the flow of electricity? That it goes from the negative terminal to the positive, right?”

When I agreed, he continued, “Well, I’ve got this squid in my class, and he said in the Navy they taught him it goes from positive to negative!” He was flummoxed. (At the time our detachment on Beale AFB was the only certified DoD training facility from Sacramento up through Oregon, so we often played host to reservists and military members from other branches.)

I said, “But the math works both ways, right? I mean in circuit models it doesn’t really matter.” He found the whole thing terribly unsettling. It was as if I’d told him up was down and down was up.

Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.

— George E. P. Box

George E.P. Box

Statistician George E. P. Box (1919-2013)

All models are wrong

Often while trying to understand how processes work, we build representational, mental constructs or “models” to help us understand them better. These models don’t correspond identically to the real world; instead, they’re subsets of the world — small enough to fit inside our brains. Our models of simple electronics are like that.

What can we can learn from our little story above? First, the fact that we can swap logical current flow in a circuit diagram and still make it “work” (for our purposes) might suggest that our model doesn’t fully correspond with reality. It’s just a representational subset, after all. It’s fiction. But that’s all right, as long as our model gives us the answers we need.

Sometimes a model we know is wrong around the edges can still serve us adequately in general circumstances. We’ve refined the standard model of gravitation quite a bit since Newton’s day. However, if our only task is to launch a projectile at a castle wall, then the older, simpler model will probably suffice. On the other hand, if we want to launch and maintain an array of geosynchronous satellites for precise global positioning, we’re going to have to take into account the effects of relativity — trading in Newton for Einstein, so to speak.

Whenever we use a scientific or mathematical model to help us make real-world predictions, we need to be aware of its limits. We need to know the range of conditions within which it works reliably. And we need to know whether and how its performance degrades as it approaches those limits.

Actually, we can apply that last lesson to the real world, too. That’s why car manufacturers slam their vehicles into walls. We can’t fully understand a system’s range of acceptable behavior until we find the points at which it fails. Moreover, we can learn a great deal from discovering where and how a system begins to degrade. We don’t smash cars because we want their safety systems to fail; we do it to find out where those failure points are.

These insights can serve us well in the study of human biology. Serious ethical problems prevent us from experimenting on large numbers of people to see how they react when, for example, we remove random parts of their brains. So when an unfortunate (and, we hope, rare) accident or battle wound leaves a person impaired, researchers are keen to learn as much as they can about the victim, to discover all they can about how our brains fail. The more we know about how damaged brains fail, the more we learn about how normal brains work.

But we need not confine ourselves to the study of abnormal conditions and impaired brains. Recent psychological studies in normal adults have shaken our firmly held intuition that our memories are reliable. On the contrary, although we all instinctively trust our perception and our memories, we are often misled and mistaken.

The limits of social memory

Which brings me to something I read in Dr. Barry Schwartz’s piece, “Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire” (Schwartz 2014). As I’ve explained in other posts in the Memory Mavens series, Schwartz objects strongly to what he calls “presentist” and “constructivist” tendencies in the social sciences. He tracks those tendencies back to Maurice Halbwachs, whom he wrongly portrays as a cynic who happily bashed old, cherished memories with all-too-clever reinterpretations.

No one can doubt that present predicaments motivate us to remember different things in different ways, but Halbwachs makes no provision for memory as a route to past realities. (Schwartz, 2014, p. 19, emphasis his)

Schwartz imagines that our suspicions of social memory will leave our culture bereft of all connections to the past, but he simply doesn’t understand how history works or even, perhaps, what history is.

Schwartz worries that Halbwachs’s distrust of social memory as a reliable picture of the past will somehow erase history. What he fails to grasp is Halbwachs’s understanding of the three different kinds of memory: individual, social, and historical. Paul Connerton explained it quite well in How Societies Remember.

We need to distinguish social memory from a more specific practice that is best termed the activity of historical reconstruction. Knowledge of all human activities in the past is possible only through a knowledge of their traces . . . .

Historians, that is to say, proceed inferentially. They investigate evidence much as lawyers cross-question witnesses in a court of law, extracting from that evidence information which it does not explicitly contain or even which was contrary to the overt assertions contained in it. Those parts of the evidence which are made up of previous statements are in no sense privileged; a previous statement claiming to be true has for the historian the same status as any other type of evidence. Historians are able to reject something explicitly told them in their evidence and to substitute their own interpretation of events in its place. 

And even if they do accept what a previous statement tells them, they do this not because that statement exists and is taken as authoritative but because it is judged to satisfy the historian’s criteria of historical truth. Far from relying on authorities other than themselves, to whose statements their thought must conform, historians are their own authority; their thought is autonomous vis-à-vis their evidence, in the sense that they possess criteria by reference to which that evidence is criticised. (Connerton, 1989, p. 13-14, my bold emphasis and reformatting)

Schwartz imagines that our suspicions of social memory will leave our culture bereft of all connections to the past, but he simply doesn’t understand how history works or even, perhaps, what history is. Connerton continues:

Historical reconstruction is thus not dependent on social memory. Even when no statement about an event or custom has reached the historian by an unbroken tradition from eyewitnesses, it is still possible for the historian to rediscover what has been completely forgotten. (Connerton, 1989, p. 14, bold emphasis mine)

Naturally, we shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that Connerton or any other competent anthropologist or sociologist rejects social memory out of hand. Of course not. We should make use of all evidence at our disposal, including firsthand accounts and oral traditions.

But historical reconstruction is still necessary even when social memory preserves direct testimony of an event. For if a historian is working on a problem in recent history and receives at first hand a ready-made answer to the very question being put to the evidence, then the historian will need to question that statement if it is to be considered as evidence; and this is the case even if the answer which the historian receives is given by an eye-witness or by the person who did what the historian is inquiring into.

Historians do not continue to question the statements of their informants because they think that the informants want to deceive them or have themselves been deceived. Historians continue to question the statements of their informants because if they were to accept them at face value that would amount to abandoning their autonomy as practising historians. They would then have relinquished their independence of social memory: an independence based on their claim to have the right to make up their own mind, by methods proper to their own science, as to the correct solution of the problems that arise in the course of that scientific practice. (Connerton, 1989, p. 14, my bold emphasis and reformatting)

In other words: Historians are not stenographers.

Suspicious of “knowledge”?

But Schwartz will have none of that. For him the problem lies not with memory’s unreliability, but in the cynics’ morbid fascination with its shortcomings.

Ambivalence about memory and history actually stems less from evidence of their discrepancy than from the mentality of contemporary humanities and social-science scholars, who, being more suspicious of “knowledge” than was any preceding generation, are more impressed than ever by proof of memory’s imperfections. This new mood has its virtues, including the protection it affords against naïve realism, but if we do not recognize it for what it is we lose more than we gain. To say that history and memory are more “selective” and less “objective” than commonly believed is to make a useless statement, for partial knowledge is not synonymous with faulty knowledge. Never in the history of the humanities and sciences has there been a generation that failed to concentrate on some problems more than others. (Schwartz, 2014, p. 18, emphasis mine)

Insofar as Schwartz is criticizing the extremes of postmodernism, I am not wholly unsympathetic. However, he goes further, excoriating scholars whose research he believes “renders the actual past unknowable.”

Nothing, however, causes more misunderstanding of the history/memory dynamic than recent concerns about memory’s failure among oral cultures. Jack Goody and Ian Watt observe in Literacy in Traditional Societies that “societies and groups performing oral tradition censor the past and celebrate only those items of the tradition that are relevant to the present situation . . . The present takes over; the present is the past; fact and fiction merge in an oral symbiosis.” [quoting Samuel Byrskog 2004, “A New Perspective on the Jesus Tradition: Reflections on James D. G. Dunn’s Jesus Remembered.” JSNT 26:459–71].

But Goody and Watt could not advance such a theory in the first place if they had not already established the content of the essential past: If the past is truly inaccessible, how can we know whether or how it has been taken over by the present? (Schwartz, 2014, p. 21, my formatting and bold emphasis)

Schwartz asks a great question. We can’t simultaneously rely on evidence to prove that same evidence is insufficient. How can we know whether the present has replaced the past if we can’t trust memory?

How can we know whether or how the present has taken over the past?

To answer that question, I decided to track down Goody and Watt’s (G&W) original work as quoted in Byrskog’s article. By the way, you can read an updated version of that article in Memories of Jesus by Robert B. Stewart and Gary Habermas. I’d like to take credit for inventing the concept of finding the answer to a question by referring to published written works, but that’s pretty much the definition of research.

One thing you’ll notice when reading the Byrskog’s piece is the very next sentence, curiously omitted by Schwartz:

There surfaces a real sense of pastness only when writing and records of the past are introduced.

Stewart, Robert B.; Gary R. Habermas (2010-07-01). Memories of Jesus (p. 74). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Here’s our first clue that something vital is missing from Schwartz’s argument. We can see exactly what he left out by carefully reading “The Consequences of Literacy,” which you can read online at JSTOR. The authors noticed that something rather unexpected happens when oral cultures begin to keep written records, or more specifically, when a colonial power starts keeping written records of tribal social memories.

G&W recount the experience of British colonial officials carefully recording the Tiv of Nigeria’s genealogies. They knew that these were important, because they explained intricate family relationships and were important for resolving property disputes, ceremonial duties, etc.

Consequently they took the trouble to write down the long lists of names and preserve them for posterity, so that future administrators might refer to them in giving judgement. Forty years later, when the Bohannans [Paul and Laura Bohannan, authors of Tiv Economy (1968)] carried out anthropological field work in the area, their successors were still using the same genealogies.

However, these written pedigrees now gave rise to many disagreements; the Tiv maintained that they were incorrect, while the officials regarded them as statements of fact, as records of what had actually happened, and could not agree that the unlettered indigenes could be better informed about the past than their own literate predecessors. What neither party realised was that in any society of this kind changes take place which require a constant readjustment in the genealogies if they are to continue to carry out their function as mnemonics of social relationships. (Goody and Watt, 1963, p. 309, my bold emphasis and reformatting)

Now we see how G&W “established the content of the essential past.” Truthfully, the British had merely captured a snapshot of a moving target. Their literate culture understood memory as fixed, with the past extending as a straight line to the present. But in preliterate cultures, it doesn’t work that way.

Like the Bedouin Arabs and the Hebrews of the Old Testament, the Tiv people of Nigeria give long genealogies of their forebears which in this case stretch some twelve generations in depth back to an eponymous founding ancestor. Neither these genealogies, nor the Biblical lists of the descendants of Adam, were remembered purely as feats of memory. They served as mnemonics for systems of social relations. (Goody and Watt, 1963, p. 308)

What is social memory for?

Although we (amateur and professional) historians would like to use social memory in order to learn about the past, we are limited by each society’s present use of that memory. Were the Tiv trying to deceive their British overlords? No. Their current genealogies reflected the present use of their social memory. For us, finding out about our ancestry is an amusing pastime, but for the Tiv, their family trees represented much more than that. They determined identity and an individual’s place within the overall social structure.

The reason we probe the limits of memory is the same reason we probe the limits of anything else . . . because that’s how we learn.

Schwartz’s pronouncements that social memory is generally trustworthy and that memory distortions have hard limits fall flat, because he neglects to take into account how and why social memory fails to provide reliable history. Rather than acknowledge these limits and join in the hard work of finding out what they are, when they happen, how to recognize them, why they occur, how to account for them, and so on, he would rather remain petulant.

He prefers wagging a finger at his contemporaries when he should be lifting a finger to help. He laments our . . .

. . . century-old disciplinary cultures plagued by excessive, sometimes pathological and often paralyzing cynicism — research cultures so determined to disclose memory’s deficiencies that scholars choose for study topics in which only deficiencies are evident. Books and journals typically show memory at its worst because few editors and readers are interested in cases of accurate remembering. accordingly, investigators tend to design their research with a view to identifying memory’s fickleness. (Schwartz, 2014, p. 22, emphasis mine)

His point of view borders on the absurd. He’s like a cranky grandmother writing to her local television station, asking why they don’t show more “good news.”

The reason we probe the limits of memory is the same reason we probe the limits of anything else. It’s why we test the tensile strength of a new metal alloy. It’s why we run experiments on people with rare neurological problems. We study cases out at the edges, where systems have failed or are beginning to fail, because that’s how we learn.

To his credit, Schwartz does acknowledge that “no memories that remain the same forever or do not vary among society’s regions and groupings.” (Schwartz, 2014, p. 22) In a sense, all memory is constructed in the present, but he rails against those who would see social memory as nothing but construction. He conceives of a tension between the past and the present, but rejects the idea that the present takes over and occludes the past.

But that’s exactly what we saw with the Tiv. When the Brits showed them their recorded genealogies, and said, “Look, this is what your ancestors told us; this is right,” they objected. What they remembered (i.e., reconstructed) right now was true and real for them. When confronted with a choice, they picked their present, constructed memory.

What is history?

Even more to his credit, Schwartz reminds us that Leopold von Ranke’s oft-misrepresented quote about writing history “as it actually was” (was es eigentlich gewesen) is better translated “as it essentially was.” (Schwartz, 2014, p. 20) That’s good. We certainly hope that more scholars in the guild will begin to catch on.

Regretably, however, Schwartz cannot separate his romanticized, idealized view of social memory from history. He can’t, to use Connerton’s lingo, distinguish social memory from the activity of historical reconstruction. He writes:

The pathos of this chapter is clearly optimistic, while the pathos of much social memory theory is fatalistic — a flaw most evident in the conviction, which survives through conclusions that have nothing to do with evidence, that human memory, individual and social, is essentially warped. No world-view, in my judgment, has done more to confound the relation between memory and history, and I have tried to demonstrate its shortcomings. (Schwartz, 2014, p. 31)

These are not the kinds of things I would expect “the leading voice of social memory theory in the English-speaking world” to say. Social memory is not “warped.” It does what it needs to do for each society and in each situation. For some groups, it provides social stability, with clear lines of authority and duty. For others it gives individuals an understanding of how they fit within the overall society. For many, it provides a history worthy of its people, whether that history is accurate or not.

Facing up to the limitations of social memory does not “confound the relation between memory and history.” Instead, it helps to lay the groundwork for the difficult tasks of history. The job of the scholar is to be neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but rather to remain open-minded, realistic, and appropriately skeptical.

As for Schwartz — well, sometimes when there’s smoke there is no fire. There’s just some guy blowin’ smoke.

Connerton, Paul

How Societies Remember (Themes in the Social Sciences), Cambridge University Press, 1989

Goody, Jack and Watt, Ian

“The Consequences of Literacy,” in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Apr., 1963), pp. 304-345

Stewart, Robert and Habermas, Gary (editors)

Memories of Jesus: A Critical Appraisal of James D. G. Dunn’s Jesus Remembered, B&H Academic, 2010

Schwartz, Barry

“Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire: Memory and History,” in Memory and Identity in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity: A Conversation with Barry Schwartz (Semeia Studies), Thatcher, Tom (et al.), SBL Press, 2014 (p. 7ff.)


  • Luke Burrage
    2015-01-09 11:07:45 UTC - 11:07 | Permalink

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks so much for this series. Is there going to be a part 5 and 6?

    Catch you later,

    Luke B.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-01-09 14:27:17 UTC - 14:27 | Permalink

      Yes indeed. I still need to cover more aspects about social memory that Connerton brings out in his two great books: How Societies Remember and How Modernity Forgets. Then I’d like to discuss the work by Jan Assman, etc.

      The social memory literature has much that’s worth reading, but there’s a lot of dross that needs to be blown away to make sense of it — especially among the NT group that’s trying to apply it to Jesus studies.

  • Bob Moore
    2015-01-09 18:52:09 UTC - 18:52 | Permalink

    Beyond inference to NT oral tradition, this posting has me wondering if Holocaust deniers would applaud your review. The deniers likewise charge Jewish historians with not continuing to question the statements of eyewitnesses. Should the deniers then be accused of being morbid cynics having a fascination with memory’s unreliability? I am not, by the way, a denier.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-01-09 19:24:46 UTC - 19:24 | Permalink

      The fact of the Holocaust (not only of Jews but of Gypsies, Slavs, and others) relies on hard evidence. We have the firsthand accounts from those who liberated the camps, written down at the time. We have photographic evidence, records, bones, gold teeth, etc.

      On the other hand, the denial of the Holocaust is an interesting case of invented social memory. It serves the particular purposes of the twisted little freaks who believe in it. They don’t just deny the memory of those who lived through it. They ignore and deny the testimony of guards and officers who admitted to their crimes. They reject the (literal) tons of evidence presented at the Nuremberg trials. They live in a fantasy world in which the deniers are the victims for telling the truth.


      • Kunigunde Kreuzerin
        2015-01-10 00:07:41 UTC - 00:07 | Permalink

        “On 16 April 1945, 1000 people from Weimar under American command were mandated to visit Buchenwald concentration camp where they could witness the remaining traces of the mass extinction.”

        My teacher for German was one of them. She told us about it several times and she could not forget this experience throughout her life.

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