Friday, June 16, 2006

Trouble with Memory Practices

It's Friday night and I'm very tired. I remember those days back in school when I could drink all afternoon and still have the energy to go out... or pass out early. Somehow work, the dissertation, and a baby make those memories seem very far away.

I have something to write and I'm finding it very hard to finally get it down. I suspect that when I do, all of this stuff floating around in my head will evaporate into four terse lines of prose. Without further ado:

My primary concern is memory, or rather the memory structures and practices in which people function and operate. Memory is different from other popular concepts such as knowledge. In my formulation, knowledge is socially situated and emerges in a particular community of practice. Memory, however, is institutional. It is maintained through the ongoing development and maintenance of certain institutional practices. The most obvious example of such a practice is an archive. Communities and companies structure their archives to maintain key documents. These documents, and the organizational structure in which they're trapped, form the memory of that institution. Memory can also be enmeshed in ritual. Celebrations commemorating the feast days of saints, for example, enable some communities to establish a sense of temporal flow and ongoing progress. A more humble example may be the lowly employee handbook filled with standard terms and conditions of employment. This work has an important role in creating the social structure of an organization, which in turn will have an impact on the formation of its memory practices.

Memory practices both enable and constrain communities. They enable individuals to rapidly make sense of occurrences and to respond accordingly. They may also prevent these individuals from perceiving novel developments or from effecting much needed institutional change. Even if a local community of practice develops some sort of situated knowledge, it will be hindered from disseminating this knowledge due to the prevailing institutional memory structure.

These memory structures come from somewhere. Many theorists proclaim that they are the result of overwhelming discourses or isms: capitalism, Marxism, feminism, environmentalism, etc. I have a fundamental problem with this way of thinking. It gives me nothing to touch. My primary interest as a researcher is documents. The notion of memory practices resonates strongly with the study of archives and types of documents. Where I want to explore this phenomenon with something I can touch, I'm left with nothing but ghosts fabricated by academics. It's as if my colleagues have conjured up some sort of universal villain—think CHOAM, LexCorp, Tessier-Ashpool S.A., S.P.E.C.T.R.E., or Extensive Enterprises. I'm more interested in the responses of individuals, how they respond to this tension, and particularly their role with the creation of documents.

Individuals take on various roles in the production of documents. They can be readers, publishers, printers, shippers, or authors. I'm particularly interested in the authors, those individuals who take some step to challenge existing prevailing discourses and introduce something new and novel. How, exactly, can they do it? How can they be successful...

Well, it's a start. I'm not thrilled. There are a whole lot of holes. I really have to take a closer look at Foucault and his position on the creation and dissemination of discourses. De Certeau may give some help on the role of authors i.e., tactics and strategies. I also have to make some point of why particular documents are more relevant for certain memory practices. Authors like Abbott and van Maanen may give me a hand with it. There's also the whole SCOT angle that discusses closure mechanisms. Of course, the role of the author (or the entrepreneur) is to force the discourse open again, to muck with the guts, and then to change it again.


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