“I’m having an argument with myself”: memory, identity and agency

I was reading an astonishing essay on memory by Mike Jay last night. He’s always someone who stands out to me in the London Review of Books (and similar publications) because I once interviewed him and, having accidentally deleted the interview, was too embarrassed to ever admit this. I did a podcast with him about the High Society exhibition in the Wellcome Collection. It was really good. As was the exhibition. But I digress. This strange article in the LRB stuck in my mind for two reasons. Firstly, its description of Henry Gustave Molaison, he of no memory and object of much scientific curiosity, reminds me achingly of my late grandfather in the later  stages of dementia. Secondly, Mike points to the intriguing notion that this lack of memory encourages a sort of hyper-reflexivity, in the sense that Henry reports ‘arguing with himself’: the absence of the continuity which memory affords precludes the establishment of durable habitual dispositions and, as such, throws Henry upon his own resources in the negotiation of day-to-day life:

Unwittingly snatching ‘dreams’ from the recesses of his waking mind was consistent with the ways Henry, always intelligent and perceptive, became adept at filling the gaps in his memory with hunches and canny guesswork. Sometimes this would baffle his researchers: one day he astonished Corkin by knowing that he was in the MIT laboratories, only to reveal that he had deduced his location from a passing student’s sweatshirt. When asked a question beyond the reach of his memory, he would often pause and then reply, ‘I’m having an argument with myself’: a range of possible answers would come to him, whether from intuition, partial recall or informed guesswork, but he would have no means of deciding between them. Although he was unable to recall specific events, regular routines would prompt him in ways that eluded conscious recognition: walking a familiar route, he might turn the correct way without knowing he had done so. A situation that recurred often enough seemed to create a ghostly outline. In 1977, after the death of Henry’s father, a lab researcher noticed that he kept in his wallet a handwritten note to himself – ‘Dad’s dead’ – to anchor his recurring feeling of absence.


I found this an interesting notion because it upsets our conventional expectations about ageing. We see the loss of memory as a cypher for the loss of agency. Yet the unreliability which comes to characterise habitual strategies of day-to-day interaction under such circumstances is quite interesting. Far from involving a loss of agency, the successful negotiation of social interaction given sustained memory loss necessitates a hyper-reflexive approach to managing signals and calibrating responses. Looking at this particular case (Henry’s neurological inability to sustain memories) or the broader issue I’m treating this as a cypher of (the memory loss involved in dementia) we can start to see the manifest inadequacy of some of the lazy dichotomies which can creep into sociological theorising about memory, identity and agency.

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