Forgetting and forgiveness, separately and together, designate the horizon of our entire investigation. Separately, inasmuch as they each belong to a distinct problematic: for forgetting, the problematic of memory and faithfulness to the past; for forgiveness, guilt and reconciliation with the past. Together, inasmuch as their respective itineraries intersect at a place that is not a place and which is best indicated by the term “horizon”: Horizon of a memory appeased, even of a happy forgetting.

In a sense, it is the problematic of forgetting that is the more expansive, since the appeasement of memory in which forgiveness consists seems to constitute the final stage in the progress of forgetting, culminating in that ars oblivionis that Harald Weinrich would like to see constructed alongside the ars memoriae, examined and celebrated by Frances Yates. Taking notice of this sense, I have chosen to place forgetting in the title of the present work alongside memory and history. Forgetting indeed remains the disturbing threat that lurks in the background of the phenomenology of memory and of the epistemology of history. Forgetting is, in this respect, the emblematic term for the historical condition taken as the theme of our third part, the emblem of the vulnerability of this condition. In another sense, the problem of memory is more extensive to the degree that the eventual ars oblivionis is projected as a double of ars memoriae, a figure of happy memory. The idea of happy memory, in a certain manner, opened the way for our entire enterprise, once we were careful not to allow the pathology of memory to overtake the phenomenology of ordinary memory considered in its phases of successful realization. It is true that we did not then know what price had to be paid for according its full sense to happy memory, namely, the passage through the dialectic of history and memory and, finally, the dual test of forgetting and forgiveness.

Against this play of horizons, in the very sense in which we earlier spoke of the play of scales, our investigation will come to its end. Horizon does not mean only the fusion of horizons, in the Gadamerian sense I am assuming, but also the receding of horizons, incompletion. This admission is not unexpected in an enterprise placed from the start under the banner of the merciless critique directed against the hubris of total reflection.

One can speak at length of forgetting without ever mentioning the problematic of forgiveness. This is what we will do in this chapter. In the first instance and on the whole, forgetting is experienced as an attack on the reliability of memory. An attack, a weakness, a lacuna. In this regard memory defines itself, at least in the first instance, as a struggle against forgetting. Herodotus strives to preserve the glory of the Greeks and the Barbarians from oblivion. And our celebrated duty of memory is proclaimed in the form of an exhortation not to forget. But at the same time and in the same fell swoop, we shun the specter of a memory that would never forget anything. We even consider it to be monstrous. Present in our mind is the fable of Jorge Luis Borges about the man who never forgot anything, in the figure of Funes el memorioso.1 Could there then be a measure in the use of human memory, a “never in excess” in accordance with the dictum of ancient wisdom? Could forgetting then no longer be in every respect an enemy of memory, and could memory have to negotiate with forgetting, groping to find the right measure in its balance with forgetting? And could this appropriate memory have something in common with the renunciation of total reflection? Could a memory lacking forgetting be the ultimate phantasm, the ultimate figure of this total reflection that we have been combatting in all of the ranges of the hermeneutics of the human condition?

We must keep this presentiment—this Ahnung—in mind as we pass through the procession of figures that hide the horizon line.

It is not an exaggeration to speak here of a procession of figures to traverse. Whoever attempts to evaluate the evident misfortunes and the presumed benefits of forgetting first runs into the crushing polysemy of the word “forgetting,” whose proliferation is attested by its literary history, as it has been written by Harald Weinrich.2 To protect ourselves from the feeling of helplessness resulting from the addition of this profusion of language to the nostalgic meanderings inherent in the theme of forgetting, I propose a reading grid based on the idea of the degree of the depth of forgetting. To clarify this distinction, I will relate it to the one that presided over the description of mnemonic phenomena considered from the perspective of “object” (following the use of the term “memory” as a substantive), the distinction between the cognitive approach and the pragmatic approach. In the first approach, memory was apprehended in accordance with its aim of faithfully representing the past, while the second concerned the operative side of memory, its exercise, which was the occasion for the ars memoriae but also for the uses and abuses that we attempted to repertory following a scale proper to memory. Forgetting prompts a rereading of the two problematics and of their articulation in light of a new principle of discrimination, that of levels of depth and of manifestation. Indeed, forgetting proposes a new meaning for the idea of depth, which the phenomenology of memory tends to identify with distance, with remoteness, according to a horizontal formulation of depth. Forgetting proposes, on the existential plane, something like an endless abyss, which the metaphor of vertical depth attempts to express.

Remaining for a moment on the plane of depth, I propose to correlate the problematic relating to this level with the cognitive approach to spontaneous memory. What forgetting awakens at this crossroads is, in fact, the very aporia that is at the source of the problematical character of the representation of the past, namely, memory’s lack of reliability. Forgetting is the challenge par excellence put to memory’s aim of reliability. The trustworthiness of memories hangs on the enigma constitutive of the entire problematic of memory, namely, the dialectic of presence and absence at the heart of the representation of the past, to which is added the feeling of distance proper to memories, unlike the simple absence of the image, which it serves to depict or to simulate. The problematic of forgetting, formulated on the level of greatest depth, intervenes at the most critical point of this problematic of presence, of absence, and of distance, at the opposite pole from that minor miracle of happy memory which is constituted by the actual recognition of past memories.

It is at this critical point that the grand bifurcation that will command the last two sections of this study is proposed—namely, the polarity between two great figures of profound forgetting, which I shall name forgetting through the erasing of traces and a backup forgetting, a sort of forgetting kept in reserve (oubli de réserve), an expression I will attempt in a moment to justify. The first and second sections of this chapter are devoted to this grand bifurcation. As the name of the first figure of profound forgetting leads us to understand, the problematic of the trace commands the problematic of forgetting at this radical level. This irruption has nothing surprising about it. From the start of this work we have been confronted with the proposition of Plato’s Theaetatus to tie the destiny of the eikōn to that of the tupos, of the imprint, after the model of the mark left by a signet ring on wax. It is this alleged tie between image and imprint that forgetting forces us to explore at greater depth than we have done previously. Our entire problematic of the trace, from antiquity to today, is truly the inheritor of this ancient notion of imprint, which, far from solving the enigma of the presence of absence that encumbers the problematic of the representation of the past, adds to it its own enigma. Which one?

As early as the commentary on the texts of Plato and Aristotle that invoked the metaphor of the wax imprint, I proposed distinguishing three sorts of traces: the written trace, which has become the documentary trace on the plane of the historiographical operation; the psychical trace, which can be termed impression rather than imprint, impression in the sense of an affection left in us by a marking—or as we say, striking—event; finally, the cerebral, cortical trace which the neurosciences deal with. I am leaving aside here the destiny of the documentary trace discussed in part 2, but not without recalling that, like every material trace—and in this respect the cortical trace is on the same side as the documentary trace—it can be physically altered, effaced, destroyed. Among other objectives, the archive is established to combat this threat of effacement. There remains the articulation of these two sorts of traces: psychical trace, cortical trace. The entire problematic of profound forgetting hinges on this articulation.

The difficulty is first of all a difficulty in the approach taken. It is by radically heterogeneous paths that we have access to one or to the other. The cerebral, cortical trace is known to us only from the outside, through scientific knowledge, without there being any corresponding sensed, lived experience as in the case of that part of organic sensibility that makes us say that we see “with” our eyes and that we grasp “with” our hands. We do not say in the same manner that we think “with” our brains. We learn that this brain-object is our brain, located in this cranial cavity that is our head, with its facade of our face, our head, the emblem of the hegemony that we claim to exert over our members. This appropriation of “our” brain is complex—as are the traces that objective knowledge sketches in it. The first section of this chapter will be devoted to discussions concerning the notion of mnestic trace.3 From this follows the fate of the first form of profound forgetting, forgetting through the effacement of traces. The access to the presumed psychical traces is entirely different. It is much more deeply concealed. One speaks of it only retrospectively on the basis of precise experiences which have as their model the recognition of images of the past. These experiences make us think, after the fact, that many memories, perhaps among the most precious, childhood memories, have not been definitively erased but simply rendered inaccessible, unavailable, which makes us say that one forgets less than one thinks or fears.

However, the difficulty related to the problematic of the two traces is not only one of access to the phenomena concerned. It touches on the very signification that can be given to these two acceptations of the trace, one external, the other intimate. The first section, dealing with the conceptual handling of the idea of mnestic trace in the framework of the neurosciences, is organized into three moments. (1) We will first ask, what is the position in principle of the philosopher who I am in contrast to scientists who speak in general terms of mnestic or nonmnestic traces? (2) What can be said more specifically about mnestic traces? What mutual instruction can the phenomenologist and the neurologist provide to one another? It is at this stage of questioning that the major interrogation will be carried to its highest problematic level. (3) Finally, what place does the question of forgetting occupy in the table of dysfunctions of memory? Is forgetting itself a dysfunction? It is with this third segment of questioning that forgetting through the effacement of traces will best be determined. But the principle of the proposed solution will be contained in the first stage with the ideas of causa sine qua non, a substratum, and a correlation between organization and function. The general orientation is that of an epistemological gap between discourse about the neural and discourse about the psychical. This gap will be protected against any spiritualist extrapolation or any materialist reductionism by our unwavering abstention on the ontological plane from the classical debate concerning the question of the so-called union of the body and the soul.

By virtue of this suspension I shall pursue as far as possible in the second section the presupposition on which the recourse to a distinct notion of psychical trace is based, whatever its neural conditioning may be. The key experience, we have just said, is that of recognition. I speak of it as a minor miracle. It is indeed in the moment of recognition that the present image is held to be faithful to the initial affection, to the shock of the event. Where the neurosciences speak simply of reactivating traces, the phenomenologist, being instructed by lived experience, will speak of a persistence of the original impression. It is this discourse that I will try to carry to its highest degree of incandescence in exploring the entirely retrospective presupposition of a birth of the memory at the very moment of the impression, of a “reliving of images” in the moment of recognition, following Bergson in Matter and Memory. An “unconscious” existence of memories must then be postulated, in a sense it is possible to attribute to this unconscious. It is this hypothesis of the preservation by the self, constitutive of duration as such, that I will attempt to extend to other phenomena of latency, to the point that this latency can be considered a positive figure of forgetting, which I call the reserve of forgetting. It is indeed out of this treasury of forgetting that I draw when I have the pleasure of recalling what I once saw, heard, felt, learned, acquired. It is upon this perseverance that the historian, after Thucydides, will be able to create the project of “what is acquired for all time.”

To be sure, the problem still remains of how to acknowledge together the neural status of mnestic traces and the status of what is discussed in terms of persistence, remanence, reliving, duration. There is perhaps good reason to confine my remarks, at least in the sort of discourse that is my own, to asserting the polysemy of the notion of trace, the idea of psychical trace claiming an equal right with regard to the idea of a neural trace. The two readings of mnemonic phenomena would then be left in competition. The first tends toward the idea of a definitive forgetting: this is forgetting through the erasing of traces. The second tends toward the idea of a reversible forgetting, even toward the idea of the unforgettable: this is the reserve of forgetting. Our ambivalent feelings about forgetting would thus have their origin and their speculative justification in the competition between these two heterogeneous approaches to the enigma of profound forgetting, one moving along the path of the internalization and appropriation of objective knowledge, the other along the path of retrospection on the basis of the experience princeps of recognition. On the one hand, forgetting makes us afraid. Are we not condemned to forget everything? On the other, we welcome as a small happiness the return of a sliver of the past, wrestled away, as we say, from oblivion. Both of these readings are pursued throughout our life—with the permission of the brain.

Continuing our progress along the vertical axis marking forgetting’s levels of depth, we reach the figures of manifest forgetting. The third section of this chapter will be devoted to their analysis. The correlation proposed above between the major divisions of this chapter and the distinction between the cognitive and the practical approaches to mnemonic phenomena authorizes us to place this section under the heading of the pragmatics of forgetting. Manifest forgetting is also an exercise of forgetting. To assist us in deciphering the phenomena stemming from this pragmatics of forgetting, I will adopt the reading grid applied to the uses and abuses of memory and the analyses they undergo in the second chapter of part one. A similar hierarchy will punctuate the manifestations of the exercise of forgetting. Forgetting will not offer simply a reduplication of the description in which the same usages of memory will be revealed under the new angle of the uses of forgetting; rather, the latter will bring with them a specific problematic, distributing their manifestations along a horizontal axis split between a passive pole and an active pole. Forgetting will then reveal a clever strategy quite specific to itself. In conclusion, I will propose an example of these uses and abuses of forgetting, borrowed from the history of the present day.

At the end of this investigation devoted to the pragmatics of forgetting, the parallel with the hierarchy of the uses and abuses of memory will ineluctably lead to the question of determining what echo, what response, the difficulties and equivocations raised by the presumed duty of memory can expect to encounter on the side of forgetting—and why one absolutely cannot speak of a duty of forgetting.



It is customary in the neurosciences to directly attack the problem of the mnestic traces in an effort to localize them or to subordinate questions of topography to questions of connectivity, of the hierarchy of synaptic architectures. From this, one passes to the relations between organization and function, and, on the basis of this correlation, one identifies the mental (or psychical) correspondent of the cortical in terms of representations and images, among these mnestic images. Forgetting is then referred to in the context of dysfunctions of mnestic operations, along the uncertain border between the normal and the pathological.

This program and this path of thinking are scientifically irreproachable. And I shall repeat this journey under the neurologist’s guidance. The questions of the philosopher—of a philosopher—are of a different order. There is first the prior question, mentioned in the introductory guidelines, concerning the place of the idea of cortical trace in the typology of the uses of this notion. Once the idea of the cortical trace has been framed, the question is knowing how it is that one recognizes that a trace is a mnestic trace, if not, on the plane of function and of psychical expression, by means of the relation to time and to the past. For the phenomenologist, this relation is specified by the central problematic of the memory-image, namely, the dialectic of presence, absence, and distance that inaugurated, accompanied, and tormented our investigation. The role of the philosopher is then to relate the science of mnestic traces to the problematic central to phenomenology, the representation of the past. The rereading of the neurologist’s works that follows is governed wholly by this relation established between neurological knowledge and the dialectic of the mnemonic image. This relation excludes a direct attack of the notion of mnestic trace. The patience of a long detour is required, beginning with the clarification of the relation that the sort of philosophy espoused here maintains with neuroscience. Only then can the notion of mnestic trace be tackled head on with respect to its relation to the enigma of the present representation of the absent past. But, even then, we will not yet have said anything specific concerning forgetting: what sort of dysfunction is it? Is it even a dysfunction like the clinical cases of amnesia?

(a) Concerning my position as philosopher facing the neurosciences, I will take the liberty of summing up the reasoning that I set forth in my discussion with Jean-Pierre Changeux in What Makes Us Think?4 I tried not to situate myself on the level of a monistic or dualistic ontology but on that of a semantics of the discourses conducted, on the one hand, by the neurosciences and, on the other, by philosophers claiming the threefold heritage of reflective philosophy (from Maine de Biran and Ravisson to Jean Nabert), phenomenology (from Husserl to Sartre and Merleau-Ponty), and hermeneutics (from Schleiermacher to Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer).5 I then drew support from the idea that all knowledge, which is by definition limited, refers to what for it is the final referent, recognized as such by the scientific community of the same discipline, this referent being final only in this domain and being defined along with it. A dualism of referents must not be transformed into a dualism of substances. This interdiction concerns the philosopher just as much as the scientist: for the first, the term “mental” is not the equivalent of the term “immaterial,” quite the opposite. Mental experience implies the bodily but in a sense of the word “body” irreducible to the objective body as it is known in the natural sciences. To the body-as-object is semantically opposed the lived body, one’s own body, my body (whence I speak), your body (you, to whom I am speaking), his or her body (his or hers, those about whom I recount the story). There is but one body that is mine, whereas all the body-objects are before me. The ability to account for the “objectification,” as it is called, by which the lived body is apprehended as a “body-object” remains a problem poorly solved by the phenomenologist-hermeneutian.6 In fact, the distance is great between the body as lived and the body as object. To travel it, one must take the detour by way of the idea of a common nature and, to do that, pass by way of the idea of an intersubjectivity founding a common knowledge, and move all the way back to the attribution of comparable and concordant mental states among a plurality of embodied subjects. In the final analysis, only this plurality is entitled to speak of “my” brain as one of many brains, as one other among all the other brains. I can then say that the other, like me, has a brain. At the end of this long circuit is “the” brain, the object of the neurosciences. They take for granted the process of objectification that remains a considerable problem for hermeneutical phenomenology, one that in many respects has been poorly solved. Indeed, in what sense are the lived body and the body as object the same body?7 The problem is difficult inasmuch as we do not, at first glance, see any passage from one discourse to the other: either I speak of neurons and so forth, and I confine myself to a certain language, or else I talk about thoughts, actions, feelings, and I tie them to my body, with which I am in a relation of possession, of belonging. We can credit Descartes with having carried the problem of epistemological dualism to its critical point, beyond the complacencies and confusions of medieval hylomorphism, to the threshold of the notion of “man,” considered as that being who is not in his body as the pilot in his ship.8 The brain is remarkable in this respect: whereas I have a dual relationship with certain—sensorial, motor—organs, which allows me, on the one hand, to consider the eyes and hands as part of objective nature and, on the other hand, to say that I see with my eyes, grasp with my hands, I cannot say in the same manner, in accordance with the same sense of belonging, that I think with my brain. I do not know if it is contingent that the brain is insensible, but it is a fact that I neither feel nor move my brain as an organ belonging to me. In this sense, it is entirely objective. I can appropriate it to myself only as something lodged in my cranial cavity, hence in the head which I honor and protect as the site of power, hegemony, in the upright position, in my manner of carrying myself and holding myself in the face of the outside world. The scientist may perhaps venture to say that the human being thinks with his or her brain. For the philosopher there is no parallel between the two sentences: “I grasp with my hands,” “I understand with my brain.” For the philosopher, the scientist gives himself leave, in his own linguistic contract, to take the preposition “with” as designating something other than the body’s lived bond of belonging and possession, namely, the relation between organization and function, about which we will now say a few words.

Transported to the border of the epistemological and the ontological, the philosopher willingly confines himself to Plato’s formula in the Phaedo: questioned about the reasons why he does not flee but remains sitting there awaiting the death inflicted on him by the city, Socrates gives two answers: he stays in this position because the parts of his body keep him there; the body is then the cause without which—the causa sine qua non; but the true cause that makes him stay there is obedience to the laws of the city. Borrowing this formula, I will say that the brain is the cause only on the level of conditionality expressed by the idea of causa sine qua non. Along with Aristotle, within the framework of his theory of the forms of causation, we can thus speak of the material cause, or as I prefer to say, of substratum.

The scientist still respects the limits of this causal discourse when he confines himself to speaking of the “contribution” of a given cortical region, of the “role,” the “implication,” even the “responsibility” of a certain neural sequence, or when he states that the brain is “involved” in the appearance of certain psychical phenomena. But the biologist demands more, independently of the philosophical option, willingly shared by the scientific community, that the body-soul dualism is anathema and that material monism is a self-evident presupposition, an article of faith that underpins the contract governing the scientific community. On his own territory, the neuroscientist calls for a less negative use for the idea of the causation that reigns between structure or organization and function. This relation spans a certain heterogeneity—organization is not function—and as such amounts to a correlation. But this correlation expresses more than the cause sine qua non: to the latter is added a positive conditionality, one which authorizes in fine the assertion that the brain is the organization that brings it about that I think, or, in brief, that makes me think. Pushing his advantage further, the biologist will derive an argument from the correlation between structure and function and will trace entities that belong for other reasons to mental discourse, such as representations and images, entities that are manifestly bound up with function, back to the cerebral organization. Here the philosopher will flinch, suspecting a semantic amalgamation that, in his opinion, violates the liberties attached to the idea of correlation. But the biologist sees a reason for this the new ambiguity attached to the notion of function: bit by bit, everything noncortical comes down to such a function. The hegemonic tendency of every science is then exercised with respect to closely related sciences, either below the level of the cortical organization of the organism as a whole, on the level of biochemistry, implied in particular in the treatment of synaptic shifters, or, more problematically for the philosopher, above the properly cortical level, in the order of the cognitive sciences (the expression used becomes the neurocognitive sciences), the psychology of behavior, ethnology, social psychology, even to the point of crossing blithely over the gap separating the cortical trace from the cultural trace. Here, the philosopher may or may not be willing to temper his semantic vigilance with respect to such transgressions stipulated by the scientific community in question. In this way, however, the neurologist allows himself to place images in the brain, despite the reservations nourished by the philosopher’s desire for semantic rigor. The transgression can appear less flagrant to the philosopher when the neurosciences approach the phenomenology of action on the basis of the idea that the brain is a projective system, where the related ideas of anticipation and of exploration belong to a new mixed domain, as though the boundary between the scientific and the phenomenological discourses was more porous in the practical domain than in the theoretical dimension. On this plane of action, the correlation between neurology and phenomenology is equivalent to a correspondence.9

(b) With the question of specifically mnestic traces, we tighten our grasp and come closer to the source of amnesia and forgetting. At the same time, we come closer to the heart of the debate, namely, the relation between the phenomenological signification of the memory-image and the materiality of the trace.

At first sight, phenomenology has little to gain from clinical instruction, extended by anatomo-physiological observation applied to the brain. On several occasions, I have ventured to say that knowledge of what occurs in the brain makes no direct contribution to self-understanding except in the case of dysfunctions, for the reason that behavior is then affected, if only through the recourse to treatment, and more generally by reason of readjustments in behaviors to a “reduced” environment, to use Kurt Goldstein’s expression, already borrowed by Canguilhem. But even then, when an illness emerges that directly involves the brain, the readjustment of all behaviors to the “catastrophic situation” so overwhelms the concerns of the patient’s family members, to say nothing of the patient’s own difficulties, that this upheaval in behavior becomes an obstacle to taking into account information about the brain. One would be tempted to say that the neurosciences in no way contribute directly to the conduct of life. This is why one can develop an ethical and political discourse on memory—and conduct cutting-edge scientific activities in many human sciences—without ever mentioning the brain. The epistemology of historical knowledge itself has had neither the occasion nor the obligation to resort to the neurosciences; its ultimate referent, social action, has not required it. I have no intention, however, of claiming for the phenomenology of memory any sort of right to ignorance with respect to the neurosciences.

The neurosciences that target memory can provide instruction, in the first instance, about the conduct of life on the level of reflective knowledge in which a hermeneutics of life would consist. Beyond this direct utility, there is our curiosity about the things of nature, and among these the brain is doubtless the most marvelous product. This curiosity—which is basically the same one that motivates the epistemology of history—is one of the dispositions that articulates our relation to the world. The causal dependence in which we find ourselves with respect to cerebral functioning, a dependence whose knowledge we owe to such curiosity, continues to instruct us, even in the absence of suffering due to dysfunction. This instruction helps to warn us about the pretentious hubris that would make us the masters and possessors of nature. Our entire being-in-the-world is shaken by this. And if there is one point at which the phenomenology of memory is placed in resonance with this general lesson of the neurosciences, it is at the level of our reflections on the worldly character of memory, following the design of Casey’s work, Remembering. But this breach in the wall of mutual misunderstanding can be widened.

It is striking that the works dealing directly with memory and its distortions10 devote a great deal of effort to what Pierre Buser calls a taxonomy of memory or rather of memories: how many memories, one wonders, have to be counted?11 This is the second great lesson received from chemistry. A direct confrontation with the phenomenology of memory proposed above is required at this level. In this regard, the discordances, more superficial than first apparent, should not surprise us. For the most part, they result from differences on the plane of questioning and of methods of approach. Our typology, with its pairs of oppositions, was essentially motivated by the question of time, of distance and temporal depth; in addition, it was oriented by a traditional conceptuality (as we saw in concepts such as representation, fiction, depiction); finally, it was carried by the concern for essential analysis, often running counter to the distinctions of common sense or of the experimental psychology of the times.

On its side, the taxonomy resulting from clinical investigations depends on observation conditions that are frequently quite remote from those of everyday life. Either these are reconstructions of structures that must be presupposed in order to account for the selective nature of this or that dysfunction, or they are observations conducted under entirely artificial conditions, the experimenter being in control of the game, in particular with regard to formulating the tasks proposed to the subjects of the experiment. The responses provided to these tasks are, in their turn, interpreted in terms of the range of criteria of success selected, even in relation to the diversity of options provided by the researchers, often shaped by very different experimental traditions. Thus, the distinctions proposed by Buser result from a sort of consensus to which, in addition to clinical work as such, cognitive science, behavioral psychology, ethology, and social psychology have contributed. These distinctions are no less interesting as a result. This is true of the best-confirmed distinction between short-term memory and long-term memory, and of the further distinctions within each of these. For example, there is immediate memory, a subdivision of short-term memory, whose effectiveness is measured on the scale of a second (we are straightaway in the objective time of chronometers); there is also task memory, whose very name recalls the manner in which it has been apprehended, namely, in the execution of various cognitive tasks defined by the experimenter. Of particular interest is the distinction between declarative memory and procedural memory (activities of movement and motor aptitudes); this distinction recalls Bergson’s “two memories” or the theory of habitus in Panofsky, Elias, and Bourdieu. It is striking that this compartmentalizing has continually been pushed further, according to the class of activities concerned (learning, recognizing objects, faces, semantic acquisitions, information, and know-how); everything, even spatial memory, is entitled to a separate mention. One is struck both by the amplitude and precision of the information and by a certain narrowness due to the abstract character of the experimental conditions in relation to the concrete situations of life, in relation also to other mental functions, and, finally, in relation to the organism’s involvement as a whole. In this respect, the efforts to compensate for this compartmentalizing reported by Buser, leading to the fragmentation of specialized memories, deserves to be taken into account. The notion of consciousness, in the sense of simple vigilance or awareness, thus makes its reappearance in the field of neurocognitive disciplines, and with it the notion of levels of consciousness. One thus obtains the interesting distinction between explicit and implicit memory of the infraconscious order. In this regard, the title Buser gives to one chapter—“Consciousness and Infraconsciousness”—perfectly expresses the ambition to reassemble the disintegrated taxonomies on the basis of levels of consciousness and no longer in terms of criteria of success in accomplishing tasks. It is then no longer the “worldly” side of memory that is addressed, as it was earlier, but its modes of reappropriation by subjective consciousness. In this way, our theory of memory attribution is found to be enriched by taking into consideration the degrees of effectiveness of conscious awareness. Later on we shall return to this theme in connection with recollection and the difficulties of recollection that are of interest to an investigation of forgetting.

The reader will probably wonder what has become in all of this of the cerebral localizations or the assignment of a given mnemonic function to a particular circuit, to a particular neural architecture. Here we touch upon the most delicate point of the adventure, not so much on the plane of anatomical-clinical observation as on that of the interpretation of knowledge about mnestic traces.

It is, in fact, at the moment the neurosciences are closest to their target that they reach their most problematic point. The localizations in terms of areas, circuits, and systems are the most remarkable illustration of the correlation between organization and function. What has just been described in terms of the taxonomy of memories concerns the function side for which properly neuroscience seeks a counterpart in terms of organization, the cortical counterpart. We touch on the most remarkable and most admirable aspect of the entire enterprise here; progress in the identifying of functions and the identifying of organizations. In this respect, the work of localization is far from completed.

But what, finally, would be understood, if one were successful in drawing up a table with two columns, the cortical geography on one side, the functional taxonomy on the other? Would one then understand the mnemonic phenomenon in its most intimate constitution?

To tell the truth, what we are supposed to clarify is the very signification of the notion of trace in relation to elapsed time. The difficulty the entire enterprise runs up against is the result of one simple fact: “All traces are present to our minds. There is no hint of something that is absent. It is necessary then to endow the trace with a semiotic dimension, so that it functions as a sign, and to regard the trace as a sign-effect, a sign of the action of the seal in creating the impression” (What Makes Us Think? 149). What if one were to pass from the metaphor of the imprint in wax to that of the graphism of the tableau? The aporia is the same: “How is it that such an inscription is itself present and yet also a sign of what is not present, of what existed previously?” (149). What if one were to invoke the stability of traces, in the manner of hieroglyphics? (Jean-Pierre Changeux speaks of “synaptic hieroglyphs,” 141). The hieroglyphs would still have to be deciphered, as when the age of a tree is read by counting the concentric circles drawn on the tree stump. In short, “a trace must therefore be conceived at once as a present effect and as the sign of its absent cause. Now, in the trace, there is no otherness, no absence. Everything is positivity and presence” (150).

In this sense, the aporia was complete in its initial formulation in Plato’s Theaetetus. The metaphor of the imprint does not resolve the enigma of the representation of absence and distance. That is not its role. Its role is to make a function correspond to an organization. As concerns the mnemonic function, it is specified, among all other functions, by the relation of the representation to time and, at the heart of this relation, by the dialectic of presence, absence, and distance that is the mark of the mnemonic phenomenon. Only discourse about the mind can account for this dialectic. The task of the neurosciences is then to express not what makes me think, namely, this dialectic, but what makes it possible for me to think, namely, the neural structure without which I could not think. This is not nothing, but neither is it everything.

(c) Something still has to be said about forgetting! Clinical investigation approaches the precise subject of forgetting only in the context of dysfunctions, or as is said, of “distortions of memory.” But is forgetting a dysfunction, a distortion? In certain respects, yes. In the matter of definitive forgetting, indicating an effacement of traces, it is experienced as a threat: it is against this forgetting that we conduct the work of memory (oeuvre de mémoire) in order to slow its course, even to hold it at bay. The extraordinary exploits of the ars memoriae were designed to ward off the misfortune of forgetting by a kind of exaggerated memorization brought to the assistance of remembering. But artificial memory is the great loser in this unequal battle. In brief, forgetting is lamented in the same way as aging and death: it is one of the figures of the inevitable, the irremediable. And yet forgetting is bound up with memory, as we shall see in the next two sections: its strategies and, under certain conditions, its cultivation worthy of a genuine ars oblivionis result in the fact that we cannot simply classify forgetting through the effacement of traces among the dysfunctions of memory alongside amnesia, nor among the distortions of memory affecting its reliability. Certain facts we will discuss later lend credit to the paradoxical idea that forgetting can be so closely tied to memory that it can be considered one of the conditions for it. This imbrication of forgetting in memory explains the silence of neurosciences on the unsettling and ambivalent experience of ordinary forgetting. But the first silence is here that of the organs themselves. In this respect, ordinary forgetting follows the fate of happy memory: it is silent about its neural base. Mnemonic phenomena are experienced in the silence of our organs. Ordinary forgetting is in this respect on the same silent side as ordinary memory. This is the great difference between forgetting and all the types of amnesia with which clinical literature abounds. Even the misfortune of definitive forgetting remains an existential misfortune which beckons us more to poetry and to wisdom than to science. And, if this forgetting has a word to say on the level of knowledge, it would be to question the border between the normal and the pathological. This effect of interference is not the least troubling. In addition to the biological and medical fields, another problematic rises up against this backdrop of silence. It concerns the limit situations where forgetting rejoins aging and mortality. Here, it is not simply the organs that remain silent, but scientific and philosophical discourse, to the extent that this discourse is caught in the nets of epistemology. The critical philosophy of history and memory fails to prove itself equal to the hermeneutics of the historical condition.


We have not yet finished with the question of inscription. As has been said, the notion of trace can be reduced neither to the documentary trace nor to the cortical trace. Both consist of “external” marks but in different senses: that of the social institution for the archive, that of biological organization for the brain. There remains the third sort of inscription, the most problematic but the most significant for what follows in our investigation; it consists in the passive persistence of first impressions: an event has struck us, touched us, affected us, and the affective mark remains in our mind.

It is astonishing that this thesis has to be at the level of a presupposition. We shall say why this is so in a moment. But let us first set out the multiple presuppositions implied here. For one thing, and this is the major presupposition, I contend that it is a primordial attribute of affections to survive, to persist, to remain, to endure, while keeping the mark of absence and of distance, the principle of which was sought in vain on the level of cortical traces. In this sense, these inscription-affections would contain the secret of the enigma of the mnemonic trace: they would be the depository of the most hidden but most original meaning of the verb “to remain,” synonym of “to endure.” This first presupposition places the entire analysis that follows within the compass of Bergson’s Matter and Memory.12

For another thing, this meaning would ordinarily be concealed from us by the obstacles to recollection which we will attempt to inventory in the third section of this chapter. In this regard certain privileged experiences—we shall discuss their central figure in a moment—constitute, despite these obstacles, the beginning of an existentiell verification of this second presupposition.

Third presupposition: there is no contradiction between the assertion concerning the capacity of the inscriptions-affections to remain and to endure and the knowledge of cortical traces; access to these two sorts of traces stems from heterogeneous modes of thought: existentiell on the one hand, objective on the other.

Fourth presupposition: the survival of images, recognized in its specificity by virtue of the last two presuppositions, deserves to be considered a fundamental form of profound forgetting, which I am calling the reserve of forgetting.

The first presupposition will be the object of our main discussion. The second will be examined in the third section of this chapter. The fourth will appear in the conclusion of the present section.

The third presupposition can be discussed now since it directly places in question the difference between the two types of traces confronted here, the cortical trace and the psychical trace. We must forcefully affirm that nothing is retracted regarding the best-established teachings of the neurosciences by this exploration of the affective trace: more or less serious deficits continue to threaten our memory and result in the fact that forgetting due to the effacement of cortical traces remains the common figure of this insidious danger; besides, the cortical basis of our corporeal existence continues to constitute the cause sine qua non of our mental activity in the silence of our organs; finally, the correlation between organization and function also continually sustains, without our knowledge, the constant hum of our corporeal condition. It is therefore not in opposition to this basic structure that the working hypothesis we are proposing here presents its forms of proof. There are two heterogeneous types of knowledge with regard to forgetting: an external knowledge and an intimate knowledge. Each possesses its reasons for confidence and its motives for suspicion. On the one hand, I trust the corporeal machine in the exercise of happy memory; but I am suspicious of its poorly mastered resources for harm, worry, and suffering. On the other hand, I trust the primordial capacity of enduring and continuing belonging to inscriptions-affections, a capacity but for which I would have no access to the partial comprehension of what is meant by the presence of absence, anteriority, distance, and temporal depth; but I am also suspicious of the impediments imposed to the work of memory, which become in their turn the opportunity for uses and abuses of forgetting. It is in this way that we manage to contend with potentially reversible obstacles and with intractable effacement. This confusion is no less harmful on the epistemological level than on the existentiell plane. To the hesitation between the threat of definitive forgetting and forbidden memory is added the theoretical incapacity to recognize the specificity of the psychical trace and the irreducibility of the problems tied to the impression-affection. This state of confusion, as much epistemological as existentiell, forces us to return to the first presupposition which the following two only reinforce.

Which experiences can be held to confirm the hypothesis of the survival of impression-affections beyond their emergence? The experience princeps in this regard is recognition, that minor miracle of happy memory. An image comes back to me; and I say in my heart: that’s really him, that’s really her. I recognize him, I recognize her. This recognition can take different forms. It takes place already in the course of perception: a being was presented once; it went away; it came back. Appearing, disappearing, reappearing. In this case the recognition adjusts—fits—the reappearing to the appearing across the disappearing. This small happiness of perception has provided the occasion for many classical descriptions. One thinks of Plato discussing the disappointments of mistaken and the opportunities of successful recognition in the Theaetetus and the Philebus. One thinks of the vicissitudes of recognition, of the anagnōrisis, in Greek tragedy: Oedipus recognizes in his own person the evil initiator of the misfortunes besetting the city. One thinks of Kant reconstructing the objectivity of the phenomenon on the basis of the threefold subjective synthesis, recognition (Rekognition) crowning simple apprehension in intuition and the reproduction of representations in the imagination. One also thinks of Husserl equating perception of the spatial object with the sum of its profiles or sketches. Kantian recognition, in its turn, will have a conceptual descendent in Anerkennung, Hegelian recognition, the ethical act in which the problematic of intersubjectivity culminates, at the intersection of the subjective spirit and the objective spirit. In many different ways, cognizing is recognizing. Recognition can thus draw support from a material basis, from a figured presentation such as a portrait or photograph, the representation inducing an identification with the thing depicted in its absence: this entanglement was the subject of Husserl’s interminable analyses relating PhantasieBild, and Erinnerung.

Finally, there is properly mnemonic recognition, ordinarily called recollection, outside of the context of perception and without any necessary support in representation. It consists in the exact superimposition of the image present to the mind and the psychical trace, also called an image, left by the initial impression. It realizes the “fit” mentioned by the Theaetetus between the placement of the foot and the prior imprint. This multifaceted minor miracle proposes a solution in the form of action to the first enigma constituted by the present representation of a past thing. In this respect, recognition is the mnemonic act par excellence. Without this actual resolution the enigma would remain an aporia pure and simple. Upon this converge the presumptions of reliability or unreliability directed to memories. Perhaps we have placed a foot in the wrong imprint or grabbed the wrong ring dove in the coop. Perhaps we were the victims of a false recognition, as when from afar we take a tree to be a person we know. And yet, who, by casting suspicions from outside, could shake the certainty attached to the pleasure of the sort of recognition we know in our hearts to be indubitable? Who could claim never to have trusted memory’s finds in this way? Do not outstanding events like this, the founding events of a solitary existence or of one shared with others, reveal this prime trust? And do we not continue to measure our mistakes and our disappointments against the signals coming from an unshakable recognition?

The enigma of the presence of absence is resolved, we have just said, in the effective reality of the mnemonic act and in the certainty that crowns this reality. But is it not rendered more impenetrable on the speculative plane? Let us return to the conclusion of our first presupposition: the impression-affection, we judged, remains. And because it remains it makes recognition possible. But how did we know this? The speculative enigma persists at the very heart of its effective resolution. The presupposition is, in fact, entirely retrospective. It is pronounced after-the-fact. Perhaps this is even the model for what is after-the-fact. In the narrative that follows it is pronounced only in the future perfect: it will have been true that I recognized this beloved being as having remained the same despite a long absence, a definitive absence. “So late did I recognize you, O Truth!” Augustine painfully cries. So late did I recognize you, is the emblematic admission of all recognition. On the basis of the retrospective presupposition, I construct an argument: something of the original impression has to have remained for me to remember it now. If a memory returns, this is because I had lost it; but if, despite everything, I recover it and recognize it, this is because its image had survived.

This is, in a nutshell, Bergson’s argument in Matter and Memory. In my eyes, Bergson remains the philosopher who has best understood the close connection between what he calls “the survival of images” and the key phenomenon of recognition. To verify this, let us stop and look at chapters 2 and 3 of Matter and Memory, which form the psychological heart of the entire work. Chapter 2 is titled, “Of the Recognition of Images: Memory and Brain.” And chapter 3, “On the Survival of Images: Memory and Mind.”

To understand the centrality of these two chapters, let us go back in our investigation to the point where we first encountered, separately, the problematic of recognition and that of the survival of images. We first came across the question of recognition in the framework of our phenomenology of memory on the occasion of the distinction between two memories: habit-memory, which is simply acted out and lacks explicit recognition, and recollection-memory, which is not without declared recognition. But at this stage it remained one polarity among others. As concerns the question of survival, we first came upon it, already with Bergson, in connection with the distinction between memories and images; we then postulated the existence of a “pure” memory as a virtual state of the representation of the past, prior to its becoming an image in the mixed form of memory-image. At that time, it was the “realization of memory” that was retained, without clarifying the postulation of the “pure” memory, as though its quotation marks protected it from our curiosity. We left the “pure” memory virtual. It is at this critical point that we must take up our reading again, pushing it to the point of assigning to this “pure” memory unconsciousness and an existence comparable to that we attribute to external things when we do not perceive them, besides virtuality. These audacious equivalences will later authorize us, in turn, to elevate this status of the survival of images to a second paradigm of forgetting, in competition with the paradigm of the effacement of traces (our fourth presupposition).

In order to understand this conceptual chain, we must move back further in Matter and Memory to the inaugural thesis of the whole work, namely, that the body is solely an organ of action and not of representation and that the brain is the organizing center of this acting system. This thesis excludes from the start a search to determine the reason for the conservation of memories on the side of the brain. The idea that the brain remembers having received an impression is held to be incomprehensible in itself. This does not prevent the brain from having a role to play in memory. But this role is of a different order than representation. As an organ of action it exercises its effects on the trajectory from the “pure” memory to the image, hence on the trajectory of recollection. Bergson’s discussion with the neurosciences of his time consists entirely in assigning the field of action, that is to say, in assigning physical movement, to the brain. It is because one cannot expect the brain to hold the solution to the conservation of the past in terms of representation that one must turn in another direction and assign to the impression the power of surviving, of remaining, of enduring, and make this power not an explicandum—as in the neural thesis—but a self-sufficient principle of explanation. In Bergson, the dichotomy between action and representation is the ultimate reason for the dichotomy between the brain and memory. This double dichotomy corresponds to the method of division applied rigorously throughout the work, consisting in moving to extreme cases before reconstructing the mixed categories, the ambiguous and disordered phenomena of everyday experience, whose comprehension is deferred. Recognition is the model of these reconstructed mixtures, and the entanglement of the two memories is the example of the mixed that is easiest to take apart and to put back together. Without this key, our reading was unable to discern in the famous distinction between the “two forms of memory” (Matter and Memory, 79ff.) two modes of recognition, the first resulting from action, the second from an effort of the mind “which seeks in the past, in order to apply them to the present, those representations best able to enter into the present situation” (78).

A question is thereby posed, that of determining “how these representations are preserved, and what are their relations with the motor mechanisms. We shall go into this subject thoroughly in our next chapter, after we have considered the unconscious and shown where the fundamental distinction lies between the past and the present” (78). It is worth noting that this difficulty can only be posed on the basis of the phenomenon of recognition in which it is resolved through action. Meanwhile, psychology is in a position to declare “that the past indeed appears to be stored up, as we had surmised, under two extreme forms: on the one hand, motor mechanisms which make use of it; on the other, personal memory-images which picture all the past events with their outline, their color, and their place in time” (88). It can thus be noted that these two extreme forms, “faithful in preserving”—“memory which recalls” and “memory which repeats” (88)—operate sometimes in synergy, sometimes in opposition. We have nevertheless been warned about the privilege accorded by common sense to the mixed phenomena, and priority has been given, by reason of the rule of division,13 to the extreme forms, putting out of play “the strange hypothesis of recollections stored in the brain, which are supposed to become conscious as though by a miracle and bring us back to the past by a process that is left unexplained” (89). Here again, I encounter my argument that the material trace is completely present and must be supplied with a semiotic dimension in order to indicate that it has to do with the past. In Bergson’s vocabulary, the cortical trace has to be placed back at the center of this totality of images that we call the world (this is the theme of the enigmatic and difficult chapter 1) and treated as “one among these images, the last is that which we obtain at any moment by making an instantaneous section in the general stream of becoming. In this section our body occupies the center” (77).14

At this stage of the analysis, a precise division of the two memories is all that prepares the path for the thesis of the independence of representation-memory. Nothing has yet been said about the conditions of this independence. At least it can be affirmed that “the concrete act by which we grasp the past in the present is recognition” (90). It will be the task of chapter 3 to take on the question left hanging: “how these representations are preserved, and what are their relations with the motor mechanisms?” (78).

Let us open chapter 3: in forty-some extremely dense pages (133–77), Bergson provides the key to what he calls the “survival of images” (133).

We only scratched the surface of the analysis when we followed the phases of the operation by which the “pure” memory moves out of its virtual state and passes into its actual state; at that time, all that retained our attention was the memory’s becoming-an-image. The question posed now is more radical: despite its tendency to imitate perception as it realizes itself, Bergson notes, our memory “remains attached to the past by its deepest roots, and if, when once realized, it did not retain something of its original virtuality, if, being a present state, it were not also something which stands out distinct from the present, we should never know it for a memory” (134). Everything is stated in a tone of great elegance: standing out distinct from the present, knowing it for a memory. This is the enigma, reaffirmed in its entirety, of the present of absence and of distance, as it has been stated from the start of the present work!15

The survival of images is a radical solution to this enigma. It consists in a chain of propositions derived by implication from the phenomenon of recognition. Recognizing a memory is finding it again. And finding it again is assuming that it is in principle available, if not accessible. Available, as though awaiting recall, but not ready-to-hand like the birds in Plato’s dovecote which one possesses but does not hold. The experience of recognition, therefore, refers back to the memory of the first impression in a latent state, the image of which must have been constituted at the same time as the original affection. An important corollary to the thesis of the survival of images of the past in a state of latency is, in fact, that any given present is, from the moment of its appearance, its own past. For how could it become past if it were not constituted at the same time it was present? As Gilles Deleuze notes: “There is here, as it were, a fundamental position of time, and also the most profound paradox of memory: The past is ‘contemporaneous’ with the present that it has been. If the past had to wait in order to be no longer, if it was not immediately and now that it had passed, ‘past in general,’ it could never become what it is, it would never be that past. . . . The past would never be constituted, if it did not coexist with the present whose past it is” (Bergsonism, 58–59). Deleuze adds: “Not only does the past coexist with the present that has been, but . . . it is the whole, integral past; it is all our past, which coexists with each present. The famous metaphor of the cone represents this complete state of coexistence” (59).

The idea of latency, in its turn, calls for the idea of the unconscious, if we term consciousness the disposition to act, the attention to life, by which the relation of our body to action is expressed. Let us stress with Bergson: “Our present is the very materiality of our existence, that is to say, a system of sensations and movements and nothing else” (Matter and Memory, 139). As a consequence of this, “by hypothesis” (140) the past is “that which does not act” (141). It is at this crucial moment of his argument that Bergson declares: “This radical powerlessness of pure memory is just what will enable us to understand how it is preserved in a latent state” (141). The word “unconscious” can then be pronounced in connection with “powerlessness.” The chain of implications is completed with the addition of a final term: we are free to accord the same sort of existence to memories that have not yet been brought to the light of consciousness through recollection as the existence we grant to the things around us when we are not perceiving them.16 It is this sense of the verb “to exist” which is implied in the thesis of latency and of the lack of consciousness of memories of the past that are conserved: “But here we come to the capital problem of existence, a problem that we can only glance at, for otherwise it would lead us step by step into the heart of metaphysics” (146–47). This thesis remains at the level of presupposition and retrospection. We do not perceive this survival, we presuppose it and we believe it.17 Recognition authorizes us to believe it: what we have once seen, heard, experienced, or learned is not definitively lost, but survives since we can recall it and recognize it. It survives. But where? This is the tricky question. An inevitable question perhaps inasmuch as it is difficult not to designate the psychical place as a container “whence,” as one says, the memory returns. Does not Bergson himself say that one searches for the memory where it is, in the past? But his entire effort consists in replacing the question “where?” by the question “how?”: “I shall then only restore to it its character of memory by carrying myself back to the process by which I called it up, as it was virtual, from the depths of my past” (139). This is perhaps the profound truth of Greek anamnēsis: seeking is hoping to find. And finding is recognizing what one once—previously—learned. The powerful images of “places” in Augustine’s Confessions, comparing memory to “vast palaces” and to “storehouses” in which memories are stocked, literally enchant us. And the ancient association of eikōn to tupos is insidiously restored. To resist its seduction, the conceptual chain must be continually confirmed: survival equals latency equals powerlessness equals unconsciousness equals existence. The tie linking the elements in the chain is the conviction that becoming, under the sign of memory, does not fundamentally signify passage but duration. A becoming that endures, this is the central intuition of Matter and Memory.

But restoring this conceptual chain and rising to this central intuition always involves a leap outside the circle traced around us by our attention to life. It requires carrying ourselves into the region of dreams beyond the realm of action: “A human being who should dream his life instead of living it would no doubt thus keep before his eyes at each moment the infinite multitude of the details of his past history” (155). Indeed, a leap is necessary to return to the source of “pure” memory, while another slope of the analysis would lead it in the descent from “pure” memory toward the image in which that memory is realized. The schema of the inverted cone (152) by means of which Bergson visualized, as it were, this process of realization for the reader (as Husserl did in his 1905 lectures) is well known. The base of the cone represents all the memories accumulated in memory. The summit opposite it represents the pinpoint contact with the plane of action, at the point of the acting body. This center is in its own manner a place of memory, but this quasi-instantaneous memory is nothing but habit-memory. It is a moving point, the point of the present that constantly passes, in opposition to “true memory” (151) represented by the vast base of the cone. This schema is meant to illustrate both the heterogeneity of different memories and the manner in which they mutually lend support to one another. The schema is enriched if one superimposes on it the representation of the preceding chapter in which the mass of memories was illustrated by concentric circles that spread indefinitely, following their increasing degree of depth, or was focused on a precise memory, “according to the degree of tension which our mind adopts and the height at which it takes its stand” (105–6). The nonnumerical multiplicity of memories lends itself, in this way, to incorporation into the simplified schema of the cone. It is important that we not overlook this schema, especially as it marks the culmination of the Bergsonian method of division: the relation of the past to the present (152ff.), which the schema illustrates, designates in fine the reconstruction of a hybrid, mixed experience: “Practically, we perceive only the past, the pure present being the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future” (150). All the subtleness of the Bergsonian method is at play here: the reflexive movement of returning isolates the “pure” memory in the moment of dreamy thinking. One could speak here of meditating memory, in one of the senses of the German Gedächtnis, as distinct from Erinnerung and related to Denken and Andenken. There is, in fact, more than just dreams at issue in the evocation of the latency of what remains of the past: something like speculation (Bergson sometimes speaks of “any entirely contemplative memory,” 296), in the sense of thinking at the limit, thinking that speculates on the inevitable quotation marks framing the term “pure” memory. This speculation indeed moves counter to the effort to recollect. In truth, it does not progress, it regresses, recedes, moves back. But it is nevertheless in the very movement of recollection, and so in the movement of the “pure memory” in the direction of the memory-image, that reflection strives to undo what recognition has done, namely, to grasp the past again in the present, absence in presence. Bergson admirably describes this operation. Speaking of the passage of memory from the virtual state to the actual state, he observes: “But our recollection still remains virtual; we simply prepare ourselves to receive it by adopting the appropriate attitude. Little by little it comes into view like a condensing cloud; from the virtual state it passes into the actual; and its outlines become more distinct and its surfaces take on color, it tends to imitate perception. But it remains attached to the past by its deepest roots, and if, when once realized, it did not retain something of its original virtuality, if, being a present state, it were not also something which stands out distinct from the present, we should never know it for a memory” (134). Recognizing a memory “for a memory” sums up the entire enigma. To bring it to light one must dream, to be sure, but one must also think. Then we begin to speculate on the significance of the metaphor of depth, and on the meaning of virtual state.18

A few critical remarks are necessary before we consider the fourth and final presupposition of the second voyage to the land of oblivion, namely, the right to consider the “survival of images” as a figure of forgetting, worthy of being opposed to forgetting through the effacement of traces.

My remarks bear on two points: first, is it legitimate to isolate the thesis that Bergson himself terms psychological from the metaphysical thesis which gives Matter and Memory its complete title? In fact, the two central chapters that we have taken as our guides are framed by an introductory and a concluding chapter which together sketch out the metaphysical envelope of the psychology. The book opens with a metaphysical thesis: it claims that the whole of reality is a world of “images” in a sense of the word that goes beyond any psychology. It involves nothing less than tackling the opposition between realism and idealism in the theory of knowledge. These images, which are no longer images of anything, are, Bergson says, a little less substantive than what realism holds to be independent of all consciousness and a little more substantive than what idealism, at least that of Berkeley—already attacked by Kant under the title of “The Refutation of Idealism” in the Critique of Pure Reason—holds to be merely the evanescent content of perception. Next the body and the brain are considered to be types of practical intervention, as it were, in this neutral universe of images; as such, they are at once images and the practical center of this world of images. The dismantling of what we call matter is already underway, inasmuch as materialism constitutes the height of realism. But chapter 1 goes no further. And one must then wait until the end of chapter 4 before formulating the complete metaphysical thesis, which, in Frédéric Worms’s words, consists in nothing less than “a metaphysics of matter based upon duration.”19 And it is on the basis of a metaphysics of this sort that a rereading of the classical problem of the union of soul and body (as Bergson prefers to put it in Matter and Memory, 180) is possible, a rereading that consists in part in eliminating a false problem and in part in developing a dualism outside the categories of the historical figures of dualism. In this way, phases of monism alternate with phases of dualism according to the type of multiplicities to be divided and of mixed natures to be reconstructed. One is thus surprised to discover that the opposition between duration and matter is not definitive, if it is true that one can form the idea of a multiplicity of more or less extended rhythms of duration. This differentiated monism of durations has nothing in common with any of the dualisms developed since the period of the Cartesians and post-Cartesians.20

This is not, however, the final word of this work. The last pages of Matter and Memory are devoted to the formulation of three classical oppositions: extended/unextended, quality/quantity, liberty/necessity. Matter and Memory, then, has to be read from the first to the last chapter, and to its final pages. I admit as much.

It remains that the psychology founded on the pair recognition/survival is not only perfectly well defined in the course of the work, but can be considered to be the key to the metaphysics that circumscribes it. Everything begins in fact with the thesis that “our body is an instrument of action, and of action only” (225). This is how the pages titled “Summary and Conclusion” (225–49) begin. The opposition between action and representation, in this sense, constitutes an initial thesis which is explicitly psychological and only implicitly metaphysical by virtue of its consequences for the idea of matter. From this, one passes to the thesis of the self-survival of images of the past, through the intermediary of a corollary to the first thesis, namely, that consciousness of the present consists essentially in the attention to life. This is simply the reverse side of the thesis that a “pure” memory is marked by powerlessness and unconsciousness and, in this sense, exists by itself. A psychological antithesis thus presides over the entire undertaking, and the two terms that provide the title for the two central chapters—the recognition of images and the survival of images—are based upon this antithesis.

It is with respect to this psychology that I attempt to situate myself, abstracting from the generalized theory of images of chapter 1 and from the hyperbolic use that is made of the notion of duration at the end of chapter 4 in the name of a hierarchy of the rhythms of tension and contraction of duration. For my part—and this will be the second series of my remarks—I try to reinterpret the opposition princeps between the brain as the instrument of action and self-sufficient representation in terms compatible with the distinction I make between mnestic traces, the material substratum, and psychical traces, the pre-representative dimension of living experience. To say that the brain is the instrument of action and of action only is, to my mind, to characterize the neural approach as a whole, an approach that provides access solely to the observation of phenomena that are actions in the purely objective sense of this term. The neurosciences indeed are cognizant only of the correlation of organizations and functions, hence of physical actions, and the traces resulting from these structures are not designated as traces in the semiological sense of sign-effects of their cause. This transposition of Bergson’s inaugural thesis concerning the brain as the simple instrument of action does not keep us from restoring to action, in the lived sense of the word, its share in the structuring of lived experience, paired with and not in antithesis to representation. This restitution, however, encounters definite resistance on the part of Bergson. According to him, action is much more than physical movement, that instantaneous sectioning of the world’s process of becoming—it is an attitude of life; it is consciousness itself as acting. And it takes a leap to break out of the magical circle of the attention to life in order to surrender oneself to recollection in a sort of dream-like state. In this respect, literature more than everyday experience is on the side of Bergson: the literature of melancholy, of nostalgia, of spleen, to say nothing of The Remembrance of Things Past, which, more than any other work, stands as the literary monument in symmetry with Matter and Memory. But can action and representation be so radically disassociated? The general tendency of the present work is to consider the pair formed by action and representation to be the twofold matrix of the social bond and of the identities that are established by this bond. Is this difference of opinion the sign of a break with Bergson? I do not believe so. Instead we must return to the Bergsonian method of division which invites us to consider the opposite extremes of a spectrum of phenomena before reconstructing the everyday experience whose complexity and disorder hinder clear description as a mixture. I can thus say that I rejoin Bergson along the path of this reconstruction: in fact, the experience princeps of recognition, which is paired with that of the survival of images, presents itself as just such a lived experience along the path of the recollection of memories. It is in this lived experience that the synergy between action and representation is confirmed. The moment of “pure” memory, encountered through a leap outside of the practical sphere, was only virtual, and the moment of actual recognition marks the reinsertion of memories within the thickness of lived action. Granted that at the moment of the leap, the recollection does “stand out distinct” from the present, to borrow Bergson’s felicitous expression, this movement of retreat, of hesitation, of questioning is part of the concrete dialectic of representation and action. The participants in Plato’s Philebus never tire asking: What is it? Is it a man or a tree? The place accorded to mistakes is indicated by this epoché, this suspension, which is lifted by the declarative statement: It’s really him! It’s really her!

From these remarks it results that recognition can be placed on a different scale than the degrees of proximity relating representation to practice. Representation can also be approached in terms of modes of “presentation” in the Husserlian manner, and to perceptive presentation can be opposed the table of re-presentations, or better yet, presentifications, as in the Husserlian triad of PhantasieBildErinnerung; an alternative conception of representation is thereby offered to reflection.

If these critical remarks lead us away from a certain indiscriminate use of the concept of action, applied to the brain considered a scientific object as well as to the practice of life, they reinforce, in my opinion, the major thesis of the self-survival of the images of the past. This thesis has no need of the opposition between lived action and representation to be comprehensible. This double affirmation suffices: first, that a cortical trace does not survive in the sense of knowing itself as the trace of . . .—of the expired, past event; next, that, if lived experience were not itself from the start self-surviving, and in this sense a psychical trace, it could never become so. All of Matter and Memory can then be summed up as follows in the vocabulary of inscription, which inheres in the polysemy of the notion of the trace: inscription, in the psychical sense of the term, is nothing other than the self-survival of the mnestic image contemporaneous with the original experience.

The moment has come, at the end of our exploration, to consider the last of the presuppositions upon which the present investigation is constructed, namely, that the self-survival of impressions-affections deserves to be considered one of the figures of fundamental forgetting, occupying the same rank as forgetting through the effacement of traces. This, Bergson does not state. It even seems that he never thought of forgetting except in terms of effacement. The final sentence of his third chapter makes explicit reference to a form of forgetting like this. It comes at the end of an argument in which the method of division leads back to the level of mixed phenomena: the brain is then placed back in the position of “an intermediary between sensation and movement” (177). And Bergson notes: “In this sense, the brain contributes to the recall of the useful recollection, but still more to the provisional banishment of all the others.” Then falls the judgment: “We cannot see how memory could settle within matter; but we do clearly understand—according to the profound saying of a contemporary philosopher (Ravisson)—materiality begets oblivion” (177). This is the final word of the great chapter on survival.

On what basis, then, would the survival of memories be equivalent to forgetting?

Precisely in the name of the powerlessness, of the unconsciousness, of the existence recognized as belonging to memories as “virtual.” It is then no longer oblivion that materiality begets, forgetting by the effacement of traces, but forgetting in terms of a reserve or a resource. Forgetting then designates the unperceived character of the perseverance of memories, their removal from the vigilance of consciousness.

What arguments can be mustered in support of this presupposition?

First comes the equivocalness that is worth preserving on the level of our global attitude toward forgetting. On one hand, we have the daily experience of the erosion of memory, and we link this experience to aging, to the approach of death. This erosion contributes to what I once called “the sorrow of finitude.”21 It is defined by the horizon of the definitive loss of memory, the announced death of memories. On the other hand, we are familiar with the small pleasures of the sometimes unexpected return of memories we had thought lost forever. We then have to say, as we did once above, that we forget less than we think or we fear.

A range of experiences then come to mind that give the dimension of a permanent existentiell structure to the still point-like episodes of recognition. These experiences mark out the progressive widening of the field of the “virtual.” To be sure, the core of profound memory consists in a mass of marks designating what in one way or another we have seen, heard, felt, learned, acquired. These are the birds in the dovecote of the Theaetetus which I “possess” but do not “hold.” Around this core are assembled the customary manners of thinking, acting, feeling; habits in sum, habitus in the sense of Aristotle, Panofsky, Elias, and Bourdieu. In this respect, the Bergsonian distinction between habit-memory and event-memory, which holds at the moment of the realization of a memory, no longer holds on the deep level of storing in reserve. Iteration, repetition dulls the edges of the punctual mnemonic marks and produces the broad dispositions to action that Ravisson celebrated in earlier days under the rich term “habit.” Deep memory and habit-memory then coincide with one another in the encompassing figure of availability (disponibilité). The capable human being draws from this thesaurus and relies on the security, the assurance that it provides. Next come general forms of knowledge, such as rules of calculation or grammar, familiar or foreign lexicons, rules of games, and so on. The theorems discovered by the young slave of the Meno are of this sort. Alongside these general forms of knowledge come a priori structures of knowledge—the transcendental, let us say—everything about which, in company with the Leibniz of the New Essays on Human Understanding, we can say that everything that is in the understanding has first been in the senses, except human understanding itself. To this should be added the meta-structures of speculation and of first philosophy (the one and the many, the same and the other, being, substance, energeia). Finally, there would come what I have ventured to call the immemorial: that which was never an event for me and which we have never even actually learned, and which is less formal than ontological. At the very bottom, we would have the forgetting of foundations, of their original provisions, life force, creative force of history, Ursprung, “origin,” irreducible to the beginning, an origin always already there, like the Creation Franz Rosenzweig speaks of in The Star of Redemption, which he calls the perpetual ground, the Donation that provides absolutely for the giver to give, for the recipient to receive, for the gift to be given, according to Jean-Luc Marion in Reduction and Givenness and in Being Given.22 We leave behind all narrative linearities; or, if we can still speak of narration, this would be a narrative that has broken with chronology. In this sense, every origin, taken in its originating power, reveals itself to be irreducible to a dated beginning and, as such, participates in the same status of fundamental forgetting. It is important that we enter into the sphere of forgetting under the sign of a primordial equivocalness. This will never leave us as we proceed to the very end of this work, as though, coming from the depths of oblivion, the double valence of destruction and perseverance continued up to the superficial levels of forgetting.

With these two figures of deep, primordial forgetting, we reach a mythical ground of philosophizing: that by reason of which forgetting is Lethe. But it also provides the resource to memory to combat forgetting: Platonic reminiscence has to do with these two figures of forgetting. It proceeds from the second form of forgetting, which birth could not erase and which nourishes recollection, reminiscence: it is thus possible to learn what in a certain fashion we have never ceased to know. In opposition to destructive forgetting, the forgetting that preserves. In this perhaps lies the explanation for a little noted paradox in Heidegger’s text, namely, that it is forgetting that makes memory possible.23 “Just as expectation is possible only on the basis of awaiting, remembering [Erinnerung] is possible only on the basis of forgetting, and not the other way around. In the mode of forgottenness, having-been primarily ‘discloses’ the horizon in which Da-sein, lost in the ‘superficiality’ of what is taken care of, can remember” (312). Some light is shed on this apparent paradox if we take into account an important terminological decision, mentioned in the preceding chapter. While Heidegger uses an everyday vocabulary to designate the future and the present, he breaks with the custom of naming the past Vergangenheit, deciding to designate it instead by means of the compound past tense of the verb to be: gewesenGewesenheit (having-been). This choice is crucial and decides an ambiguity, or rather a grammatical duplicity: we do indeed say of the past that it is no longer but that it has been. Under the first form, we indicate its disappearance, its absence. But absence to what? To our claim to act on it, to hold it “at hand” (zuhanden). Under the second form, we underscore the complete anteriority of the past with respect to every event that is dated, remembered, or forgotten. An anteriority that is not confined to removing it from our grasp, as is the case of the past as expired (Vergangenheit), but an anteriority that preserves. No one can make it the case that what is no longer has not been. The forgetting which, according to Heidegger, conditions remembering is related to the past as having-been. We comprehend the apparent paradox if, by forgetting, we understand an immemorial resource and not an inexorable destruction. To confirm this reading hypothesis, one can go back a few lines, to the passage in which Heidegger relates forgetting to repetition (Wiederholung) in the sense of return, “retrieve,” consisting in taking over “resolutely the being that it already is” (311). A pairing is thus made between “anticipating” and “returning,” like the pairing of horizon of expectation and space of experience in Koselleck, but on the level that Heidegger considers to be derivative with respect to historical consciousness. The chain of related expressions is organized around the “already,” the temporal mark common to throwness, to being-in-debt, to falling-prey-to: having-been, forgetting, ownmost potentiality, repetition, retrieve. In summary, forgetting has a positive meaning insofar as having-been prevails over being-no-longer in the meaning attached to the idea of the past. Having-been makes forgetting the immemorial resource offered to the work of remembering.

Finally, the primary equivocalness of destructive forgetting and of founding forgetting remains fundamentally undecidable. In human experience, there is no superior point of view from which one could apprehend the common source of destroying and constructing. In this great dramaturgy of being, there is, for us, no final assessment.


We now turn our attention to the second dimension of memory, the reminiscence of the ancients, the recollection or recall of the moderns: what modalities of forgetting are revealed by the conjoined practice of memory and forgetfulness? We now shift our gaze from the deepest layers of existence, where forgetting silently pursues at one and the same time its work of eroding and its work of maintaining, toward the levels of vigilance where the ruses of the attention to daily life are deployed.

This level of manifestation is also the place where the figures of forgetting are scattered, defying typology, as is evident in the quasi-innumerable variety of verbal expressions, the sayings of folk wisdom, proverbs and maxims, but also the literary embellishments whose analytical history is presented by Harald Weinrich. The reasons for this surprising proliferation are to be sought in several places. On the one hand, remarks about forgetting in large part represent the reverse side of expressions about memory; remembering is in large measure not forgetting. On the other hand, individual manifestations of forgetting are inextricably mixed with its collective forms, to the point that the most troubling experiences of forgetting, such as obsession, display their most malevolent effects only on the scale of collective memories. It is also on this scale that the problematic of forgiving intervenes, a problematic we shall set aside for as long as possible.

In order to orient ourselves in this maze, I propose a simple reading grid containing once again a vertical axis of degrees of manifestation and a horizontal axis of modes of activity or passivity. Pierre Buser’s comments on the conscious and the infraconscious on the level of mnemonic phenomena pave the way for the first rule of organization; to this we will add the vast contributions of psychoanalysis which will be made apparent directly below. As concerns the modes of passivity and activity that are spread out horizontally, the entire phenomenology of recollection has prepared us to take this into account: the effort of recollection possesses different degrees on a scale of arduousness, as the Medieval scholars would have said. Is this not the final word of Spinoza’s Ethics: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare”? By joining together in this way two rules of classification, from the deepest to the most manifest, from the most passive to the most active, we thereby link up with the typology of the uses and abuses of memory, without an excessive concern with their symmetry: blocked memory, manipulated memory, obligated memory. This, however, will not represent a simple duplication, insofar as the complex phenomena integrated here could not have been anticipated on the level of the phenomenology of memory, phenomena involving not only collective memory but the complicated play between history and memory, without mentioning the intersections between the problematic of forgetting and that of forgiving which will be treated directly in the epilogue.

Forgetting and Blocked Memory

One of the reasons for believing that forgetting through the effacement of cortical traces does not exhaust the problem of forgetting is that many instances of forgetting are due to impediments blocking access to the treasures buried in memory. The often unexpected recognition of an image of the past has thus constituted up to the present the experience princeps of the return of a forgotten past. For didactic reasons related to the distinction between memory and reminiscence, we confined this experience to the trait of suddenness, abstracting from the work of recollection that may have preceded it. Now it is on the path of recollection that obstacles to the image’s return are encountered. From the instantaneousness of the image’s return and its grasp, we move back to the gradualness of the search and the hunt.

At this stage of our inquiry, we systematically collect, for the second time, the teachings of psychoanalysis most helpful in breaching the impasse of the analytical colloquy. After rereading the two texts examined in light of the theme of blocked memory, we will widen this opening in the direction of phenomena more specifically assignable to the problematic of forgetting and especially significant on the plane of a collective memory steeped in history.

The blocked memory discussed in “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through” and in “Mourning and Melancholia” is a forgetful memory. We recall Freud’s remark at the start of the first text: the patient repeats instead of remembering. “Instead of”: repetition amounts to forgetting. And forgetting is itself termed a work to the extent that it is the work of the compulsion to repeat, which prevents the traumatic event from becoming conscious. Here, the first lesson of psychoanalysis is that the trauma remains even though it is inaccessible, unavailable. In its place arise phenomena of substitution, symptoms, which mask the return of the repressed under the various guises offered to the deciphering engaged in together by the analyst and the analysand. The second lesson is that, in particular circumstances, entire sections of the reputedly forgotten past can return. For the philosopher, psychoanalysis is therefore the most trustworthy ally in support of the thesis of the unforgettable. This was even one of Freud’s strongest convictions, that the past once experienced is indestructible. This conviction is inseparable from the thesis that the unconscious is zeitlos, timeless, when time is understood as the time of consciousness with its before and after, its successions, and coincidences. In this regard, there is a necessary connection between Bergson and Freud, the two advocates of the unforgettable. I see no incompatibility between their respective notions of the unconscious. Bergson’s unconscious covers the whole of the past, which present consciousness centered on action closes off behind it. Freud’s unconscious seems more limited, if one may say so, to the extent that it covers only the region of memories to which access is forbidden, censured by the bar of repression; in addition, the theory of repression, tied to the compulsion to repeat, appears to confine the discovery within the domain of the pathological. On the other hand, Freud corrects Bergson on an essential point, which at first sight seems to render Bergsonism inadmissible with respect to psychoanalysis. Whereas the Bergsonian unconscious is defined by its powerlessness, the Freudian unconscious, through its tie with instinctual drives, is characterized as energy, which encouraged the “economic” reading of this doctrine. Everything that Bergson appears to place on the side of the attention to life seems here to be related to the dynamism of unconscious libidinal drives. I do not think that one should stop with this apparently glaring discordance. On Bergson’s side, the final word has not yet been uttered with his equating of powerlessness, the unconscious, and existence. The pure memory is powerless only with respect to a consciousness that is preoccupied with practical utility. The powerlessness assigned to the mnemonic unconscious is such only by antiphrasis: it is sanctioned by the leap outside of the magic circle of short-term preoccupation and by the retreat into the domain of dreaming consciousness. What is more, the thesis of the revival of images of the past seemed to us to be compatible with a consideration of the pair action/representation, which leaves outside the field of living experience only the sort of action accessible to the objective gaze of the neurosciences, namely, the neural functioning without which we would not think at all. On the side of psychoanalysis, the break that characterizes the unconscious of repression from the unconscious of pure memory does not constitute an unbridgeable gap in relation to the Bergsonian unconscious. Is there not also a suspension of immediate concern required to access the analytical colloquy and its rule of “saying everything”? Is not the entry into psychoanalysis a manner of letting the dream express itself? But, more especially, what we have just called the second lesson of psychoanalysis, namely, the belief in the indestructibility of the experienced past, is accompanied by a third lesson, more apparent in the second essay mentioned in our chapter on blocked memory: the working-through in which the work of remembering consists does not occur without the work of mourning, through which we separate ourselves from the lost objects of love and hate. This integration of loss through the experience of remembering is of considerable significance for all of the metaphorical transpositions of the teachings of psychoanalysis outside of its sphere of operation. The danger here, and one which cannot be expressed in the same conceptual terms as the compulsion to repeat, at least in the first approximation, is the attraction of melancholia, whose ramifications we explored far outside the properly pathological sphere where it was described by Freud. In this way, the clinical tableau of what are termed transference neuroses is composed, through the figures of substitution expressing the symptoms and the forms of self-deprecation belonging to melancholia, the overpowering return of the repressed, and the hollow feeling of the lost self. It is no longer possible to think in terms of drives without also thinking in terms of lost objects.

Do the lessons of psychoanalysis that we have just recalled provide access to the abuses that are encountered as soon as we step outside of the analytical dialogue framed by professional competence and deontology and move away from the clinical setting? Yes, probably. It is a fact that psychoanalysis, for better or for worse, has produced a sort of vulgate that has raised it to the level of a cultural phenomenon, at once subversive and formative. It is also a fact that Freud was the first to take his discovery beyond the bounds of medical confidentiality, not only by publishing his theoretical investigations, but by multiplying his excursions outside of the sphere of pathology. In this regard, his Psychopathology of Everyday Life forms a precious reference point along the path leading from the analytical colloquy into the public arena of the world at large.

It is a fact that the Psychopathology of Everyday Life deals principally with forgetting, the sphere of activity so close to public space. And the harvest it yields is a rich one. First, by reconnecting the apparently broken threads of the present with a past one might have thought forever erased, the work enriches in its own way the plea of the Interpretation of Dreams on behalf of the indestructibility of the past. Next, by revealing the intentions rendered unconscious by the mechanisms of repression, it introduces intelligibility where one ordinarily invokes chance or reflex. Finally, along its path it sketches lines of transposition running from the private sphere to the public sphere.

The case of forgetting proper names, with which the work opens, provides a marvelous illustration of the first purpose. One seeks a name one knows, another pops up in its place. The analysis reveals a subtle substitution motivated by unconscious desires. The example of screen-memories, interposed between our infantile impressions and the narratives we confidently tell about them, adds to the mere substitution of names in forgetting the actual production of false memories which, unbeknown to us, lead us astray. Forgetting impressions and events we have experienced (that is to say, things we know or knew) and forgetting projects, amounting to omissions, to selective ignorance, reveals a sly side of the unconscious when it is placed on the defensive. The cases of forgetting plans—omitting doing something—reveals, in addition, the strategic resources of desire in its relations with others: conscience will draw its arsenal of excuses from it for its strategy of exoneration. Language contributes to this by its slips; body gestures, by mistakes, awkwardness, and other failed actions (the desk key that one uses in the wrong door). The same cleverness, coiled inside unconscious intentions, can be recognized in another aspect of everyday life, in the life of peoples: forgetting things, screen-memories, failed actions take on gigantic proportions on the scale of collective memory, which history alone, and more precisely the history of memory, is capable of bringing to light.

Forgetting and Manipulated Memory

Pursuing our exploration of the uses and abuses of forgetting beyond the psychopathological level of blocked memory, we encounter forms of forgetting that are at once further removed from the deep levels of forgetting, hence more manifest, but also more widely spread out between the poles of passivity and activity. This was the level of manipulated memory in our parallel study of the practices related to recollection. This was also the level on which the problematic of memory intersected with that of identity to the point of converging with it, as in Locke: everything that compounds the fragility of identity also proves to be an opportunity for the manipulation of memory, mainly through ideology. Why are the abuses of memory directly abuses of forgetting as well? At that time we stated that it was due to the mediating function of the narrative that the abuses of memory were made into abuses of forgetting. In fact, before the abuse, there was the use, that is the unavoidably selective nature of narrative. If one cannot recall everything, neither can one recount everything. The idea of an exhaustive narrative is a performatively impossible idea. The narrative necessarily contains a selective dimension. Here we touch upon the close relation between declarative memory, narrativity, testimony, and the figured representation of the historical past. As we remarked then, the ideologizing of memory is made possible by the resources of variation offered by the work of narrative configuration. The strategies of forgetting are directly grafted upon this work of configuration: one can always recount differently, by eliminating, by shifting the emphasis, by recasting the protagonists of the action in a different light along with the outlines of the action. For anyone who has crossed through all the layers of configuration and of narrative refiguration from the constitution of personal identity up to that of the identities of the communities that structure our ties of belonging, the prime danger, at the end of this path, lies in the handling of authorized, imposed, celebrated, commemorated history—of official history. The resource of narrative then becomes the trap, when higher powers take over this emplotment and impose a canonical narrative by means of intimidation or seduction, fear or flattery. A devious form of forgetting is at work here, resulting from stripping the social actors of their original power to recount their actions themselves. But this dispossession is not without a secret complicity, which makes forgetting a semi-passive, semi-active behavior, as is seen in forgetting by avoidance (fuite), the expression of bad faith and its strategy of evasion motivated by an obscure will not to inform oneself, not to investigate the harm done by the citizen’s environment, in short by a wanting-not-to-know. Western Europe and indeed all of Europe, after the dismal years of the middle of the twentieth century, has furnished the painful spectacle of this stubborn will. Too little memory, which we discussed elsewhere, can be classified as a passive forgetting, inasmuch as it can appear as a deficit in the work of memory. But, as a strategy of avoidance, of evasion, of flight, it is an ambiguous form of forgetting, active as much as passive. As active, this forgetting entails the same sort of responsibility as that imputed to acts of negligence, omission, imprudence, lack of foresight, in all of the situations of inaction, in which it appears after-the-fact to an enlightened and honest consciousness that one should have and could have known, or at least have tried to know, that one should have and could have intervened. In this way, as social agents remaster their capacity to give an account, one encounters once again along this path all of the obstacles related to the collapse of the forms of assistance that the memory of each person can find in the memory of others as they are capable of authorizing, of helping to give, an account in the most intelligible, acceptable, and responsible manner. But the responsibility of blindness falls on each one. Here the motto of the Enlightenment: sapere aude! move out of the state of tutelage! can be rewritten: dare to give an account yourself!

At this level of the manifestation of forgetting, halfway between the disturbances belonging to a psychopathology of everyday life and the disturbances ascribable to a sociology of ideology, historiography can attempt to give an operational efficacy to the categories borrowed from these two disciplines. The history of the present day provides a propitious framework in this regard for such a test, inasmuch as it situates itself on another frontier, on that border where the testimony of witnesses who are still living rubs up against writing, in which the documentary traces of the events considered are already being collected. As has already been stated once in anticipation, the period of the history of France that followed the violence of the period 1940–45—and in particular, the equivocal political situation of the Vichy regime—lends itself in an elective manner to a historicizing transposition of certain psychoanalytic concepts which themselves have slipped into the public domain, such as trauma, repression, return of the repressed, denial, and so forth. Henry Rousso24 has taken the epistemological—and at times, political—risk of constructing a reading grid for public and private behaviors, from 1940–44 to today, on the basis of the concept of obsession: the “obsession of the past.” This concept is related to that of repetition, which we have encountered along the way, in opposition, precisely, to the concept of working-through, of the work of memory. The author is thus able to consider his own contribution to the history of the “Vichy syndrome” as an act of citizenship, destined to help his contemporaries move on from the still unfinished exorcism to the work of memory, which, it must not be forgotten, is also a work of mourning.

The choice of the theme of the obsession of the past provides the opportunity to write along with the history of the Vichy regime “another history, . . . the history of the memory of Vichy, of Vichy’s remnants and fate after 1944” (Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome, 1). In this sense, the Vichy syndrome is an outgrowth of the history of memory discussed in the preceding chapter.25 The category of obsession belongs to this history of memory as the posterity of the event. Another advantage of this theme: it directly targets forgetting along with memory, through the bungled acts, the things left unsaid, the slips of the tongue, and especially the return of the repressed: “For study reveals that, even at the social level, memory is a structuring of forgetfulness” (4). Another reason for privileging this subject: it puts on stage the fractures produced by the controversy itself, and thus merits inclusion in the file of dissensus opened by Mark Osiel.26 Once the choice of the theme has been made, the justification of the use of the psychoanalytic “metaphor”27 of neurosis and obsession finds its heuristic fruitfulness in its hermeneutical efficacy. This efficacy is demonstrated principally on the level of the “chronological ordering” of the symptoms referring back to the syndromes. This ordering has, according to the author, brought to light a four-stage process (10). A phase of mourning between 1944 and 1955, in the sense of an affliction rather than the work of mourning properly speaking, which precisely did not take place—“unfinished mourning” the author notes (15–59). A phase marked by the sequels of civil war, from purges to amnesty. A phase of repression in the establishment of a dominant myth, that of resistance (le résistancialisme), in the orbits of the Communist party and the Gaullist party. A phase of the return of the repressed, when the mirror is shattered and the myth is exploded to bits (Rousso provides his best pages here with his reflections on the admirable film The Sorrow and the Pity, the Touvier affair receiving by ricochet an unexpected symbolic dimension). Finally, a phase of obsession in which it seems we are still, marked by the awakening of Jewish memory and the importance of reminiscences of the Occupation in internal political debate.

How does the “structuring of forgetfulness” operate in these different phases?

With regard to the first, the concept of screen memory operates on the scale of collective memory as it does on that of the psychology of everyday life, through the exaltation of the event of Liberation: “In retrospect, however, the hierarchy of representations, in which the positive or negative character of an event is allowed to color its historical importance, has supplanted the hierarchy of facts” (15); a screen memory permits the great liberator to say that “Vichy always was and is null and void” (17). Vichy will thus be bracketed, hiding in this way the specificity of the Nazi occupation. The return of victims from the universe of the concentration camps thus becomes the most hastily repressed event. Commemorations seal the incomplete memory and its lining of forgetfulness.

In the phase of repression, the “Gaullian exorcism” (71) almost succeeds in concealing, but cannot prevent, at the time of the Algerian war, what the historian subtly characterizes as “the old divisions resurfacing” (75)—playing and replaying the aftermath. Everything is there: heritage, nostalgia, phantasy (Maurras), and once again celebrations (the twentieth anniversary of the Liberation, Jean Moulin at the Panthéon).

The pages in the work titled “The Broken Mirror” (98ff.) are richest on the level of the play of representations: it describes the impact of the film The Sorrow and the Pity in terms of “Pitiless Sorrow” (100). The repressed past explodes onto the screen, crying out its “Remember this!” through the mouths of witnesses placed on stage, through the things they leave unsaid and their slips of tongue. A dimension had been forgotten: the French tradition of state anti-Semitism. The demystification of résistancialisme passes by way of a brutal confrontation of memories, one worthy of the dissensus discussed here in the wake of Mark Osiel. The exhortation to forget, joined to the presidential pardon accorded to the militia member Touvier, in the name of social peace, carries to the fore a question whose ramifications we will unfold at the appropriate moment, when memory, forgetting, and forgiveness intersect. Here, the historian allows the voice of the citizen to be heard: “How could Pompidou have hoped to draw a veil over internal dissension at a time when people’s consciences were being reawakened, when The Sorrow and the Pity was raising new questions, and when the debate was being revived? Was it really possible to ignore the concerns of former resistance fighters and deportees, whose greatest fear was that the past might be forgotten?” (125). The question is all the more urgent as “the proposed reconciliation failed to offer, as de Gaulle had been able to do, a satisfactory interpretation of history to go with it” (126). The result is that the pardon of amnesty has taken on the value of amnesia.

Under the title “Obsession”—characterizing a period, which is still our own and which gives the book its perspective—a phenomenon such as the rebirth of a Jewish memory provides a concrete content to the idea that, when we fix a gaze upon an aspect of the past—the Occupation—we blind ourselves to another—the extermination of the Jews. Obsession is selective, and the dominant narratives consecrate the obliteration of part of the field of vision; here again, the cinematic representation plays a role (as in Shoah and Nuit et Brouillard); here, too, the penal intersects with the narrative: the Barbie trial, before the Legay, Bousquet, and Papon affairs, projected to the front of the stage a misfortune and a responsibility which had failed to be apprehended in their distinct specificity because of the fascination with collaboration. Seeing one thing is not seeing another. Recounting one drama is forgetting another.

In all of this, the pathological structure, the ideological conjuncture, and the staging in the media have, on a regular basis, compounded their perverse effects, while the passivity of excuses has joined forces with the active ruses of omission, blindness, and negligence. The famous “banalization” of evil is in this regard simply a symptom-effect of this stubborn agglomeration. The historian of the present day, then, cannot escape the major question regarding the transmission of the past: Must one speak of it? How should one speak of it? The question is addressed to the citizen as much as to the historian; at least the latter, in the troubled waters of collective memory divided against itself, contributes the rigorousness of a distanced gaze. On one point, at any rate, his positivity can be unreservedly affirmed: in the factual refutation of negationism. Negationism does not stem from the pathology of forgetting, nor even from ideological manipulation, but from promoting false documents, against which history is well equipped since the time of Valla and his demolishing of the false documents of the Donation of Constantine. The limit facing the historian—just as for the film maker, the narrator, and the judge—lies elsewhere: in the untransmissible part of extreme experiences. However, as has been stressed on several occasions in the course of this work, to say untransmissible is not to say inexpressible.28

Commanded Forgetting: Amnesty

Do the abuses of memory placed under the heading of obligated, commanded memory find their parallel and complement in the abuses of forgetting? Yes, in the institutionalized forms of forgetting, which are a short step across the boundary from amnesia: this mainly concerns amnesty and, in a more marginal sense, pardoning, also called amnestying pardon. The boundary between forgetting and forgiving is crossed surreptitiously, to the extent that these two dispositions have to do with judicial proceedings and with handing down a sentence. The question of forgiving arises where there has been an indictment, a finding of guilt, and sentencing; the laws dealing with amnesty thus consider it as a sort of pardon. I will limit myself in this chapter to the discretionary institutional aspect of the measures involved and will leave for the epilogue the question of blurring the boundary with forgiveness that results from blurring the boundary with amnesia.

The right to pardon is a royal privilege which is put into effect only periodically at the discretion of the head of state. This residue of a quasi-divine right is related to the subjective sovereignty of the prince and was justified in the theologico-political epoch by the religious unction that crowned the prince’s power of coercion. Kant has stated all the good and the bad that can be thought of it.29

The significance of amnesty is quite different. To begin with, it brings to conclusion serious political disorders affecting civil peace—civil wars, revolutionary periods, violent changes of political regimes—violence that the amnesty is supposed to interrupt. In addition to these extraordinary circumstances, amnesty is characterized by the agency that establishes it: in France today, the parliament. With regard to its content, amnesty is directed toward a category of infractions and crimes committed on all sides during the period of sedition. In this respect, it functions as a sort of selective and punctual prescription which leaves outside of its field certain categories of lawbreakers. But amnesty, as institutional forgetting, touches the very roots of the political, and through it, the most profound and most deeply concealed relation to a past that is placed under an interdict. The proximity, which is more than phonetic, or even semantic, between amnesty and amnesia signals the existence of a secret pact with the denial of memory, which, as we shall see later, distances it from forgiving, after first suggesting a close simulation.

Considered in its stated intention, the aim of amnesty is the reconciliation of enemy citizens, civil peace. We have several remarkable examples of this. The most ancient, recalled by Aristotle in The Athenian Constitution, is taken from the famous decree promulgated in Athens in 403 B.C. after the victory of the democracy over the oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants.30 The formula is worth recalling. In fact, it is twofold. On one hand, the decree properly speaking; on the other, the oath taken one by one by the citizens. On one hand, “it is forbidden to recall the evils (the misfortunes)”; the Greek has a single syntagma (mnēsikakein) to express this, which indicates recalling-against; on the other, “I shall not recall the evils (misfortunes)” under pain of maledictions unleashed by this perjury. The negative formulations are striking: not to recall. For the recall would negate something, namely, forgetting. Forgetting against forgetting? The forgetting of discord against the forgetting of harms suffered? We must plunge into these depths when the time comes. Remaining on the surface of things, the expressed aim of the Athenian decree and the oath have to be recognized. The war is over, it is solemnly proclaimed: the present combats, of which tragedy speaks, become the past not to be recalled. The prose of the political now takes over. A civic imaginary is established in which friendship and even the tie between brothers are promoted to the rank of foundation, despite the murders within families. Arbitration is placed above procedural justice, which maintains the conflicts under the pretext of judging them. More radically, the democracy wants to forget that it is power (kratos): it wants to be forgotten even in victory, in shared goodwill. Henceforth, the term politeia, signifying the constitutional order, will be preferred to democracy, which carries the trace of power, of kratos. In short, politics will be founded anew on the forgetfulness of sedition. Later we will measure the price to be paid by the effort not to forget to forget.

In France we have a different model with the Edict of Nantes issued by Henry IV. In it we read the following: “Article 1: Firstly, let the memory of all things that have taken place on both sides from the beginning of the month of March 1585 up to our arrival on the throne, and during the other preceding troubles and on their occasion, remain extinguished and dormant as something that has not occurred. It will not be admitted or permissible for our state attorneys nor any other persons, public or private, at any time or for any reason, to make mention of, or initiate trial or pursuit in any court or jurisdiction whatsoever.—Article 2: We forbid any of our subjects regardless of their state or quality to retain any memory thereof, to attack, resent, insult, or provoke one another as a reproach for what has occurred for any reason or pretext whatsoever, to dispute, challenge, or quarrel, nor to be outraged or offended by any act or word; but to be content to live peacefully together as brothers, friends, and fellow citizens, under penalty, for those who contravene this decree, of being punished as violators of the peace and disturbers of the public tranquility.” The expression “something that has not occurred” is astonishing: it underscores the magical side of the operation which consists in acting as though nothing had taken place. Negations abound, as in the epoch of Thrasybulus’s Greece. The verbal dimension is stressed, along with the penal scope through the cessation of prosecutions. Finally, the trilogy “brothers, friends, fellow citizens” recalls the Greek policies of reconciliation. Lacking is the oath that places amnesty under the protection of the gods and the curse, that machine for punishing perjury. Same ambition to “silence the un-forgetting of memory” (Loraux, La Cité divisée, 171). The novelty does not lie here but in the agency that forbids and in its motivation: it is the King of France who intervenes in a religious controversy and a civil war between Christian sects, at a time in which those involved in the dispute were incapable of producing a spirit of concord regarding the religious conflicts. The statesman here has the advantage over the theologians, in the name of a prerogative no doubt inherited from the kingly right of clemency, but in the name of a political conception itself marked with the stamp of the theological, as is forcefully affirmed in the preamble: it is a most Christian king who proposes, not to reestablish religion, but to establish the public order on a more healthy religious foundation. In this sense, one should speak in this regard less of an anticipation of the ethics and politics of toleration than of “a shattered dream of the Renaissance,” that of a Michel de l’Hospital in particular.31

Entirely different is the amnesty so abundantly practiced by the French Republic under all its regimes. Entrusted to the sovereign nation in its representative assemblies, it is a political act that has become traditional.32 The right of the king, with one exception (the right of pardon) is transferred to the people: the source of positive right, the people are authorized to limit its effects; amnesty brings to an end all of the trials being conducted and suspends all judicial indictments. This is then a limited juridical forgetting, but one of vast scope, inasmuch as stopping the trials amounts to extinguishing memory in its testimonial expression and to saying that nothing has occurred.

It is certainly useful—this is the right word—to recall that everyone has committed crimes, to set a limit to the revenge of the conquerors, and to avoid compounding the excesses of combat with the excesses of justice. More than anything, it is useful, as it was in the time of the Greeks and the Romans, to reaffirm national unity by a liturgy of language, extended by the ceremonies of hymns and public celebrations. But is it not a defect in this imaginary unity that it erases from the official memory the examples of crimes likely to protect the future from the errors of the past and, by depriving public opinion of the benefits of dissensus, of condemning competing memories to an unhealthy underground existence?

In rubbing shoulders in this way with amnesia, amnesty places the relation to the past outside of the field in which the problematic of forgiving would find its rightful place along with dissensus.

What, then, is there to say about the alleged duty of forgetting? Besides the fact that any projection into the future in the imperative mood is just as incongruous in the case of forgetting as it was for memory, a command of this sort would amount to a commanded amnesia. If this were to happen—and unfortunately nothing stands in the way of crossing the thin line of demarcation separating amnesty from amnesia—private and collective memory would be deprived of the salutary identity crisis that permits a lucid reappropriation of the past and of its traumatic charge. Short of this ordeal, the institution of amnesty can respond only to the need for urgent social therapy, in the name not of truth but utility. I shall say in the epilogue how the boundary between amnesty and amnesia can be preserved in its integrity through the work of memory, which work is completed by the work of mourning and guided by the spirit of forgiveness. If a form of forgetting could then be legitimately invoked, it would not be as a duty to silence evil but to state it in a pacified mode, without anger. This enunciation will no longer be a commandment, an order, but a wish in the optative mood.

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