Monday, February 11, 2013


Our girl appears to be learning to read. 

Well, to put it more accurately, she is in the early pre-reading stages. That is, she is learning to remember the stories that she hears over and over and can remember what lines go with which picture in which book. She has taken to sitting still - for a few minutes only, mind - open book on her lap saying to herself something like ‘On Monday he ate through one apple’ or "‘Don’t worry,’ cried Stickman. ‘I’ll soon set you free.”. She appears to remember things that happened in the previous days and weeks, but needs prompting for any longer time-period.

She is also approaching the age where she may well remember things that happen to her now in later life, particularly if they were outstanding or traumatic for some reason. Autobiographical memories sustained over a long time-period, though, are not thought to develop until around pre-school-age. Memory is not just one process, then, but a range. Various types of memory include declarative memory (such as facts or knowledge that can be consciously recalled), procedural memory (unconsciously retained skills such as holding a fork, drinking from a cup, getting dressed, going to the toilet), and episodic memory (specific personal memories organised cohesively into a narrative). Children are thought to have a dense amnesia for the first few years of life, and then a period of relatively sparse memories for a few years after that.

Some of the multiple explanations for the development - and, importantly, the retention - of memories include the development of fluent language skills and the development of a concept of self-hood. Of course, these processes are inter-linked. Subjectivity - a person’s sense of self - is defined in language. A subject is a person who speaks and says ‘I’, inhabiting that ‘I’ as their own real and discrete self. At the moment, our girl uses the variants of her name, ‘me’ and ‘my’ to describe herself. She is increasingly starting to use the pronoun ‘I’ now too, notably in the phrase ‘I want it.’ 
Very young children do remember things, then, but the things they remember don’t often become memories. What they forget - a process called childhood amnesia - also becomes part of the process of creating subjectivity. One of the processes that they forget - or, rather, it becomes unconscious to the point of seeming natural - is the process of becoming gendered.  This is why what children learn and experience when they are very young is so important to their subsequent development, as neuroscientist Lise Eliot has identified.

Memories can also be unreliable. Neuroscientist Karim Nader think this may be due to something called ‘reconsolidation’ or the recasting of early memories in the light of everything that has happened since. Editing in this way is part of the process of learning life lessons: remembering a difficult time in the past is tempered by the knowledge that things worked out all right in the end, for example. 

Memories are not only individual, but also collective. ‘Collective memory’ is sometimes used as another name for history, giving the later a sheen of naturalism. Collective memory becomes ‘common knowledge’, by which individuals - some individuals, at any rate - create social bonds and a sense of shared identity. Conventional histories, for example, have focussed on ‘great men’ and significant political events, rendering, for example, the domestic lives of ordinary people little more than a backdrop to the great concerns of the age. 

Since the middle of the twentieth century,  however, in response to the political concerns of a wide range of previously marginalised groups, historians (including feminist and post-colonial historians) started to dig deeper into these lives. One technique used to uncover previously excluded lives and pre-occupations is called ‘memory-work’. Memory-work actively seeks to question established narratives of the past, often by employing non-traditional methods, particularly oral histories, to re-establish the voices of those who have been excluded from traditional histories. Sue Kedgley’s account of the lives of Pākehā mothers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is one example of making visible the concerns and preoccupations of white settler colonialism from the point of view of women in the family.

As our girl increasingly displays her rapidly expanding feats of memory, she is consolidating her self-hood, a self that is anchored in a particular place in a particular time, with a particular cultural, linguistic, and historical inheritance. It is a self that is already gendered, and, as she becomes increasingly aware of how other people differ from herself, this process of becoming-feminine will intensify. The desire of other little girls in her class at kindergarten or school to exclusively dress in pink, for example, could well erase the memories that currently constitute her sense of self: that her favourite T-shirt is a grey one with a picture of a mountain on it, and that one of her favourite toys is a Thomas train set.  

But the memory process of reconsolidation means that she will also likely outgrow and revise her own past: in their turn, pink fairy princesses will become passé and baby-dolls will only be fit for babies. Memories might be the things that we remember from our pasts, but, in recasting them, they also might be what keeps us from living in the past, both individually and collectively.