Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Persistence of Memory

There are many kinds of memory. Everyday memory is responsible for that ‘senior moment’. There’s body-memory, the reason your head jerks on sniffing straight tequila the morning after. And allergies in general. There’s the computer analog, source of perennial misnomer in its confusion between “storage” and “working memory”.

Then there’s cultural memory. As a group, in regards to politics at least, it seems like we have a bad memory, voting for people today who only last term were working against our interests. And what about the Dark Ages of Europe – collective memory dissolved into the ether.

Let’s take this Hurricane Patricia, “strongest Pacific Coast hurricane ever.” In this case, “ever” can be only one hundred years. Our contemporary meteorological memory isn’t much older than the ambergris floating up on our shores.

All this having been said, there is a group of Aboriginal folks in Australia who recollect the way their coastline looked 7,000 years ago, and as corroborated by geological records. This should come as somewhat of a surprise to the casual reader: “I can’t even remember where I put my keys;” how can a group of people relying solely on oral communication (and hence no means of information storage other than their own individual memories) remember such a thing? They don’t write things down, no libraries funded by nation-states, no institutions of knowledge. How does such a fickle system resist the onslaughts of entropy that time brings?

This kind of memory reveals the hidden power of collective thought, and the organized fortification of a group of people against that second law of thermodynamics.

With this in mind, that the cartographic memory of a coastline can remain intact for many thousands of years by oral transmission and wet-memory-storage alone, do we really find it so improbable that the cultural memory of pheromones can reinforce both our perception and our visceral reaction to an olfactant?

As an everyday person, virtually all of our knowledge about our olfactory environment is orally-communicated. It either by-passes or has never made it in the first place to textual transmutation. (It barely has a language, at that!)

We are no different today when it comes to Smell. The permanence and accessibility of the vast, content-addressable memory that is the Internet has nothing to do with the olfactory aspect of our cultural memory. In fact, because there are more words written about fragrances than everyday smells, and because the language used in the sales and reviews of those fragrances functions as poetry and not as consensually-recognized, objective descriptors (because it simply cannot be, by its nature) our Lingua Anosmia relies entirely on wet-memory-storage.

We do not smell molecules with names. We smell memories – autobiographical indices, physiological profiles, and spatiotemporal coordinates. These are not words, and that we still use them to generate information about our world puts us on par with our ancestral counterparts (and I might say worse-off in terms of indentifying discrete molecules by their odor.)

Perhaps I will be accused of picking the low hanging fruit here, but I would ask this – in light of a group of people who remember a geographical feature as it was 7,000 years ago, go ahead and ask someone today to describe the smell of Musk. Now compare it to one of times past. Today it is “clean”, and then it was “dirty”. What has our memory done? And how has our ‘advanced’ system of external memory storage (i.e. writing) helped?

Note – due to the ubiquity of synthetic musks in cleaning products, especially laundry detergents, a nose of Western-style influence would tend to describe musk as “clean”, whereas the origin of the eponymous aromatic substance itself is a secretion taken from the fecal-flaked, urine-cured underside of a wild animal.

taken from the following:

Professor Nunn said present sea levels in Australia were reached 7,000 years ago and as such any stories about the coastline stretching much further out to sea had to pre-date that time.

"These stories talk about a time when the sea started to come in and cover the land, and the changes this brought about to the way people lived – the changes in landscape, the ecosystem and the disruption this caused to their society," he said.

"It's important to note that it's not just one story that describes this process. There are many stories, all consistent in their narrative, across 21 diverse sites around Australia's coastline."

"Aboriginal Memories of Inundation of the Australian Coast Dating from More than 7000 Years Ago." Australian Geographer DOI: 10.1080/00049182.2015.1077539

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