Material Memories

By Marius Kwint; Christopher Breward et al. | Go to book overview

Prologue: From the
Museum of Touch
Susan Stewart

In a famous aphorism amid the discussion of alienation in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx claimed that ‘the forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present’.1 In suggesting that the senses are a historical, that is a human, accomplishment, Marx argued that the senses are not merely organs used in responding to, and apprehending, the world, but that the senses are also a powerful source of material memories. Such memories are material in that the body carries them somatically – that is, they are registered in our consciousness, or in the case of repression, the unconscious knowledge, of our physical experiences. And as sense experiences are registered and continued from generation to generation, the specific forms of their articulation and expression in works of art give us an historical account of how such experiences change and are transformed. Bergson was to rephrase this idea in his 1908 Matter and Memory: ‘there is no perception which is not full of memories. With the immediate and present data of our senses, we mingle a thousand details out of our past experience.’2 This view of

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1
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, ed. Dirk J. Struick, trans. Martin Milligan (New York, 1964), 141.
2
Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory (New York, 1988), 33. Chris Frith's paper at this conference, ‘Varieties of Memory: Insights from Cognitive Neuroscience’, gives a neurological perspective that is very much in concert with Bergson's. Frith argues that ‘immediate experience is always structured by memory’ and contends that memory is ‘a mechanism by which experience in the past affects behavior in the future’.

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