Forget Me, Forget Me Not


In this short piece, Johnson celebrates hermeneutics without naming it as such. It's a paean to the importance of context — something that one cannot reproduce through facts, copies, or photographs, for it requires a personal narrative, and a vantage point.

“The evil that men do lives after them.

The good is oft interred with their bones.”

With these words, and a few hun­dred others, Mark Antony bade farewell to Julius Caesar-and the canny bard had put his finger on a problem of human nature that is with us today in even more virulent forms than he could have imagined.

How so? Because our ways of re­membering what people do are on the one hand so much more copious and precise, and on the other hand so much further removed from the contexts of their happening. What can we do about it? Why does memory seem such a fragile and mutable thing in our own psyches, and then such a threatening monster poised to bring us down when it is lodged in data banks beyond our reach?

Let’s go to a personal level for a moment. Some fragment of informa­tion gets back to us that someone told to someone else about something we did, and we stand there horrified at the misinterpretation of the same “facts” that we remember.

“That was taken out of context!” we want to shout, and that is exactly the point. 

Yes, it was. It’s something we are coping with all the time, but we only become aware of dangers when a damaging finger is pointing at us. As a language-using and symbol­manipulating species we are forever involved in having to carry along with our pronouncements a sufficient amount of contextual matrix to pro­vide meaning for the facts embedded in it. If we don’t, we will be misunder­stood. No other species has the gift or the problem.

Point your finger at something dis­tant that catches your attention and the person with you will look in the direction that you point. The chances are also very good that whatever it was that caught your eye will catch other human eyes as well, because they share approximately your habits of looking and of interacting with the world. But don’t bother to try to point something out to a dog or a chimpanzee or a dol­phin, because any other creature is probably just going to focus its atten­tion on the end of your finger. Other creatures simply don’t catch the notion of “intention,” of reference to an experience they might have or have had in a time and place different from the here and now.

Thus it is with data banks and other forms of “photographic memories:” they are recorded fingers pointing at events, but the events themselves can­not be reconstructed from the neces­sarily finite collection of relata on file. The relations that characterized them as events to be experienced have been lost.

Well, what then? Are we to be inevitably and forever saddled with this problem? Are we never going to be able to trust our ability to reconstruct the essence of our personal histories from the facts we can record? No, I don’t think it’s as bad as all that. There are some steps we must take, some ambiguities we must come to recognize, and some ultimate limita­tions we must accept, but we can cer­tainly advance beyond our present impasse. In the future we need not be so paranoid about data banks nor so secretive with our records — if we adopt now a doubter’s credo for our own avenues of perception.

Let’s digress again for a moment. I introduce you to a friend of mine and ask you to talk to him for a while, then to come and see me and tell me what you’ve learned. The first thing you say to me later is: “Hey, he’s crazy; I mean out of itl”

“Why do you think that?”

“Well, I can’t make sense out of anything he says.”

“OK. Some others agree with you in that he has been officially labelled as schizophrenic, but what in particular can you say confused you?”

“Let’s see. Most of the things he said seemed as though they ought to be

meaningful by themselves, but some­how they didn’t relate to each other in any way that I could fathom.”

“Do you think they made sense to him?”

“Probably, but I couldn’t share that space with him. I had the feeling that sometimes he was trying to put me on, but that at other times he was trying to get something across that was real to him.”

“Sounds like your own paranoia was being tapped into, but you’ve essen­tially described the experience of talking to him. Do you think that if you talked to him for long enough, you could begin to share his world and find his statements meaningful?”

“Perhaps, but what is ’long enough?’”

“I don't know. It might depend on you; it might depend on him. There’s no way to tell whether you could ever ‘tune in.’”

I have talked with psychiatrists and others who have worked with schizo­phrenics and they generally agree that the initial stages are difficult, but that given enough time they can, in fact, come to share the contextual relation­ships of the person they are talking to and that, thereafter, the world de­scribed by that person no longer appears crazy. The relata and their relations are now appropriate to­gether. The schizophrenia momen­tarily disappears.

Aside from sharing a long enough “here and now” to allow us to pick up on the frame of reference of my friend, what else might be involved in learning how to make sense out of what at first looked like a nonsensical word salad? That”s hard to say. It’s a process whose elements are certainly not of a measur­able, quantitative form, but that does not rule them out as candidates for modelling by computer.

Much of the process is structured into the elegant and mysterious ways in which we use language. It is well be­yond syntactical analysis, coming more into the realm of the poets. I would like to leave this question hanging for a future article in ROM that will deal more directly with the problems of a logic of relations and of some of the ways in which our language both hides and reveals those relations. For the moment the relevant issue is one of memory; memory of what and how do we use it wisely?

Nowadays we seem to have the greatest respect for storage and retriev­al systems that mimic a combination of office copy machines and filing cabi­nets. Time was, before the invention of carbon paper (in 1925 specifically for use in lawyers’ offices), that copies had to be made laboriously by hand and scriveners were hired everywhere sim­ply for that job. Charles Dickens’s scenes come to mind: miserable people with cold fingers and dulled minds. Carbon paper at one leap allowed, at a single typing, a number of identical copies of documents, which had to be identical in order to have any binding contractual value at all.

Office copiers are our present scourge that grew out of our copy­mania, but they serve in no way to make the information on the copy more meaningful, relevant, retriev­able, or storable—just a whole lot more of it everywhere. Imagine what havoc the disinvention of the copiers could wreak! Maybe it’s unfortunate that invented devices are not like newly-mutated species; they create their own ecological niches and a vast appetite among their users for more and “better,” but do not succumb to any laws of extinction. I am not pro­posing a return to the days of the scriveners, but rather a rethinking of what it is we want to remember and a respect for our responsibilities in working out an adequate approach.

When we hear something bad about someone we like, we find ourselves asking that the person be given “the benefit of the doubt.” We recognize that there is ambiguity in any telling and that a resolution of the ambiguity could change the effect of the telling in any of a number of ways. A first rule might therefore always be to recite information about someone aloud in that person's presence before acting on it. Such is the intention, in law, of allowing the accused to con­front the accusers, but in actual cases, like Credit Bureau listings, a satisfac­tory recitation may be impractical.

Next best might be the requirement that any data entry about a person carry with it the time, place, and “sur­rounding circumstances,” as well as the name of the person with whom the entry originated. Difficult to enact or enforce? Yes, but my purpose here is not to generate new restrictive laws, but to start a formulation of what a “sufficiently” guarded attitude on our part might be, to keep us from falling into the trap of assigning meaning to context-free statements.

Much of what we want to know about another person does not fall into the category of fact so much as into that of opinion: an assessment by others of, say, what it is like to enter into a relationship with that person. We want an inductive grasp of A's at­titudes and abilities without having to take into account the particular and limited actual experiences of B in making the assessment. It’s a tough one: not so bad if we trust B, but if the information is stored in a data bank, who was B? In what context did B know A? When was it?

If and when we can invent an adequate relational calculus (as I said, that’s for another article) we may not always be able to assure ourselves that the relational qualities of a data bank entry will be maintained, but we will at least have a handle on the relative level of ambiguity in the entry and therefore a feel for whether we should discount it or not,

The day may come when none of us will mind the fact that information about us, like our yearly income or our national origin or even a record of im­prisonment, is available on a computer to the public at large. By then it will be everywhere accepted that discrete chunks of such indiscreet data are truly meaningless in the best (worst?) sense of the term.