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Memory, Media, and Embodied Cognition

John Sutton

Memory is simultaneously cultural and personal, muscular and cerebral. So it is studied in a thrilling but daunting range of disciplines, and with a bewildering array of methods. From neurobiology to narrative theory, from artificial intelligence to anthropology, the articles in this issue embrace and analyse the many ways in which remembering tangles us in affect, time, and technology.

The papers derive from talks originally presented at a series of workshops on memory, mind, and media held in Sydney (at Tusculum in Potts Point, and at Macquarie University) in late November and early December 2004; all have been subsequently refereed and revised. The impulse for the workshops was to treat memory as a test case for the optimistic vision of future “multidisciplinary alliances” put forward by the philosopher Andy Clark, who was one of the speakers:

Much of what matters about human intelligence is hidden not in the brain, nor in the technology, but in the complex and iterated interactions and collaborations between the two. … The study of these interaction spaces is not easy, and depends both on new multidisciplinary alliances and new forms of modelling and analysis. The pay-off, however, could be spectacular: nothing less than a new kind of cognitive scientific collaboration involving neuroscience, physiology, and social, cultural, and technological studies in about equal measure. (Clark 2001: 154)

As in the original workshops, some of these papers focus more directly on memory, others on the broader frameworks of ‘distributed cognition’ and the ‘extended mind’ within which this vision was situated. (This is the first of three special issues arising from these workshops: the December 2005 issue of the journal Cognitive Processing, and a 2006 issue of the journal Philosophical Psychology will be devoted to other articles derived from the same event.)

The issue begins with Elizabeth A. Wilson’s "Can you think what I feel? Can you feel what I think?": Notes on affect, embodiment, and intersubjectivity in AI. Wilson argues that, contrary to critical stereotype, the cognitive sciences have never excluded emotion and embodiment. Picking out neglected strands of the histories of computation and of psychoanalysis, she shows that theorists imagining different modes of embodiment – robotic, for example – have always tightly coupled affect and machinery.

Further historical depth to contemporary ideas about embodied cognition is offered in Evelyn Tribble’s paper "The Chain of Memory": Distributed Cognition in Early Modern England. Building on her recent study of actors’ remembering on the Elizabethan stage, Tribble examines changing technologies of memory in early Protestantism. In both church and theatre, the challenge to individuals of remembering large bodies of information was met by new ways of distributing the mnemonic load onto the environment: architecture, artifacts, and practices spread the burden of memory from the individual brain to various forms of physical and cultural scaffolding.

The environmental dependence of temporal thought is demonstrated in a very different cultural context in Paul Memmott’s article Tangkic Orders of Time: an anthropological approach to time study. In a classic ethnographic survey, Memmott draws together an array of evidence about sociogeographic, semantic, cosmological, and economic aspects of the construction of time in the Tangkic cultures of the southern Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia. Rich anthropological material of this kind poses exciting challenges for any ambitious programme in memory studies which seeks to do justice to the variety of personal and cultural forms of thinking about the past.

In the next two papers, phenomenological approaches to embodiment are used to enrich our understanding of memory and body image. In Body Memory in Muscular Action on Trapeze, Peta Tait draws on her ongoing work with circus aerialists to pinpoint some of the mysterious features of muscular memory in highly skilled performance. Even though, for many trapeze experts, the body must in some sense take over in the unfolding of complex fluid action sequences, a number of Tait’s informants nevertheless offer intriguing clues about the residual and vital place of attention, imagination, and even self-conscious thinking in expert bodily remembering. Then Francine Hanley, in The Dynamic Body Image and the Moving Body: revisiting Schilder’s theory for psychological research, revivifies Paul Schilder’s sophisticated account of the plasticity of the body image. In reporting on interviews with dancers and aerobics instructors which highlight the subtle roles of kinaesthetic experience in the construction and maintenance of the body image, Hanley, like Tait, complicates our picture of the interactions of doing and knowing in embodied skill.

The uneasy place of the cognitive sciences in our overaudited academic and cultural life is highlighted in the next paper, by Andrew Murphie. In The Mutation of 'Cognition' and the Fracturing of Modernity: cognitive technics, extended mind and cultural crisis, Murphie offers a powerful diagnosis of the internal fragmentation of contemporary cognitivism. Science studies, cultural theory, and dynamical approaches to cognition together threaten the unity and the sense of our residually individualistic educational and political systems. In place of identifiable and manageable thinking processes located within the brains of single subjects, Murphie sketches a directly political physiology which operates at the social and the subpersonal levels all at once, evidence of ‘a quiet trauma in the ecology of extended mind’.

Memory has long been at the heart of new media practice and theory, and in Indexing Audio-Visual Digital Media: the PathScape prototype, Mike Leggett describes the early stages of an exciting interactive navigational system. Setting his Pathscape project in the context of other recent multimedia narrative walks, Leggett suggests that the deep context-sensitivity exhibited in such media art practice might act as a model for understanding path-dependent trajectories of remembering. Since personal and collective memory alike are selective and constructive, Pathscape’s topographic orientation offers an appropriately idiosyncratic form of interactive retrieval.

The last two papers deal directly with personal memory. In Seeking Self-Consistency with Integrity: an interdisciplinary approach to the ethics of self and memory, Russell Downham integrates recent psychological studies of motivation in autobiographical narrative with a philosophical approach to the ethics of memory. Many emotions are intrinsically diachronic or temporal in nature: so the creative or constructive nature of remembering raises difficult questions about emotional consistency and integrity, which should not be ignored in mainstream moral theory. James Ley’s paper, On the Likely Form of 'Autobiographical Memory' for Aristotle, also synthesizes philosophical and psychological approaches to memory. Ley counterposes the provocative modern idea of personal memory as ‘mental time travel’ with the action-centred account of narrative in Aristotle’s Poetics. There are principles of plot construction in remembering as in story-telling, and problems of genre are just as relevant to psychology as to literary theory.


Many people have been involved in this issue of Scan, by helping out with the original workshops, with refereeing, and with production. Thanks especially to Tim Bayne, Jennifer Biddle, Sue Campbell, Andy Clark, Steve Collins, Russell Downham, Philip Gerrans, Oliver Granger, Helen Groth, Greg Levine, Doris McIlwain, Adrian Mackenzie, Catherine Mills, Anne Monchamp, Andrew Murphie, Gerard O’Brien, Monte Pemberton, John Potts, Huw Price, Kate Stevens, and Carl Windhorst. We also gratefully acknowledge the support or assistance of the Australian Research Council, the Division of SCMP at Macquarie University, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, and the Centre for Time at the University of Sydney.


Clark, Andy (2001) Mindware: an introduction to the philosophy of cognitive science Oxford : Oxford University Press