Thoughts on Things Forgotten

Recharging the Collective Memory Banks

by Georg Schmid (Author) Sigrid Schmid-Bortenschlager (Author)
©2018 Monographs 470 Pages


We forget all kinds of things, trivial and important ones; and not just things but also topics and techniques, and we forget in different ways. Inconvenient as it is to forget your to-do list, forgetting grave political factors can lead to repeating the same mistakes. Foolish as it is to let proven solutions fall by the wayside, repression, both on a personal as on a political level, will lead to catastrophe. This book enumerates many things already forgotten (or in the process of being forgotten) and maps the tortuous paths of relinquishing useful ways of doing things. By analyzing «forgetting» in the light of historical context and psychological necessity, this study offers counter-strategies to the loss of social memory and stresses the benefits of social recollection.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 Service/Self-“Service”
  • 2 Going to the Movies
  • 3 “Waldsterben”
  • 4 On (Foreign) Languages and Their Pronunciation
  • 5 Bombed Out
  • 6 At the Dentist’s
  • 7 On Smoking/No Smoking
  • 8 Dress Codes
  • 9 Childhood
  • 10 Modern vs. Old-Fashioned?
  • 11 Stencils, Mimeographs
  • 12 The Status of Cats
  • 13 Come, Fly with Me
  • 14 Britain Goes Metric
  • 15 Sea of Holes
  • 16 What Must under No Circumstances Be Forgotten
  • 17 Sexuality, Back Then
  • 18 Phones
  • 19 Rote Learning
  • 20 When People Could Read and Write
  • 21 Stalinallee
  • 22 Forgetting, Repressing, Remembering
  • 23 Pictures, Slide Shows
  • 24 Civility
  • 25 Manners
  • 26 “Pygmy Cars”
  • 27 Nylon Socks and Shirts
  • 28 The Amnesia Chick
  • 29 Profiles of Memorableness
  • 30 Dirt
  • 31 Playing Cards
  • 32 The Loo
  • 33 The European Union
  • 34 Work Morale
  • 35 Public Transport
  • 36 Heating Your Home
  • 37 Studying at the University
  • 38 Some Fundamental Remarks on “Forgetting”
  • 39 Austria
  • 40 The Mixed Blessings of (Not) Being Able to Forget
  • 41 When Agnosticism/Atheism Seemed Normal
  • 42 Library Catalogues
  • 43 Travelling, Passports, Credit Cards
  • 44 When the West Was Still Proud of Itself
  • Towards a General Theory of “Forgetting”
  • The Optimal Solution Conundrum
  • Bibliographical Notes
  • Index

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As it used to be… or, as it once was: everybody has recollections of earlier conditions. Mostly such remembering of different individuals is similar, sometimes there are deviances, specificities, personal oddities, something is peculiar in one’s personal experiences, in their interpretation and their degree of retentiveness. All memories are more or less selective, fragmentary – and often misleading.

Memories fade differently, in accordance with their relevance for the person in question. The processes of forgetting manifest a distinct speed and profundity, they are dependent on the culturally ascribed value of events, facts and objects. They are also a function of the generation that the person who forgets or (still) remembers belongs to. Some things seem indelible, or are kept that way. All are becoming transfigured (or disfigured) over time, some are idealized, others accursed.

Each memory has a social dimension; there are many private junctions among individuals’ minds – the sum total of which provides for collective memories. Every kind of forgetting is subject to factors exterior to them as well as to purely personal components. Each person colors past things in a subjective way, and how (and how quickly) they are relinquished depends on the make-up of the respective psyche. Social and individual forgetting (as well as remembering) is interlocked in ways not yet completely understood.

Depending on circumstances and perspective, the collective and the personal dynamics of oblivion can be seen as satisfactory or as impaired. It is not disquieting if something inconsequential is left behind but, in principle, “forgetting” can be a preoccupying sign. To the extent that individuals are components of social spheres, they will inexorably take part in general shortcomings past and present, and unpleasant memories, collective as well as personal, are liable to be repressed. The sum of damages persons manifest – insofar as persons are products of societies – will in turn influence society. However, the interface collective/individual remains opaque.

Opaqueness does not mean inexplicability or “non-analyzability.” As it is sufficiently obvious that forgetting, though not subject to rules or norms, plays an enormous role in our lives, we will look at examples both complex and banal. Things considered trivial can inform us about the mechanisms of falling into oblivion as well as those seen to be of the utmost importance. The former indeed often provide clues for “bigger things.” Banality can obscure fundamental issues, but it can also provide signposts for the discovery of latent trouble. ← 11 | 12 →

It is rightly assumed that there is no such a thing as “forgetting.” There are always motives for letting go, even in the case of an (allegedly) trite object or certain ways of doing things. Motives for what seems to be just a simple relinquishing may be seen as significant in the case of notable things; forgetting occurrences of minor importance is not usually seen as alarming (except as a possible indication of Alzheimer’s).

In this book, we assert that the spread of trite/important is less significant than routinely assumed and that the fluctuations between them are an exemplary case of undecidedness. What appears insignificant can tell us a whole lot about underlying things of superior importance. It is, then, quite intentional that we systematically blend “trivial” things and essential matters. A reflection on the unacceptability of “forgetting” war crimes can be followed by remarks about transport systems; vice versa, an exasperated dissertation on what has been made of our phones can precede something more fundamental about how, what and why we forget and how we manage remembering.

Psychoanalysis has shown that the most miniscule Fehlleistung – parapraxis in English, atto mancato in Italian, acto fallido in Spanish, acte manqué in French – can give the game away. We apply this insight to all social phenomena, quotidian utensils as well as major political forces. In concrete terms, “forgetting” useful, practical and easy ways of doing things, simple procedures or easy to use objects and substituting them by awkward, over-complicated and annoying ones is no less revealing than are elementary questions of the ethical responsibilities of not forgetting misdeeds. In two concluding chapters we will honor two promises made: one, to explain something we refer to as optimal solution, and, two, to provide an idea of what a “general theory of remembering versus forgetting” could look like. Retention versus elimination.

A word of warning, though. The chapters leading up to the finale will turn out to be presented in less grave a manner than these first paragraphs may lead you to expect. We are not above the occasional sarcasm, let alone above derisive comments. The world is already intimidating enough; this book, though of a serious cast of mind, will show that you can discuss earnest matters in ways less menacing than normally pretended. Texts can be decidedly more upbeat than existence.

This is not least illustrated by our choice and mixture of themes and topics. We propose a wild composition of the serious and the “banal” in a freewheeling manner. Things usually appear (or are arranged) in a way to make most people see some things as good and others as bad. Widely, it’s a matter of decreeing. To make things worse, the invention of the so-called social media has led to an untenable situation: the closed loops created by those networks (all too often ← 12 | 13 → a-social or even anti-social media) perform the function of an echo chamber of self-reinforcing prejudices and pure hatred.

The general thingyness of things aside, an important lesson is that even everyday objects and procedures differ between socio-cultures. That is not least dependent on what one of us [G] refers to as Technokulturkreis. It is difficult to translate – to translate elegantly – but it should not be too difficult to understand. Perhaps the fact that it proved impossible to popularize – an Anglophone term would have been preferable – is linked to a persisting mental reservation to anything German. (Only automobiles were excepted, at least until, ahem, the Volkswagen scandal).

At the end of this book, then, the chapter on the Optimal Solution Conundrum, in which the concept Technokulturkreis figures prominently, will show its importance and usefulness. Things are not of necessity discarded (“forgotten”) because of inherent technical obsoleteness – and, as a consequence, of disciplined reasoning – but often on the grounds of obscure changes in mood which, in turn, can originate from the most diverse sources. Something can simply seem démodé, it can more or less willfully be decreed outmoded or supposed to be surpassed by another solution not necessarily better but just more “modern”.

Reversely, there are indeed fundamental improvements, the most important among them in the fields of medicine, pharmacology and hygiene (dental care is one of our prominent positive examples). Epochal inventions (electricity) foremost have not only eased our existence but have changed it fundamentally.

However, change (or transformation) is not identical with progress. Progress and the idea of progress are among the most delicate concepts and the most difficult theories to grasp. This book is rather down to earth although there are theory-minded chapters and passages; the last but one chapter provides some “theoretical” fundamentals. Often matters of considerable importance are located in a chapter on some allegedly peripheral problem (for example, you will find an exposition of the problem of the public good in the section on public transport).

Our project initially arose out of the amazement of how many things, ways of doing things, manners, modes of comportments, have fallen by the wayside. The ambition to explain why something is held on to while something else is discarded was hardly less motivating. Details and “banalities” can be, we insist, as illuminating as commanding transformations. Under certain circumstances the former are more revealing exactly because no one attributes much relevance to them; their seemingly minor importance therefore presents us with useful clues more easily than major, grandiose matters – provided one brings to bear some tricks learned from psychoanalysis. ← 13 | 14 →

Our collection of items and themes, objects and topics encompasses just about everything (but naturally not really all things): as said, from ideas, more or less completely forgotten notions and concepts, to objects fallen into disuse. Neither one for good reasons, effectively. There are better mousetraps and there surely are basic conceptions more consistent with the laws of nature than assumed before (the Copernican, for example). There are technical solutions more practical and less harmful than subsequent ones (electric traction vs. diesel-powered vehicles in cities), just as there are different convenient, responsible and pleasurable methods in social intercourse. Some things can be clearly surpassed, though arguing this way is not easy as nostalgic remembrance can get in the way. Other matters could, in some cases should be reviewed, retrieved, revived. Previous ways of doing things cannot a priori be desired to come back, nor should they automatically be thrown on the scrapheap. To construct an easier and more pleasing way of life is never an uncomplicated business. (In some instances, there can be a double-edged quality: manners, for instance, can be superficial and tiresome, irksome and restrictive, they can also be engaging and facilitate one’s dealings with others).

Many elements and aspects will be covered in this book. Aesthetics, for example, if mostly in a subsidiary manner. In this case, taste seems to be determinative – but it is not always so; it often is a matter of sheer voguishness. Sartorial codes as well as the gustatory sense are among the most difficult variances to grasp, their interpretation promising all the same enlightenment about deep-seated, well-camouflaged ulterior motives. All kinds of utensils and commodity articles are particularly instructive. Surprisingly, technical possibilities or restrictions are rarely considered. We try to compensate for that, chiefly by turning our attention to the criteria of how and why an object or a technique is substituted, normally leading to their slow forgetting. Habits count for much, and so do choices which were made for no good reason at all. The idea of progress – a point we’ll be mentioning or alluding to many times over – has to be taken with more than just a grain of salt. More often than not, it is a question of regress(ion), and of rapture in view of a new gadget. That must not deceive us as to the real state of affairs.

The roads taken or the sequences of events and inventions (changes and choices, substitutions and continuations) do not necessarily provide us with reliable clues: neither in regard to inherent qualities of objects and of ways of doing things nor in regard to any “logic of succession.” They do, however, provide hints about underlying motivations. In order to bring them to light we tend to employ the already mentioned psychoanalytical tools. Just consider the apparently easy question why the Western societies have been more optimistic than they are now. There was more reason to be so? Yes. Certainly. At least for a few years, ← 14 | 15 → and depending on where you lived. But that just displaces the question. Which options were idiotically chosen, and why and how, to get us into the mess we are in now? Such a process can be very quick: just over a decade ago, Europe was promised a brilliant future whereas at present we are forced to stare in horror at its shambles. As Timothy Garton Ash recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, if, cryogenically frozen early in 2005 and woken in 2017, he’d immediately die of shock.

A last general pointer: as far as possible, we tried to base our argumentation on the principle of comparative methods. As one of us [S] is in comparative literature, it seems an obvious route to choose. Moreover, we have both lived in several countries for longer periods of time; and while we have no intention to camouflage our Austrian origins (and thus a certain specific familiarity with a mitteleuropean or German language orientation), which will manifest itself in choices not obvious to readers from other Kulturkreise, we have taken some care not to be too easily typecast. However, imprints dating from childhood and early youth are not readily forgotten, nor should they be.

The disposition of this book is based on the idea to present a considerable number of examples, analyze them in some detail, and progress to a more general theory of forgetting towards the end of the book. The last two chapters, wrapping up what has been exposed in detail before, provide a theoretical framework.

Our book is designed in a way that allows readers to start at any point; it is not necessary to read the chapters consecutively from beginning to end. This kind of representation requires a certain repetitiveness, as our explanations and arguments have to be intelligible immediately. We have taken care to elucidate our examples from different perspectives, depending on context. That is to say, even in the case of seeming repetitions there are always additional ramifications.

We are not above mentioning in a jocular fashion something we keep referring to, entre nous, as “unfair competition” between earlier generations of scholars, scientists, savants and ours. The former, provided they came from the right milieu (which was the standard case), did not have to attend to the countless things you have to take care of nowadays. There always was a factotum at hand, relieving them of such burdens. As to their works, not only were their draft texts seen to by secretaries or assistants, read, corrected, re-typed, etc., there was no trouble with computers’ unruliness; and when going to print there were the galley proofs and even the second run of corrections, the page-to-page Umbruch, enabling you to eliminate hitherto overlooked errors; and good typographers wouldn’t hesitate to point out inaccuracies on their own account. As far as women took part in scholarly undertakings back then, they, above all, profited ← 15 | 16 → from domestic servants; there was no need to burden your mind with questions of shopping, cooking, the laundry (not to mention bureaucratic-administrative burdens and vexations such as taxes, insurance, banking and so on). Nowadays – and that’s what we call unfair competition – you have to do all that yourself, plus you are your own corrector and typographer – hell, you nearly produce the entire book. And you must not forget about the hundreds of other things, which keep clogging your mind. You sit down at the keyboard with a thought worth considering – and jump up immediately because you forgot something on the stove. Back then, you calmly stayed put at your desk, you rang for tea, sat down for dinner, and there were not even the repulsive (frequently malfunctioning) electronic devices with their hellishly nauseating noises. Tranquility! Peace of mind – and hence the creative impulse unimpaired.

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ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Memory Remembering Optimal solutions Repression (Creative) destruction Post World War II Changes in transport
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien. 2018. 306 p.

Biographical notes

Georg Schmid (Author) Sigrid Schmid-Bortenschlager (Author)

Georg Schmid was Professor at the University of Salzburg. His areas of research include modern and contemporary history, theory of history, semiology, transport, film. Sigrid Schmid-Bortenschlager was Professor at the University of Salzburg. Her research interests include modern, experimental, comparative literature, women writers, semiology.


Title: Thoughts on Things Forgotten
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