A bit of house-keeping here. I wrote the following last fall as a follow up to an assignment in the first-semester composition course I was teaching:
I’d like to add a bit to what I already said today about social memory, mnemonic communities, and mnemonic socialization. I’m not trying to suggest that who we are is only determined by our mnemonic communities and mnemonic socialization any more than I want to argue that we are who we are solely because of our genetics or our upbringing. Just as we are shaped by both our genetics and our upbringing, we are who we are because of both our personal, autobiographical memory and our social memory.
In one sense, “mnemonic communities” and “mnemonic socialization” are fancy terms for the social groups which influence us and our socialization. On the other hand, there are good reasons for using the modifier “mnemonic” to highlight that we are in this context specifically and purposefully dealing with issues of memory. What we need to realize, however, is that “mnemonic” means much more than an aide to memory like a string tied around one’s finger or a simple rhyme to remember some set of facts. In this context, it also means “of or related to memory,” and it includes much more than memorization and information recall.
Mnemonic communities, which again can be anything from one’s family, religious community, profession, cultural or national heritage, and social groups, influence one’s mnemonic socialization. For instance, our habits of mind, values, assumptions, traditions, practices, beliefs, and perceptions of the world are all strongly influenced by our mnemonic socialization.
For instance, I talked a bit today about my family being from the Western United States and, specifically, from a (frontier) farming tradition. I place high value on freedom, independence, self-reliance, and a hands-off authority. But I also place high value on personal responsibility not only to oneself but to one’s community. I feel more comfortable and at home up in the mountains than I do in highly urban areas like Chicago, Portland, Denver, New York, or even Midtown St. Louis here around SLU. There are a number of reasons for this, but a large part of it has to do with my mnemonic socialization.
I also place high value on education and on being an educator. This too, I’m sure, is largely a function of my mnemonic socialization inherited from my family. My mother, her brother and sister, and both of my grandmothers were all teachers. But this valuing of education runs deeper than that. Both of my grandmothers went to college in the 1920s, back when it was unusual for anyone to go to college, let alone women who grew up on farms in the rural West. It’s easy for us to just think, “well of course he values education, education is important!” and it’s another thing to stop and think about why I value education. I was never pushed to go to college to get a high paying job, but, at the same time, it was always assumed that I would go to college. I was raised with the belief that education was itself valuable, and if you look at my family’s history, this has clearly been an accepted truth for at least four generations (my great grandfathers, both farmers, believed so much in the value of education they sent their daughters to college even though few men in their small rural farming communities went to college).
Our mnemonic socialization also effects how we perceive and understand things, actions, and events. Whether we are pro-life or pro-choice, whether we are for gun ownership or gun control, or whether we feel more sympathy for the people of Israel or the people of Lebanon largely has to do with our mnemonic socialization. The types of food we like to eat, the kinds of cars we like to drive, the types of leisure activities we enjoy, the music we listen to, and even our attitudes towards sex are strongly influenced by our mnemonic communities and our mnemonic socialization.
Here’s one last example of mnemonic communities and mnemonic socialization: I attended the University of Colorado at the same time as Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the co-creators of South Park. During the first few seasons of the show, when I’d talk to friends about it, I came to realize that there were jokes in the show that my friends didn’t get or didn’t get in the same way I did. I quickly realized this was the case because Stone and Parker would add inside jokes into the show, some of which could only be gotten by people familiar with Colorado culture and politics, and some of which could only be gotten by people familiar with the University of Colorado, Boulder campus life in the early 1990s. Even though Parker and Stone have largely moved away from the very specific inside jokes, they still show their colors in ways most people wouldn’t recognize, jokes I do recognize because Parker, Stone, and I share a set of experiences, social and cultural events, etc. that most people who watch the show don’t have.
So, in this context, Colorado serves as a mnemonic community that Matt Stone, Trey Parker and I share. Likewise, attending the University of Colorado Boulder during the early 1990s also serves as a mnemonic community that binds us together. The references to Star Trek in the early episodes of South Park are not just a reference to Star Trek itself but to elements of the original Star Trek series that a local newspaper cartoonist, also a student at CU, regularly made fun of in his cartoon strip. When I watch the episode “Die Hippie, Die,” I don’t just see generic hippies but a particular subset of neo-hippie we had on and around campus. And when I see an illogical “rabble, rabble, rabble” crowd on the show, I’m seeing any number of student protest/activist groups that held such rallies on campus.
Okay, one last thought. I don’t want to belabor this point, but if we go back to South Park‘s Star Trek references, we can see a complex set of mnemonic communities and mnemonic socialization going on. First, there’s the mnemonic community of people who have seen enough Star Trek to get the jokes. Matt Stone, Trey Parker, Hans Bjordall (the newspaper cartoonist who wrote and drew Where the Buffalo Roam which is the comic strip that ocassionally made fun of Star Trek), and I all fit into this group. And there’s the mnemonic community who read Where the Buffalo Roam, which was largely limited to people in Boulder during the early 1990s and, for the most part, were affiliated with CU. And then there’s the mnemonic community of South Park watchers. Friends whom I’ve talked to who watch South Park and watched Star Trek but didn’t attend CU and, therefore, didn’t read Where the Buffalo Roam, have a very different understanding of South Park‘s Star Trek jokes than those friends of mine who did read Where the Buffalo Roam.