The Imperfection of Memory and the Limitations of Testimony

“The sound of a dream came to the tyrant, wandering into his mind, about how the world was wondrously transformed, unlike the ages before the new creation. In sleep the truth was made known to him that the cruel end of each empire must happen, must come about for earth’s joys, Then the wolf-hearted one awoke, Babylon’s guardian, who previously had slept in a drunken stupor. He was not happy in mind, but sorrow mounted up in him, because of the dream’s noise. He did not remember at all about what he had dreamt” (Daniel, 256-257).

When Babylon’s prince Nebuchadnezzar in “Daniel” from Old Testament Narratives is unable to recall the events of a dream that significantly affected him, he calls together “those of his people who paraded their witchcraft most widely” and asks them to tell him what the dream meant and what happened in it (257). He asks his sorcerers thus to bear witness to something that only he experienced and recall for him something that his mind cannot recall on its own.

In this way, in the story of Daniel (at least in this moment), memory and witness are closely bound up together. It is the failure of Nebuchadnezzar’s memory, the general imperfection of it, and the inability of his sorcerers to bear witness to that memory that together precipitate the events of the story. This story speaks then to the impenetrability and untranslatability of memory and raises some questions about what that means for the practice of bearing witness and giving testimony.

The relegation of the experience of an event – and one’s experience of bearing witness – to memory alone is one of those facts that, like the imperfection of language and its inability to completely translate the actualities of a given situation from reality into words, complicates the notion that there could ever be proof in witness. But the problem with memory is twofold. First, the witness faces the problem of overcoming the imperfection of their own memory to, as accurately as they can, recall the events that they witnessed to themselves (in a strange way, by recalling a memory and deciding that it consists of certain things and not others, an individual bears witness to themselves). Then, because of the interiority of the contents of memory to the witness – that is, only the individual has access to their own memories – there is the issue of transferring the knowledge of that memory to another person. Here is Lyotard’s differend.

In short, memory is imperfect, and it is virtually impossible to not only keep track of all of the details of an experience but to recall them with precision. Then, even if an individual’s recollection is perfect, it is certainly impossible to ensure this perfection, because the only reference for that recollection is the event itself, an event which has necessarily, and irretrievably, moved into the past. Thus, if a person witnesses a situation, how can they be sure (to the point of being willing to give testimony) that months, days, or even minutes after the situation has passed their recollection of the events accurately represents the situation as it happened? How can they be sure that they do not add anything, infer anything, alter anything, or venture outside of the scope of their own experience in it?

In the first paragraph of Jean-François Lyotard’s The Differend, he asserts that the testimony of “human beings…placed in a situation such that none of them is now able to tell about it…bears only upon a minute part of this situation” (3). Here, Lyotard notes that an individual’s witness cannot account for the entirety of a situation experienced by many individuals, but the point accounts too for the limited scope of memory in reference to the already limited scope of an individual’s personal act of witness (that is, memory cannot preserve all of the details of the referenced experience).

Jacques Derrida picks up on this point too in his “Poetics and Politics of Witnessing,” noting that “Whoever bears witness does not provide proof; he is someone whose experience attests, precisely, that some ‘thing’ has been present to him. This ‘thing’ is no longer present to him…in the mode of perception at the moment…but it is present to him…as presently re-presented in memory” (77).

Together, Lyotard and Derrida do well to summarize the difficulty in question here: the process of utilizing a memory to bear witness and provide testimony, is the process of taking the whole of an experience – all of the things that one saw, heard, smelled, etc. in a situation – recalling it imperfectly, and distilling that recollection into a comprehendible collection of words that cannot possibly account for the minutia of the experience. Given the breadth of implications of this discussion – these are perhaps most prominently legal implications, but also those related even to daily conversation – the imperfection of this memory and its relation to the processes of bearing witness have not only received a lot of attention in the past from philosophers like Derrida and Lyotard, but recently too.

Much of this attention has been paid by those researching the reliability of memory, and the conclusions reached from this research are not entirely encouraging. There is an acceptance among those studying memory that “research convincingly shows that memory is malleable, and eyewitness misidentifications are known to have played a role in most of the DNA exonerations of the innocent” (Wixted, John T et al. “Rethinking the Reliability of Eyewitness Memory.”). Now, there is even the concern that the very process of “testing memory contaminates memory” (Wixted, John T et al. “Test a Witness’s Memory of a Suspect Only Once.”).

However, to perhaps provide a little encouragement for not withdrawing all trust in memory and its role in bearing witness, recent research suggests that “like DNA evidence and other kinds of scientifically validated forensic evidence, eyewitness memory is reliable if it is not contaminated and if proper testing procedures are used” (Wixted, John T et al. “Rethinking the Reliability of Eyewitness Memory.”).

Although the theoretical paradoxes still exist, for practical purposes, it seems then that the best recourse perhaps consists in the acceptance of the limitations and imperfection of memory alongside the attempt to do everything possible to minimize those limitations when memory is relied on for testimony and in the process of bearing witness.


Works Cited

  1. Anlezark, Daniel, ed. Old Testament Narratives. Harvard, 2011 (OTN)
  2. Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
  3. Derrida, Jacques, et al. Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan. Fordham University Press, 2005.
  4. Wixted, John T et al. “Rethinking the Reliability of Eyewitness Memory.” Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science vol. 13,3 (2018): 324-335. doi:10.1177/1745691617734878
  5. Wixted, John T et al. “Test a Witness’s Memory of a Suspect Only Once.” Psychological science in the public interest : a journal of the American Psychological Societyvol. 22,1_suppl (2021): 1S-18S. doi:10.1177/15291006211026259
  6. Image: Preti, Mattia. “Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.”

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