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Autobiographical Memory and the Postmodern Sensibility

The topic of autobiographical memory might seem out of place in a volume dedicated to flexibility in the workplace.  But a little reflection on the social and cultural context in which flexibility becomes a desired goal for work suggests that autobiographical memory is very much implicated in such scheduling issues. The fragmented sense of time and activity that has come to characterize our lives both at the workplace and beyond has significant implications for how one constructs a coherent sense of self.  

What has been called the “postmodern” sensibility emerges from a world which privileges diversity over homogeneity, multi-tasking over focused attention, and a kind of “activity fetishism” that values increasing tasks not only as a pragmatic strategy for getting things done but as an often overlooked marker of middle-class status (Shore 2003a).  The busyness of modern life and its scheduling practices have important implications for the ways in which we are constructing the “remembered lives” of ourselves and our children.

At Emory’s Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL Center), a Sloan Center on Working Families, we have focused our attention on the functioning of myth and ritual in working families in the American South.  Everyday routine and more symbolically loaded ritual have important functions in social life for creating and scaffolding both social and personal autobiographical memory (Baxandall 1872/1988, Casey 1987, Conway 1997, Donald 1991,  Küchler and Melion 1991, Shore 1999, Tulving 1983).  The expansion of flexible scheduling into our work routines does not invalidate the importance of the role of ritualization in the construction of remembered lives.   On the contrary, the importance of understanding the likely of such temporal and spatial fragmentation on our abilities to experience our lives as coherent could not be more important.  

In this paper, I will examine a ethnographic example of how working families in the South are using ritual to help support family members’ autobiographical memory.  Ritual can provide for families a significant measure of coherence in autobiographical memory in an environment that is increasingly challenging our ability to produce a continuous sense of self for both the individual and the family.  

What is autobiographical memory?  The term is used by cognitive psychologists to refer to a fundamental component of the human memory system that is implicated in a major way in grounding our continuing sense of self.   Schroots and Dijkum define autobiographical memory as “a type of episodic memory for information related to the self, both in the form of memories (retrospective AM) and expectations (prospective AM)” (Schroots and van Dijkum 2004:1).  Autobiographical memory includes long-term memory structures of places, people, sensory experiences and events that provide the memory landmarks for our sense of both the changes and continuities in our lives.  Retrospective AM refers to the retrieval of memories and sense experience from one’s past, while prospective AM refers to the retrieval of anticipated events and experiences that are also stored in present memory (Schroots and van Dijkum 2004:1; Crovitz & Schiffman, 1974; Rubin, 1986).1  In this paper we are interested mainly in retrospective autobiographical memory.

Psychology and Anthropology share an interest in such memory, but tend to differ in where they look for it. The dominant interest in cognitive science is in the anatomical topography of autobiographical memory, and the locus of memory is assumed to be “in the head.”  For anthropologists, however, the interest in autobiographical memory locates such

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