If we do not preserve our identities and personal histories, we may lose ourselves to the rapidly growing world of technology. Charles Baxter, in his essay, “Shame and Forgetting in the Information Age,” argues that, in today’s information age, shame and forgetting can play a significant role in our daily lives. Baxter insists that shame can lead to anxiety and the approach we take in dealing with our anxiety may ultimately lead to a loss of identity. How in the information age, may we combat the phobia of forgetting our personal histories, without the overwhelming shame and guilt? Baxter suggests we should protect our memories and experiences, and separate them from information memory. His essay outlines the distinction between information memory and experience memory and their connection to shame and forgetting.
Baxter, with a tribute to his brother Tom, begins his essay; with an example of how dealing with shame and forgetting can be a real struggle. Baxter describes his brother’s life as tragic and pathetic; ridiculing his brother in support of his claim, that forgetting can be a constant struggle for anyone. Tom was unable to mix well socially, despite his positive outlook on life. “Tom was an outcast of the information age” (141). “He was among the ranks of those who cannot easily process the printed word” (142). When it came to storytelling, Tom could narrate without missing a detail after hearing a
story only once; but the printed word was a hurdle Tom could not jump. “He couldn’t hold it in his head; he kept it around and had to learn to live with it” (144).When Tom would forget things; shame would overwhelm him; and the shame Tom felt led to anxiety, which led to overeating. After Tom’s death, Baxter visited his brother’s apartment where nothing was in order. Periodicals and other forms of printed word piled to the ceiling. “And they say: all he left behind were our memories of him. That, and the papers” (144).
Baxter believes forgetting can be a necessary shield that protects us from shame. “Strategic amnesia might be an appropriate phrase to describe how we are coping with the information-glut” (145). He implies that, there are times when the need to forget is necessary. “Strategic amnesia has everything to do with the desire to create or destroy personal histories” (146). Baxter also suggests that when faced with the search for an experience or memory, strategic amnesia does not have to come into play. Baxter uses Ronald Reagan as a good example of how turning a restriction of remembering situations and dates can be an advantage. He suggests that President Reagan let forgetting work for him, because “It set him free from the responsibility for his actions” (148). Bill Clinton is another political figure who used forgetting in his repertoire of political tricks. “Clinton seems to be able to bury the past without demonstrating visible shame” (148). When necessary, using strategic amnesia to forget and bury memories allows one to avoid shame.
Shame is an inescapable emotion playing a role in the life of the individual who finds anxiety when forgetting. Baxter shifts to explain how memory-anxiety can be witnessed. “The signs of anxiety over forgetfulness have been turning up everywhere lately, but most prominently, for me, in television commercials and newspaper ads” (147). “Memory-anxiety makes for good business” (147). Baxter mentions this in order to open our eyes and combat the phobia of forgetting, that runs our daily lives through technology. Baxter’s logical take on how the effects of technology causes anxiety over forgetfulness makes you sit and think about the signs of anxiety.
Through the works of Walter Benjamin, Baxter contrasts information memory and experience memory, demonstrating the between information memory and experience memory. Baxter states a point from Benjamin’s argument: “I’m not having experiences in my day-to-day life: instead, I’m absorbing or processing information. Information – proves incompatible with the spirit of storytelling” (Benjamin 149). Memory for information can be vast amounts of data absorbed daily, perhaps for a particular job or project, and at the end of the day, you feel blank with no experiences to show. To cope with the resulting anxiety may lead to drinking or the occasional recreational drug. Memory for experience simplified means storytelling, sharing of experiences. “In the information age, we can be rich in information and poor in experience” (150). Absorbing loads of information will leave no room for experiences, no room for storytelling. Baxter suggests there are times we want to forget, or do not care if we forget. Receiving and storing loads of information and data can push out stored experiences. However,
there can also be times where experiences do not want to be shared, accident that plague your mind presenting the need for strategic amnesia.
Baxter explains how to the use of memoirs can protect personal memories or experience memories. He compares the use of writing a memoir to therapy, “a local antidote to information poisoning” (151). When someone writes a memoir, it is like capturing that person’s very essence, a precious piece of personal history, which needs guarding and protecting. “Every memoir argues that a personal memory is precious. No other artistic form makes that argument with the same specificity or urgency” (151) Baxter points out that when sharing personal memories, we tend to narrate them; conversion of personal memories into experiences is necessary to communicate anything. “There’s no intimacy otherwise, and any memoir requires intimacy to convey its experiences” (152). The truth about experiences and memoirs make family narration functional again.
Baxter closes with the notion that, erasure may be the answer to forgetting resulting in shame. When we forget, we let shame, guilt, and anxiety control our lives. We forget information that is of importance, shame overwhelms us causing us to lose a piece of ourselves At times, and we seem to take for granted the excitement of remembering a story or song, or even and old friend’s name. We must preserve our identities and our personal histories, or we may lose ourselves to the rapidly growing world of technology. “Against a shame you cannot bear, your mind detaches itself from
its own memory and sails off. . . It is the strategic amnesia of everyday life, both voluntary and willful” (157).