The Punctum in Memory

The one thing that I remember most clearly about my first night at Vanderbilt is the confusion I felt. I was very tired after a long flight from Europe, which had been the first time I was travelling all on my own. A very nice employee of the ISSS welcomed me and drove me around, to my dorm and to a supermarket, and she provided me with blankets for the night. It was dark outside when I got here, nothing was familiar, and I was taken to a number of places that I had never seen before, and I had to deal with a foreign language.

 

When I think back to that first night, I remember faces and places that are disconnected. I remember what McTyeire Hall looked like that night, I remember what the supermarket looked like, I remember what the Student Life Center looked like (not that I knew that this was the name of the building). The main difference between then and now is that I could not make any connection between the individual places; I did not know how to get from one place to the next, and the darkness did not help at all.

McTyeire Hall at Night

In W or The Memory of Childhood, Georges Perec describes a number of childhood memories. What stood out to me in these descriptions is that they are often fixed on a very specific, random detail – on page 116, for example, “a petrified image, unchangeable, which I can recall physically, down to the feeling of my hands clenched round the uprights [of the balustrade], down to the cold metal pressing on my forehead when I leaned against the handrail.” This element of his memory seems so arbitrary, yet I recognize this specificity; this fixation is very familiar and occurs in my own memories, too.

This detail in memory reminded me of Barthes’s concept of the punctum in a photograph. He describes it as follows: “In this habitually unary space, occasionally (but alas all too rarely) a ‘detail’ attracts me. I feel that its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value” (42). Could it be possible to replace the photograph with a memory? Of course, every memory is unique. You could try and share your memories with someone, but they would never be able to remember what you remember. Even if someone else has a memory of the same event, the two memories will be different. But could this difference be the thing that makes a difference, the thing that changes the “reading” of a memory? If the event has been the same, then the difference must be in the specific memory, in your specific focus on some detail that is different from what others focus on.

It might be necessary to adapt and slightly alter Barthes’s concept of the punctum for memories instead of photographs, but I do see a similarity there. At least to me, some memories stand out more than others do, often because of some arbitrary detail which I would not be able to explain to someone else. I do feel inclined to call this detail the memory’s punctum. When it comes to the memory of my first night at Vanderbilt, the punctum would be the confusion and disorientation: it stands out to me more than any specific places or faces or conversations that I had.

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