Memory, Ricoeur, History, Identity, Privacy and Forgetting (Identity and Privacy II)

In the literature on memory it is almost mandatory to cite the curious case of the man who who after an accident could remember no more than a few minutes of his life before resetting and then forgetting everything again. He had retained long term memory from before the accident, but lacked the ability to form any new long term memories at all.

His was a tragic case, and it is impossible to read about the case and not be dripped by both a deep sorrow for the man, and a fear that something like this would happen to anyone close to us or ourselves. Memory is an essential part of identity.

The case also highlights a series of complexities in the concept of privacy that are interesting to consider more closely.

First, the obvious question is this: what does privacy mean for someone that has no long term memory? There are the obvious answers – that he will still care about wearing clothes, that he will want to sleep in solitude, that there are conversations that he will want to have with some and not others, but does the lack of any long term memory change the concept of privacy?

What this questions brings out, I think, is that privacy is not a state, but a relationship. Not a new observation as such, but it is often underestimated in the legal analysis of privacy-related problems. Privacy is a negotiation of the narrative identity between individuals. That negotiations breaks down completely when one party has no long term memory. We end up with a strange situation in which everyone around the person in question may feel that his or her privacy is being infringed upon, but no such infringement is felt or experienced by the subject himself. Privacy is, in this sense, perception.

This follows from our first observation, that identity is collective narration (that may be a pleonasm, how could narration be individual?) and that privacy is about the shaping of that story. When one lacks the ability to hold the story in memory, both identity and privacy fade out.

Second, the case asks an interesting question about privacy and time. We can bring that to a point and ask — how long is privacy? European legislation has a peculiar answer – it seems to argue that privacy is only held by natural, living persons, and that death is a breaking point where privacy no longer applies. But if there was ever a case for a right to extend beyond the end of life, privacy is probably a good candidate. Should it be possible to reveal all about an individual at the very moment of that person’s death? Why is death a relevant moment in the determination of the existence of the right at all? And what would a society look like that entertained eternal privacy? What shared history could such a society have?

We run into another aspect of privacy here – that it is limited by legitimate interest, journalism, art, literature. So in a very real sense, privacy cannot be used to protect against unauthorized biography or infringing on the story we tell about ourselves. This is also a peculiar thing; it seems to fly in the face of the realization that identity is story, and suggest that if anyone really tells a story about you through the established vehicles of storytelling, then you are defenseless from a privacy perspective. There is a lack of consequence here, born out of the realization that storytelling may well be a value that is more important than privacy in our societies. That the value of history is greater than the value of privacy, and that the control over narrative ultimately needs to give in to the transformation of individual memory to history.

Time, memory, identity and history. All of them are essential to explore in the language game of privacy, and need to be explored more deeply. Ricoeur’s thinking and ideas are key here, and his exploration of these themes more and more appear as a prolegomena to any serious discussion on privacy.

What has been written here, has been written on the right to be forgotten, but that is just a narrow application of the body of thought that Ricoeur has offered on these themes. So we will need to return to this a new in a later post.