Using Interpellation and Reification to look at memory and language

Our discussion today about reification and interpellation made me think about a passage in a book on childhood memory called The Promise of Memory by Lorna Martens. In the passage, Martens talks about the psychologists Pillemer and White’s theory of memory. According to their theory, language acquisition plays a key role in memory. Infants have the ability to remember before they can fully understand language. They remember, for example, who their mother is and how to nurse. Yet adults can usually only remember as far back as age three or four. According to Pillemer and White, this is because when we are toddlers and learn language, we develop a new system of remembering. We are able to define our experiences using words. The memories we have from before we were able to speak cannot be translated into our new system of memory, so we can no longer recall them. Once a child is interpellated into the social world in which everything has a name and a meaning, the nameless sensations and associations of her infant years no longer exist in her world. Language allows for a new way to reinforce memories and give them meaning. Just by narrating a past event, it’s meaning is amplified twofold because it has two types of existence: an existence as a sensation and an existence within language.

Pillemer and White also posit that social interaction is a huge part of the formation of autobiographical memory. Children tell stories about the goings on in their lives to their peers and to adults. Autobiographical memories thus become dependent on language. Language shapes memories into a narrative that the child can understand and narrate. If our memories make up our relationship to our past, our past defines who we are in the present, and our memories function as stories told through language, than the acquisition of language is imperative to our understanding of the self, particularly within a social context. It’s pretty crazy to think about how sounds coming out of our mouths define what we are able to remember and how we remember those things!

This is a cute video about how babies’ brains work when it comes to remembering. He talks about semantic memories (the kinds of things you need to remember for survival, like who your mother is) versus episodic memories (events, stories, places). Babies have semantic memories, but lack the ability to form episodic memories. If Pillemer and White are correct, this would be related to the fact that episodic memories require a more sophisticated grasp of language.

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