A Rhetorical Analysis of Charles Baxter’s “Shame and Forgetting in the Information Age”
Charles Baxter’s “Shame and Forgetting in the Information Age” is an essay that questions the importance of forgetting and its shameful affects on one’s mind in the information age. In creating this piece he draws attention to experiences, information and memories as guidelines to gauge the inchoate make up of our brain. Baxter discusses throughout his essay, how our brains are less reliant on its own experience storage ability and becomes more reliant upon information technology. By giving us a correlation between the brain being similar to a computer’s hard drive and how time affects our brains’ usage (meaning there is not enough time to absorb and maintain data because we are constantly inundated with it), Baxter shows how memory is fleeting despite how it is stored and disappears completely after death. There will come a point in time where we all will have to face not recalling a name, a face, a date or a piece of vital information. In doing so, I believe Baxter’s goal is to explain how a functioning mind loses its ability to harness permanency despite living in an information age.
Usually we think of memory for humans as retaining and recalling past experiences and information. Forgetting pertains to the banishment of past thoughts. Shame reflects feelings of embarrassment. I believe Baxter chose to combine memory, forgetting and shame into a collage. Emphasizing how garbage is obtained due to information overload and lack of usage. By beginning this piece discussing his brother’s inadequacies we begin to see the collage forming. That is, his writing style and choice of references weaves together how the memory lets go of information resulting in forgetfulness giving us a feeling of embarrassment. He explains that his brother “Tom was an outcast of the information age. Perhaps every family has one. Reading and writing often defeated him and they did so before culture had begun to employ the phase ‘learning disability,’ and before society became dependent on computers.” Baxter explains that his brother in light of his shame in not being able to tie into information and technology, he uses stories and gives gifts as his way of establishing remembrances. In doing so, reveals his brother’s instability in rationalization. Baxter’s brother feels the necessity to physically hoard what his mind cannot comprehend and give away what he feels is of value. Ultimately, in his death, he leaves behind some memories, piles of written text, an unused computer, and an unwritten will. The objects he leaves behind does not reveal he ever existed. However, it does show that he lived amid the documents (p 143). Baxter uses his brother’s inadequacies to show us how we can be impacted by forgetting and how it can mark us for life.
When we begin to lose our memories it affects our abilities to relate, to connect to others. “People take considerable pride in their minds and more particularly in their memories” (143). Drug companies and mental health specialists spend millions of dollars trying to sustain human memory and knowledge. However, Neil Postman contradicts their efforts. By saying that “We have transformed information into a form of garbage” (141), he acknowledges the fact that information can have no value, just as garbage is waste and has no value. Postman is confirming for us that despite the vast amount of information available we cannot preserve and maintain an individual’s experience memory. Many minds can fall victim to amnesia, Alzheimer’s and dementia. As our minds deteriorate it becomes more difficult to relate to data, experiences and who we are as people. Transforming information to garbage becomes more relevant as disease sets in. When this occurs we become ashamed and frustrated. Throughout this struggle, the mind’s storage bin begins to empty its once treasured database, eventually transforming the mind into an empty waste basket. Baxter emphasizes how over time and not by choice forgetting becomes less of a thought and more of an involuntary action. By this being more of an involuntary action shows that we cannot control our own permanency in dealing with remembrances and experience memory. He is not saying that forgetting is bad, it is just a situation that occurs despite who you may be.
Feelings affect how we relate to others. The feeling of shame in forgetting has some interesting implications on how we express personal emotions. “A proliferation of information causes information-inflation” (146). That is, every individual piece of information loses some value given the sheer quantity. Baxter says, “It is possible that the quantity of data we are supposed to remember has reduced our capacity to remember or even to have experiences; this turn of events was predicted by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s” (146). However, past presidents have used such informational events to aid their careers. Using forgetting and burying the past without demonstrating visible shame becomes strength for some, unlike the diseases mentioned above. “Forgetting and shame might just serve, under the immediate surface of consciousness, as an escape route of sorts” (150). Meaning we can selectively forget, strategically forget and unintentionally forget as Baxter implies. His implications points back to how a functioning mind controls its ability to hold experiences and forget experiences despite the information age, forgetting is necessary.
In many books referenced by Baxter, “true accountability vanishes. No one seems to be responsible for anything, or else the wrong people are accused of what may not, in fact, have happened at all. This is usually a complex response to shame: incest (The Kiss), alcoholism (Secret Life), repressed family histories (the Invention of Solitude, or ethnic identity (The Shadow Man, The Duke of Deception). Shame comes first, but strategic forgetting follows closely behind” (153). By parental accountability vanishing, we lose sight of experiences and our memories. When accountability is gone, the permanency of memories which affected other people begin to have a different affect. This holds true when analyzing the effects of disease on the brain. Personal histories, memories, trauma, and instability get lost in translation if disease sets in or a traumatic accident occurs. Many people are affected when their parent becomes afflicted. “The parent’s actions replaced paternal accountability” (153). Here Baxter correlates how shame affects both the parent and the child. This offers to us an abstract look into forgetting being shameful in duality. Jerry Herron has described this as “the humiliation of history.” Meaning that because a parent’s memory can be fleeting and eventually lost, whatever legacy the parent created with the child/ren is lost. It is gone. Baxter suggests that if the parent was an abuser or someone of greatness whatever memories created be it good or bad no longer exists for the parent. However, the child/ren is left to deal with the effects. Baxter is taking this text and relating it back to how the mind lacks permanency.
Baxter’s “Shame and Forgetting in the Information Age” subliminally helps us to look at forgetting about people even in death. The essay explains how a functioning mind loses its ability to function and rationalize, despite living in an informational age (141). Although many may push to have stories told and may have impacted many lives over time, we tend to forget about people once they pass away. As time goes on we think of someone less until so much time has passed that the memories are no longer reflected. Contextual references, be it wills, memoirs, or stories written help increase the longevity of a memory. However as time progresses, stories change and eventually are forgotten. Despite how well we deal with the information age, we have no control over our minds retaining the permanency of information, experiences or memories. For many people “in an information age, forgetfulness is a sign of debility and incompetence. It is taken as weakness, an emblem of losing one’s grip” (147). Meaning some use forgetfulness as a way to make the past go away. For others forgetfulness is a sign of being inadequate, shallow and shameful.
Baxter pointed out how, “people take considerable pride in their minds and more particularly in their memories (p 143). Thus, forgetting can be personally shameful, but not necessarily a bad thing, despite how forgetting comes about. Baxter throughout his essay gave to us many references on how experiences, information and memories affect a functioning mind’s ability to harness permanency despite living in an information age. This helped to give us a better understanding of the effectiveness of memory.