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Bergson's theory of memory and musical participation


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“They’re playing our tune”: Bergson’s theory of memory and musical participation.
In Matter and Memory, Henri Bergson sets out a radical theory of memory, which has influenced contemporary thought from Deleuze to Extended Mind Theory. Combining scientific studies of memory malfunction with a deconstruction of the mind/body and subject/object dualisms that have dogged philosophical and scientific discourse, Bergson’s central thesis is that “the memory of a living being appears…. to measure its power of action upon things" (Bergson 1911, 303). That is, memory is not a storehouse of representations, synthesised by and kept in the brain, but is more like a faculty that adds layers of duration, or time, to a plane of immanence made up of energy and movement and thereby provides living bodies with a degree of choice about their actions or movements. The past has not ceased to be – it has only ceased to be active, but living bodies and minds can re-activate the past by allying memory to action. Bergson was also the first to distinguish between habit memory and “pure” memory or recollection, but his point about both was the same – that they are always allied to gestures or actions, in fact Bergson argues that perceptions are actions, calling into question the traditional priority of mind over matter, and seeing rather the two connected in a circuit, with neither taking priority. “The attitude of consciousness is mainly the consciousness of an attitude” (Bergson 1911, 121). Actions, gestures, perception and recognition all take place on the same plane - thus overcoming the traditional philosophical dualism that places images “inside” the brain and movements “outside” the mind. But memory introduces the additional dimension of time, or duration, which characterises life - hence Bergson argues that the subject/object distinction should be rethought in terms of time, rather than space.

One possible forum for testing Bergson’s theory could be in the field of musical therapy with patients of dementia. Research has detailed how patients participating in musical activities can acquire new memories and reconnect old ones, such as remembering song lyrics, something hard to explain if memories are simply stored in the brain and destroyed by organ atrophy. Bergson argues that memory loss is not about the destruction of memories but about the loss of connection between memories and the actions or gestures they are employed in. It follows that reinvigorating modes of action and gesture in meaningful activities or expressive behaviours such as musical participation can reconnect memories and assist in the formation of new ones.

Bergson, H. Matter and Memory, London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1911
Gritten, A. and King, E. (eds.) Music and Gesture, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006

Item Type: Paper presented at a conference, workshop, or other event which was not published in the proceedings
Uncontrolled Keywords: Henri Bergson, memory studies, popular music, dementia
Subjects: M Music and Books on Music > ML Literature of music
Depositing User: Matthew Bannister
Date Deposited: 17 Nov 2015 21:48
Last Modified: 21 Jul 2023 03:43

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