Models of Memory – Chapter 1

More musings from the past. Edited to make more sense. Another topic I am keen to expand. 

Bachelard and The Poetics of Space


The first model of memory and place I will explore is derived from poetics of space by Gaston Bachelard, Bachelard writes of the importance of memory and experience when inhabiting a place. I wish to explore the idea that the material dimensions of a place are irrelevant when we are experiencing them, instead the significant details we take from a place is influenced by our past experiences and our memories. Bachelard focuses on the interior, a place of dwelling, a refuge for our memories, I believe that this theory can be applied to the exterior; familiarity is what is essential, the importance being in how we know a place, not what physically makes the place.

Our memories establish significance; they construct our perceived notion of place, they give meaning and hold importance.

“We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images. Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost. “(Bachelard)

Memories have the capability to enhance the value of things; the value we unconsciously associate with home is that of intimacy. This sense of knowing a space or having a pre conceived notion of a space similar to the one we are experiencing is how memory informs place. Our consciousness searches for the familiar to add meaning and strengthen our understanding to the place we inhabit.

Poetics of Space centres on the poetic image. As a phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard is most interested in our being defined by experience.

“The poetic image is not subject to inner thrust. It is not an echo of the past. On the contrary: through the brilliance of an image, the distant past resounds with echoes, and it is hard to know at what depth these echoes will reverberate and die away. Because of its novelty and its action, the poetic image has an entity and dynamism of its own” (Bachelard)

This merging of past memory, present image and future potential begins to describe how we interpret spaces with our memories. They shape and continue to shape our interaction with the places we inhabit. The image or place acts to enhance and amplify these echoes of memory. These echoes will continue to shape the way we interact with the places we visit.

I am merely touching of this idea of the value of memory, without fully exploring the importance of imagination and perception I am limited in my evaluation of this subject. I will however get back to my main line of enquiry.

This model of memory and place employs the notion that when experiencing a place our response to that place originates in our memories, experienced elsewhere, rather than the corporeal space that place inhabits.  ‘The exterior spectacle helps intimate grandeur unfold.’ (Bachelard on Baudelaires quote –  ‘In certain almost supernatural inner states, the depth of life is entirely revealed in the spectacle, however ordinary, that we have before our eyes, and which becomes the symbol of it’ .)

This would imply that the significance of memory is far greater than that of the physical. The ‘interior grandeur’ being the range of feelings brought about by our past memories, the exterior spectacle being what we see in the world around us.

Henri Bergson: pure and habitual memory

This theory of memory having a direct influence on our perception of a place we inhabit is one widely explored, but for the purpose of this essay I choose to look at Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory. In his own words, matter and memory ‘affirms both the reality of matter and the reality of spirit’ (Bergson) .  Bergson investigates the duality of perception and reality, and tries to overcome the difficulties at a theoretical level, which is bound to come about when evaluating the existence and consequence of the realism of matter and the idealism of memory.

Matter and memory is one of four main works by Henri Bergson, in which he distinguishes two different forms of memory, pure memory and habitual memory. Both of which play a part in this model I am exploring.

Memory of habit is that learnt through repetition .

“The memory of the lesson, which is remembered in the sense of learnt by heart, has all the marks of a habit. Like a habit, it is acquired by the repetition of the same effort.” (Bergson)

The habitual memory is one that acts out the past, and doesn’t represent it. This habitual memory will play a part in how we interact with a place. Habits that no longer take conscious effort will subconsciously have an effect on how we perceive the place, because the habitual memories ‘determine in us attitudes which automatically follow our perception of things.’ (Bergson)

Pure memory has many more intricacies in its explanation. For simplicities sake I will keep it concise. Pure memory is remembrance of image from the past, and recognising it as such. Pure memory does not seek to recreate, it instead acknowledges and understands there is no chance of repetition. Pure memory, image memory and perception all play a role in each other.

“Perception is never a mere contact of the mind with the object present; it is impregnated with memory-images which complete it as they interpret it. The memory-image, in its turn, partakes of the ‘pure memory,’ which it begins to materialize, and of the perception in which it tends to embody itself: regarded from the latter point of view, it might be defined as a nascent perception. Lastly, pure memory, though independent in theory, manifests itself as a rule only in the coloured and living image which reveals it.” (Bergson)

Pure memory is free, fundamentally spiritual and universally employed without so much of a hint of conscious effort. As soon as we consciously act to recall, that act itself becomes a memory.

‘we detach ourselves from the present in order to replace ourselves” (Bergson)  For pure memory to remain pure we must act in the moment, in the present state and take that feeling of remembrance and acknowledge is existence but disregard it, ‘we should never know it for a memory.’ (Begson)

Pure memory plays a much bigger role in this model of place and memory that habitual memory. Pure memory comes from our very essence; it is not learnt like that of a habit. This is the memory that comes into play when we are experiencing a place; we unknowingly draw on what we have already come into contact with and use this information, to construct a mental impression. We need to feel this familiarity with place to feel at ease.


“The pure present is the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future.”(Bergson)

Our surroundings and experiences are constantly informing our memories, yet our memories play the key part in how we interpret our environment. This implies a push and pull of image remembrance and being receptive to new images.

Sensitivity of the moment and reverberation of the past

Place is both informed by experience and memory, yet is constantly constructing and shifting new ones. It is here I go back to Bachelard, he speaks in-depth of the importance and impact of the poetic image and this is influenced a great deal with the act of reverberation, and openness to the image of the moment.

“One must be receptive, receptive to the image at the moment it appears: if there be a philosophy of poetry, it must appear and re-appear through a significant verse, in total adherence to an isolated image; to be exact, in the very ecstasy of the newness of the image.” (Bergson)

Bachelard stresses the importance of sensitivity to the moment, this is a sentiment echoed by Bergson, the person who can suspend the descent into memories, and live automatically in the present, can hope to achieve a greater level of awareness. The more we let our surroundings take control, and disregard past experience, the more we can hope to truly see of the world.

“The second part of this is reverberation, this reverberation; the poetic image will have sonority of being. The poet speaks on the threshold of being. Therefore, in order to determine the being of an image, we shall have to experience its reverberation .”(Bachelard)



“If I represent by a cone SAB the totality of the recollections accumulated in my memory, the base AB, situated in the past, remains motionless, while the summit S, which indicates at all times my present, moves forward unceasingly, and unceasingly also touches the moving plane P of my actual representation of the universe.” (Bergson)


“Reverberation of an image is an echo of our past.” (Bachelard – also You can argue that this echo; in a sense memory in its purest form. Pure memory as described by Bergson.)

Bachelard believes that with this reverberation comes an importance, and only through this process can we see the true value of a being. When we come across a place we have never encountered, our past encounters will be present in our mind, and will play a part in how we read the space. Similar to that of pure memory, as discussed earlier, this echo we all have is constantly informing how we interact with things external to ourselves.

I have no doubt that if it were possible to rid ourselves of memory, and truly see things, in their purest sense, we might hope to achieve some form of spiritual enlightenment. However these memories we all hold, prove to inspire value, meaning and emotion through things that are seemingly unimportant. The ability to appreciate things as they are in the moment and yet be conscious of the memories we hold is where the balance lies.

Rachel Whiteread: portraying memory

Whiteread gives nothingness a presence, working with the bleakness to create an impression of the feeling she is trying to convey in her work.

 “The way I’ve been working over the years has to do with the space that was once inhabited by, for instance, water. It has to do with the marks that are left and memories that are left from those marks.” (taken from Rachel Whitereads artist statement)

She works mainly with interiors (The interior links back to Bachelard, poetics of space, as it is a look into interior architecture. I have not analysed the whole of the text, instead I have chosen to focus on the sections relevant to the subject I am exploring. In terms of Whiteread’s work, chapter 5-shells and chapter 6-corners explore themes that run through all of her work.) exploring the overlooked, reliving memories, creating works that are very much memorials of the past.

Rachel Whiteread – Untitled (stairs) 2001. Collection – Tate collection


She gives these memories the human heft they deserve, she takes a memory which has transcended the material, and gives it back solidity in order to bring them back into our consciousness, even though they were never our memories in the first place.

Rachel Whiteread – Untitled (nine tables) 1998. Tate collection


As discussed earlier in this chapter, Whiteread employs this memory of place into her work. We can see with her casts, she is exploring the places we overlook, the places that contain memories and she gives them physical form we can appreciate and understand.

‘Whitereads early casts were rooted in her own formative experiences and were an attempt to capture the feel and actuality of those experiences’  (Joan Gibbons) rather than try to represent this feeling, through a photograph, for example, she chooses to give texture and weight to her work. Enabling us to appropriately interact, with what is, fundamentally, a memory personal to her alone.


I will, again, be back on this subject ; as one I seem to stray away from as often as I am drawn to it. I guess it’s some vague attempt to quantify and create a sense of reason for a ‘feeling’. 

Some books to check out if this was in any way interesting – 

Augé, M (1995) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity 

Bachelard, G (1958) The Poetics of Space 

Benjamin, W (2002) The Arcades project 

Benjamin, W (1938) Berlin childhood around 1900 

Bergson, H (1912) Matter and Memory  



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