Unpractical Londoners: Memory, Memorialisation, and Design Thinking

After something of an extended blog break, stuck on a long (and not-yet-finished) blog post, my attention was captured and diverted by a second-hand book purchase last weekend. Two Short Accounts of Psycho-Analysis by Sigmund Freud cost me 99 pence, although the original cost only 30 pence. Published in 1910, the elegant, Marber-grid-designed Pelican 1962 version I found had (so a blurred stamp on the first page told me) previously been part of the Maria Assumpta College Library in Kensington, London.

Book Cover

The book consists of five lectures that Freud gave at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts in 1909, summarising his work into the theory of the unconscious and the practice of psycho-analysis. One particular passage, drawing an analogy between how people and how cities experience and remember trauma, stood out:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, if I may be allowed to generalize I should like to formulate what we have learned so far as follows: our hysterical patients suffer from reminiscences. Their symptoms are residues and mnemic [1] symbols of particular (traumatic) experiences.”

The markers of traumatic events, in other words, remain prominent in the memory of ‘hysterical’ people. Freud continues:

“We may perhaps obtain a deeper understanding of this kind of symbolism if we compare them with other mnemic symbols in other fields. The monuments and memorials with which large cities are adorned are also mnemic symbols. If you take a walk through the streets of London, you will find, in front of one of the great railway termini, a richly carved Gothic column – Charing Cross. One of the old Plantagenet kings of the thirteenth century ordered the body of his beloved Queen Eleanor to be carried to Westminster; and at every stage at which the coffin rested he erected a Gothic cross. Charing Cross is the last of the monuments that commemorate the funeral cortege.”

Freud gives a further example:

“At another point in the same town, not far from London Bridge, you will find a towering, and more modern, column, which is simply known as ‘The Monument’. It was designed as a memorial of the Great Fire, which broke out in that neighbourhood in 1666 and destroyed a large part of the city.”

These designed artefacts – the Gothic cross and the modern column – deliberately stand to mark particular traumatic events; moments in history that were upsetting or destructive [2]. Freud focuses us on our thoughts being symbols of prior experience; related things, but different things, where the representation and cause are only conceptually linked. The problems of hysteria come when we can’t let go of a particular symbol in our memory as Freud goes on to explain:

“These monuments, then, resemble hysterical symptoms in being mnemic symbols; up to that point the comparison seems justifiable. But what should we think of a Londoner who paused today in deep melancholy before the memorial of Queen Eleanor’s funeral instead of going about his business in the hurry that modern working conditions demand or instead of feeling joy over the youthful queen of his own heart? Or again what should we think of a Londoner who shed tears before the Monument that commemorates the reduction of his beloved metropolis to ashes although it has long since risen again in far greater brilliance? Yet every single hysteric and neurotic behaves like these two unpractical Londoners. Not only do they remember painful experiences of the remote past, but they still cling to them emotionally; they cannot get free of the past and for its sake they neglect what is real and immediate.”

The reason I was drawn to this passage was that it reveals the complexity of even the simplest of our thoughts.  A thought can be thing, but it can also represent another thing, and the meanings can be very particular, not necessarily ‘rational’, sometimes uncomfortable, potentially debilitating.

My own design research started in the area of design thinking when design thinking meant design cognition and not the general-purpose creative tool it has now become. Central to design cognition, as indeed to all cognition, as indeed is all cognition, is thought. I spent a lot of time thinking about what goes on in the mind of a designer – what thoughts flick through their brain when they’re designing something – where do the memories come from? How does remembered experience feed into the pencil, sketching the new solution?

At the time I took a simple-minded approach to thought. If a person said they’d thought of a ship, I noted it down, and didn’t question why they’d thought of a ship. A ship is a ship is a ship, I thought (and that sketch does look like a ship, I thought). But over the years I’ve noticed that good designers share certain traits; an emotional connection with material and things; a fixation with small details. Getting it just right matters, and that ‘just right’ involves not just aesthetics, but an emotional connection, a feeling that can’t be reasoned away, sometimes a mild hysteria.

Freud touches on thinking at the deepest level, where the sources and the structures and the mechanisms are incalculable and often illusory; logical dead ends. Where symbols erupt seemingly from nowhere; standing for things long gone from conscious memory; an emotional residue [3].

So perhaps to be a designer you have to be just a little bit hysterical. Unable to walk away from a memorial cross without a feeling of melancholy, unable not to shed tears at the destruction of a fondly remembered building – the Macintosh library to fire at the Glasgow School of Art, for example, or the Tricorn Centre to demolition in Portsmouth.

“Memory”, the Enlightenment Philosopher John Locke wrote, “is the key to identity”, but it’s a difficult thing to nail, especially when you’re interested in design thinking.

[1] mnemic – relating to the capacity for retaining the after-effects of a particular experience or stimulation.

[2] Compare this to the ‘speaking countenances’ of Thomas Hardy in another post, where a point on a bridge develops a character formed by many troubled person’s contact with it, and thus where the environment intrinsically ‘remembers’ and represents what has happened there.

[3] One of the best portrayals of how the unconscious mind draws from prior experience, going back to childhood, is shown in the film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when a memory erasing device attempts to track down the source of every last memory relating to the traumatic experience of a relationship breakup.

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5 comments

  1. Deep psychology & design(thinking)…ahh, two of my favorite subjects… what a pleasure this was to read. I found it intriguing that Freud attributed hysteria to a symbolic/causal attachment/disconnect…

    Oh, and, as Freud would say “A boat is never just a boat.” :3

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