Musing on the fading memories of my 2016 Visiting Fellowship reminded me recently of the vexing amnesia that sets in as we finish a book, article or chapter in life. Namely, we quickly forget how we came to the present moment. Looking back over our shoulders, we rarely see a crisp, clear path to today’s ideas or conclusions. The specifics of the enlightening conversations that I had at BGC have dimmed. My files contain gleanings from books whose path to my desk I can no longer recall. This murkiness of the past is frustrating, a seeming human deficiency. Yet could our impatience with the opacity of memory inspire important questions about how we approach not only our personal pasts but history itself? Is our expectant search for clarity at times a Pyrrhic victory?

I came to the BGC while writing my forthcoming book on the critical role that uncertainty plays in cognition and creativity in an age of snap judgement. As the fellowship commenced, I was probing in particular the role that dissent plays in inspiring excellence in group problem-solving. Working far more subtly and indirectly than once imagined, dissent in effect prompts the uncertainty that is a necessary first stage of reflection. At the BGC, I began investigating whether dissent played any role in the practices of the early modern European workshop, an organization traditionally depicted as authoritarian. The research that I unearthed was far more complex and confusing than I had anticipated. Relations in workshops were often improvisational. Journeymen spoke up to their masters, as masters did to patrons. Some sidestepped strict guild rules to negotiate social hierarchies.1 That my preliminary conjectures were insufficient and even erroneous is not surprising. In research, we continually readjust and replace our theories as we search for cogency and coherence in our understanding.

But could our fervent yearning to wring clarity from the fading past, as crucial as that endeavor is, at times lead us to ask the wrong questions of memory? Does our discomfort with all that is abstruse perhaps lead us astray? Today, a predominant scientific view of the mind as a computer - orderly, hierarchical, quick - is giving way to a fuller understanding of both the brain and memory as plastic, networked, and ever-evolving. Long-term memories are stored in pulsing synaptic conversations across the brain, not modularly like neat files in a hard drive. The mind is constantly digesting, sifting, and organizing experience; it may take days or even weeks to assimilate new knowledge that contradicts what we already know. And the struggle to remember is in itself a remarkable form of meaning-making. Pursuing a dim memory, we take inexact routes to success, a process that bolsters crucial associations between the fact or experience that we seek to retrieve and others like it. The frustrating opacity of memory is a paradoxical mark of the brain’s very complexity, and a leading strength of the human mind.

In turn, could the elusiveness of a clear historical past be more of a gateway to understanding than we allow? In an era that increasingly prizes neat and packaged answers, we should aim not just to skim and cherry-pick our sources, but to linger over the contradictions and paradoxes that we inevitably uncover. (For instance, my research could inspire me to ask, “What does the friction within the essentially hierarchical workshop system reveal?”) A deep capacity to understand art, culture and experience, after all, begins with a willingness to not just confront and tame but to truly investigate disorder. Original ideas, wrote C. Wright Mills in his influential essay “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” can only germinate in “what is bound to be at first loose and even sloppy.”2

Surely we as curious humans always will strive to discover an order beneath what William James called the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of our world.3 That is a root force of human achievement. But the intellectual messiness that we relentlessly seek to conquer should have a respected place, as well, in the research pantheon. The path that brought us to this moment in time meanders and wanes, yet its mysteries are worth a repeated, probing look. And in the end, the amnesia that we face in confronting the past is a provocative reminder not only of the sophistication but the aliveness of our minds. The dynamism that we see all around us as we seek knowledge is miraculously reflected in all that is within.

Maggie Jackson, Independent Scholar; Bard Graduate Center Visiting Fellow, Fall 2016. Her latest book, Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure (Prometheus, 2023) examines the unexpectedly positive role that uncertainty plays in the life of the mind and in contemporary society.

1.Gervase Rosser, “Crafts, Guilds and the Negotiation of Work in the Medieval Town,” Past and Present 154.1 (1997), 3-31. Also James R. Farr, Artisans in Europe 1300-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 91.

2.C. Wright Mills, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” appendix to The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 195-226.

3.William James, Principles of Psychology, (New York: Dover, 1890/1950), 462.