Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Digital Archive

The future is stubbornly resistant to prediction, but we try anyway. I’ve been thinking lately about memory, technologies that mediate our memories, and the future of the past.

The one glaring fact — and I think it is more or less incontrovertible — is this: Digital technology has made it possible to capture and store vast amounts a data.

Much of this data, for the average person, involves the documentation of daily life. This documentation is often photographic or audio-visual.

What difference will this make? Recently, I suggested that in an age of memory abundance, memory will be devalued. There will be too much of it and it will be out there somewhere — in a hard drive, on my phone/computer,  or in the cloud. As we confidently and routinely outsource our remembering to digital devices and archives, we will grow relatively indifferent to personal memories. (Although, I don’t think indifferent is the best word — perhaps unattached.)

This too seems to me incontrovertible. It is the overlooked truth in Plato’s much-maligned critique of writing. Externalized memory is only figuratively related to internalized memory.

But I was assuming the permanence of these digital memories. What if our digital archives prove to be impermanent? What if in the coming years and decades we realize that our digital memories are gradually fading into oblivion?

Consider the following from Bruce Sterling: “Actually it’s mostly the past’s things that will outlive us. Things that have already successfully lived a long time, such as the Pyramids, are likely to stay around longer than 99.9% of our things. It might be a bit startling to realize that it’s mostly our paper that will survive us as data, while a lot of our electronics will succumb to erasure, loss, and bit rot.”

It might turn out that Snapchat is a premonition. What then?

Scenario A: Digital memory decay is a technical problem that is eventually solved; trajectory of memory abundance and consequent indifference plays out.

Scenario B: Digital memory decay remains a persistent problem.

Scenario B1: We devote ourselves to rituals of digital memory preservation. Therapy first referred to the care of the gods. We think of it as care for the self, sometimes involving the recollection repressed memories. Perhaps in the future these senses of the word will mutate into therapy understood as the care of our digital memories.

Scenario B2: By the time the problem of digital memory decay is recognized as a threat, we no longer care. Memory, we decide, is a burden. Mutually reinforcing decay and indifference then yield a creeping amnesia of long term memory. Eternal sunshine indeed.

Scenario B3: We reconsider our digital dependence and reintegrate analog and internalized forms of memory into our ecology of remembrance.

Scenario C: All of this is wrong.

In truth, I can hardly imagine a serious indifference to personal memory. But then again, I’m sure those who lived in societies whose cultural forms were devoted to tribal remembrance could hardly imagine serious indifference to the memory of the tribe. They probably couldn’t imagine someone caring much about their individual history; it was likely an incoherent concept. Thinking about the future involves the thinking of that which we can’t quite imagine, or is it the imagining of that which we can’t quite think. In any case, it’s not really about the future anyway. It’s about trying to make some sense of forces now at work and trying to reckon with the long reach of the past, which, remembered or not, will continue to make itself felt in the present.

From Memory Scarcity to Memory Abundance

The most famous section in arguably the most famous book about photography, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, dwells on a photograph of Barthes’ recently deceased mother taken in a winter garden when she was a little girl. On this picture, Barthes hung his meditative reflections on death and photography. The image evoked both the “that-has-been” reality of the subject, and the haunting “this-will-die” realization. That one photograph of his mother is also the only image discussed by Barthes that was not reproduced in Camera Lucida. It was too personal. It conveyed something true about his mother, but only to him.

But what if Barthes had not a few, but hundreds or even thousands of images of his mother?

I’ve long thought that what was most consequential about social media was their status as prosthetic memories. A site like Facebook, for example, is a massive archive of externalized memories preserved as texts and images. For this reason, it seemed to me, it would be unbearably hard to abandon such sites, particularly for those who had come of age with and through them. These archives bore too precious a record of the past to be simply deleted with a few clicks. I made this argument as late as last night.

But now I’ve realized that I had not fully appreciated the most important dynamic at play. I was operating with assumptions that were formed during an age of relative memory scarcity, but digital photography and sites like Facebook have brought us to an age of memory abundance. The paradoxical consequence of this development will be the progressive devaluing of such memories and severing of the past’s hold on the present. Gigabytes and terabytes of digital memories will not make us care more about those memories, they will make us care less.

We’ve seen the pattern before. Oral societies which had few and relatively inefficient technologies of remembrance at their disposal, lived to remember. Their cultural lives were devoted to ritual and liturgical acts of communal remembering. The introduction of writing, a comparably wondrous technology of remembrance, gradually released the individual from the burdens of cultural remembrance. Memory that could be outsourced, as we say, or offloaded could also be effectively forgotten by  the individual who was free to remember their own history. And it has been to this task that subsequent developments in the technology of remembrance have been put to use. The emergence of cheap paper coupled with rising rates of literacy gave us the diary and the boxes of letters. Photography and the film were also put to the task of documenting our lives. But until recently, these technologies were subject to important constraints. The recording devices were bulky and cumbersome and they were limited in capacity by the number of exposures in a film and the length of ribbon in a tape. There were also important practical constraints on storage and access. Digital technologies have burst through these constraints and they have not yet reached their potential.

Now we carry relatively unobtrusive devices of practically unlimited recording capacity, and these are easily linked to archives that are likewise virtually unlimited in their capacity to store and organize these memories. If we cast our vision into the not altogether distant nor fantastical future, we can anticipate individuals engaging with the world through devices (e.g., Google Glass) that will both augment the physical world by layering it with information and generate a near continuous audio-visual record of our experience.

Compared to these present and soon-to-be technologies, the 35mm camera which was at my disposal through the ’80s and ’90s seems primitive. With regards to a spectrum indicating the capacity to document and archive memories, I was then closer to my pre-modern predecessors than to the generation that will succeed me.

Roland Barthes’ near mystical veneration of his mother’s photograph, touching as it appears to those of us who lived in the age of memory scarcity, will seem quixotic and quaint to those who have known only memory abundance. Barthes will seem to them as those medievals that venerated the physical book do to us. They will be as indifferent to the photograph, and the past it encodes, as we are to the cheap paperback.

It may seem, as it did to me, that social media revived the significance of the past by reconnecting us with friends we would have mostly forgotten and reconstituting habits of social remembering. I’d even expressed concerns that social media might allow the past to overwhelm the present rendering recollection rather than suppression traumatic. But this has only been an effect of novelty upon that transitional generation who had lived without the technology and upon whom it appeared in medias res. For those who have known only the affordances of memory abundance, there will be no reconnection with long forgotten classmates or nostalgic reminiscences around a rare photograph of their youth capturing some trivial, unremembered moment. It will all be documented and archived, but it will mean not a thing.

It will be Barthes’ contemporary, Andy Warhol, who will appear as one of us. In his biography of Warhol, Victor Bockris writes,

Indeed, Andy’s desire to record everything around him had become a mania.  As John Perrault, the art critic, wrote in a profile of Warhol in Vogue:  “His portable tape recorder, housed in a black briefcase, is his latest self-protection device.  The microphone is pointed at anyone who approaches, turning the situation into a theater work.  He records hours of tape every day but just files the reels away and never listens to them.”

Andy Warhol’s performance art will be our ordinary experience, and it is that last line that we should note — “… and he never listens to them.”

Reconsider Plato’s infamous critique of writing. Critics charge Plato with shortsightedness because he failed to see just how much writing would in fact allow us to remember. But from a different perspective, Plato was right. The efficient and durable externalization of memory would makes us personally indifferent to remembrance. As the external archive grows, our personal involvement with the memory it stores shrinks in proportion.

Give me a few precious photographs, a few minutes of grainy film and I will treasure them and hold them dear. Give me one terabyte of images and films and I will care not at all.

In the future, we will float in the present untethered from the past and propelled listlessly onward by the perpetual stream of documentary detritus we will emit.

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google appear

Living for the Moment in the Age of the Image

We live for the moment because the moment is what an image captures.

(That, I’ve come to realize retrospectively, is the take away from my last post.)

It’s not uncommon, I presume, to snap a picture again and again in the often vain attempt to get it just so. Getting it just so in such cases entails matching the image captured by the photograph to the image in our mind of what that moment should look like (and feel like).

Two questions follow.

First, where did that image in our mind come from? Likely from countless similar images we’ve seen on Facebook or Pinterest or Flickr or television or Norman Rockwell or whatever.

The other night, I stood in a near empty section of a big box store waiting, surrounded by aisles of Christmas decorations, enveloped in the projected sounds of Christmas music, and I thought to myself, if this were a movie, this is the scene in which the director would zoom further and further out, showing me standing there alone with would-be purchases in hand, and it would scream that tired-late-capitalist-suburban-ennui cliché.

And even if I had felt as much, not simply thought that this was what the image suggested, but actually felt that ennui, would it have been because I was, in fact, an instance of the case, or would it have been because I had that pre-interpreted image in my head?

We’re Platonists, but our Ideas are not eternal, timeless Forms remembered from glimpses we caught of them in some preexistent state of our souls. Our Ideas, against which we seek to test the truthfulness and reality of our experience, are the Images that have become iconic commonplaces generated in the age of photography, film, and Madison Avenue, and now by social media on which we all play Don Draper to our own curated brand identity.

The second question, then, is this: Why are we so intent on getting that image just so?

Because it is what our dominant forms of remembering will receive. To be remembered is to appear, to be taken notice of, to be; so we desire deeply to remember and be remembered. So much so that we will transform the logic by which we make sense of our lives so that our lives may be subject to means of remembering.

In the age of stories, be they stories told by the rhapsode, the bard, or the novelist, what mattered was the whole, not the part. Individual scenes were subordinate to the logic of the whole plot. They gave one the sense that there was a beginning, middle, and end; and it was not until the end that the whole significance of the beginning and the middle could be perceived, much less understood.

In the age of images, this is reversed. In the image, the whole is instantaneously present. We crave that moment and the image that captures it, and so we pose and point and click and frame and click and click again and pose again, but naturally, and click.

Remember in Saving Private Ryan, how in the closing scene Ryan, played by Matt Damon, now far advanced in years, breaks down before the grave of Capt. Miller, Tom Hank’s character, and pleads with his uncomprehending wife to tell him that he has lived a good life — a life that, in the end, made sense of the sacrifice of those who died for him? We could care less about the good life taken whole and judged from the end, but, ah, we’d love to play a scene like that. It would work so well on Youtube, and it would feel just right, just then.

We are connoisseurs of the moments and scenes that the camera can frame, but we have little patience or taste for the satisfactions that arise not in the moment, but in deferred time, when, long after the moment has passed, it may finally be understood in light of some larger canvas. How, then, could we be expected to take notice of and live in light of some as of yet future whole. There is no memory to sustain such a project any longer. But there is memory enough and more to sustain the capture and storage and retrieval of the moment.

Recently, I suggested that Facebook might undermine the quest for the narrative unity of a life. This was naïve. It is not that Facebook undermines the quest for narrative unity, it is that Facebook makes such a quest implausible to begin with. Facebook — as a means of remembering, as our treasury of memory — receives the image, not the story. No one will write our story, and even if someone would, who would have the patience to listen to or read it.

If we will remember and be remembered, it will be by the image — and so we will live for the image, for the moment.

Social Media and the Arts of Memory

memory theater (2)

More than a year and half ago, I published two posts, in what was to be a series of three, framing social networking sites, Facebook in particular, within the arts of memory tradition. The third post, for a variety of now forgotten reasons, never appeared. Recent discussion regarding Facebook and memory prompted me to complete what had been left unfinished. Below you will find the complete essay including the text of those two earlier posts, lightly edited, along with the concluding section. 

memory theater (2)

Early in The Art of Memory, Frances Yates pauses to envision a “forgotten social habit” of antiquity.  She invites us to wonder,“Who is that man moving slowly in the lonely building, stopping at intervals with an intent face?”  That man, Yates tells us, is a “rhetoric student forming a set of memory loci.”  The rhetoric student would have been creating the architecture of a mental space into which they would then place vivid images imaginatively designed to recollect the themes or words of a prepared oration.  While delivering the oration, the rhetor would navigate the mental space coming upon each carefully placed image which triggered their memory accordingly.  This work of designing mental space and populating the space with striking images followed the prescriptions of the techniques of artificial memory widely practiced in classical antiquity.

What if, however, we updated Yates’ scene by setting it in the present?  The scene would be instantly recognizable as long as we equipped our imagined person with a cell phone.  The stopping at intervals and the intent face would correspond to any of the multiple uses to which an Internet-enabled smart phone may be put:  reading or sending a text message, downloading songs, taking or sending pictures and video, updating social media profiles, or finding directions with GPS, to name but a few.  What is striking is how often these activities would, like that of the ancient rhetor, involve the work of memory. Much of what cell phones are used for has very little to do with making a phone call, after all. Cell phones are more likely to be used to access the Internet, send a text message, take a picture, or film a video.  Given these capabilities cell phones have become prosthetic memory devices; to lose a cell phone would be to induce a state of partial amnesia.  Or, it may be better to say it might induce a fear of future amnesia since our ability to approach the present as a field of potential memories would be undermined.

Social networking sites (SNS) are of special interest because of how they explicitly trade in memory.  This leads Joanne Garde-Hansen to ask in “MyMemories?:  Personal Digital Archive Fever and Facebook,” “If memory and identity can be seen as coterminous and SNSs involve literally digitising ones’ self into being then what is at stake when memories and identities are practiced on Facebook?”

She goes on to add,

“It goes without saying that the allure of the site is in its drawing together in one place memory practices: creating photograph albums, sharing photographs, messaging, joining groups and alumni memberships, making ‘friends’ and staying in touch with family.”

It would be fair to acknowledge that SNS such as Facebook traffic in more than the allure of memory practices. Nonetheless, the production, maintenance, and retrieval of memory is integral to the practices deployed on social networks.

Following Jacques Derrida, Garde-Hansen considers Facebook as an instance of the archiving archive. Thus, she points out, the architecture of a SNS such as Facebook is not neutral with respect to the memories it archives.  As Derrida observed,

“… the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future.  The archivization produces as much as it records the event.”

Garde-Hansen also draws SNS into the tension between database and narrative addressed by Manovich in The Language of New Media.  In her view, the most significant aspect of Manovich’s analysis of new media for SNS is the comparison he draws between the visual organization of digital media interfaces and spatial montage.  “Manovich’s emphasis upon spatial narrative is,” according to Garde-Hansen, “extremely pertinent to thinking through the emergence of SNSs and how these sites remediate personal and collective memory.” Framed in this way, memory as spatial montage challenges “the rise and dominance of history,” the “power of the written word” to order the past temporally, and the “twentieth century’s emphasis upon the single, unadulterated image (think cinema).”

Derrida’s insight suggests that the sorts of memories we are able to archive with social media may already be directing our interactions in the present.  (For an insightful discussion of this point anchored on an analysis of faux-vintage photography see Nathan Jurgenson’s, “The Faux-Vintage Photo.”)  Drawing in Manovich’s database/narrative opposition further suggests that the visual/spatial mode of ordering memories on SNS potentially shifts how meaning is derived from memory and, consequently, how we understand the self.

Returning to the scene suggested by Yates we may also consider SNS such as Facebook as instances of new artificial memory spaces constructed to supplement and augment the natural memory.  In the artificial memory tradition we already see memory rendered spatially and visually in a manner that anticipates the representation and organization of memory on SNS.  Situating SNS within the long history of spatial and visual memory also affords us the opportunity to consider such sites in the context of a complex and rich tradition of philosophical reflection on the nature of memory.

What emerges is a history of memory practices that alternate between a Platonic focus on memory as the presence of an absence and an Aristotelian emphasis on memory as the record of the past.  There are several thematic threads that weave this story together including the opposition of internal memory to memory supported by inscription, the connection between memory and imagination, memory as the index of desire, the related tensions between space and time and databases and narratives, and the relationship of memory to identity.  Yet for all the complexity those themes introduce, we will begin with a story.

The Origin of the Arts of Memory

Spatiality, images, and death have long been woven together in the complex history of remembering.  Each appears prominently in the founding myth of what Yates called the “art of memory” as it is recounted by Cicero in his De oratore. According to the story, the poet Simonides of Ceos was contracted by Scopas, a Thessalian nobleman, to compose a poem in his honor.  To the nobleman’s chagrin, Simonides devoted half of his oration to the praise of the gods Castor and Pollux.  Feeling himself cheated out of half of the honor, Scopas brusquely paid Simonides only half the agreed upon fee and told him to seek the rest from the twin gods.  Not long afterward that same evening, Simonides was summoned from the banqueting table by news that two young men were calling for him at the door.  Simonides sought the two callers, but found no one.  While he was out of the house, however, the roof caved in killing all of those gathered around the table including Scopas. As Yates puts it, “The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash.”

The bodies of the victims were so disfigured by the manner of death that they were rendered unidentifiable even by family and friends.  Simonides, however, found that he was able to recall where each person was seated around the table and in this way he identified each body.  This led Simonides to the realization that place and image were the keys to memory, and in this case, also a means of preserving identity through the calamity of death.  In Cicero’s words,

“[Simonides] inferred that persons desiring to train [their memory] must select places and form mental images of the things they wish to remember and store those images in the places, so that the order of the places will preserve the order of the things, and the images of the things will denote the things themselves, and we shall employ the places and images respectively as a wax writing-tablet and the letters written on it.”

Cicero is one of three classical sources on the principles of artificial memory that evolved in the ancient world as a component of rhetorical training.  The other two sources are Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria and the anonymous Ad Herennium.  It is through the Ad Herennium, mistakenly attributed to Cicero, that the art of memory migrates into medieval culture where it is eventually assimilated into the field of ethics.  Cicero’s allusion to the wax-writing table, however, reminds us that discussion of memory in the ancient world was not limited to the rhetorical schools.  Memory as a block of wax upon which we make impressions is a metaphor attributed to Socrates in Plato’s Theaetetus where it appears as a gift of Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses:

“Imagine, then, for the sake of argument, that our minds contain a block of wax, which in this or that individual may be larger or smaller, and composed of wax that is comparatively pure or muddy, and harder in some, softer in others, and sometimes of just the right consistency.

Let us call it the gift of the Muses’ mother, Memory, and say that whenever we wish to remember something we see or hear or conceive in our own minds, we hold this wax under the perceptions or ideas and imprint them on it as we might stamp the impressions of a seal ring.  Whatever is so imprinted we remember and know so long as the image remains; whatever is rubbed out or has not succeeded in leaving an impression we have forgotten and do not know.”

Plato and Aristotle in Rafeal's "School of Athens"

The Platonic understanding of memory was grounded in an epistemology which located the ability to apprehend truth in an act of recollection.  Plato believed that the highest forms of knowledge were not derived from sense experience, but were first apprehended by the soul in a pre-existent state and remain imprinted deep in a person’s memory.  Truth consists in matching the sensible experience of physical reality to the imprint of eternal Forms or Ideas whose images or imprints reside in memory.  Consequently, the chief aim of education, and the highest calling of memory, is the remembering of these Ideas and this aim is principally attained through “dialectical enquiry,” a process, modeled by Plato’s dialogs, by which a student may arrive at a remembering of the Ideas.

At this point, we should notice that the anteriority, or “pastness,” of the knowledge in question is, strictly speaking, incidental.  What is important is the presence of the absent Idea or Form to be contemplated.  It is to evoke the presence of this absence that memory is deployed.  It is the presence of eternal Ideas that secures the apprehension of truth, goodness, or beauty in the present.  Locating the memory within the span of time past does not bear upon its value which rests in its being possessed as a model against which to measure experience.

By contrast, the principle aspect to note about Aristotle’s understanding of memory is that he distinguishes it from the imagination by noting its reference to the historical time.  While Plato’s focus on the image and its presence becomes “an obstacle to recognizing the specificity of the properly temporalizing function of memory,” according to Paul Riceour, in Aristotle’s “proud declaration” that “all memory is of the past” we find acknowledgement of that specificity.  In Aristotle’s account, memory is also, as it were, naturalized.  Along with his emphasis on memory being “of the past,” it is the past of sense experience that, for Aristotle, stocks memory.  Gone is Plato’s theory of the preexistence of the soul and memory as the deposit of knowledge of the Forms glimpsed in that preexistent state.

Ricoeur, in Memory, History, Forgetting, begins his consideration of the heritage of Greek reflections on memory with the following observation:

“Socratic philosophy bequeathed to us two rival and complementary topoi on this subject, one Platonic, the other Aristotelian.  The first, centered on the theme of the eikōn [image], speaks of the present representation of an absent thing; it argues implicitly for enclosing the problematic of memory within that of imagination.  The second, centered on the theme of the representation of a thing formerly perceived, acquired, or learned, argues for including the problematic of the image within that of remembering.”

As he goes on to note, from these two framings of the problematic of memory “we can never completely extricate ourselves.”

Reflecting for just a moment on the nature of our own memories it is not difficult to see why this might be the case.  If we remember our mother, for example, we may do so either by contemplating some idealized image of her in our mind’s eye or else by recollecting a moment from our shared past.  In both cases we may be said to be remembering our mother, but the memories differ along the Platonic/Aristotelian divide suggested by Ricoeur.  In the former case I remember her in a way that seeks her presence without reference to time past; in the latter, I remember her in a way that situates her chronologically in the past.

What we find as we pursue the artificial memory tradition through the medieval period into the Renaissance is a persistent distancing of memory from narrative and toward presence.  In its various manifestations it becomes an art seeking the presence of the divine, of virtue, or of esoteric knowledge mediated through images in a space that can be apprehended at a glance.

“One of the most striking manifestations of the Renaissance use of the art,” Yates explains, “is the Memory Theater of Giulio Camillo … based (so he believes) on archetypes of reality on which depend secondary images covering the whole realm of nature and of man.” Camillo, mostly forgotten in our age, was in his time a celebrity that attracted the attention of notable contemporaries including the King of France and Erasmus.  It is in fact, from the hand of Erasmus’ secretary that we have the most complete record of Camillo’s memory theater.

This manifestation of the artificial memory, however, also included Hermetic and Cabalistic elements.  Yates, in fact, describes Camillo’s lifetime work as an effort to the blend the Hermetic-Cabalist tradition founded by Pico della Mirandola with the classical art of memory.  Camillo also links these esoteric traditions to the recently revived currents of Neoplatonism so that his memory theater would “represent the eternal order of truth.”

Camillo’s theater was a physical object large enough for two people to enter into in order to see the drawn image of a theater used to organize the whole range of human knowledge. Gone from Camillo’s theater is the space that at least implied a certain temporality, or at least sequentiality as it was navigated.  Now the space itself is a fixed image that is immediately and simultaneously present to user.  Temporality is overthrown by presence.  Again Ricoeur:  “The revenge of the Platonic, and especially Neoplatonic, reminiscence over the Aristotelian psychology of memory and recollection is complete, but at the price of the transformation of reasoned speculation into mystagogy.”

Memory, Databases, Narrative

Where memory is conceived in Aristotelian fashion as principally defined by its reference to a past in time, it shares a natural affinity with narrative.  “Narrative is,” as Katherine Hayles has put it, “a temporal technology.” Where memory is divorced from temporality in Platonic fashion, narrative seems to fade from view.  To represent memories visually is to render them present, but it may also mean abstracting them from their place in the narratives we tell about our lives.  The artificial memory techniques, detached from temporality as they were, may be understood on the model of the database that, in Manovich’s analysis, is the “natural enemy of narrative.”

The architecture of the mental space in the artificial memory tradition functions similarly to an interface that allows for multiple arrangements of the images which are so many icons representing various types of data points.  Like a database, what the artificial memory facilitated was principally random access and retrieval.  As Manovich goes on to note, “a database can support narrative, but there is nothing in the logic of the medium itself that would foster its generation.”  Likewise with the artificial memory; it could support a narrative, but it does not necessarily generate one.

In his brief discussion of the artificial memory, Ricoeur forcefully makes a similar point:  “spatialization obliterates temporalization … the notion of place has chased away the mark of the past which had characterized memory since Aristotle’s De memoria et reminiscentia.  Memory no longer consists in recalling the past but in actualizing what has been learned and stored away in mental space.”

In response to Manovich, Hayles sought to articulate a more symbiotic relationship between narratives and databases:  “No longer singular, narratives remain the necessary others to database’s ontology, the perspectives that invest the formal logic of database operations with human meanings and that gesture toward the unknown hovering beyond the brink of what can be classified and enumerated.” Hayles offers an instructive reframing of the opposition between narrative and database.  However, drawing artificial memory into the database/narrative polarity suggests that memories stored in databases may not be seeking narratives at all.  While meaning can be secured by the deployment of narratives that bring order to the disorder of lived experience, the desire for meaning is not the only desire that memory answers to. Memory also desires presence.

Coming back to social networking sites, we might say then personal memories, of the sort archived by Facebook, yield presence rather than the sort of meaning that arises from narratives. Not unlike the mental constructs of the arts of memory, Facebook operates on the model of the database and the spatial montage. Like the artificial memory, it may sustain a narrative, but it does not necessarily generate one.  Facebook backgrounds the narrative coherence of memory grounded in past experience in favor of the immediacy of spatially and visually mediated presence. We do well, however, not to frame this opposition too starkly. The introduction of Facebook’s Timeline interface may be seen as a tilt in the direction of Aristotelian memory and narrative. Nonetheless, memory, when anchored to spatially arranged databases of images, more readily answers to the desire for the immediacy of presence rather than the temporally inflected logic of narrative.

It may be helpful to consider Facebook alongside the diary, another form of externalized memory. The material form of the diary encourages a narrative posture toward experience. Writing already requires the narrativizing of one’s experience and the diary’s form elicits the sequential ordering of these narratives and suggests an anticipation of closure. Visual databases of memory, whether mental, analog, or digital, may invite commentary and explication, but not a linear narrative of one’s experience.


Returning to the story of Simonides, we remember that the artificial memory tradition had its roots in the trauma of death. In the face of great loss we may very well seek the consolations of a narrative that attempts to meaningfully frame our experience. But we may also seek to recover the presence of what is now absent.

In “A Photograph,” the poet, Czeslaw Milosz, observed:

“Few tasks more difficult
Than to write a treatise
On a man who looks
At an old photograph.

Why he does it
Is incomprehensible
And his feelings
Cannot be explained.

Seemingly it’s simple:
She was his love.
But here precisely
Questions begin.”

Then, toward the end of the poem, Milosz writes,

“And, inconceivable,
He addressed her,
Perfectly certain
That she hears him:

‘O maiden of the Lord,
Promised to me,
With whom I was to have
At least twelve children,

‘Obtain for me the grace
Of your strong faith.
We living are too weak
Without your assistance.

You are for me now
The mystery of time
i.e., of a person
Changing and the same,

Who runs in the garden
Fragrant after the rain
With a ribbon in your hair
And lives in the beyond.

You see how I try
To reach with words
What matters most
And how I fail.

Though perhaps this moment
When you are so close
Is precisely your help
And an act of forgiveness.’”

There is something about the image, the photograph — remember Barthes’ mother — that evokes the consolations of memory as presence. Life consists of countless separations and losses; in such instances we may also seek similar consolation. We know we will be parted and we know the present is ephemeral, so we build our archives of memories to later avail ourselves of the presence they offer.

According to Ivan Illich, “What anthropologists distinguish as ‘cultures’ the historian of mental spaces might distinguish as different ‘memories.’” What historians of media have classified as oral, literate, print, and electronic cultures were distinguished largely along the lines of what could be remembered, how, and by whom. It would be presumptuous to say that the same will be true of digital culture, but it would be surprising if such were not the case. We do well then to consider how digital media shapes our remembering, both what it allows us to remember and what it encourages us to remember.

Memory, Facebook, and the Narrative Unity of a Life


Below are links to three essays in conversation with one another on the relative merits of Facebook as augmented memory. Jurgenson argues that expressing the “glad I didn’t have Facebook” sentiment is likely to reinforce what he considers an unhealthy preoccupation with consistency of identity over time. Boesel and Horning each offer diverging perspectives on Jurgenson’s piece. I’m glad for the exchange since it foregrounds an aspect of social media’s consequences that seems to get less attention than it deserves. What follows is not really a response to these essays so much as another reflection on the theme.

“Glad I Didn’t Have Facebook In High School” by Nathan Jurgenson

“Let Sleeping Memories Lie: High School and the Facebookless Past” by Whitney Erin Boesel

“Everyday schadenfreude” by Rob Horning

Several months back I wrote a couple of posts on Facebook and memory. The first considered Facebook as a form of social remembering, and the second suggested that Facebook is a contemporary form of the ancient arts of memory tradition.

My thinking on the relationship between memory and Facebook remains largely unchanged from when I wrote those posts and is summed up rather nicely by Jacques Derrida when he writes, “They tell, and here is the enigma, that those consulting the oracle of Trophonios in Boetia found there two springs and were supposed to drink from each, from the spring of memory and from the spring of forgetting.”

We must be able to do both — remember and forget. The ability to do so in the appropriate proportion seems essential to living with ourselves in some meaningful and morally responsible manner. What that proportion is, every one must discover for themselves. But it seems to involve some delicate balance between the past, present, and future which acknowledges their entanglement while also respecting the integrity of each.

In any case, memory is tied up intimately with identity; this much has been apparent since antiquity. Augustine’s Confessions, an autobiographical account of his journey toward conversion, includes an eloquent chapter on memory which remains a classic text in what we might call the philosophy of memory. And while it may be the case that there is, in some quarters, an unhealthy fixation on a rigidly construed consistency of identity over time, it seems to me that this is not really the issue. We know, most of us, that we evolve over time, sometimes gradually and sometimes dramatically, while, indeed, some aspects of our personality remain stubbornly persistent. This was, in fact, the theme of Confessions. (Certainly if Augustine had Facebook, he would have been bemused by the enduring record of all those “Likes” of Manichaeism.) We change over time and thank God for it.

But that change may still be taken into account within what Alasdair MacIntyre has called the narrative unity of a human life. “The unity of a human life,” MacIntyre writes, “is the unity of a narrative quest.” Facebook enters into this narrative quest with potentially significant and not entirely benign consequences. It amounts, we might say, to an outsourcing of the quest and consequently to an evacuation of the quest’s moral significance.

Richard Terdiman’s discussion of Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the city happens to articulate some of  these concerns rather well:

“[Benjamin] argued that the nineteenth-century city produced a particularly acute experience of disconnection and abstraction. Such abstraction defeats the associative structure of natural memory and induces in its place a different form of the habitus or technology of recollection that we could call ‘archival consciousness.’ Its principle would be the increasingly randomized isolation of the individual item of information, to the detriment of its relation to any whole, and the consignment of such information to what earlier I called ‘extrindividual’ mnemonic mechanisms.”

It is no small thing to substitute an archive, Facebook’s in this case, with its particular structure, for the “associative structure of natural memory.” Or, I would add, for the moral work of memory — the weighing of guilt and regret, for example, and the coming responsibily to terms with one’s past.

It would seem as well, that the rhythms of natural memory have their own consolations. Near the end of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens writes the following exchange between Carton and Lorry:

Sydney turned his eyes again upon the fire, and, after a silence of a few moments, said:

“I should like to ask you:—Does your childhood seem far off? Do the days when you sat at your mother’s knee, seem days of very long ago?”

Responding to his softened manner, Mr. Lorry answered:

“Twenty years back, yes; at this time of my life, no. For, as I draw closer and closer to the end, I travel in the circle, nearer and nearer to the beginning. It seems to be one of the kind smoothings and preparings of the way. My heart is touched now, by many remembrances that had long fallen asleep, of my pretty young mother (and I so old!), and by many associations of the days when what we call the World was not so real with me, and my faults were not confirmed in me.”

Sentimentalized perhaps, but not, I believe, dishonestly so. It is perhaps how our memory may seek to help us along in the quest for the narrative unity of our life.