Mnenosyme and Lethe

In an interview with the Boston Review, writer Philip Gourevitch, who has written a book length treatment of the Rwandan genocide, reflects on memory:

“There’s a kind of fetishization of memory in our culture. Some of it comes from the experience and the memorial culture of the Holocaust—the injunction to remember. And it also comes from the strange collision of Freud and human rights thinking—the belief that anything that is not exposed and addressed and dealt with is festering and going to come back to destroy you. This is obviously not true. Memory is not such a cure-all. On the contrary, many of the great political crimes of recent history were committed in large part in the name of memory. The difference between memory and grudge is not always clean. Memories can hold you back, they can be a terrible burden, even an illness. Yes, memory—hallowed memory—can be a kind of disease. That’s one of the reasons that in every culture we have memorial structures and memorial days, whether for personal grief or for collective historical traumas. Because you need to get on with life the rest of the time and not feel the past too badly. I’m not talking about letting memory go. The thing is to contain memory, and then, on those days, or in those places, you can turn on the tap and really touch and feel it. The idea is not oblivion or even denial of memory. It’s about not poisoning ourselves with memory.”

From Technology Review’s “History, As Recorded on Twitter, Is Vanishing From The Web, Say Computer Scientists”:

“On 25 January 2011, a popular uprising began in Egypt that  led to the overthrow of the country’s brutal president and to the first truly free elections. One of the defining features of this uprising and of others in the Arab Spring was the way people used social media to organise protests and to spread news.

Several websites have since begun the task of curating this content, which is an important record of events and how they unfolded. That led Hany SalahEldeen and Michael Nelson at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, to take a deeper look at the material to see how much the shared  were still live.

What they found has serious implications. SalahEldeen and Nelson say a significant proportion of the websites that this social media points to has disappeared. And the same pattern occurs for other culturally significant events, such as the the H1N1 virus outbreak, Michael Jackson’s death and the Syrian uprising.

In other words, our history, as recorded by social media, is slowly leaking away.”

Jacques Derrida:

“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.”


The Waters of Lethe by the Plains of Elysium – John Spencer Stanhope

Ramblings Regarding Authenticity and Identity in an Age of Performance

What is authenticity? It is the holy grail of modern life.


Some thoughts.

Take One …

Because modernity is one long identity crisis.

In traditional societies, identity was given. It was grounded in the relative solidity of pre-modern life. Individuals inhabited an identity that was given by time, place, the structures and institutions of daily life.

In modernity, all that is solid melts … and choice is the solvent.

A multiplicity of choices arise were once there were few or none – choices regarding vocation, home, spouse, religion, and more. Consumer society is simply the apotheosis of a very long trajectory – Luther is her prophet.

Crisis of identity used to be the province of exiles and their children. Modernity generalizes the condition of exile.

Where there is choice there is freedom. There is also uncertainty, anxiety, regret, and self-consciousness.

Choice foregrounds the choosing self.

Freedom  and choice lead to performance. Choices, because they could have been otherwise, become signals to be read. They disclose and they reveal. When this dynamic is embraced, happily or despondently, identity becomes performance.

A performed identity – relative to an inhabited, given identity – feels inauthentic.

Take Two …

“The world of Homer is unbearably sad because it never transcends the immediate moment; one is happy, one is unhappy, one wins, one loses, finally one dies. That is all.” (W. H Auden)

Achilles is authentic. His identity is experienced as the fulfillment of a destiny. Further, there are no psychic gaps between circumstances and emotions and actions. Sorrow, tears, rage, murder – all follow immediately upon circumstances. Passionate intensity characterizes experience.

Self-consciousness lives in the gaps.

Once they open but a little, self-reflection and moderation emerge. Emotions are tempered and cooled.

Open them further and the space becomes a stage and performance ensues.

Performance is knowing, cool, detached, ironic. Performance feels inauthentic because it is rehearsed action.

Take Three …

“Writing heightens consciousness.” (Walter Ong)

Writing captures the mind. The diary is emblematic. Authentic self is the private self.

Images heighten self-consciousness.

Images of oneself capture the self as seen by others.

Images evoke performance.

“The medium is the message.” (Marshall McLuhan)

The medium is the message and we are both; it’s the ratio that matters.

Until recently the power to produce media has been in the hands of a relative few. Under these circumstances individuals were the medium and culture was the message. When the power to produce media is democratized the relationship is reversed. Culture becomes the medium and the self is the message.

“Any person today can lay claim to being filmed.” (Walter Benjamin)

Any person today can lay claim to being a filmmaker.

“The distinction between author and public is about to lose its axiomatic character … At any moment the reader is ready to become a writer.” (Walter Benjamin)

Digital media has democratized the production of media even further. We are not only actors, but also directors of our own lives as we perform them for an audience, imagined or real.

Authenticity, if it is taken to mean either non-performative action or immediate action that is not self-reflexive, is no longer an option. In the world created by the expansion of choices, we have no choice in the matter.

Hawthorne Against the Techno-Utopians

I’ve had occasion to mention Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing a time or two in previous posts. In his journal, he noted the manner in which the train whistle broke into the natural idyll he was enjoying — “But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive” — inaugurating a long-standing literary convention which persists to this day (see Sherry Turkle).

Elsewhere, Hawthorne anticipated de Chardin and McLuhan’s metaphorical rendering of the electric age: “Is it a fact — or have I dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?”

Hawthorne and his generation were grappling with the consequences of industrialization. We are grappling with the consequences of digitization. These two are not necessarily analogous, but they share one variable: human nature. Hawthorne in particular had a keen sense of our faults and foibles. While his stories did not always dwell on technology explicitly, they imaginatively explored the darker proclivities that human beings bring to the techno-scientific project.

In the opening paragraph of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne writes,

“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”

This is a grim observation, but it seems incontrovertible; and it applies with equal force to all techno-utopian projects and hopes. Wherever we go, there we are and our imperfections with us.

Pascal observed that the error of Stoicism lay in believing that what can be done once can be done always. I would offer an analogous framing of the techno-utopian error: Believing the wonderful use to which a technology can be put, will be the use to which it is always put.

Better, it would seem, to go forward with a hopeful skepticism that avoids the cycloptic vision of either the techno-utopians or the techno-cynics. And reading a little Hawthorne might be a good way of nurturing that disposition.


Over the past couple of years, the folks at The New Atlantis have been publishing a series of reflections on a handful of Hawthorne’s short stories as they bear on Science, Progress, and Human Nature. These are each thoughtful and engaging essays.  

Mindfulness Is Not Merely Subtraction

Mindfulness is not merely negation, subtraction, or reduction.

This was the thought that occurred to me as I read Miranda Ward’s reflections on her inadvertent break from the Internet, which concluded with the following observation:

“Why can’t we at least acknowledge that, with or without the internet, we still have to work hard, fight distraction, fight depression, and succumb, every once in awhile, to paralysing self-doubt? So it was nice, while I was on holiday, not to have any mobile phone reception. It’s also nice to be able to video chat with my 86-year-old grandmother in California. Disconnected, connected, whatever: I’m still fallible.”

Indeed, we are all fallible. If we assume that merely withdrawing from certain facets of digital life will by itself render us supremely attentive and mindful individuals, then we are certainly in for a rather disheartening disappointment.

That said, I do think the little word merely is essential. Mindfulness is more, not less than what I’ve called attentional austerity. To put it otherwise, attentional austerity is a necessary, but not sufficient cause of mindfulness. It’s not a matter of starving attention, but training and directing it.

Ordinarily, mindfulness is a habituated response, not a spontaneous reaction. Habituated responses arise out of our practices. If our online practices undermine mindfulness, then moderating these practices becomes part of the solution.

Learning to establish and abide by certain limits is, after all, an indispensable discipline. But imposing limits for their own sake is at best unhelpful and at worst destructive. Limits, as Wendell Berry has written, are best understood as “inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.” They are for something. 

Mindfulness must be for something. It is about fostering a certain kind of attention and learning to deploy it toward certain ends and not others. 

While doing whatever we call the Twitter equivalent of eavesdropping on an exchange centered on David Foster Wallace and the idea of mindfulness, I was reminded of Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address in which he makes the following observation:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the ‘rat race’ — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Mindfulness, in Wallace’s view, is about redirecting our attention toward others; and not only toward others, but toward others as ends in themselves (to put a Kantian spin on it). This latter qualification is necessary because we very often direct our attention upon others, but only for the sake of having ourselves reflected back to us.

There are, of course, other legitimate ends toward which mindfulness may aspire. The point is this: We ought not to be for or against the Internet in itself. We ought to be for the kind of loving mindfulness Wallace advocates — to take one example — and then we ought to measure our practices, all of them, online or off, by how well they support such loving mindfulness.

For Your Consideration – 2

“How Google and Apple’s digital mapping is mapping us”:

“The map is mapping us,” says Martin Dodge, a senior lecturer in human geography at Manchester University. “I’m not paranoid, but I am quite suspicious and cynical about products that appear to be innocent and neutral, but that are actually vacuuming up all kinds of behavioural and attitudinal data.”

“The Whole In Our Thinking About Augmented Reality”:

“… while Team Augmented Reality does a great job of explaining the enmeshment of ‘online’ and ‘offline’, and what the difference between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ isn’t, we need to do a much better job of explaining clearly what the difference between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ actually is.”

“Impatience As Digital Virtue”:

“Apple isn’t selling a fantasy but instead asks us to literally change — intellectually and emotionally — our default relationship with information.”

“The New Furby Review: Absolute Horror”: No, seriously, read this. Quite entertaining.

“Furby actually makes you want to hurt it somehow—if only it had feelings—so that you can punish it for existing. You begin to feel like a wrathful deity.”

“Generation Smartphone: The smartphone’s role as constant companion, helper, coach, and guardian has only just begun”:

“But the SmartPhone 20.0 won’t be just a high-tech baby monitor. Rather, the device or smart mobile devices like it will serve as nanny, nurse, or golf caddy—the perfect assistant for people of all ages. If you think that people can’t seem to make a move without consulting their phones today, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Update — More on Google maps from Alexis Madrigal here: “How Google Builds Its Maps—and What It Means for the Future of Everything.”