on memory

Posted by Rhizome | Mon May 26th 1997 1 a.m.

from Tech90s [http://www.tech90s.net]:

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Memory

We tend to regard our own memories as private representations of our
living experiences. In turn, we say that we "share" such representations
with others. It seems no accident that our language for describing the
workings of human memory bears close similarity to that with which we
describe objects around us. For example, we say that we place and
misplace things in memory. We often describe surrounding objects as if
they could be receptacles for memories. As if what these objects hold is
fluid, we also describe memories as able to undergo change or revision.
A static memory is indeed a dead memory. We share memories as we share
objects. But does the language used to describe the fashioning of
objects reflect the one used to describe the accumulation of memories?
To a point. Note that objects may not necessarily be in themselves
memories, but holders for them. But how then do we imagine that memories
get transferred, so to speak, into objects, and into our minds? That is
to say, how do we figure this process?

It has been argued that the western concept of memory has depended
historically on the tools available at any one time and place for
describing the process by which we record events. Recall memory palaces,
the metaphor in which architecture serves as a tool in the aid of
memory. Or personal diaries, which reflect an important relationship
established between the form of the book and the temporality of lived
experience. Freud suggested one of the most idiosyncratic metaphors when
he used not only the photographic camera, but also a child's toy, the
"Mystic Writing Pad," to illustrate the workings of memory. Today,
something in the way we regard the dynamism of computer memory and
processing reverberates with our sense of personal and cultural memory
as a place of programming, failure, interruption, and perhaps even
crash. But, I am not claiming that the ways in which we regard memory
today are limited to how we regard artificial memory. The figures for
memory we employ remain embedded in a system of signification older than
the short history of computers. But, by the same token, our
understanding of what computers represent, what they preserve and
challenge culturally, also operates in relation to such entrenched
values. Perhaps it is also in this respect that the ways in which we
record memories remains obscured in relation to our concern for their
retrieval.

New media, what we make with it, depends on such values. Thus it is that
we see in its artifacts the ways in which artists have attempted to make
it tactile. As we have seen, the metaphors of memory have historically
involved mechanisms operated with the hands, or at least experienced
bodily. There is an irony in that we try to construct this sense of
memory by way of a medium we also regard as destructive of memory, of
the tradition of the analog bases for memory. Thus it is that we attempt
to enlist analogy to in an attempt to save it. This is perhaps not new.
It seems constitutive of the history of our resistance to the
destructive aspects of technology. But do we also resist acknowledging
our dependence on technology.

But if we are in a moment of resistance, we should be wary of the
possibility that we are also experiencing disavowal. As I stated before,
new media is regarded as an aesthetics of infinity. And this seems
consistent with a desire to stress our own self-consciousness. Our
senses of self depend on some sense of interplay between ourselves and
the world. New media's interactive aspect seems to provide us with a
representation of this desire for self. There is a sense that the hype
of having access to limitless amounts of information is also a
possibility, more than just hype. What is interesting about this vision
is that the form of the computers, the machines through which such
experiences are even possible, are regarded as detached from the
experiences. Such forms as virtual reality include a paradoxical desire
for unmediated representation. At the end of such a project is the
erasure of the mythic aspect of unmediated experience.

By remaining attentive to the interfaces between our bodies and
machines, we maintain responsiveness to the limits of representations,
while at the same time acknowledging their power. We might also be
attuned to the material conditions of their production. This would
entail placing in relation to the "clean" interpretation that we have of
computer work, the dirt associated with their production. The obsessive
attention paid to having such places as "clean rooms" in the production
of computer chips and other components draws attention to the toxicity
which is produced alongside such devices, threatening our environment
and our bodies, not just our semiconductors.

In the production of new media, the screen, the visual interface, can
act as place where visual and haptic categories become confused, at
those moments drawing attention to other conflicts represented therein.

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