Review by Christian Smith
“How am I obligated to remember? What am I obligated to remember? And with whom?”
Bookended by these questions, Anne Wysocki’s keynote speech on Friday evening offered a multimedia meditation on how the Western tradition has engaged memory from Simonides of Ceos to Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits while introducing the audience to her current book length digital project concerning memory and technology. Precipitated by the death of her father and the recent union struggles in Wisconsin, Wysocki’s keynote focused on the obligation of memory as an open question and the technologies that have historically been used to address this question.
Much like the dinner tables we were all seated around during the keynote, Wysocki reminded us that the Greek poet Simonides was the first to use mnemonics after a collapse of a dining hall in Scopas. After the tragedy, Simonides was able to correctly identify the bodies of the victims by remembering their loci in space around at the various tables. This would be the beginning of the mnemonic loci technique that would evolve into the elaborate constructions of memory palaces for the Romans and come to define technologies of memory in orality. Wysocki’s talk also reminded us that such devices should be thought of as a technology and how technically complex memory palaces had become until the advent of the printing press. At one point, Wysocki questioned what it must have been like to “have” all of Roman literature, indeed entire histories of culture, in your head and available for recall. How might memory palaces blur the distinction between an external public or cultural self and the interior private self with which we are currently more familiar? Wysocki’s talk brilliantly addressed how questions regarding the technologies of memory always involve conceptions of an interior self.
Preferring the term analogity over literacy, Wysocki smartly observed that “literacy” elides much of the media and technology that should be included in the term from lithography and photography to radio and film. She also noted that it is all too easy to forget just how permeable such distinctions and categories even are. Orality always invades and haunts analogity, just as analogity invades and haunts digitality. One can think of how journal keeping—indicative of late 18th and 19th century engagements with memory—have been taken up and proliferated digitally.
With analogity, Wysocki observed, memory no longer carries public culture, but carries instead an individual’s experiences and perceptions. One’s interiority becomes a “place” where a persistent and unified self is cobbled together rather than elaborate palaces of tradition and culture. Much like Proust’s madeleine or Freud’s couch, to remember in analogity means to “tell me myself, back to myself.” These associated technologies work to create a very particular (and perhaps peculiar) ontological relationship to memory, one that becomes increasingly concerned with the obligation to remember in order to be. During Wysocki’s discussion of memory in analogity, I couldn’t help but think of Robert Shields, the hypergraphic diarist who typed out his life in five minute increments leaving behind some 37 million words. For Shields, to write was to exist and he could only exist just as long as he was recording every breakfast, every conversation, every dream—indeed every daily bit of minutia. To further this point, Shields once noted in an interview that to quit writing would be like “turning off my life.” In many ways, Shields is a precursor to Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits project which allows Bell to record, and thus digitally “remember” the minutia of his daily existence. Like Bell’s work demonstrates, digital technologies have extended both our abilities to remember and the obligation to remember.
The recent “Timeline” update to Facebook’s settings, which allows the user to backtrack and log her life prior to becoming a Facebook user, is indicative of the obligations of memory in digitality. Such tools allow us to construct a digital self in ways the journal—or Freud’s couch—could not imagine. With equal parts humor and seriousness, Wysocki notes that our contemporary digital lives have made it such that “to exist is to be retweeted” and “to be is to be updated.” Increasingly, we are to the extent that we are online. This would partly explain services like the if i die app and deadsoci.al which allow users to program updates to your Facebook status and even make Tweets after your physical death.
Towards the end of her talk, Wysocki brought together her earlier discussions of memory palaces and digital memory by walking the audience through a 3D memory palace. Wysocki noted the ways in which this project, which demonstrated the ways in which formerly interior memory practices can now be externalized, is similar to the Jewish Museum Berlin. Both act as a kind of externalization of memory and architectural mediations on how the cultural memory of the past can be designed in specific ways to engage and create new memories.
Wysocki’s keynote was exactly the kind of digestif she had hoped it would be. It was stimulating not only for deftly introducing a truly ambitious research project, but also because her visual presentation was as engaging aesthetically as her talk was intellectually.
Christian Smith is a doctoral candidate in the Composition and Rhetoric program at the University of South Carolina. His research investigates the intersection between rhetoric, media, and cognitive studies.