Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 1, 2008

Wendy Chun on Memory

Filed under: Discussion,General — mkontopoulos @ 7:43 pm
Tags: , , ,

Our department has put this lecture online. I’m not sure if any of you got to go to it (I was sick that day), but if you have Real Player you can stream it. VLC will play the audio, but not the video. I highly recommend!!

If you think about it, the media we use in the present is changing and evolving at a rate much faster that any kind of critical discourse can keep up with. This becomes evident in the increasing importance of documentation, to the point where it often usurps the idea of a new media object itself. Chun quotes Lovink and McKenzie Wark’s ideas of “theory as event” here, in order to argue that new media theory itself, must change to a model that would better accommodate the speed of change. In an example, she challenges anybody to write a legitimate analysis of a facebook entry at any given moment.
This idea of speed is complicated by memory. If much new media theory is about media that no longer exists, than memory, not speed is a better model for considering a change in new media theory. We have to “get past Paul Virilio”. Bush’s Memex introduces this idea long ago, in his text “As we may think”. It’s a bit too naïve to assume that the internet truly represents the notion of “always there-ness” that we apply to it; nothing is lost, everything is archived. Because we believe that everything is retrievable and accessible, we grant ourselves the privilege of forgetting. According to Chun, the problem of forgetting becomes complicated as one medium becomes the memory for another. This leads her to a discussion of “moving memory”; here, Chun draws a careful distinction between storage and memory, storage signifying a physical archive (Here, she draws on Vannevar Bush’s Memex) and digital memory being ephemeral. So with a project like the internet “way back machine”, the idea of an archive of the internet is introduced but again, in terms of memory and not storage. Links break and files disappear; the archive is full of ‘skeletons’ of web pages. Are we in a “digital dark age”?  This question totally collapses my understanding of memory. The internet, in which we can find any piece of information, in which all actions – positive and negative – are recorded, in which elections are basically decided, discourse is cataloged on blogs, and identities are constructed, has no cultural memory in itself. So, i’m thinking: when all the world’s nuclear weapons detonate or we plunge into global climate change on an apocalyptic scale (whichever happens first, really), the next civilization that springs out of the ashes will locate little to none of our cultural memory, because the memories were, in a sense, ephemeral.
Chun’s basic thesis is that we need to place more emphasis on grasping a present which is constantly degenerating. Our notions of storage and memory are linked to repetition and retrieval, which simultaneously is linked to forgetting, but also to disseminating knowledge. It is this problematic dichotomy that she introduces, in order to get us thinking and asking questions about the way we analyze the present and attempt to archive it. By problematizing the notion of memory, Chun sets the stage for a necessary shift in the way we think about new media theory.


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