Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 19, 2008

Read / Write / Access / Error: Query on human/machine memory

Filed under: Discussion — P.J. @ 7:23 pm
Tags: , ,

The debate that arises as early as Plato’s argument between Theuth and Thamus – which Renee brought up in an earlier post – has long fascinated me for its definition of memory as that which must instantiate in a consciousness located within the human body. Because I tend toward a model of memory that includes the extended “unconscious” information humans store in other media for retrieval, it is difficult for me to parse that clear defining line between biological and technical information resources, a position not unlike Andy Clark’s in Natural Born Cyborgs. Alternately, the proliferation of our externalized information resources (read that “databases”) demands new interrogations, not just because of the implications for New Media work we’re discussing this week, but because of the profound political implications that inhere in a system that can’t seem to get away from the “communication-and-control” of cybernetics; here Zach’s discussion on the status of abjected information in shadow databases comes into play.

In short, I am interested in exploration of some very fundamental issues: What is memory? What is its relationship to database – mutually exclusive, related, equivalent? I wonder especially about recent cybernetic/computational models of memory that, while they obviate the mystique attending models from 200 years ago, threatens to substitute it with a cybernetic mystique that fits into its own neat black box.

Further, what is it to re-member, or to re-mind, as we engage in this exercise in re-cognition? What members have we dispersed that demand reattachment, and does the act of remembering – whether it involves human recollection, paratextual referencing, or machinic recall of distributed data points – sufficiently fulfill this seeming desire of the members to rejoin? Does the re-rendered/re-membered/re-called figure function as a reasonable facsimile, or do we always create monsters anew, akin to the roughly-stitched Patchwork Girl of Shelley Jackson?

Seaman’s model of recombinant poetics, which he details in Vesna (124), seems to offer a model that anticipates this more emergent conception. Surprisingly, it is far more aligned with my understanding of oral composition, informed by Albert Lord’s study of the bardic tradition in the early 20th-century Balkans in The Singer of Tales. The bards who, as Sharon Daniel notes, “[perform] for the community narratives belonging to the community” (144), learn their craft not from the rote memorization of scripts, but from years of intense devotion to understanding the story elements and the verbal formulae in a way that enables masters to tell stories with any number of elements changed or modified according to the circumstances of the performance and audience feedback. (This is nothing like the spurious “substitutions” Steve Dietz offers from Ong’s interpretation of Homer in Vesna 117). Yet Lord notes (I can find that quote for you!) that the bards eschew any model of memory as exact reproduction by insisting that each instance of a given story is a reproduction of the same story, and moreover, is a truthful account of the same story.

So, immersed in computational models galore, how do we reconcile this understanding of human memory to our definitions of textual authenticity and data integrity? What function does forgetting serve? And, momentarily setting aside Daniel’s optimism regarding the intervention of dialogism, what are the political and aesthetic stakes in a system that falls short of ubiquitous capture and categorization? Even with an idealized ubiquity of storage and retrieval, what firewalls can we establish that prevent the human being – noted in several essays as analagous to a database – from being reduced to a datum?

I haven’t even started on the database/narrative dynamics in the Bible and the huge apparatus of scholarship that attends it. 🙂 But that would be fun to discuss too.

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