Memory: Some Background

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Capitalism was not always organizing the end of memory.

Joseph Natoli

Capitalism was not always organizing the end of memory. There was little fear of the past, call it the ever deepening historical register, but rather a confidence that the economic growth it fostered would lead to amazing progress. The past was welcomed because it was proof of such advancements in every domain: cottage industry to factory production, sails to steam, horses to autos, candle to light bulbs, infectious deaths to antibiotic cures, two week transatlantic voyages to seven hour flights, radio to TV, silent movies to sound, paper and print to computers, muskets to drone strikes, public phones to Smartphone, analog to digital. History and the human faculty that could recall it were not only non-threatening to capitalism but evidence that it worked to everyone's advantage.

That type of capitalism has advanced to a globalized capitalism made possible by instantaneous and global wide cyber-communication. Capital floated as always but now so did products and labor. Productivity could be achieved by using workers elsewhere. Products de-nationalized as transnational corporations earned profits to shareholders wherever they might be on products not tied to any place of origin or to consumers in any country. The globalized facilitation of all this swelled a financial sector that reaped profits and commissions on the flow of the globalized economy itself: the stream of money that offered greater wealth than the production of anything money could buy.

The entire chessboard of reality changed in less than a quarter of a century. Ronald Reagan's move to tip the scales from middle class to a top 20% may have led to an Occupy Wall Street movement many years before it actually happened if not for cybertech's entrance. By the late `90s, Dotcom millionaires had emerged offering proof that economic and social mobility was alive and well in the U.S. but, more enduring, was cybertech's capacity to expand everything national to international dimensions so that opportunities to make money by having money expanded to global proportions. Concurrently, native workers were no longer a special need, except for low wage employment. Resources and their development also lost their privileged place in the new economic order. Unless there are attempts to nationalize resources, they are subject to global ownership, regardless of what the nationality of those resources might be. And profits to shareholders are exactly that: profits to those financially positioned to own and invest in stocks.

On this new chessboard, a successful middle class democracy almost overnight became a plutocracy that, rather like medieval feudalism, tightened class boundaries and barriers. What was brand new however was the use of the new alterative reality of cyberspace as a domain of both seduction and repression. All manner of hi-tech innovations seduced a "bottom" 80% of the population into absurd beliefs in the power of a personal will and the real-world effectiveness of self-design of everything from economics to politics. Now, on this new chessboard, the past becomes a problem in the same way that unions, environmentalists, consumer advocates, and the Federal government and its political advocates are problems to globalized techno-capitalism.

If you talk to members of Greenpeace, the UAW, Alliance for Justice, Consumer Action, the EPA, the Sierra Club, FCC, FDA, SEC among other advocacy groups and governmental agencies, you will hear of planned, concerted efforts to dissolve obstructions to profit. However, the underlying drive to eliminate obstacles to profit is axiomatic in a strict Euclidean way. Certain axioms are accepted and put into play. The instinctual analogy would be with a shark, for instance, who responds to blood in the water. There is thus no conspiracy to end, erase or repress memory but rather only a very decided movement, as if the prime algorithm for profit was operating, toward minimizing the value of the past. The past for us now is replete with not only memories of middle class democracy and "Working Class Heroes" but of situations in which plutocracy turned out badly for all. 2014 statistics revealing that the top wealthiest 1% possess 40% of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 80% own 7% have been greeted in the media with questions like `Does this matter? Is anyone taking this seriously?' We can assume either that a fatal historical amnesia has set in or that these are the questions of the 1% and not the 80%. Any scan of history will show that such a divide is serious and has had fatal consequences for the 1%.

I see no plot engineered toward identifying the past as an onerous scroll down Facebook or investing the present with the mini-dramas of endless Tweets or tying the past to the comic residues of Analog life or modulating attention spans and reality to video game play or transferring real world context to self-designed cyber spaces. The resulting situation however is one that benefits the plutocracy that therefore has no incentive to alter the situation. Change, if possible, would face both what globalized capitalism has already created, namely that the world's 85 richest people are worth the same amount as the poorest 3.5 billion, and the repressive and seductive uses of cyberspace already as much a part of reality as a Smartphone in the hands of almost everybody.

The analog past is a "back in the day" hi-tech naïve/primitive past that unfortunately covers everything before the World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau in 1990. Interest in recalling that past as significant when it has already preemptively been dismissed as of no comparative significance means that memory, already replaced by computer memory, is not a factor in innovation, which is the discovery of the new, not the old.

We have reached a point in this introduction to fuel hot debate. You cannot "j'accuse" either technology or capitalism without powerful backlash, especially when arguments can be made that both enhance our sense of where we are in history as well as guarantee that digitalized history will expand and preserve the historical record in ways never before imagined. "Multi-tasking" itself enhances human memory as single focus widens so that instead of playing on one chessboard of reality we play, like Magnus Carlsen, we now play on many and remember all our moves. History itself gives us a divided view of both history and memory.

Aristotle held that it was impossible to think without an image and when that image was not present to the senses, we could be incited by memory. Therefore, memory was given a privileged place in regard to human thought and desire. It was a faculty basic to growth and advancement. Giordano Bruno's The Art of Memory describing a way of creating, accessing and enriching a cathedral of memory derives from Aristotle's connection of image, memory and thought. William Blake referred to "the rotten rags of memory" which impeded the full use of the imagination while Hegel grounded his sense of progress in a dialectic that very much depended upon history. Proust believed he could capture his whole being in the world if he could revisit his memories. Deleuze however pointed out that such memory didn't reveal personal history but was connected with virtual past that never existed and all of that could only be reached by chance's disorientations. E.D. Hirsch, who began his career as a Blake critic, has impressed his notion of cultural literacy in the Common Core debate, arguing that without a shared cultural frame of reference, we would lose our public discourse and lapse into private language, a disaster for a democracy.

More broadly, Jews and Afro-Americans have an interest in preserving the memory of the Holocaust land black African slavery, respectively, lest it be repeated, a fate that those who cannot remember the past, as Santayana asserts, are condemned to repeat it. The idea of American Exceptionalism is itself grounded in repression of congenital traumas: the extermination of a native population, black African slavery, and the dropping of nuclear bombs on civilians.

More broadly than this are the cultural mindsets or paradigms that have sponsored varying views of history and memory. From the Enlightenment to the 20th century, a view of the past was a view of a steady movement from darkness to light, from superstitious rot and nonsense, as Bertrand Russell put it, to rational interpretation and understanding. With early 20th century modernism this optimism turned into a dark, tragic vision based on the atrocities that history under the guidance of universal reason, now seen in a Nietzschean fashion as no more than an alibi for power to assert its will, had plotted. Language itself, now only suspiciously transparent, is stretched beyond its capacity to capture not only what was but NOW.

This attitude segues into a post-truth age, called postmodern, in which history is no more than a narration of the present, a story responding to the needs of a present existing master narrative. And memory itself is guided by cultural preferences and becomes personal only through trauma, as Freud affirmed. True to this postmodern view, it itself falls victim, collapses and vanishes within the memory a market rule has established, a memory that sees history as a course of progress. Unlike however, an Enlightenment view, this progression creatively destroys the past so that it is in no way needed. The dialectic is analog and the past is no longer a spur to a new synthesis. Innovation is self-generating, autonomous. Cybertech has no need of the past. Information wants to be free; the shackles of copyright are like the shackles of history. The shackles of innovation are memories of what formerly existed, of "back in the day" analog talk that has no longer has place.

The supremacy of Market Rule, or a narrative that trumps all other narratives, shapes a "reality frame" that nurtures and is nurtured by both hi-tech/cybertech and pop culture. Questions whether technological innovations exacerbate both the human life-world and the planetary life-world and at what benefit are exiled to forgetfulness and oblivion, the domain of Lethe in an underground world of unmindfulness and Hypnos, or sleep. In effect, the triumphant advance of cybertech is an advance of patent and profit in which the past must literally be left behind in the same fashion that cassette, 8 track tapes, printed books and newspapers, brick and mortal bookshops, Selectric typewriters, flip phones, landline home phones and buggy whips are left behind. The ambiance of popular culture is a creation of hi-tech/cybertech. What is already a quick entrance and exiting of fad and fashion now occurs at nano speed. And, amazingly, a sense of popular tied to a populace becomes personalized and privatized as digital reality transfer all sense of "social" to "personal." Popular culture then, which provides its own staging of memory and thereby, forms a cultural commonality, or a "Public Memory," loses that role and collapses into private memory. "I told you Paul McCartney was in another band before Wings" captures the loss here. Fragmenting attentiveness and divided focus is now valued as a positive "multi-tasking" enterprise. Jump cuts replacing continuity cuts in TV. Script-less Reality TV is not script-less but narrated to capture a twittering span of attentiveness. The allure of Reality TV lies in a lingua franca that never burdens a viewer with a quest for meaning, theme, or coherence. Such "reality" representations aim not to represent anything because representation involves selection and form, once again burdens on a corrupted attentiveness and memory of the view. All manner of digital communication steadily increase the speed of communication while at the same time narrowing both the form and content of such communication to 140 characters, emoticons, photos, and text message shorthand. Fed on a diet of quick response to a chaotic barrage of "social media" stimuli in the present without a "connecting" engine, memory has no room; you could say karma is defeated.

And yet some say that a new karma possibly is developing. There may be a future in which this form of "I'm on the bus" communication supplements usefully expository discourse without any impairment to the latter. It may turn out that written language will give way to YouTube videos and photos, Facebook and smartphones. An alphabet on a keyboard gives way to speech. Human consciousness is both creating that change and is shaped by it, in the same fashion that Walter J. Ong demonstrated a change in human consciousness attending a change from orality to literacy. Once again, whether or not such a change is beneficial and in what ways we cannot know, especially those who are already deeply entrenched in an historical memory deeply indebted to Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the 15th century. One imagines, however, that a new generation not deeply entrenched in that historical memories might not mourn their loss. A rising percentage of young people do not see themselves as beneficiaries in any economic way to where history has led them. Why remember what has led so many to so little? Therefore, one can imagine that change, especially the dramatic changes that cyberspace is conducting, is greeted optimistically. Cyberspace has already proven to be host to a democratization of writing and writers, but whether books written by the public, as Oscar Wilde remarks, are read by no one and so such democratization descends to what de Tocqueville foresaw, we shall discover soon enough. A dispersal of a collective, historical and cultural memory into a myriad of personal "social" networks and websites would seem more likely to fracture both memory and communication rather than generate a solidarity that enables communication beyond what a solipsist greets optimistically.

Copyright © Joseph Natoli. All rights reserved.

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