Impossile Recollections: The Troubled Imaginary of Mediated Memory
A thesis submitted to the Victoria University of Wellington in fulfilment of the requirements
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in English Literature
Victoria University of Wellington, 2006
This study is grounded in the belief that memory is one of the key areas of contestation in the current debates about technology and society. Its redefinition following the introduction of new technologies, the latest of which is the digital computer, has generated a landscape of dreams and anxieties that underlies complex attitudes towards which cultural products can or cannot be committed to memory, and who can or cannot have access to them. On the one hand, digitisation and the dissemination of information through networks such as the World Wide Web offer an infrastructure that appears on the verge of being able to make the sum of human knowledge available to all; on the other, the realisation of the strains, both cultural and technological, which are exerted upon this infrastructure gives way to visions of an impending breakdown of our ability to preserve, let alone transfer, this knowledge.
These anxious imaginings are charted firstly along the axis that links the extremes of total recall and equally total forgetfulness, with an emphasis on the way in which these two narratives are played out against each other. A further exploration leads from the resonant notion of digitally documented life that informs so many current social practices to the idea that we might one day be able to upload our minds onto computer networks, only to find in that seemingly confident scenario another significant reservoir of anxiety, as well as a prime instance of the binary logic of exclusion that governs the construction and in part also our understanding of digital subjectivity. The figure of the excluded, undocumented person introduces in the last chapter an examination of the perceived threats to the functioning of collective memory and to its ability to fulfil the duty of remembering and passing on the most important events in our history. Finally, the study argues that the imaginary of anxiety just explored should be viewed not solely as a conservative reaction to social and technological change, but also as the means of grounding a more inclusive understanding of a society that is significantly inhabited, but not exhausted, by the digital.
Of Cyborgs and Butlers
CHAPTER ONE – PLACES OF AMNESIA
Into a Digital Dark Age
Bouvard and Pécuchet in Cyberspace
Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction
Metaphors of Memory
The Soldier of the Mist
Remember Sammy Jankis
One Frame a Day
The Amnesia Epidemic
The story, Lost
CHAPTER TWO - THE HORROR OF THE TOTAL LIBRARY
‘My mind, Sir, is a garbage disposal’
Can It Be Done?
The Stickiness of the Database
Perec and the Confines of the Archive
Saving the Present
The Glut of Information
The Library of Babel in Cyberspace
Information and Metaphor
CHAPTER THREE – THE NEW HOME OF MIND
The Forever Network
Restoring the Body of the Machine
CHAPTER FOUR – THE TRANSMISSION OF MEMORY
From Being Digital to Being Postmodern
Informatics, the Archive and the Holocaust
The Great Moon Hoax
Of Recovered, False, Post- and Prosthetic Memories
A New Breed of Cartesian Demons
Do You See What I See?
Above all, this work benefited greatly from an ongoing conversation with Brian Opie and Linda Hardy, and it was a conversation I was privileged to be part of.
I am grateful for the generosity of the folks at rec.arts.sf.written, it.cultura.fantascienza and it.cultura.libri, whose help with the initial gathering of texts was invaluable. I am similarly indebted to the very many friends who pitched in with suggestions and titles and plot summaries, but since it would be impossible to name them all I am going to limit the shout out to Marco Cultrera, who went above and beyond. Dougal McNeill, before he whisked himself off to Australia, was always there to remind me that I am a pre-post-Marxist, while Giacomo Lichtner was a great source of help and encouragement. Joseph and Lucia put it all in context (‘what do you mean you can’t play now?’). Finally, my thanks go to Victoria University, The JL Stewart Scholarship fund and the Georgetti Scholarship fund for their very generous financial support; and to Justine, for every other kind of support one could possibly wish for.
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