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2012: Memories, Technologies, Rhetorics

Diane Davis                  

         In an essay on Hegel’s aesthetics, Paul de Man zeroes in on a distinction Hegel reiterates between Gedächtnis, which is Hegel’s word for rote memorization, and Erinnerung, which suggests the “inner gathering and preserving of experience” that is typically signified when one speaks of recollection or remembrance. De Man notes that the “surprise” in Hegel is that “the progression from perception to thought depends crucially on the mental faculty of memorization,” which has to remain “sharply distinguished from recollection and from imagination.” The only way to “learn by heart” is to forget “all meaning” so that “words read as if they were a mere list of names,” de Man writes (101-102).

Memory, for Hegel, is learning by rote of names, or of words considered as names, and it can therefore not be separated from the notation, the inscription or the writing down of these names. In order to remember, one is forced to write down what one is likely to forget. The idea, in other words, makes its sensory appearance, in Hegel, as the material inscription of names. Thought is entirely dependent on a mental faculty that is mechanical through and through, as remote as can be from the sounds and images of the imagination or from the dark mine of recollection, which lies beyond the reach of words and of thought. (102)

         The link between the name and the meaning is arbitrary; it is, Hegel says (and de Man quotes), an “empty link.” Indeed, “in order to have memory one has to be able to forget remembrance” and embrace a “machinelike exteriority” in which “the relationship between what one perceives and what one understands, between the written letter and the meaning, is only exterior and superficial.” In Hegel, “memory effaces remembrance (or recollection) just as the I effaces itself” (102).

         Plato’s warning that the technology of writing will make you forgetful relies on a particular (metaphysical) order of things: first, there is originary experience, then an authentic internal gathering of that experience (Erinnerung), and finally, if necessary—because you won’t remember it without help—the externalizing efforts of a technological intervention (Gedächtnis). But is it possible for Erinnerung to take place independent of Gedächtnis? Are they dissociable? Would an authentic, which is to say wholly organic memory be possible outside of the “machine-like exteriority” of rote memorization? Because if memory depends on inscription, if there is no memory that is not already an effect of technology, in other words, then there is no “authentic” memory (and so no authentic history), no recollection or remembrance: “the inscription of memory,” as Derrida notes in his reading of de Man, would be the “effacement of interiorizing recollection, of the ‘living remembrance’ at work in the presence of the relation to self.” What de Man exposes in his reading of Hegel, Derrida proposes, is that the relation “between memory and interiorizing recollection, is not ‘dialectical,’ as Hegelian interpretation and Hegel’s interpretation would have it, but one of rupture, heterogeneity, disjunction” (56).

         In de Man’s hands, memory is no longer a “mental capacity” but what “projects itself toward the future” and “constitutes the presence of the present,” Derrida writes. And/but this failure which is not one, “says something about truth, and about the truth of memory: its relation to the other, to the instant and to the future” (57). Memory, this memory to which de Man but now mostly Derrida points, “stays with traces, in order to ‘preserve’ them, but traces of a past that has never been present, traces which themselves never occupy the form of presence and always remain, as it were, to come—come from the future, from the to come.” Rather than resuscitating “a past which had been present,” memory, in staying with the traces, the marks or inscriptions, “engages the future” (58). “[T]he past does not exist,” Derrida writes, still reading de Man, and “[t]he allegation of its supposed ‘anterior’ presence is memory, and is the origin of all allegories” (59). The resurrection of memory, Derrida suggests, is a kind of “ghost story” (63), but the ghost is from the future.

         So let us turn briefly to the famous ghost scene in Hamlet, which allegorizes, perhaps­—Avital Ronell pointed this out to me—the disjunctive relation between rote memorization and “living remembrance.” In the opening scene when the ghost of Hamlet's father appears and says "remember me!" Hamlet pledges that he’ll remember, that he’ll wipe everything else from his memory, in fact, and remember only that.

Yea, from the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, / That youth and observation copied there; / And thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain, / Unmix’d with baser matter: yes, by heaven!

         However, right then, just as he makes his passionate pledge of remembrance, the perplexing (maybe pre-Freudian) stage directions say “Hamlet writes” or simply “writing.” What is he writing? Will he forget to avenge his dead father if he doesn't write it down? Is the event of memory—if that’s what it is, an event (or a trauma)—possible without the performance of the inscription, without this “machine-like exteriority” that re-constitutes it, which is to say effaces it in order to make it thinkable and representable? And is thinking memory in this way, perhaps, one way to think the event and the machine, the absolutely singular and the infinitely repeatable together, as heterogeneous but indissociable?

         Perhaps. In any case, the Currents editorial staff humbly presents this issue in honor of the future-to-come. All the writers and interviewees gathered here responded, sometimes in unanticipated ways, to our call to think memories, technologies, and rhetorics together, to report back to us in some manner—to leave us some traces—from a neighborhood constituted or deconstituted by their dimly lit intersections. Bradford Vivian offers a kind of rhetoric of forgetting, outlining seven theses on the ways in which the act of deletion is liberating in our era of overloaded and “omnipresent” digital archives in “Deletion and Damnatio Memoriae: Theses on the Eventfulness of Forgetting.” Deletion, or forgetting, for Vivian, becomes a virtue as well as a mode of resistance against “digital surveillance. ” He does not simply oppose the public and the private or remembering and forgetting, but asks that we attend to the traces of digital erasure.

         In her interview with Trevor Hoag, Barbara Biesecker discusses the role of memorials, museums, and what she calls an “evental rhetoric” in shaping publics and citizens. In their conversation, Biesecker explores the rhetoric that memorializes events such as the Holocaust, World War II, and September 11th and urges us to attend to its political and ethical effects. There is radical potential, she argues, in creating technologies of exhibition that memorialize these events in ways that allow for a “self-splitting” of the viewer: a re-examination of his or her own subject position.

         Hoag's article "A Building that Recalls: Memory, Housing, and Politics of Living On" explores the relationship between memory and place in contemporary rhetorical theory. Specifically, Hoag compares the significance of physical structures to memory in classical Greek and Roman rhetoric to Martin Heidegger's Hütte at Todtnauberg, Michel Foucault's concept of the panopticon, and Victor Vitanza’s discussion of Lebbeus Woods's architecture. Through this analysis, he argues that housing reveals a powerful site of resistance, wounding, and healing that can help us ethically navigate the difficult tension between memory and forgetting.

         Rather than considering external sites of cultural memory (e.g., the monument, the museum), in “Sculptures and Avatars,” Shreelina Ghosh asks: what is gained—and lost—when cultural memory becomes distributed and disembodied? Her work focuses on an emergent controversy among practitioners of a traditional Indian dance called Odissi. While new technologies of instruction have opened up this dance to students across the globe, they also risk displacing the physical interaction between guru and dancer, which she suggests is an embodied transfer of cultural memory. Ghosh also applies her findings on Odissi dance to the composition classroom, arguing that as online courses and digital tools erase the physical bodies of instructors and students, they demand different ways of enacting presence.

         In his interview with Sean McCarthy, Josh Gunn discusses the future of memory as a rhetorical canon. He says that one important direction for the study of memory will be its relation to new archival practices made available by digital technologies. Gunn emphasizes that both memory and the archive are "spectral"—an idea that runs through his reflections on memory’s relation to privacy, presence, sound, and mourning. He calls our attention to the generative role of the spectral, noting that the role of the critic in the post-modern academy entails not only remembering accurately but also reconstructing marginal parts of the past that might otherwise have vanished.

         In his interview with Scott Nelson, Alex Reid rejects the metaphysical notion of an immediate (unmediated) memory or language, arguing instead that cognition takes place with and alongside technology, not preceding or negating it. To those who fear that technology degrades human intelligence, he proposes that digital technology rescues rhetorical delivery (information distribution and accessibility) as well as memory (information preservation). In response to questions about how his work intersects with the emerging field of object-oriented ontology, the philosophy of objects, he ponders the role memory plays in holding up objects in space and time as well as the question of panpsychism.


Works Cited

De Man, Paul. “Sign and Symbol in Hegel’s Aesthetics.” In Aesthetic 

. Ed Adrzej Warminski. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota P,

      1996. 91-104.

Derrida, Jacques. Memoires: For Paul de Man. New York: Columbia UP,

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