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Interview with Josh Gunn

DWRL Assistant Director Sean McCarthy spoke with Joshua Gunn, Associate Professor of Communication Studies in the College of Communication at University of Texas at Austin, for this special issue of Currents. Gunn is the author of Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century, and has published articles in a variety of journals, including The Journal of Communication and Religion, Popular Music and Society, The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, and Visual Communication. In the following interview, Gunn discusses the future of memory as a rhetorical canon. He reflects on memory’s relation to privacy, presence, sound, and mourning as he explains that one important direction for the study of memory involves new archival practices via digital technologies. These archival practices create an “industry of secrets,” where mainstream and social media wield immense power as our “sense of presence” in digital venues like Facebook and Twitter can give us a false sense of control over information and privacy. He argues that we are in a period of “fetishization of the analog as a more authentic encoding of memory” as the digital archive does not satisfy our yearning for a more material connection. You can read the interview below or listen to highlights from Currents’ interviews with Gunn, Barbara Biesecker, and Alex Reid here.

Sean McCarthy: The role of memory in general and more specifically as a canon is a topic still hotly debated in rhetorical studies. What role do you see memory playing in the future of the field?

Josh Gunn: I’m not tremendously familiar with those so-called debates. I’m not sure what the stakes of the debate are. And I think that betrays my situatedness in communication studies as opposed to rhetoric and composition. I think we have two worlds or two different approaches rooted in our respective objects—speech and writing—and the consequence has been taking up the canon differently.

In rhetoric-composition, I think the implications of studying memory have to do with pedagogy, which is a central concern, and the processes of writing, and the approach taken to memory is very different. I understand Alex Reid you also talked to, and his project is very different than say a communications studies project might be. He’s interested in this emergent field, subfield rather, of object-oriented ontology and thinking about memory as an autonomous object. That’s not something that communication studies folks tend to lean in. The direction of memory study in communication studies tends to have been in terms of what some people call public memory, or the way in which publics or groups come to constitute their pasts or memorialize their pasts. And a dominant amount of focus in this respect has been on monuments, the study of monuments, the creation of public spaces, and then, more recently, visual rhetoric and, specifically, a couple of scholars working on what they’re calling iconic images or iconic photographs and how those are used to negotiate and constitute public memory. So that’s where I see the status of memory studies, at least as I understand it. And again, I’m by no means conversant in the broad sweep of whatever these presumed debates are about memory.

What I would like to see in terms of the future study of memory and rhetoric is taking up what’s called the archival turn. In 2006, Chuck Morris, a scholar in the public address tradition in the communications side of rhetorical studies, helped to edit a forum that took up the archive not just in terms of a locus of historical documents, but conceptually. And Barb Biesecker, who I also understand has interviewed with you, published an essay in there that questioned our tendency to think about the archive as this repository of undigested historical nuggets that we can sift through for some sort of objective truth. And she challenged folks reading that forum to think about the archive in terms of its constitutive reflections of our selfhood, of our community, and how the archives are used to negotiate that. So that’s what I’m more interested in: thinking about the archive and how the archive changes, particularly in respect to contemporary technologies.

I’ve been moved recently in particular—and it’s also at the center of the book that I’m currently writing—by Derrida’s study Archive Fever, in which he argues that, structurally, the archive—that Freud’s actual archive in London, which also is sort of shrouded in secrecy—models, in a strange way, Freud’s own, mostly implied, theory of memory. Derrida makes the move in that book that the archive is spectral, like memory itself is spectral. It involves these processes of sensory perception: the management of data—in terms of how that perception’s dealt with—and then of course its storage and retrieval, to use some contemporary metaphors.

And so the question that Derrida raises in terms of the archive is what happens in that retrieval of data. There seems to be this blind spot between what Freud calls the inscription of mnemic traces and then what’s actually available to consciousness or what we can bring to consciousness. And so that to me is an interesting process, and obviously it’s rhetorical insofar as we’re talking about the delivery of something—whatever this spectral something is—to representation. That of course would implicate rhetoric.

But more importantly, I think, Derrida points to what he calls archival fever—this sort of drive to go to the archive, to return to the archive, to put things away in the archive. And he locates that in Freud’s conception of the drives and in particular the death drive, which I think is sort of a fascinating wrinkle in thinking about memory.

In terms of where I see memory going in the future, I think the archive is conceptually where there’s interesting work to be done, but in terms of what would interest both rhetoricians on the speech side and the rhetoric-composition side is the explosion of technologies in relationship to new archival practices. So we see the emergence of oral archives or sonic archives. We see the emergence of video archives, the digitization of everything under the sun, and of course the archival of the everyday, which is predominately, for us, YouTube and people recording themselves—this sort of plethora of quotidian snippets of everyday life. That’s a different way to think about the archive than we’re used to. And I think it explodes, consequently, our understanding of memory as well. 

McCarthy: Could you say a bit about the rhetoric of secrets and how they relate to forgetting and memory? Are there any particular examples from the mass media that you find instructive in this point?

Gunn: Yes, of course. There are lots of examples in the mass media. We’re in the midst of the Republican presidential candidate run and so we see a lot of stuff about the secrets, especially of candidates, coming out. And I want to lead up to that by talking about how I think that secrecy is related of course to this notion of the archive that I’ve been talking about.

One of the things that Derrida notes in that short but very profound monograph, I think fecund monograph, is that the archive is ultimately a housing of secrets, at least in terms of our traditional way of thinking about the archive – it’s sort of a repository of secrets. The question becomes: who is authorized to enter into this repository and translate or reveal what’s contained within? And of course in Archive Fever Derrida is specifically referring to the secrecy and the strict rules that people have about where you can go and how you can occupy Freud’s literal home in London. Apparently it’s a very squirrelly process to get inside. So he’s referencing that. But what’s up with those particular logics of secrecy?

And one of the things that Derrida points to that listeners may recognize more readily, at least in my generationI’m in my thirties rapidly approaching the big 4-0is this character in the film Tron. Tron was, I think it was in the early ‘80s, one of my favorite films as a kid. I never knew why because I didn’t understand it when it first came out; I’m not sure if I still understand it today because of the particular narrative. And certainly the Tron remake doesn’t help to that end. It’s quite dreadful. But the character I want to point to in Tron is this character of Dumont, who is known as the guardian. And the guardian is literally at the computer’s sphincter between inputs and outputs—what goes inside the computer and then what’s let out. Tron approaches the guardian and asks to communicate with his user. What’s so interesting about that character is Dumont is authorized to let in and let out who gets the secrets in and who gets the secrets out. And I think that is the question that contemporary logics of secrecy poses to us: Who has the power to control what goes outside from the inside or who lets in from the outside to the inside?

In this respect, I think the logic of secrecy today is inextricably linked to what we might call the will to publicity. I’m thinking of the work of Jodi Dean, specifically her fascinating book Publicity’s Secret and more recently a very interesting monograph titled Blog Theory. And in those books she develops a logic of secrecy premised on publicity or what she says are the contemporary modes of publicity, which would seem prima facie fairly obvious. That is to say, you see me displaying one self who has the right to represent.

The logics of contemporary publicity are inherently related to the secret, or the secret is the horizon of publicity, and you can’t have publicity without sort of the revelation of a secret. And so her argument—and I think it’s very persuasive—is that contemporary technologies heighten the demand for revelation. It heightens what Derrida terms this archive fever, this sort of feverish, impassioned tendency to unearth the hidden. And so just a few weeks ago they released a horde of JFK’s private audio tapes, presumably in the service of the public record and presumably in the service of public memory, that here are some documents that unearth some secrets from the past. And that’s pretty interesting, but also what I think Dean points us to is the profound desire and need to generate new secrets. Because in our so-called Information Age, when everything is transmitted so quickly, everything is distributed so quickly, one is tempted to say there are no secrets. Nothing can stay secret for long in our contemporary age of publicity. If publicity thrives on unearthing or the gradual uncovering of secrecy, then eventually there’s nothing left to know.

There used to be this commercial a few years ago where this guy was surfing on the internet and he gets this screen. It’s like you have reached the end of the internet, as if he’s finally unearthed the last bit of information to be unearthed. Of course what’s so funny is we know that’s not possible, at least insofar as people continue to publicize themselves, or continue to create output, or continue to live, rather. But there is a profound need to create these new secrets and so you see new industries cropping up all over the place that are dedicated to the creation—sometimes even the fabrication—of secrets, particularly in celebrity culture, where we know this immediately in terms of the tabloid and unearthing of private secrets or the creation of secrets by famously The Enquirer, at least in the 1980s. Of course, there’s been the Enquirer-ization, if you will, of mainstream media too. So we have things like TMZ, which is unearthing ephemera as if they’re some profound secret. But also of course that’s in close keeping with the publicization of political secrets, from Wikileaks’ — which is probably the most famous in recent memory—unearthing of secrets to the everyday quotidian news channel like CNN or Fox or MSNBC that’s into unearthing the past weaknesses of this or that candidate. We know, for example, that [Herman] Cain was tanked because of his so-called affair with a woman other than his wife. And so we have these whole industries created to expose secrets or fabricate them.

I many months ago turned down a request to do some sort of show, which I’ve never seen, called Ancient Aliens on The History Channel. And I talked to the publisher out there in Los Angeles and he’s like, “we want you to talk about the links between ancient mysteries and mystery cults and the freemasons.” And I said, well, there really isn’t any that I’m aware of. “But I want you to speculate. What are the historical linkages? What are the possible historical linkages?” And I’m like, dude, they don’t exist. I certainly realized that they wanted me to create, to generate secrets. I think that’s the kind of new drive, or that’s where archive fever has gone, is this will to publicity combined with the logic of secrecy or archive fever. It really draws attention again to this Dumont character in Tron, who has the power to reveal, who has the power to conceal.

So the contemporary mainstream media merge today to realize in a sense the initial aims of journalism, which is to be the keeper of the cheese—initially for the public interest or to keep so-called government or industry honest, but now we know it’s really not about that at all, it’s about commercial interests. And so what’s more important is the cheese-keeping and the revelation of the cheese as opposed to the cheese itself. And in that sense, I would suggest that contemporary occultism or our occultism today is what used to be called secret knowledge and now it’s just privacy.

McCarthy: Well let’s talk about privacy. You’ve written about privacy, or the lack thereof, in social networking spaces. What conceptual linkages do you see between the erosion of privacy and theories of technologized memory?

Gunn: John Sloop and I—mostly John Sloop, I just added some psychoanalytic stuff to it—have published a couple of things on Facebook as a technology of surveillance. And our lesson there was before we get too excited by the Deleuzian turns to thinking about society as control—which are legitimate ways of seeing contemporary manifestations of technological organization—we ought not forget that there’s still discipline. And so we talk about Facebook as sort of a contemporary technology of discipline. We talk about all the people who got fired for these status updates.

But your question really speaks to this sort of deeper logic of contemporary modes of publicity, which almost are synonymous, at least in terms of how we talk about them, with social networking or with Facebook. And that is, Facebook is designed to give you presence: literally to make you present to this new interface, to this new world. But also it trucks off of the assumption of immediacy, of presence. And the speed of technology today communicates a sense of immediacy, which we immediately leap to think is presence. Now we know from deconstruction on that this notion of presence is illusory or at least it’s elusive. But, nevertheless, immediacy communicates this sense of presence, and that sense of presence is interestingly and paradoxically a threat to the archive. It’s a threat to this notion of being in control of information and being able to release it. So, on the one hand, that generates some illusory sense of freedom.

I was reading Corey Anton’s work, who does stuff in media ecology and who was talking about how the digital as such seems to connote freedom for some people and this sort of interesting way to think about the digital. But the digital emerges as a surveillance technology, and often in unwitting ways because of this experience of presence. I can go ahead and say whatever I want to say on my status because it’s me in the moment, me being me right now. I often tweeted these Republican debates, and tweeting by its very character disabuses you of the notion of going back and editing it, although you can go back and delete these tweets. Nevertheless, once you hit tweet, it’s out there into the digital archive. That’s the point is that there’s this communication of presence and freedom that these digital technologies, especially networking, seem to imbue people with, and a subtle kind of forgetting that this is also nevertheless an archival technology.

I’m writing a public speaking textbook and I have a chapter on online presentations, and the title of it is “Facebook is Forever.” Now that will probably be censored because of copyright violations or trademark violations or whatever, but the notion that YouTube or Facebook is forever is that once it is released into the digital archive it is out there, and I think that in this particular sense privacy has become the occultism of our time. Privacy is the secret in post-modernity. So I think you could see the same logics at work in terms of publicity, working on privacy. Just change out secrecy with the private and you have a similar problematic. 

McCarthy: Given your work on sound, voice, and performance recording, can you speak to how they relate to technologized memory?

Gunn: Immediately I go back to this notion of presence and that we tend to associate sound, especially the sound of the human voice, with presence much more readily than we would with writing. This is why, for example, you’ll find young people much more willing to text each other or to interact in a social network than speak in front of a classroom, because of that threat of the immediacy of presence. Again, however illusory, those are our fantasies. So there is some sort of notion that the textual interface protects us, if you will, from the kind of risk to interpersonal encounter. And it reminds me, I was watching the Grammy’s this past Sunday. Did you see any of the Grammy’s at all?

McCarthy: No, I kind of avoided everything that was going on around Whitney Houston.

Gunn: Yeah, it was really interesting because it was in part a sort of celebration or a memorial to Whitney Houston and sadly overshadowed Adele’s achievement. Her album 21 is marvelous. But one of the interesting aspects of the whole evening was the Foo Fighters, who played not once but twice, which was unusual. So did Paul McCartney, but he’s knighted so he gets to play twice. But there are the Foo Fighters, who I have never really been impressed with—I just don’t care for their music all that much. Dave Grohl’s voice, however distinctive, just always sounds like he’s trying too hard to me. There’s nothing particularly interesting about his voice. But when they won one of the bigger awards at the end of the evening, which was like rock artist of the year or something like that, he gave this little speech where he said, this is what’s music’s about: music is made with real people playing real instruments. It’s not made in a computer. And he says, it comes from here, and he puts his hand over his heart and points to his head, you know, the heart and mind.

Anyway, it was an indirect reference to a number of the winners that night, namely Chris Brown, whose music is almost completely synthesized. And apparently dude can’t sing a tune because everything that he sings is auto-tuned, so you can hear the harmonic of the auto-tune working with his voice. And he did a performance that evening in which he basically lip-synced and jumped around like Q-bert on a bunch of colored boxes.

And the irony of Dave Grohl’s statement, who was a drummer and lead singer of Foo Fighters, was that the second time his band played, it was in relationship to this kind of electronic explosion with Deadmaus and David Guetta, the guy that gets all the guest vocalists and makes music for every gay district in the United States. So the whole point of the way that was filmed was that as the electronic artists were playing, they gave the audience glow sticks or these big long phallic glowing things which they waved in the air and then the camera zoomed in and zoomed out to give you the message that this was a kinetic, sort of energetic experience. And then of course there’s a glowing box that opens up and there’s Foo Fighters playing analog instruments. And, you know, it’s not quite clear what the commentary was but the acceptance speech of Grohl was something to the effect of analog music is where it’s at. Now, cynically we can respond to that and say, but of course because everyone knows the new album the Foo Fighters just released was recorded on analog equipment and he’s just pimping his album, and I think that’s true. But it also points up this cultural fantasy that we have about the analog and the voice’s relationship to the analog, the analog being traditionally defined as continuous, with the embodied. It is a continuum.

McCarthy: Organic.

Gunn: Yes, it’s organic. It refers to variation and difference, but, in terms of experience, we fetishize, for example, the phonograph because when we play a record on a phonograph the force of inscription is the literal sound in the studio, so we assume there’s this material link between what an artist was actually recording and then what we’re listening to on our speaker. Whereas we know with digital it’s a series of codes and so whenever we hear music it’s literally a reinterpretation or a re-creation even of some sort of original format. This recording that you’re making right now is digital, so it’s not that when you click on play you’re getting an analog recording of what we spoke but rather a re-creation of that through a series of 1s and 0s— the digital. So with Grohl’s argument about the return to the organic roots of rock—you know, everyone go back to analog—he’s cueing into this fantasy that somehow the analog is closer to the embodied.

And that’s what I am interested in. I’m dubious about whether or not that’s true. I’m a Lacanian, and so I happen to think that from the moment of the first “No,” when a young person experiences what’s called the so-called Law of the Father, or what we call castration, or the introduction to language, from the introduction of “No” we’re in a digital environment. So what’s previously the plenitude of the analog, of the analog experience, is now punctuated by the digital. So I don’t think you can have one without the other. But I still think it’s interesting that the analog plays out in these fantasies of returnin psychoanalytic terms, the return to the bosom.

And that’s a long preamble to say I think this is related to memory because what we have now is a fetishization of the analog as a more authentic encoding of memory than other forms of memory like the digital. So in the book that I’m working on, two of the central chapters orbit the recordings of voices of 9/11. Now, technically speaking, those recording are digital. But they still participate in the fantasy of the analog in the sense that the families grieving people lost in the twin towers believe that they’ll be able to mourn and move on because they’ll have this material connection to their loved one through the sound of the human voice.

McCarthy: Let’s talk a bit about theory since you mentioned Lacan in that answer. Your theoretical orientation is strongly grounded in psychoanalysis. Would you agree that psychoanalysis is, at its heart, a theory of memory and forgetting? And along these lines, what do you think are the most important lessons that psychoanalysis has to teach us today?

Gunn: That’s good. It’s a good question because whether or not psychoanalysis is a theory of memory and forgetting, one can answer with both a yes and a no. I mean, originally Freud said, notably, that any psychology that can hold its weight will proffer a theory of memory. The irony of that, of course, is that his own writings on memory were pretty scant. There are only two that we know of, the most famous of course being on the “Mystic Writing Pad.” So there’s not a lot of detail on what Freud thought about memory. Well, there’s also the stuff on so-called mnemic traces in The Interpretation of Dreams. But the model of memory that Freud offers leaves us a little bit unsatisfied if we look at the “Mystic Writing Pad. ” We have the unconscious, the block of wax, and then we have cellophane over it. And a child writes on the cellophane and it inscribes something. So what’s left when you pull the cellophane back is the cellophane is erased, as it were, but there’s still an inscription on the wax. And somehow this is related to the unconscious. But Freud never really develops that, and when we think about Lacan’s re-reading of Freud, initially memory in Lacan is traced to the chain of signifiers. So memory becomes inscription, almost without feeling. Then later in Lacan he abandons this entirely and says insofar as people that are concerned with memory are interested in the biological or cognitive route of the processes of memory, that’s outside of the domain of psychoanalysis. He never talks about it. I mean, he does, but he never really goes there.

So on the one hand, I tend to agree that psychoanalysis is concerned with memory. On the other, it hasn’t dealt with it very well. Or rather, it’s dealt with it only insofar as one of its principle teachings and—to answer the second part of the question—what I think psychoanalysis has to offer is there’s more to the human than memory.

And this is what I think is a crucial insight of Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams but then later throughout his work, especially in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. And there’s this interesting passage, and actually it’s footnoted in the beginning when he came out with a later edition, where Freud says there’s a navel to a dream. There’s a point beyond which you cannot go, which is a fancy way of saying that there’s a limit to representation or there’s a limit to re-presentation—that there’s something beyond representation that is characteristically or even essentially human that we cannot capture. Now Lacan takes that up and says well that’s jouissance, that’s an affective experience beyond representation, beyond the ability to be represented as pleasurable or painful. And it’s on that basis that we can find something called contingency, and possibility, and a future that can be otherwise, and so on.

And I think Derrida takes this up in Archive Fever when he talks about the drive. The death drive behind the archival impulse at the same time throws up its own roadblocks. That’s what we call memory proper. And it’s not that Freud condemns archive fever as somehow headed for destruction or as the province of control freaks, which it is, but it’s also that within those processes is the possibility of something other, something more. And that’s why for Freud the archive is spectral. It’s spectral in the sense that it’s not on either this side or that side. It’s not on this side of representation or on the side of, say, jouissance, but both. And it has that sort of spectral quality. 

So that’s what psychoanalysis has to teach us about thinking about memory today. That’s our problem: that thinking about memory today is spectral. We have the problem of its presentation, we have the problem of its representation, we have the problem of data storage, and then the problem of retrieval. And we know those particular nodes of memory are involved, but how we can get from one to the other is a mystery. We don’t know.

McCarthy: It seems that haunting is a concept closely linked to memory. Could you talk about your interest in haunting and ghosts along with their connections to the rhetoric of remembrance? 

Gunn: I just spoke about it in terms of the archive as spectral or memory as spectral—that the quality of haunting in the everyday sense is that something’s there but not there, felt but not felt, seen but not seen, heard but not heard. The spectral is a trace. And I think haunting captures the conceptual problem that we face when dealing with memory and experience as such. So it’s cliché after all the work in the humanities on the specters of Marx, but I still think it’s nevertheless very apropos of our time, which is that subjectivity is spectral, that we’re dealing with something—in terms of humanity—we’re dealing with something that can’t be pinned down. And that’s a good thing, that our openness, our dispositional openness, if you will, as human beings, would locate processes of memory in the processes of forgetting. It implodes all those easy binaries.

McCarthy: Perhaps against psychoanalysis, some contemporary theorists argue that we should do away with the interiority of the subject altogether, claiming that memory is entirely on the outside. What do you think about this claim?

Gunn: There’s not much to say. Freud was a product of his time and a lot of his writings reflect that. A lot of people have done work on this. Lawrence Rickels, in virtually all of his writing, has dealt with the fact that Freud’s theorizing reflects the technologies of this time. And in that sense, it’s always an expression of that which is exterior to him. Lacan and post-Lacanian psychoanalytic folks tend to agree that there is no inside, or, insofar as there is, it’s an enfoldment of the exterior—not in some mystical Jungian sense of this sort of collective unconscious, but in the sense that meaning, the meaningful world, is an enfoldment of cultural scripts that help us coordinate our behaviors and desires. So I don’t have a problem with that particular perspective at all.

There’s still our tendency to think of ourselves as insides and as interiorities, though. And critique that as you might, we still harbor that fantasy or illusion to get along in the world. And I’m not sure it’s possible to get outside of thinking about individuals as interiors. There are even folks that have been doing work on cognition in relationship to the voice and, through various electrodes and sensors attached to fetuses, are finding out that in utero, people respond to voices as presences. And the metaphor that they immediately leap for—at least the cognitive neurobiologists—is that we tend to assume on the sound of a voice another interiority. So I don’t know that science well enough to make a strong claim, but the suggestion is that we can project interiority onto other human beings, whether or not it’s true. Again, just to answer the question, I don’t disagree with a notion of radical exteriority. It’s just that our habits and cultural scripts that make the world meaningful often assume interiors.

McCarthy: And lastly, how would you outline the relationship between mourning, memory, and forgetting? What specific political problems do you think we face as a culture today due to our inability to mourn?

Gunn: If there’s a cultural problem … I mean, arguably in Specters of Marx, Derrida—who’s a big influence on my thinking right now—suggests that melancholia, which is the inability to mourn, is rather productive because it’s not only actualization of the drive but leaves one open to surprise. Because mourning is a type of getting over, closing off, incorporation of the other, or what have you, which is why so many of us eat when we mourn—or drink, as the case may be. Many of us are possessed by spirits, but not this early in the day. The relationship, I think, to memory and mourning is that obviously mourning is a type of memory making. Of course it’s a kind of forgetting too. Again, we’re sort of doggy paddling in the land of clichés. I don’t necessarily think melancholia is bad, I don’t necessarily think mourning is bad in a theoretical sense, although certainly mourning in a more quotidian, practical sense is very important, especially insofar as depression is concerned. But in a more theoretical sense, I think we might refer to mourning as sort of the negotiation of a past, how to properly reckon with or orient ourselves to a negotiation with the past.

I’m reminded right now of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, who’s blown back from the winds of paradise and trying to fix the heap in front of her. And that image, that dialectical image, is a very memorable one for many of us because I think it characterizes the task of the critic, that the task of the critic is a mournful one, and it’s not just putting the past away, it’s not just about remembering properly, but rethinking the past and unearthing our interred ancestors—the ones that might have been forgottenor looking for those marginal moments. But in a sense if we think about our contemporary society as one of an exploding illusion of presence—of instantaneous presences—then the critic is the new archivist in a sense because the critic is still imbued with that power of the guardian. As long as the academy is around, that power is still going to be there. And so it also entails, then, I think, a sort of responsibility, a certain responsibility to the dead.

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