Tjebbe van Tijen on Sun, 29 Sep 96 22:10 MET

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nettime: Ars Oblivivendi

Geert Lovink ask me to post this text to this list...

Article for the Ars Electronica Festival 2-6/9/96 Linz Austria
Theme: Memesis, the future of evolution
Text: Tjebbe van Tijen, Amsterdam (with thanks to Ted Byfield, New
      York for editing)

                              Ars Oblivivendi

          about the construction of our collective memory system

It is through the ageing of our own bodies that the passing of time is
experienced. A time experience which is neither cyclic, governed by
the apparition of planets and stars, nor linear, as the modern clock
that rolls over an endless rail through historical space. Time is told
in terms of events of ones own life, rather than the passing of
calender dates. Change is measured genealogically in terms of
consecutive generations. Memory is as a skeleton of related events
joined together by our imagination in such a way that the skeleton can
even jig.

Dance is probably the earliest art form through which man expresses
and communicates his experience of life, from imitation of sound and
movement of his direct surroundings, in voice and gestures, to
articulate forms of dance and singing. "The past gets past on to us
not merely in what we think or do but literally in how we do it",  the
way we sit, sleep, move, walk or talk (1). Memory is, first and foremost,
a bodily experience: the epitaph "you will always be remembered" fades
slowly from the moment it is inscribed, but the memories it refers to
fade more quickly. The mortality of our bodies can not be evaded;
uncertainties about the fate of our souls remain. Memory of a previous
or pre-natal existence is sometimes individually experienced, but most
people have difficulty in remembering their early youth and even
difficulty with remembering recent events that, for one reason or
another, conscious or not, they prefer not to recall.

Bodily expressed memory through traceless art forms as dance, music,
song and story telling have been handed down over generations, but as
memory is progressively altered from generation to generation it is
always "stamped with the ruling passion of its time" (2) -- and, through
that process, the original forms of expression are often lost.
Contemporary depictions of dancers in pottery, painting, and
archaeological discoveries of musical instruments and recorded stories
in early manuscripts give us some clues but they also leave much to be
guessed. In such cases the analyst of history is condemned to invent:
he can not reconstruct, and so must construe the past.

The transition from oral to literate culture was a slow one. In the
Phaedrus (ca 375 BC) Plato quotes Socrates' dialogue on the written
word: " would think that it speaks like a sensible being, but
when you ask for meaning, writing can only give one answer. Once
fixed, each argument turns and drifts about to the four winds and
finds itself with the competent and incompetent alike, because it does
not know to whom it should or should not address itself". Early
historians were most of all inventors of history, mingling fact and
myth; as is the case with the texts of many of the famous 'historical
speeches', we know now. The early historian wanted first of all to
write a good story or speech, fitting what we would call now 'the
facts' to his rethorical needs. Application of the rules of rhetoric,
more than what was actually said, formed the basis of such constructed
orations. In a similar way, modern politicians employ speechwriters,
who craft what will be said beforehand, rather than amanuenses
recording their speeches afterwards. The modern historian, with an
abundant body of written information available, must choose from among
a proliferation of sources; and he can hardly escape the temptation to
neglect that what does not fit his 'rhetoric', his argument.

Human culture has inscribed itself on the earth's surface and made it
into landscape. Landscape impresses itself on the faces, bodies and
memories of the people who create and re-create it. The landscape is
a collective memory device that maps stories of the past in actual
space, much as the cosmological dream time stories of Australian
aboriginals do. Countless generations devise such tales 'reading' them
from the landscape where they are 'written' in the specific physical
features and animal life of the surroundings. Tales and stories can
thus be remembered as one walks along a trail. Similary the
nomenclature of streets and sites in villages and cities, and
topographical naming in general have a function to remind us of the
past --of historical figures, events, and sentiments. In principle any
landscape, any build environment, whether rural or urban, is a living
representation of time in space. Where landscape features are eroded
or erased, where the juxtaposition of various building styles from
different periods has given way to a dominant form of build
environment, this memory function has diminished or is lost. Then it
is only remaining pictorial representations and written records that
can tell what came before. One has to dig "down through layers of
memories and representations toward the primary bedrock, laid down
centuries or even millennia ago, and then working up again toward the
light of contemporary recognition" (3).

It is inscribed information, from petroglyphs in caves to printed
words and images, that makes it possible to transmit information from
past to next generations. These sign systems live on long after the
human body itself loses its ability to inform. In modern techniques of
oral history, the two forms of collective memory systems, bodily and
inscribed, fuse: as with ancient story tellers, memory and myth
intermingle. This form of history-making is often criticized by those
historians who give a talismanic importance to manuscripts and other
paper documents, who take pride in their detached methods, which are
based purely on textual manipulation. This fetishization of text-based
libraries and archives, which often suggests that they are the only
real source for making history, does not take in account the history
of libraries and archives themselves. There should be a much wider
consciousness of the arbitrary ways in which most collections came
together, were dispersed, purified, or lost --as gift, inheritance,
booty, trophy, or seizure. During the reign of King Assoerbanipal
(669-626 BC), a scribe noted in cuneiform writing: "I will put in the
library what pleases the king; what he dislikes I will remove". This
process of deselection, or de-acquisition, has always been an
essential part of any archive and library practice. There is always
the mirror image of the official collection profile, that which is
consciously or unconsciously left out. It is no problem to find rare
and precious bibliophile editions, or obscure academic works in public
collections, but popular and 'mass products'--for example the late
medieval 'pauper's bibles' or the mid twentieth century mass
circulation popular culture magazines are hard to find. 'Trivial
literature', whether romantic novels for ladies or pornographic
magazines and videos, have left very few archival traces. Marshall
McLuhan calls this 'the library law': what is most widely circulated
is often the most neglected by curators and librarians whose parochial
class and cultural tastes shape what they do and do not value and
collect. At best professional collectors have an interest in 'lower
class' culture products when they have become historical artifacts
from other centuries or far away countries. What is all too obvious
will not be noted, acquired and preserved. In this sense popular
memory becomes the antithesis of official written history.

Attempts to elude death through preserving the human body for
afterlife, as the Egyptians did, is mimicked in archival practices.
The Mesopotamians constructed repositories that had a system of
temperature and humidity control for their clay tablets much as our
modern environmentally conditioned archives and library depositories
are engineered to preserve paper information carriers for posterity.
Crumbling modern paper products like newspapers and magazines are
mummified in microfilm. But as the history of the almost mythical
Library of Alexandria shows, ".. destruction, ruining, pillages and
fire especially hits great amassments of books that according to the
rule are situated in the centres of power. That's why what has
remained (of the early period) in the end does not come from the big
centres but from marginal places ...and sporadic private copies" (4). This
historical message escaped the initiators of a new four-million-volume
library being planned for Alexandria and similar information
concentration projects such as the vast new building of the
Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

If the physical safeguarding and preservation of information carriers
through the centuries were the only factor, then our actual collective
memory system would have been of an other magnitude entirely. However
censorship, book burning and iconoclastic practices have decimated our
cultural heritage. The practice of erasing the names of decayed rulers
and disgraced persons can be found as early as 3000 BC in Egypt, where
names chiselled for the esteem they garnered were chiselled out when
that regard was lost-- a practice similar to the 'damnatio memoriae'
of Roman time when a reign of an emperor, like Nero, could officially
be stricken from the record by order of the Senate and similar later
practices from sixteenth-century Italy to twentieth-century Russia.
The Chinese emperor Shi Huang-Ti is most noted as the originator of
book burning, for in 213 BC he ordered the burning of books unrelated
to practical matters or the history of his own dynasty; those who
dared to cite (Confucian) texts from the past were put to death with
their families. He established a tradition in which the smells of
burning paper and human flesh (as authors were often burned together
with their debated products) flavouring the skies of the Byzantine,
Roman, Iranian, British, German, French, and Spanish empires and
kingdoms. Nazi party members all over Germany and Austria, communist
Chinese Red Guards, Chilean soldiers, anti-communist crowds in
Budapest, Santiago de Chile, Djakarta and Bangkok, religious motivated
masses in Teheran are among the twentieth-century book burners, the
erasers of collective memory (5). In some libraries, such as the National
Library of Austria, empty shelves created by the fascists, remained so
after and are witness to these purges.

The recent phenomena of 'cyberclasm' started with anti-militaristic
actions in Canada and the United States in the early seventies, when
students stormed the administrative buildings that housed computers
maintaining draft registration for the Vietnam war, threw millions of
punch cards out of the windows, and smashed the hardware. Sabotaging
'big brothers' control system has been on the agenda of political
radicals for most of the seventies and eighties, and in a few cases
has been realized --mostly bomb attacks directed against military
computer centres. The metamorphosis of this military computer
information system into what became the Internet has created new forms
of cyberclasm at opposing sides of the power spectrum: the individual
'hacker' fighting 'the system' through sabotage, and the governmental
controlled agency that bans, or is planning to ban unwanted

We typically conceive of the information carriers that support our
memory as paper, film, tape or digital media. Artifacts, from totem to
historical monuments, being material images for reflection and recall,
are of the same order. The commemorative plaques, statues, buildings and
'historical sites' strewn all over the world tell us about the past.
Erecting and preserving these objects is a constant process. Andre
Malraux's idea of a 'museum without walls' (in the fifties) seems to
have expanded so much that whole towns, regions or countries will be
turned into museums, frozen in the grip of the crypto-feudal
conservationists until the kiss of a young prince... "We turn
inanimate matter into 'monuments' whether it is the Winter Palace or
the Eifeltower, the ruins of Heculaneum or the reconstruction of Old
Warsaw, the Night Watch, or Our Lady of Vladimir," and these objects
are given meaning "that would have astounded their
originators."Objects never intended to commemorate anything have been
transformed into monuments of meaning (6). Krzysztof Pomian, speaks of a
division of the world in the visible and invisible, whereby the
invisible is projected on or into the visible world by means of rare
objects taken from nature itself and any form of handicraft or art, be
it painting, sculpture, modelling, carving, needlework or finery. On
the one hand, there is the world of useful things, objects that can be
consumed, provide means of livelihood, can turn raw materials in
eatable substances, that protect against changes in the environment:
all these are in regularly use and produce or undergo physical
changes, most notably wear. On the other hand, there are things that
Pomian calls 'semiophors,' objects not used in any practical sense,
which represent the invisible-- to which a certain meaning has been
ascribed. They are to be shown, to be put on display (7). This function is
by no means limited to objects created for that purpose; on the
contrary, objects that have lost their practical function -- for
example, those saved from the waste heap-- are transformed from
utensils to collectibles. As they become ever-more 'scarce,' we attach
increasing meaning (and economic value) to them. In this economic and
aesthetic process the understanding of the original context of the
object --the object that is supposed to be the vehicle for meaning--
is often weakened. Complex practices are reduced to stylistic streams,
opposing views are reconciled by the cultural hierarchy that museums
tend to represent, and these comodified objects will point to a past
that never existed.

Ironically these misinterpretations resemble the ways in which our
'personal' memory system seems to function, constructing
representations quit independent of the past. "It is often more
important that our memories seem real than that they are real" (8). We
oscillate between historical memory and imaginative construction:
"People are wiling to recognize, as their own, memories that are not
theirs and do so with increasing frequency as the events become more
and more remote from and more and more similar to actual occurrences
in their lives."

A similar process of interplay between memory and fantasy can be found
in Freud's method of psychoanalysis whereby, on the basis of scarce
and fragmented recollections that haunt a patient, a primal scene
(Urszene) of 'what might have happened' is constructed by the analyst.
Through a process of 'anamnesis,' of inner listening, a forgotten past
is constructed by the therapist. It is a risky method and "only with
great difficulty such an interpretive exercise can be translated into
effective therapy" (9).

The parallel with the construction of 'therapeutic truth' by
historians that model our collective memory system is striking. To
reconcile people with the society they live in, the historian has to
discover which haunting image, which 'Urszene' is disturbing the
patients. "A historian gathers and, at best, corrects collective
recollections" and for this disheartening task psychoanalysis can offer
important help, because it does not only analyses what people want to
remember, but also reveals what they had to twist of forget" (10).
Manoeuvring in shadowland between forgetting and remembering a primal
scene has to be construed that has enough authentic information and
enough 'unauthentic' imagination that the constructed story is
plausible and consistent (as with autobiographical literature). It
need not be veridical on all levels, but its verisimilitude, its
seemingly truth, is essential.

Do we know what we want to forget or are we simply forgetting? Do we
know what we want to remember or are we remembering only what others
want us to remember?


1 Jon Urry; "How societies remember the past"; p.49; in
"Theorizing museums"; 1996; Blackwell/The Sociological Review.

2 Raphael Samuel; "Theatres of memory"; 1994; Verso; p.x.

3 Simon Schama; "Landscape and memory"; 1995; Alfred A. Knopf;

4 Luciano Canfora; "La Vritable l'histoire de la biblioth
d'Alexandrie"; 1986; Edition Desjonqu

5 Herman Rafetseder; "Bcherverbrennungen, die ffentliche
Hinrichtung von Schriften im historischen Wandel; 1988; Bhlau.

6 Donald Horne; "The great museum, the representation of
history"; 1984; Pluto Press; p.29.

7 Krzysztof Pomian; "Der Ursprung des Museum, Vom Sammeln"; 1988;
Klaus Wagenbach; p.49.

8 David C. Rubin (ed.); "Autobiographical memory"; 1986;
Cambridge University Press; p.4.

9 Ned Lukacher; "Primal scenes, literature, philosophy,
psychoanalysis"; 1986; Cornell University Press; p.31.

10 Peter Gay; "Freud for historians"; 1985; Oxford University
Press; p.181 (Dutch edition).

Tjebbe van Tijen using the Antenna and NLnet Internet Services

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