On Memory Atrophy

Maël Renouard

The Twilight of Classi­fication?

Übersetzt von Jordan Lee Schnee

Veröffentlicht am 11.12.2017

Two or three times recently I’ve found myself unable to remember a proper name that I’m familiar with. I don’t know if I should blame my own aging biology – a well known source of such mistakes since the dawn of time – or rather a global phenomenon that belongs to our era. It could be designated the degeneration or atrophying of the faculty of memory, denied exercise by the permanent availability of its infinite digital auxiliary.

The hypothesis of memory atrophy is at its root that of Plato in the Phaedrus, when he presents the written word as a dangerous invention. Plato describes the fear of writing in an ingenious, striking way. It is nevertheless difficult to uphold that the development of written language has led to a weakening of humanity’s psychological faculties across the centuries. Without the widespread use of writing, we would have no way to experience that which would otherwise be an individual memory. It is possible to dream of a golden age where the ability, reigning supreme and constantly subject to a sort of athletic exercise, would have been powerful, infallible, and docile; but it’s probable that this is just a myth.

This is why it is important to exercise caution in estimating the extent of the weakening wrought on memory by the internet. On the other hand, what shocks me in the dismaying moments when I’m struggling with my failing memory is the way in which the internet has transformed our internal picturing of the ability. Like on Google, I enter key words that sum up the career of the man whose name I’m desperately searching for (it’s got an Alsatian echo, I tick that box to refine my “advanced search”); like on Facebook I run through the list of our mutual friends; not even a single page of results is returned. I’ve run up against a black wall. It’s obtuse and slippery, there’s nothing to grab onto. I try to find another way to remember. I can’t. The internet’s way of doing things screens me in; it has seized the picturing of memory. The name I was hunting for eventually comes to me the next morning, but how can we remember the way we used to remember?

In the fascinating Chapter IX of Gesture and Speech, “The Expanding Memory”, Leroi-Gourhan remarks that the first forms of writing have a similarity to the continuous flow of speech which dissipated gradually, but would not truly be broken until it became necessary, following the invention of the printing press, to orient itself to the exterior in a mass of texts that could not be assimilated by individual psychological memory.

“During the centuries that lay between Homer or Yu the Great and the first western or oriental printed manuscripts, the concept of reference developed together with the growing mass of recorded facts. But each piece of writing was a compact sequence, rhythmically broken up by seals and marginal notes, around which the readers found their way like primitive hunters by following a trail rather than by studying a plan. The spoken word had not yet been converted into a system of orientation tables.” The absence of punctuation or space between words, the use of scrolls that can only be referenced at a precise point by unrolling the flow of text to its length and breadth characterize this archaic homogeneity of writing and speech. Of course it is possible to flip through a codex, to plunge into the compact flow, diving upon one’s prey without being obliged to patiently follow its tracks; but in the absence of any cartography of the flow, it is assumed that the contents of the book have already been assimilated. For a long time, texts were basically just auxiliary supplements to extensive memorization. “The texts set down in ancient or medieval manuscripts were intended to be committed to the reader’s memory for life.” The compact flow of signs is not just the reflection of the speech stream, it is also the image of the interior flow that the text is to become once it has been entirely memorized, as it is meant to be.

Beyond codices and the printing press as such are the alphabetical indexes and the tables of contents that for Leroi-Gourhan constitute the greatest revolution in the handling of the written word. Even the invention of writing itself doesn’t seem to him as decisive a break when he divides the history of collective memory into five great epochs: “The history of the collective memory can be divided into five periods: that of oral transmission, that of written transmission using tables or an index, that of simple index cards, that of mechanography, and that of electronic serial transmission.”

Alphabetical indexes and tables of contents are the “tables of orientation” that permit the exploration of texts whose content is heretofore unknown. An individual’s psychological memory is no longer a permanent condition, nor the culmination of their relationship to what is written. The index remembers for the reader who hasn’t memorized the book – or who hasn’t read it yet – what is inside and where it is located. When the point is no longer to orient oneself within the flow of a single book and rather in increasingly innumerable books, card catalogues continue the process of exteriorization of memory. Leroi-Gourhan compares them to “a real exteriorized cerebral cortex” before going into detail about this image, bringing a point that in a way is valid today for the internet: “If a card catalogue is a memory in the strict sense, it is a memory lacking is own means of recollection and has to be brought into the researcher’s visual and manual operating field before it can go into action.”

Leroi-Gourhan, who published Gesture and Speech in the mid-60’s, doesn’t use the words computer or digital in the book. He talks of “electronic serialization,” of “electronic memory,” of an “electronic brain,” (a term that he himself puts in quotation marks, as was customary at that time) and of an “electronic integrator.” The semantic gap compared to the names of our current terminology doesn’t hinder chapter’s conclusion in a clutch of visionary paragraphs where Leroi-Gourhan says he is certain that, “We already know, or will soon know, how to construct machines capable of remembering everything and of judging the most complex situations without error,” and that, “We must get used to being less clever than the artificial brain that we have produced, just as our teeth are less strong than a millstone and our ability to fly negligible compared with that of a jet aircraft.”

Of course words such as these echo the omnipresence of our intellectual approaches to the “remember everything machine” that is the internet. Frédéric Metz, in his remarkable essay, “Œdipus’ Eyes – When Google, Encountering The World, Is Able To See And Name,” analyses this section of Leroi-Gourhan from today’s point of view, writing that, “At the end of the day, Google is simply a complete table of contents of the entirety of human knowledge.”

I would rather choose the image of the index, which is always in alphabetical order in our books. Even so, we still feel the pull towards infinity The index is limited to notions considered relevant by the practical necessity of fitting it in the space of a few pages – and yet how often have we regretted not finding in an index a term, probably dismissed as secondary, whose mentions in the book we would have nevertheless liked to find?

Above all, there is something about the internet that goes beyond enhancing the performance of externalized memory, something that escapes the continuity of gradual progress, be it regular or constantly accelerating.

Externalized memory had always proceeded by contractions, summaries, reductions, selections, breaks in flow, as well as by organization, classification, boiling down. Card catalogues reduced thousands of works to a few key notions; tables of contents contracted the hundreds of pages in a given book. The sign itself was the first abbreviation of experience. An epic stitched of words was an abbreviation of the war, the long years of which were reduced to a few nights of recitation; the written text that recorded the epic was a contraction of the oral narration which pushed aside its sensory richness, melody, life in a thousand details. In accumulating, every level of abbreviation reconstituted an infinite flow, a new dilation that would be contracted in its turn. From the plurality of pages to the index and the table of contents; from the plurality of books to card catalogues.

The abbreviated elements were further arranged, situated within mapped spaces. The more numerous the data to process and domesticate, the more abbreviation was resorted to via hierarchical classifications, pyramids, subdivisions, tree diagrams, etc. Abbreviations of abbreviations. To find something, it needed to be placed somewhere. Disorder was the enemy of memory. From this point of view, the technologies of externalized collective memory still resembled individual psychological memory – those techniques cultivated by the bards and orators of antiquity for retaining long plots with the structure of basic units.

All of this has changed. On the internet, we make use of an immense externalized memory that presents itself to us with neither reduction nor order. We no longer need to know where things are located. We no longer need to keep anything “on file.” An idea strikes us, and typing a few words into a search bar instantly brings us to our intended quarry, no matter how far away it is. This unorganized memory has become so familiar to us that we are sharply disconcerted when we are denied the ability of asking Google to instantly tell us where an object is when we have misplaced a book that should be in our library, or can’t find our keys when we accidently leave them somewhere besides their usual spot. The internet harbors the twilight of classification, organization, and preparation. It holds the blueprint of a new way of life, one of constant assisted improvisation, with our smartphones as our lifelines to every instant. It is also an unabbreviated memory; a memory that doesn’t have to obey the parsimoniousness of the sign; a memory that is no longer stenographic, rather cinematographic; a memory that saves images, sounds, how long things last, and is no longer forced to choose what it will preserve; a memory that leans further and further towards being the film of the world, the monadological movie of every moment in the world, from all the angles in the world.

I remember the day a man was struck by lightning and died in the Jardin des Tuileries because of his cell phone – that was at least what was rashly said at the time. I was walking when the storm came upon me, I took cover under the awning of the tabac on the corner of the Rue de Bièvre and Boulevard Saint-Germain, right next to the Place Maubert. The rain had come on suddenly, the sky was very black.

That was fifteen years ago, during one of those sunless summer days where you find yourself walking alone among the tourists wearing windbreakers, taking a break from the hard work in the name of which you’ve given up on the idea of straying too far from Paris but you can’t advance far enough on to be satisfied. I heard the news on the radio that evening. At that time, cell phones were still fairly rare; many people thought they were just for snobs, humanism’s gravediggers, the ranks of the CAC40 exchange, and people who liked to act l’Americano. I didn’t have one; I didn’t ask myself if one day would.

I went by the same tabac recently on a gloomy June afternoon; the light, the weather, the atmosphere – and my own state of mind no doubt – made me involuntarily recall that now far-off day. I hadn’t thought of it in a long while, and I said to myself: hey, I even forgot that there was a time when we thought that cell phones attract lightning.

(My memory is quite vivid but imperfect: a quick Google search tells me that the day this took place was at the end of August, 2000, while I was sure that it had been in June of 2001, in the long gap between the written and oral exams when the sky was often grey and regularly stormy.)

Tipasa, Tarfaya: these places where I’m not, where I’ve never been, not recently nor a long time ago, but where I wanted to, or still want to visit one day. Why does it seem to me that they have entered into the sum of my experiences ever since I photographed pictures of the places with my cell phone as I flipped through photo books a little while ago at the Arab World Institute library? Is it because the act of photographing has since become so strongly, so ubiquitously associated with all of our experiences that it is capable of creating the feeling of a phantom experience in the absence of an experience itself – as if, to parody a famous turn of phrase, every photograph has to be a photograph of something? Is it because, looking through the set of my latest photos on my phone that corresponds almost 1:1 with the set of my latest experiences, these two images end up being assimilated by all of the “real” photos that surround them and being integrated into my memory like the artificial childhood memories that the most state-of-the-art androids in Blade Runner believe they have truly lived? Is it because between an image of an image and an image of a thing there is a sort of ontological equation which gets established that reduces the difference between images and things to nothingness, or at least relegates it to little importance? Is it because the second image, in the same way that it innocently represents the space in the first image as a physical space it would normally depict, restoring a depth to it which one has the feeling of surveying, almost inhabiting, so that two degrees of image, far from flattening, persisting within, or aggravating their bi-dimensionality, hollow each other out and give the impression that reality can be found at the bottom of their void through some enigmatic operation that is almost as necessary as the one that in algebra that renders the product of two negatives a positive? Or maybe it’s because I assume that if I posted the pictures on Facebook without commenting on them, there are many among my “friends” who would suddenly think that I was there, or had just come back?

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Maël Renouard

Maël Renouard

(*1979) ist Schriftsteller und Philosoph. Für sein Buch La Réforme de l’opéra de Pékin erhielt er 2013 den Prix ­Décembre. Zudem ist er Übersetzer aus dem Englischen und Deutschen (Walter Benjamin, Karl Kraus u.a.).