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History and Memory in the Age of the Search Engine
and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo
of History, really beginning.
—Derek Walcott, “The Sea Is History”
What is memory? I carried with me for more than forty years the distorted and etiolated memory-trace of what I believed was an anti-nuclear protest concert, held around 1979, somewhere in America, featuring James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Peter Frampton, and other stars of that long-forgotten era. Throughout all these decades I was convinced that the concert had been called “Nukes Knocks [sic] Your Socks Off”, or perhaps, alternatively, “Nukes Knocks Yer Sox Off”.
Adjacent to this memory was another one, of my father’s hippie friend’s son, who would later end up in Louisiana’s Angola Prison, I was told, for some crime or other involving heroin. The adolescent, six years or so my elder, entered the living-room where I was patiently waiting as our respective dads fiddled with a vintage printing press in the basement. He pulled a record out of its sleeve, blew on it, and said casually, “You like Sabbath?” I was eight years old. “Yeah,” I said. And his shirt, I recall as clear as day, bore a message: “Nukes Knocks Your Socks Off”.
I have Googled that phrase every six months or so since around 2005, and until recently I continued to turn up nothing. I did turn up records of a concert held in 1979 under the title “No Nukes” —featuring Taylor and Browne, though not Frampton—, as well as of an eponymous concert film from the following year. But that’s not what I was looking for. I was looking, much more precisely, for “Nukes Knocks Your Socks Off”. This phrase had become one of the most vexing items on the list of what I had come to think of, with a hat-tip to Barbara Cassin, as the “Ungoogleables”. Another item, on the list still, is a Girls Scouts camp song that contains the zen-like lyric, “Vista / Not the vista”. I could swear I heard some rambunctious girls with their badge-covered sashes chanting this koan circa 1981, yet when I turn to Google I find nothing useful. (Are there any former Girl Scouts out there reading this? Could you kindly drop me a line if you have an answer?)
As for the anti-nuclear concert, just last week I experienced the rare triumph of crossing it off the list of Ungoogleables: a facsimile of the documentary source that first made the memory finally turned up in that quasi-omniscient engine. It was not quite the memory as I had preserved it, but it was enough to satisfy me as to the causal story behind the installation of this apparently permanent squatter in my cerebrum:
It was, it turns out, a quote from a review in Rolling Stone of the 1980 film, No Nukes. The scanned version of the movie listing that Google turned up for me was from The Detroit Free Press, though most likely I originally saw it in The Sacramento Bee. I somehow let the “No” drop, and then elided the remaining part of the name of the film with the quote from the review, and from there the phrase made the gradual migration through my hippocampus and into my long-term memory.
As I write this I realize that I had also fused the memory fragment with yet another, of a worrisome television appearance from Leonid Brezhnev of around the same time — I had come to believe that the nukes that the concert promised would “knock your socks off” would arrive in the form of ICBMs. This is why, even though Google regularly pulled up evidence of the No Nukes concert for me, until I saw the movie listing with the Rolling Stone quote I could not definitively accept what would likely seem obvious to other people: that my memory had come from a concert not against nuclear weapons, but against nuclear power.
This problem is solved, but others remain. I could swear that when I was a child hopscotch patterns painted onto cement playgrounds featured, for some mystifying reason, the names of childhood diseases, and as one hopped one would land successively on Measles, then Mumps, then Rubella, then Polio, then Whooping Cough, and so on. Google continues to deny this. And yet the feeling grows stronger in me that it is just a matter of time now, that if we are patient the internet will resolve all things.
It is thus not only that our new technological reality has left us with a panopticon of the present, but the hope of a panmnemonicon of the entirety of our past. The implications of this transformation for our shared understanding of history, for the individual phenomenology of memory, and perhaps even its neurophysiology, are too enormous to fully comprehend at this early moment, but we can at least venture a few first stabs.
History and memory are two different things, but their interpenetration makes it hard to talk about the one without talking about the other. We ordinarily suppose that, on a stroll of the mind backwards into the past, memory leaves off, and history begins, where the self itself leaves off: you can’t remember stuff from before you were born, obviously, and so once you hit that absolute boundary, you have no choice but to rely on third-person documentary sources, and that’s what we call history.
But things, I find on reflection, are not so simple. Before I knew anything at all about the world, I could hear history traduced down through my father’s mother’s Arkansas accent, which distinguished her from the kin and kind of my mother’s mother, which endowed her with a different nature. Everything I have learned since, about the Dustbowl migrations, about class and identity in America, has been an accretion on top of that primary experience of my tabula-rasa consciousness. No knowledge replaces what was heard and seen and felt before anything was known, but only ever adds topsoil to the bedrock of those primary sensations.
And come to think of it, was I really such a blank slate after all? I will not dogmatically affirm the doctrine of anamnesis —not here anyway—, but I will acknowledge that it has its attractions. Plato had supposed that what we call “learning” is really only recollection, yet he cautiously limited this experience to those domains that we might describe as timeless — mathematics, morality, all the things that do not change. To speak of historical anamnesis thus seems like a radicalization of a doctrine that most people today already have trouble taking seriously even in its classic and restricted formulation. Yet it is with respect to history that the doctrine receives its most powerful confirmation in experience. As a young adult I read James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, for example, describing Southern American poverty in the early twentieth century, and my truest thought as I “learned” from him, though I did not yet dare put it this way, was: “Yes, I know this. I have always known this.” If I am being completely truthful I will dare to say now that I have always known everything, though some things are of course more difficult of access than others, harder to recall, more of a stretch.
To acknowledge this is in some sense only a variation on the Terentian cliché according to which nothing human can be alien to me. But in a more narrow sense what I am attempting to describe is an experience that is sometimes treated under the banner of “historical memory”. On the face of it this two-word phrase has an oxymoronic quality about it — if there is an absolute boundary between the memories that form my lived experience on the one hand, and on the other the sum of all events outside of my experience for which I need to draw on third-person documentary sources to have any knwoledge at all, then how could memory itself be historical?
My friend Julian Lucas, who has written insightfully on historical memory in the African diaspora, reminds me that rituals of historical memory have often evolved, and have often been most lucidly articulated, in diasporic communities confronted by a dearth of historical records about individual ancestors. Thus the impossibility of doing history in the narrow sense of an archival search for documentary traces gives rise to a richer practice of history as the imaginative channeling of the past for present purposes, in order to gain more certain bearings in the present world. Julian draws particularly on the work of Derek Walcott, who recommends to Caribbean descendants of the African diaspora, facing the absence of archival sources on their ancestors, that they should instead look to the sea as a source of history. Contemplate the sea, imagine the sea; see the sea. Wade into it and experience it, and if your imagination is sufficiently opened by such exercises, you will recall what you have always known about the past. Again I’m not here to defend historical anamnesis, but only to entertain the idea that some such experience is already contained within the idea of historical memory as someone like Walcott understands it. Pace Plato, it may be in history, above all, that knowledge is timeless, and nothing is ever truly learned.
We know for a fact, anyhow —experiments with laboratory mice have proven as much— that trauma can be transmitted epigenetically: the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of a sufficiently tormented mouse will turn out as anxious and jittery as their ancestor was. Nor do we have any reason to suppose that the epigenetic transmission of trauma stops there, but indeed we may consider seriously the idea that all of our worry and apprehension about our lives, and perhaps all of our joy and expectation too, are shaped by our entire evolutionary history. Such trauma and joy are not memories, not exactly, but they do inform both our initial autobiographical experiences —e.g., our first hearing of a grandmother’s melancholy phonemes— and the subsequent learning of history, or apparent learning, that accretes on top of these experiences — for example, our reading about the Dustbowl migrations from Arkansas to California. My own family’s history of trauma, as far back as I am able to trace it through individuals, is fairly mild. But if I am “stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over”, as Walt Whitman dared to venture of himself, then the history of trauma that brought me into this world is incalculable.
In recent decades researchers have displayed remarkable resourcefulness in recovering unwritten episodes of history that in an earlier era would have been deemed forever lost to the past. Chemical analysis of hair taken from the heads of the permafrost-preserved bodies of Sakha warriors from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries now gives a fairly vivid picture of when and by what routes tea and tobacco began circulating into far North Asia through trade with China. Analysis of the wax build-up in whales’ auditory canals shows annual deposits, with varying levels of stress-related cortisol in them, which in turn can be correlated with particular known historical events, including the rise and fall of the whaling industry and the beginning of bathymetric sonar testing in the mid-twentieth century. And so on.
We are, in short, discovering ever more ways to apprehend the world around us as a document, and each new such discovery obviates the old distinction between the discipline of history as the study of written records about particular past events and people, on the one hand, and on the other hand the speculative reconstruction of the past in general, which in the early modern period was sometimes called “universal history”. The innovation of such new methods has buttressed a widespread conviction that there is no longer any excuse for declining to listen to marginalized voices from the past. If you are not listening, it’s because you don’t want to listen, and if you don’t want to listen it’s because you are a whig who supposes that only the hegemonic voices have ever had anything to say that is worthy of being counted as history.
But at just the same moment as the methods for accessing distinct, individual, irreducible voices from the past grow more sophisticated —as for example scholars are producing microhistories of African diasporic natural knowledge in eighteenth-century Brazil by reading comments in the transcripts of Portuguese criminal trials—, the Walcottian invocation of historical memory as something collective, irreducible to individuals, and accessed through the exercise of the imagination, presents itself as a particularly attractive alternative. We are not whales, after all, such that the forces that shaped us might simply be read off of wax plugs pulled from our ears. We are not corpses or skeletons, such that the contours and quality of our lives can be read off of our dentition or our hair. We are living human beings, and if history has shaped us in ways we had no power to control, we may still wish at least to control the way this shaping is articulated in the present.
Documentary evidence and narrative testimony sometimes converge — as for example when Australian Aboriginal accounts of flooding events in the distant past are confirmed by new methods of paleoclimatological “reading” of environmental evidence. But documentary evidence and narrative are sometimes at sharp odds too — as when Euro-American archeology says one thing about the chronology of migrations across the Bering Strait, and Native American narratives —that is, Native American practices of structuring present reality— say another.
It is nice when the two paths come together and complement one another. It is not surprising that they often do not, that collective memory gets the “feel” of the past right, but the details wrong. Even individual memories, actively manufactured by the brain, get discrete events all mixed up, elide moments that seem subjectively to share a common color or tone, combine and divide by analogy and synaesthesia rather than rigorous documentation. I now know that in the case of the “No Nukes” concert I got several things factually wrong — I mixed in some Cold War anxieties that were strictly out of place; I put a t-shirt on an older boy who, in retrospect, could not have been a fan of Black Sabbath and James Taylor at once —no one was!—, as the scene in my memory would have him be. And come to think of it, why on earth would the names of fatal childhood diseases be found on hopscotch squares? Surely this is nothing more than the fabrication of a memory, perhaps a dream I had decades ago.
To acknowledge that we have something in our heads that was fabricated there is, among other things, to acknowledge that we are going about our lives with at least some part of us that is strictly ungoogleable. But it no longer feels as though such a thing should exist at all, and so we find ourselves returning to Google again and again, compulsively searching for answers to the question of what is truly ours, and what is common property; of what is “pure memory”, and what is by contrast both memory and history at once.
There is a sort of pain involved in this compulsion — not trauma, but nostalgia, which cannot but be experienced differently under the reign of the search engine. When it is possible to push ever further in the recovery of lost traces, when one may hope to retrieve decades-old movie listings that for whatever reason helped shape us, the hope cannot fail to take hold that we may in principle recover everything — total recall of a lost childhood.
Why would we want such a thing? Simple curiosity, in part, to check the memories against the historical facts, and see how they match up. But more than that, as Tomas Tranströmer wrote, if life is a comet, then childhood is the blazing head of it, and maturity but a dull trailing of dust. It is normal to wish to revisit the brightest part of life, and it is irresistible to seek to do so through the nearly magical power of a machine that can bring back so many traces of evanescent material reality that otherwise would have been lost.
So the internet, in addition to being a disagreement engine and an attention-extraction engine, is also a nostalgia engine. We see this plainly in the aesthetics of the musical cultures that have been shaped by the internet, some of which were born entirely in virtual space. Keith Richards traduced Robert Johnson, and while the internet will probably tell you this was an instance of “appropriation”, it was in truth closer to the intergenerational flow of a common style —something that cannot be appropriated because it is not the property of anyone— that characterizes popular or bardic musical and epic traditions.
The meaning and function of such musical echoing of the ancestors was however turned on its head with the rise of sampling technology, even if throughout the late-twentieth century this technology’s use was mostly limited either to avant-garde experiments that “interrogated” the limits of intellectual property, in the manner of Negativland or John Oswald’s Plunderphonics; or to a sort of demotic recycling, especially in hip-hop, that signaled sooner the expiration of something old than the birth of something new — think for example of Naughty By Nature lazily sampling the Jackson Five, or Puff Daddy (as far as I can tell) basically copy-pasting the entirety of a Police song, not as a bold experiment, but just because his producers knew that audiences had grown too docile to complain.
But by the twenty-first century the technologies of audio recycling were being used in pursuit of an aesthetic that sought to transfigure the commonplace of a material and audio culture from the recent past, still lingering in forgotten and sun-warped corners of the present. The musical style of the early 2010s known as “vaporwave” is surely the most excellent expression of this sensibility, building on the “hauntological” trends in British electronic music of the previous decade. Much of it sounds something like the tinny synth of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, heard while crawling for some reason through an HVAC duct in a suburban mall circa 1987. (Nor is it insignificant that the first great meme with no non-internet-based back story, 2015’s unicycle-riding frog known as Dat Boi, was quickly given an utterly ingenious and utterly horrible vaporwave treatment.)
The effect is transfigurative in the technical sense: it draws the original banal product into relief, and forces you to ask how you could have taken it for granted for so long. Most of the adepts of vaporwave were too young to have ever had a first-hand experience of pastel triangles and palm-tree motifs in a suburban mall in, let us say, Anaheim, California, and the most common YouTube comment on their preferred works in the genre is a variation of: “Listening to this is like remembering something you know never happened to you personally”. We might call such an experience “epimemetic”. The baby mouse experiences the epigenetic anxiety of its long-dead great-grandmother. The baby internet user, in the early twenty-first century, experiences the nauseating boredom of a long-abandoned mall, and relishes it.
All of this suggests that, just as in history proper, the two parallel paths of memory are converging in the age of the internet. That is, in history we are both getting more sophisticated at retrieving isolated facts about individuals from the past, and we are cultivating new forms of historical experience, such as the reenactment of the rebellion of enslaved people on a Louisiana plantation, in which collective memory is actively summoned through an imaginative experience of the past, the purpose of which is explicitly to give meaning to the present. In our own autobiographical memory, similarly, we are as never before able to access particular fragments of experience that shaped our own individual lives, even as we are forging new forms of collective aesthetic experience that consciously, and even aggressively, insist that memories are never irreducibly our own, and that they most certainly can be “appropriated”.
In 1995, when to follow Michael Jackson’s career had already begun to feel like a form of morally blameworthy rubbernecking, the singer came out with a particularly awkward song called “Have You Seen My Childhood?” It was a strange question to ask, and a certain hyperliteral yet unavoidable answer was: “Of course I’ve seen it, I’ve been bombarded with it my whole life, it fundamentally shaped my memories of my own childhood.” Slowly, however, it would come to seem to me that this was also a prophetic question, and it is in essence the same one that I pose to Google whenever I wish to know if it has seen my whooping-cough hopscotch, or the nukes that knock your socks off.
This expectation, that the panmnemonicon is eventually going to be able to recover everything, is at the same time a dream of epimemetic dissolution, in which I have no memory that is not shared, just as increasingly I have no present experience that is not surveilled.
On my fourth birthday I cried because the four-shaped candle on my cake was the kind of four where the diagonal line does not entirely meet the straight line at the top, and I considered only a fully closed “4” to be a four at all. How painful and powerful and gratifying it would be to pull that up on Google!
There are innumerable such moments, which may or may not have happened as I remember them, and which I would give anything to retrieve. I would give anything — even, I fear, my right to call them my own.