Monday, July 27, 2009

Places of Memory, Memory of Place

I’ve been playing around a little bit with maps.

Like, I suspect, many a blogger or website owner, I have a near-obsessive relationship with readership tracking software, in my case Google Analytics, a devilish contraption that I’ve been using since this blog’s inception. Having absolutely no idea what to expect at the time, I vaguely assumed that for the first few weeks if not months I’d be tracking a number very close to zero, and was looking forward to that peace and quiet as an occasion for mucking around in search of my rhetorical groove. But of course the Internet has a way of putting you in touch with others, and Russell offering very early on to co-host on Public Address my Italian ramblings can’t have hurt either. So soon enough I found that I had what you could call a readership, however small, and with a readership came projected expectations. What are they like, what do they like, and can I afford not to care? How does one get more of these very addictive and delicious readers?

Yes, of course it’s an exercise in vanity, but you get that I’m self-publishing, right, so what’s your point? Besides, I do think one gains some insights from studying this information that has broader applicability and interest. For instance: not every reader is a good reader: or rather, not every reader makes you a good writer. To a good chunk of my visitors, like the person who recently came here looking for “what does floor joyce beam sit below”, I’m a mild irritant at best, somebody who has no business coming up at the top of a completely unrelated search. It matters more to me that I do well with the phrase “memory and technology”, being my topic and all, but number one on Google? That’s a little steep. Ditto the hits I get for musings on Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew cycle that hardly compare with the learned essays they sometimes displace in the relevant searches due to Google’s wonky algorithms and notorious bias for blogs.

It pays, in other words, not to get too excited about the baseline numbers, which are unlikely to reflect your actual readership, except in relative terms - meaning that a blog with ten times the page loads I get is likely to have ten times as many loyal, interested and engaged readers. For something approaching a credible estimate of the absolute figure I like to rely on the average weekly returning readers: I post once a week, so it works quite neatly, and I figure that if people come back, it’s probably not in order to sneer at my towels. But occasionally you get a big bump, a spike in the numbers, either because somebody linked to something you wrote that week, or it resonated enough to produce word of mouth by other means (it is a network after all). Such was the case with my last post, and it mattered to me in a way that went quite beyond the customary stroking of the ego, so I tried to peer into that process more than I would ordinarily do; and I played around with a new site tracker and its rather wonderful maps.

For those who weren’t here, I wrote about my father. The last time I had been so invested in a piece of writing, it was my PhD and I knew exactly how many people were reading it and who they were and where they lived and worked: keeping track of two people isn’t all that difficult. Now by contrast on its first day the blog post in question travelled to the countries coloured in on this map, as per Google Analytics:

The darker the shading, the greater the number of visits
Whereas towards the end of its front page tenure, and switching to my newly installed StatCounter, the post was beamed to the following locations:

Each pin represents a location, no matter how many visits it generated, so this map underrepresents New Zealand (which accounts for 30% or so of my visitors).
As well as broadening the range of available maps and their granularity, StatCounter correlates more visitor information, revealing stops in truly strange places.

I shit you not.
Now that the exercise is over, I'm not sure of what I learned from it, or even how I feel about it. My father travelled up and down Italy and visited a handful of European countries, but never had a chance to see the United States or India or Japan, nor for that matter New Zealand, much as he would have liked to: when Mum came to visit us, in late 2000, it was in fact in order to fulfil his wish rather than her own. Now I don’t mean to suggest that I took Dad to any of those places on the maps above - on the contrary, my point in writing the post was to emphasise that I could only fall short on that count - but neither do I think we should be too literal minded and maintain that those words about him and those pictures of him don't constitute any sort of presence whatsoever, if only of a memorial nature.

Think of your own travels in cyberspace, and the extent in which they rely on metaphor and tropes, yet result in interactions that are quite concrete. The Web has its own geography, and it sometimes matches the world's physical geography, sometimes it subverts it, and plenty of other things in between. In focussing as I have thus far on undermining the narrative according to which we are the sum of our digital traces, and on anchoring memory back to its various forms of embodiment, I have neglected to talk about the place of space: what Pierre Nora famously called les lieux de mémoire, the sites of memory, and how they interact with the virtual, are themselves virtual. It is a tremendously complex tangle that anybody who has visited a virtual museum, or operated a remote webcam, or made a phone call for that matter, is familiar with and yet liable to be stupefied by as soon as it manifests itself in a novel way. As stupefied as I was the first time I ran Google Earth and visited my memory places, finding them impossibly real and close, and at the same time heartbreakingly virtual and far; and then later again when the terrain became more sharply defined, and in came Street View, and you could almost hear the collective gasp: 'So we can do this now? Crikey.' And we all checked out our own houses.

There is in cyberspace a virtual planet pressing to become coextensive with ours, always increasing in resolution and trending towards Borges' map of the Empire on a scale of one to one; aspiring, finally, to superimpose itself onto the world and replace it altogether. Its politics are all about omniscience and control, and come to include such apparently idle and harmless pastimes as checking the readership of one's blog. Tell me if this isn't a chilling image:

You can hunt down your readers, according to this promotion for eXTReme Tracking. I think I saw the dude in the red top in Enemy of the State.
It doesn't matter that it cannot be done (I think at the most what they can tell about you is this), it's the fact that it should even be mooted in a piece of advertising, and represented so precisely as panopticism from above, 'eye in the sky' like, that I find revealing, not to mention personally a little troubling, insofar as over the last fortnight I played with plotting site visitors on a map of the world myself. So here's my pledge to you, dear reader: I shall never stalk you. But clearly I cannot claim to be completely immune from the lure of the ever-expanding map.

More rants will (predictably) follow, but for now I'll begrudgingly admit that what Google does, by means of satellites and monster vans with a thousand eyes, is an asset in itself and can be tremendously useful for all sorts of memory work. Those images will further appreciate in time, too: walking down the streets of a foreign city on Street View today might be a harmless act of ersatz tourism at best, or an exercise in alienation at worst, but think of what it would be like to be able to visit, say, today's Tokyo in fifty or one hundred years - assuming the infrastructure for doing so is still there. There is much to critique in the archival project, but something to be gained from it too.

If walls could scream, photo by wellurban
Image credit licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Of an entirely different quality, however, is the work that is being done already to apprehend, understand and reimagine our geographies, urban or otherwise, and that happens to be shared on the same networks. I feel privileged for instance to be able to see Wellington through wellurban's eyes: it often seems so much more interesting and richly layered than the city in which I live. Then from that image above I might choose to visit the Extinct flickr pool, and delight in that counter-narrative to Google's perfectly preserved world inhabited by blurry-faced automatons. But even that doesn't match the excitement of a new post by Owen Hatherley, and the sense of possibility - for critique, for political action, for solidarity, for reinvention - that it makes palpable.

I expect that most of you will be familiar with his fine work, but everybody else should make their way to Owen's blog, starting perhaps from this splendid essay on his native Southampton, or this more recent foray into the madness of security by design. You'll get a sense of the need to rethink public and shared spaces as a matter of pressing political necessity, and develop an ear for the language in which to make our case and couch our demands: I struggle in both of these regards to think of a contemporary writer of greater relevance. But on a more personal level, I wish I were able to write as well as he could about my home town - that is to say, more pointedly, my father's - and in that manner better understand its history and articulate what needs to be done. I'd love to know how to find the words for that.

Monday, July 13, 2009

You Didn't Know Him

Giuseppe Tiso detto Pippo
18/8/1934 - 1/7/1999

I only made it to my father's funeral thanks to the kindness of our local parish priest, who agreed to hold the service on a Sunday to allow Justine and I the time to arrive from New Zealand. I am very grateful to have been able to be there for Mum and to greet our friends and family, but of the service itself I'd have to say that it was hardly a fitting farewell: a eulogy delivered by somebody he had never met, under the auspices of a God he had long since stopped believing in, followed by a few words and embraces of circumstance exchanged amongst loved ones on the steps of the church. No wake, no ‘celebration of a life’, just a strained and painful formality, something we put ourselves through, only dimly aware - but not enough for it to make a difference - that there was the alternative of different arrangements. We were too shocked and unprepared to do anything other than the done thing.

Of much greater comfort was the three hour car trip we embarked on later that week - violating, I suspect, a number of municipal regulations concerning the transportation of the deceased - to deliver his ashes to their final resting place, in the village where my mother was born. He had driven the family along that same route every other weekend for over thirty years, and he knew its every twist and turn, as was evidenced by many a trip back on Winter nights blanketed with fog, when the few other drivers foolish enough to brave the conditions always seemed to work out very quickly that the safest thing to do was to get behind our car.

Pieve di Coriano (Mantua), the church where my parents got married in 1961.

On this last trip he had been reserved at our destination a place near his parents in law, who had loved him a great deal more than his own, and there we were greeted by our local whanau. While I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife, I’m genuinely comforted to know that he is in that place and in that company. He wasn’t born there, he had never lived there, but it was his true homecoming.

In Corso di Porta Romana, Milan, 1998

Matariki demands that we remember our dead, but it also invites us to ask: is there a memory of place? I think of that often in relation to Dad. He was born in the house on the right of this picture, above the workshop where he spent at least half of his waking hours for nearly five decades. His was a family of upholsterers with a working class clientele - for prolonging the life of a sofa or chair was in those days still far less expensive than buying a replacement - and the area was itself predominantly working class. But it was also central and beautiful and over the years it became inexorably gentrified. At the same time the furniture industry and the nature of his profession changed, until it was only the wealthy who could afford the services of the few artisans left - a fact that frequently offended, if not his sense of social camaraderie, certainly his classically trained taste for what was beautiful and proper in the area of soft furnishing and interior design.

For the most part, however, the uprooting he suffered without moving an inch was the result of material changes in the neighbourhood: when the apartments in the public estate around the corner came up for sale, few of the tenants had enough savings to buy them, and everywhere else people of the old guard were dying or being evicted, or less frequently opting to sell, until finally in 1998, when Dad sold the workshop to go into his brief semi-retirement, it too was gutted and turned into a loft, in a move that swiftly erased all traces of its previous purpose. Yet it still came as a personal shock to me that when Dad died, less than a year later, there were people in the building where he spent his childhood and his entire working life, some of them long time neighbours, who didn’t even find out, let alone come to the funeral or express their sympathies.

How quickly can a person be gone? How quickly a group, a certain category of people? If you walk down that street these days you no longer hear the local dialect, which in Milan is both a generational and a socio-economic marker, as well as the key to a significant portion of the city’s repertoire in literature and the arts. I myself understand it, but cannot speak it, and have no ability to pass it on. My sister and I are where that part of our family heritage comes to an end.

Corso di Porta Romana, then known as Corso Roma, some time in 1943,
about twenty houses up the road from the previous picture.
(Photo by Vincenzo Carrese)

I say that Dad never strayed from Corso di Porta Romana all his life, but that’s not quite true: in 1943, when the allies started bombing the city, he and his older brother repaired under the care of their paternal grandmother in Vergobbio, a small town in the mountains above Varese. Dad was eight at the time, and that adventure enabled him later to say things like “I was in the war, I know what hunger is” while reaching for a second or third helping of a favourite dish.

Mum told me recently that they took a detour to Vergobbio not long before he died, on the way back from seeing a client in Switzerland, and that he got choked up when he looked at that old house. He must have been happy there, which likely can’t be said of his childhood as a whole. He was born with club foot, and had to undergo a number of corrective operations and spend months in a cast before he could walk. You have to wonder if that was the cause of his mother’s obvious and lifelong favouritism for his older brother, or rather the fact that his parents by then no longer got along.

My grandfather, whom I never met and whom my father never mentioned in my presence unprompted, must have been an interesting character - an anarchist sympathiser and a pacifist, he spent his service during World War I in a military prison - but whatever sympathy I can muster for his politics, I doubt he was any great shakes as a parent. I know for a fact that he insisted that my father be pulled out of school at fourteen to take his place in the family business, in spite of the entreaties of his teachers. Not that Dad ever expressed any regrets about that, and besides he got his own back years later when he helped my mother prepare for the exams that she needed to complete her degree, of which he was very proud.

In that as in all things, he seemed to work well with the hand that was dealt to him, not letting his lack of formal education interfere with his love of literature and art, or his physical disability interfere with his desire to become a mountaineer. He continued to enjoy his profession, even when the going was tough, and was involved for a long time in the local chapter of the artisans’ association. More importantly and of more tangible, lasting value, he taught the trade to a number of apprentices, including the one who eventually took over the business.

(They were my nemeses, those guys, for he spent so much time with them that I’d always end up acquiring the name of his current apprentice - and so it happened that I learned to answer to the name of Giancarlo, Antonio, Gianluca or Giorgio as well as my own.)

My father died ten years ago on the first of this month, and sometimes I feel like I have done little else since but measure that loss. Of the people who have come into my life since, including my children, it pains me that they never knew him, that the memory of the sheer pleasure of being around him is not something we can share, and it creates an empty space, however small, in all my new relationships. He was the funniest person I’ll ever know, and possibly the kindest. But my telling you this means very little. You didn’t know him.

You didn’t know him, and how do you explain a person? I am no Merc, whose words and art are a shrine to memory, nor is my loss measured on the same scale as his. It is a most ‘common theme, the death of fathers’, and to lament it so at this far remove, perhaps unseemly. Perhaps too in that deficit of memory lies humanity’s ability to move forward, just like the death of the body is what affords new organisms the share of resources needed to survive. It’s best to let it pass, to carry what we can within ourselves.

Yet it bothers me to compare the paucity of the record that is left of him with the far larger one I've already amassed, and I worry that by virtue of the sum of those documentary traces I will be thought more of than him, and for longer. In this regard, I've been haunted of late by the slightly clichéd but nonetheless resonant words of David Eagleman, that reached me via Deborah and Kerryn
There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second in when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, some time in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.
It bothers me that I'm unable to unpack the author's assumptions regarding individuality, memory and kinship; it bothers me that he put it so elegantly and that it rings so true; it bothers me that I cannot pinpoint what bothers me about it. Ultimately, it may be that old hobby horse of mine: that there are lives that lend themselves better to today's means and technologies of memory, persons whose names are more likely to be spoken for longer not because of their value or accomplishments, but because they made themselves more available and easier to remember. So many of us - including I suspect a majority of my readers - spend a significant portion of our days memorialising ourselves in blogs, on Twitter, on homepages and image accounts. If it's true that Facebook is changing the meaning of the word friend, so too Twitter is changing the meaning of what it means to mention somebody and get mentioned in return ('…your name is spoken'). And it doesn't matter that it is primarily a means of communication, rather than biography, for it leaves a trace and articulates a privileged space of memorability.

We are perhaps in the early stages of a new class division along the axis of memory, between those who have the time, the will, the access to the technology, the knowledge required, and others whose lives and works are less compatible, and will likely become an underclass of the sooner-to-be-forgotten.

You may not think that it's a problem, or an altogether new problem, and that at any rate it's more complicated than that. Perhaps so do I. For that matter, my eulogising my father on a blog, giving him a Web presence and a name online, blurs the issue some. But there is no link that I can point you to, no definitive resource that I can get you to browse, and even if you chose to read this far, it changes so little. You didn't know him, and I regret that. I think you would have liked him.

Justine got to know my father well, and for that, and their mutual appreciation and love, I am enormously thankful. So I'll end where I began, with the companion picture of the one at the top of the page. Both were taken in Tours, France, in August of 1997, a few months before Justine and I moved to New Zealand. You'll notice that in the first one my father was carrying a camera around his neck: it was with that camera that, moments later, he took the picture below. I'll insist that it's a still a photo with him in it, because of that look and that smile that was being exchanged between the two most important people in my life.

Goodbye, Dad. We love you and we miss you.