Monday, December 5, 2011

Memory Trade

Translout that gaswind into turfish, Teagues, that’s a good bog and you, Thady, poliss it off, there’s a nateswipe, on to your bottom pulper.

(James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, footnote 2, page 218)

Histories record: Prehistories invent.

(Darren Tofts, Memory Trade)

Towards an archaeology of reading

This is the technique that I use to recall the salient passages of a book I am reading for the purposes of study, presented not by way of instruction – we all have our methods, I don’t presume mine to be better than yours – but rather to make some general points about the print book as an information system.

I use a pen or pencil and a scrap piece of paper that doubles as a bookmark. When I come across a passage that I think I’m going to need to refer to at a later stage, I jot down its coordinates: the page number, naturally, but also where it is located on the page. If it’s a whole paragraph, and the paragraphs are few and easy to count, I might write, say, 5p3, meaning the third paragraph on page 5. If it’s a line or there are more than a seven or eight paragraphs on the page, I use decimals, say 5.4, meaning the line that is a fourth of the way down page 5, or 5.4 -> 5.7, meaning the passage is between a fourth and a seventh of the way down page 5 (roughly speaking, a course). If it’s the whole page, I write 5. If it’s an extended passage, say, from the last paragraph of page 5 to the middle of page 8, I write 5pL -> 8.5. When I’m finished, the piece of paper will look something like this.

The important bits in Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, from a post at Found Objects

Armed with this information, I can query the book’s addressable memory, isolating the elements that form my reading of it. Note that I couldn’t very easily do this if I hadn’t recorded this information in the act of reading, but relied rather on the book being word-searchable – that is, if it was available to me also in digital form – because I wouldn’t necessarily remember which exact words to look for, and in which order. By recording the position of the most salient passages, I’ve effectively indexed the book, and it’s a semantic/thematic as opposed to lexical index. Incidentally, I find that it helps for the index to be fairly precise, which is why I believe this system to be superior to using coloured stickers. These make it harder to delimit longer passages, and generally leave you wondering where the bit you marked is supposed to end. Also, with paper you can occasionally write down keywords or brief notes without defacing the book, if it’s not yours, or if it’s yours and you’re fastidious about these things.

Digital editions that can be highlighted and annotated make my system obsolete, but it helps to remember that those functions have their origin in practices of physical inscription such as the ones that I have described – with all that they entail, including the fact that if you lose the piece of paper, you’ve effectively lost your reading of the book and will have to recreate it, a process that may be only marginally faster the second time around.

Falling out of print

I first came across Darren Tofts and Murray McKeich’s Memory Trade shockingly late, more than halfway through my PhD, and would have feverishly produced one of those indices, likely on more than one piece of paper, before sitting down to manually copy the salient passages into a nine-thousand word Word file. There was that much that was quotable and directly relevant to my work, although, as in the case of The Death of Cinema, what mattered even more than the specific insights was the conceptual approach to the topic, the resolute anti-disciplinarity of it. I was utterly frustrated with the directions of memory studies at the time, and needed to find some validating models for the one I had chosen other than the periodic reassurances of my supervisors. Along with works by Haraway, Hayles, Davis, Cherchi-Usai, and the fiction of Jeff Noon, Memory Trade became one of the books that guided me through my research. And it was out of print.

Out of print is a concept that stands to become obsolete, along with limited edition. It has become a lot harder to enforce scarcity in the products of the intellect, which on balance is doubtless a good thing. The fact that Memory Trade was out of print didn’t make it impossible to obtain; but it did mean that I couldn’t get the library at my university to acquire a copy. This is lamentable: one of the least recognised but most tangible contributions that postgraduate students can make to their hosting institution is to expand the intellectual mapping of their topic for the benefit of colleagues down the line – and what better way to bequeath your bibliography than right there, on a shelf? But while a book can stop being printed for a number of incidental reasons, including a publisher’s misfortune, being out of print also means being out of currency, with the implication that your ideas didn’t take on or are no longer relevant. And if Tofts' or Cherchi-Usai’s ideas weren’t relevant, then neither were mine, and I hadn’t even finished writing my book.

But this story is about readings and re-readings, which are also writings and re-writings. Regardless of their publishing status, you carry books (and ideas) forward by including them in other intellectual projects; you try to demonstrate their enduring relevance. Memory Trade is primarily an attempt to produce the history of an idea – the idea of cyberculture – by tracing its origins to the invention of writing and therefore of the literate mind. Cybernetics, as argued by Tofts and drawn by McKeich, is not a product of the early age of computers, but of the late age of print, and its foundational text isn’t The Human Use of Human Beings: it is Finnegans Wake. This thesis, which rests in turn on Tofts’ articulate and compelling take on poststructuralist theory, illuminates the nature of the transition to the digital age, which is not about the wholesale substitution of old forms and patterns of economic production and social interaction with new ones, but rather the emergence of an ecology of sense that integrates, weaves and recombines these patterns – old and new – into something quite different.

This new ecology of sense has yet to take shape, but the work of radical artists such as Joyce and Duchamp allows us to both trace its genealogy and glimpse its contours. Tofts proposes in fact that reading Finnegans Wake may help us to figure out if we are there yet: so long as the Wake seems nigh-impenetrably complex to us, its demands on the reader outlandish and wrong, it means that cyberculture hasn’t quite reached its mature stage. But if the book starts making sense, to the point of seeming straightforwardly readable and even enjoyable, it would be the strongest clue yet that our minds have become hyperliterate.

Digitally remonstered

Finnegans Wake, claims Tofts, is a cybernetic system
constituted by two of the defining characteristics of cybernetics, the feedback loop and the signal transmission. At the macro level, the Wake is, in fact, a single, elaborate feedback loop, beginning and ending in mid-sentence, forever feeding back into itself. (177)
It is an autotelic book-world (as Tofts reminds, Joyce had quipped that ‘if Dublin was razed to the ground it could be re-built on the basis of Ulysses’, 154) concerned with cycles of return (‘fall and resurrection, death and birth, night and day, Viconian ricorso’, 177) and always monitoring its own internal functioning via the continuous repetition of the same details and motifs ‘in varying forms of modification and substitution’ (177). Tofts goes into extensive detail here, and conducts an incisive analysis of the book’s formal features, including its dense hypertextual network of internal and external references. But what I want to quickly touch upon are the anachronistic qualities of Joyce’s book. Like the World Wide Web, Finnegans Wake suspends time and exists outside of time, not least in its demand of multiple readings that are also – and here the lesson of Barthes and Derrida is invaluable – multiple writings.

Enter the digital reissue of Memory Trade. Another anachronism, another return, in varying forms of modification – chief amongst which are the switch to a creative commons license and a new set of images by Murray McKeich (re-generated, recalculated from the original ones), including the one on the cover. The text stays more or less the same but its mode of access changes: now definitively out of print, an awkward fit on ordinary computer screens, more at home on an iPad – I am told – where its vestigial book-like features are best preserved and rendered. But anachronistic is the reissue itself, after thirteen years – a small eternity, in the world of the cyberculture theory – making a new claim of salience under a mutated guise, restating its commitment to think differently about the history and prehistory of our cultural technologies, to slow down and anchor criticism against the deadly drive for a ‘persistent futurism’ (33) that infects it, and to cast doubt on ‘the watchfulness of our cybercultural vigil’ (194). And if you happened to think that it’s also what this blog is at least partly about, well, I’d be flattered by that.

I don’t care to belong to any book that will have me as a character

My favourite story about Finnegans Wake comes from an exchange between Groucho Marx and Leonard Lyons of The New York Post, reproduced in The Letters of Groucho Marx. In one letter, Lyons reports Thornton Wilder’s belief that Groucho appears in the Wake, precisely in the phrase ‘this is the three lipoleum Coyne Grouching down in the living ditch.’ Didn’t the brothers once appear in a skit in which they all wore Napoleon-style hats? The three lipoleum Coyne must be a reference to the hats, and Grouching, well, that didn’t need elaboration. Groucho replied:
There is no reason why I shouldn't appear in “Finnegans Wake”. I'm certainly as bewildered about life as Joyce was. Well, let Joyce be unconfined.

Tracing this item down from the “Wake” could be a life project and I question whether I’m up to it. Is it possible that Joyce at one time was in the U.S.A. and saw “I’ll Say She Is!”? Or did a New York policeman, on his way back to Ireland to see his dear old Mother Machree, encounter Joyce in some peat bog and patiently explain to him that, at the Casino Theater at 39th and Broadway, there were three young Jewish fellows running around the stage shouting to an indifferent world that they were all Napoleon?
Groucho was right to gently lampoon the critic here, for Wilder’s interpretive hunch didn’t stand up to scrutiny. But of course this kind of spurious association is part of the design of the Wake, just as it is part of the design of the World Wide Web: both are machines for generating improbable readings, immensely vast texts without context – at least until a reader comes along and supplies one.

To speak of the prehistory of cyberculture means to manufacture one such context, and simultaneously to look into our future-past in search of the questions that we need to ask of the present. It is important work, and I’m happy that this great book is now set to resume it.

Darren Tofts and Murray McKeich. Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture. 21C/Interface, 1998 & 2001. (The book is currently available at this link, I’ll put up the link to the 21C site as soon as it comes to hand.)

James Joyce. Finnegans Wake. London: Faber & Faber, 1939.

Groucho Marx. The Groucho Letters. London: Sphere, 1967. (The quotations in the post are on page 117.)

With many thanks to Andrea for road-testing the digital edition of Memory Trade on Kindle and iPad.

Darren Tofts is also the author of one of my favourite academic essays, which I touched upon here.