Jerome J. McGann, “Memory Now”

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
—William Faulkner

In humanities research and education we speak of critics and scholars. Both, once upon a time, were understood to practice what was called philology, or in August Boeckh’s famous definition, Die Erkenntnis des Erkannten — “the knowledge of what is and has been known.” The fundamental obligation of philology, of the humanities, is the preservation of cultural memory. It is an obligation that has been made both more difficult and more imperative in a world of just-in-time globalized cultural exchange.

In this respect Paul Connerton’s How Modernity Forgets (Cambridge University Press, 2009) is exemplary of the problem of memory, and hence of culture, in a cybernetted world. “We are living in a culture of hypermnesia,” Connerton remarks, only to add immediately that “we are living in a post-mnemonic, a forgetful, culture” (146). The paradox is for him only apparent, however, since he recognizes these conditions as codependent functions.

By accelerating time computer usage immerses individuals in a hyper-present, an intensified immediacy which . . . makes it ever more difficult to envisage even the short-term past as “real”. . . . The onset of forgetting and the longing for the moment proceed in tandem. . . . Exposed to what Debord has called “diffuse spectacle”. . . [people] find historical knowledge annihilated . . . as a perpetual present is installed in its place. . . . Present time is packed to bursting point; past time is evacuated (87-88).

What Connerton worries about here is a person’s fractured experience of the present, i.e., a present that seems “packed to bursting” with everything that has ever been known as well as everything that is even now being known; and worse still, the prospect of a future that will keep augmenting this disoriented condition. For the scholar — even for that creature of fable, the General Reader — we seem to have been pitched into Borges’ Library of Babel.

The literature scholar gets a special view of that large social problem of “information overload” by virtue of his narrow vocational investment in book culture. As our libraries move toward digital organization, their primary traditional commitment — to collect and maintain the heritage of manuscripts and books — has become an acute problem. These problems emerge through an event, now underway, that has become an accepted fact of social policy: the migration of our traditional cultural inheritance to a system of digital storage, access, and re-use.

No one can seriously doubt that the intercourse of the humanities research community will be digitally organized — in our traditional lexicon, that we will give up books for online publishing and will take up digital tools for investigating and interpreting our cultural inheritance. But even as that is granted and understood, the profound importance of our traditional resources — material, methodological, and theoretical resources — is much less well understood. This seems true on both sides of the humanities divide. Digital humanists tend to see their traditional colleagues and the inherited research system as needing to be brought up-to-date. And while that view has its truth, equally true is the digital community’s increasingly attenuated historical sense. Nearly everyone misses the problem here because the Web has made available such vast amounts of historical data. We can now quickly annotate just about anything we’ve never heard of. But there lies the problem, as Connerton, among others, has made so painfully clear. Perhaps never before have we been able to “know about” so much and to “know” so little of what we know.

Connerton is drawing an important distinction between forms of memory — i.e., the stored data, “the knowledge of what is and has been known” (Boeckh), “the inorganic organization of memory” (Bernard Stiegler) — and the human persons who access and use them. We speak of computerized “memory banks” and we’ve naturally tried to organize digital environments after our library and museum models (and now, vice versa). Then the scale of the data and information deposits explodes in online aggregated systems and cloud computing. So we talk of drinking information from a fire hose.

Though our language often misleads us to think otherwise, none of that data or information is “Memory”, not even the software that facilitates its retrieval and use. No one drinks from a fire hose, and only living things have memories. It’s imaginable that the auto- and allopoetic functions of machines might take a Lucretian swerve and develop what we call consciousness and therefore what we understand as human “Memory.” It’s being imagined all the time. But I suspect, with Olaf Stapledon, that such an event requires an unimaginable time scale. Blade Runner is a sweet and sentimental dream of escape from a society that has lost its mind and its memory.

So I want to say that Memory now means pretty much exactly what it meant to Socrates, to Montaigne, to Tolstoy, to Sebald. (I don’t say “to Gibbon” or “to Churchill” because the forms of their memories were imperially inflected — a condition that transforms human memory, that most personal experience, into  . . . what shall we call it? a sense of history?)

Memory is how we take care of what we love and lose. (Tormented memory is when we remember that we forgot to take care.) We create machineries to help us remember. Libraries, museums, digital environments. Families. Nations. Ceremonies. No question but these machines get out of hand, some dangerously out of hand. The story of the Tower of Babel and the myth of Faust are ways of reflecting on memory machines that have gone out of control. The one is an imperial tale, the other is personal. Personally I prefer the personal ones. Faust and Margaret, Manfred and Astarte.

The transition to digitally-based research education is at the same time a transition to a global internetwork. But nearly everyone keeps seeing that in severely presentist terms, as if the many global agents were not each the bearers of their ancient household gods. We imagine forging passages to India, even two-way routes — an excellent thing to pursue. But when we do we might begin to (hope to) imagine as well what we don’t know, as the characters in E. M. Forster’s famous novel begin finally to see. “Not yet” a passage to India (and which India?), or to England, “not yet” the discovery of America. And what delays those future possibilities?

      Distance, or depth of wave, or space of earth,
But the distractions of a various lot,
      As various as the climates of our birth.

Most of all, we have been distracted by radiant textualities on one hand, and only special memorial commitments on the other. The construction of reliable humanities research education commands, I think, that we understand how those two interests can be reconceived and their relations sustained.

So thinking now about the humanities we would do well to go back to our future, back to philology — the fundamental science of human memory (ethnography, archaeology, and anthropology are among its great derivatives, and we are learning as well that ecology is part of its domain as well). Philology is itself a derivative of history, but it is quite different — as different as “the canon” is from “the archive”, or as Burckhardt’s “messages” are from what he called “traces.” Terence famously set down the moral imperative that licenses it: Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto — which I’ll render freely as “I’m a human being so there’s nothing about human beings that doesn’t interest me.” Unlike the truths pursued by science and philosophy, philological truth is whatever there ever was: good and bad, right and wrong, those categories are simply formal distinctions to the philologist. All appearances must be saved and studied and learned from.

So Philology: to preserve, monitor, investigate, and augment our cultural inheritance, including the various material means by which it has been realized and transmitted. The scholar Aleida Assmann recently said of the philologian’s archive (as opposed to the critic’s and scholar’s canon) that it is populated by materials that “have lost their immediate addresses; they are decontextualized and disconnected from the former frames which had authorized them or determined their meaning. As part of the archive, they are open to new contexts and lend themselves to new interpretations.” So we may arrive at “counter-memories” and “history against the grain.” But in order to lie so open, they must be held at a level of attention that is consciously marked as useless and nonsignificant. There need be no perceived use or exchange value in the philological move to preserve beyond the act of preservation itself. Value is not only beyond present conception, it is understood that it may never again acquire perceived value. “Never again” is crucial. For the philologian, materials are preserved because their simple existence testifies that they once had value, though what that was we may not — may never — know. As the little girl in Wordsworth’s “We are Seven” understood, the dead are precious as such. If we are living human lives, they are not even dead.

That is the knowledge to which the science of philology is devoted. It is, I believe, the ground on which all humane studies must finally rest. Our great and neglected American poet Charles Reznikoff celebrated that ground in a poem which bears the more common name for this kind of knowledge: Testimony .

Jerome J. McGann is the John Stewart Bryan University Professor in the Department of English at University of Virginia. The author of numerous books on British nineteenth-century poetry, textual editing practice and theory, and digital textuality, he has also been an early and continuing innovator of influential, major digital humanities projects such as The Rossetti Archive and NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship).

“Memory Now,” which he contributed to 4Humanities, is adapted from several sections of the book he is currently finishing entitled Memory Now: Philology in a New Key, which is in part a sequel to his Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web (Palgrave, 2001). The piece is also related to his pamphlet Are the Humanities Inconsequent? An Interpretation of Marx’s Riddle of the Dog (Prickly Paradigm, 2009). Other works that he will soon be publishing include a chapbook entitled The Invention Tree (Chax Press), a prosodic parody of Edward Lear’s “The Courtship of the Yonghy Bonghy Bo.”

5 thoughts on “Jerome J. McGann, “Memory Now”

    1. Thanks for this post. Speaking about “presentism”, and in general the relationship between memory, time and digital machines, I’d like to recall Borges’ wonderful story “The immortal”. I used this story as a metaphor in my 2003 chapter “Tempus digitale” for describing what was the risk (?) of an ethernal (digital) present: Borges’ immortals were condemned to an endless wandering in a city where the architecture reflected the lack of any purpose or direction. In other terms, too much memory deprived them of the ability of “planning”. I cut and paste here my original comment: “Volendo usare un’espressione di moda potremmo dire che gli immortali hanno perduto ‘capacità progettuale’. Si può concludere insomma che per Borges il frutto avvelenato della sconfitta del tempo è la catastrofe del senso della vita e dell’identità umana. (…) Ma una vita vissuta nell’eterno presente porta con sé un’altra conseguenza alla quale accenna Borges: lo sgretolarsi del concetto di bene e di male: ‘Per le sue passate o future virtù, ogni uomo è creditore d’ogni o del futuro. […] So che alcuni operavano il male affinché nei secoli futuri ne derivasse il bene, o ne fosse derivato in quelli passati… Visti in tal modo, tutti i nostri atti sono giusti, ma sono anche indifferenti.” (Scrittura e filologia nell’era digitale, p. 147). Is this “indifference” that we are facing today? I suspect the real problem it’s not memory in itself, but how our relationship with time is changing through the digital.
      Will the aim and mission of today philologist be to give sense to the disconnected ruins of our ethernal digital present? Or limit herself to “preserve, monitor, investigate, and augment our cultural inheritance”? Is cultural memory independent from our identity?

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