Memory technologies

800px-Kennedyb.jpgMy oft recounted earliest memory is of watching the assassination of John F. Kennedy on the TV over and over when I was five years old. Perhaps that was the beginning of my fascination with memory technologies.  Television in its earliest form was not a particularly good one. The video tape technology used to record/repeat the same few seconds of video over and over was better, but still less than perfect. Most early television programs are lost to history because video tape technology was always regarded as disposable. Tape was particularly important in the United States because of the differentiation in time zones; in order to facilitate shared experiences of prime time programing, live broadcasts needed to be delayed. Once the “live” content had been rebroadcast, the tapes were considered expendable and erased. The previous short-lived silver technology, kinescope, was actually far more practical as a memory technology.

There is a gap in our cultural memory there. Some programs from the fifties were committed to film, but in the early sixties when tape took over few made the cut. A huge gap exists between the early years of television, and the later years of secondary markets and syndicated resale. “Broadcast live” was largely a death sentence. There is an analogous situation in the fade of color snapshots. Early silver nitrate black and white technologies were far more permanent than later chromogenic dye technologies. Digital technologies, because of their replicating and broadcast proclivities, will most likely survive fairly well (aside from DRM and encryption concerns) into the future leaving a huge gap in the middle— just like TV.

I find it useful to distinguish two modes of memory here— transmission and fixation. There are early versions of both, in the form of oral traditions and stone or clay tablets. I’ve been joking lately that having lost interest in the internet, I’m looking forward to working with stone tablets. That is only partially a joke. Fixation (as a memory device) lends itself to a sort of intensive study that is absent when the primary means of memory is transmission/replication. Transmission is by definition extensive.

I think it is possible to argue that cultural memory is primarily extensive. Attempts to fix something as indicative of a culture is always doomed to degenerate into fetishism and its evil twin, nostalgia. Nonetheless, it seems that elements of the intensive come in to play in instances such as memorial sites. Such sites might be labeled as fetishes, but they have a cultural value that is peformative and not fixed (though they are by definition, fixed). Architecture and monuments have a curious relationship with memory which does not fit neatly in the intensive/extensive distinction. That complexity centers on the level of consciousness involved in the performance of memory. Do we mindlessly repeat the narratives we are given, or do we consciously live them?

No matter which method is used, memory is always distorted. In order to fix memory, we must kill it first. To survive by repetition, memory has to be dumbed-down and stripped of most of its complexity. If we reflect on an actuality, it is never the same from one moment to the next– what we think we know is always subject to revision by the new.

If my mother were still alive, she might tell me that I didn’t actually watch TV that day. 

1 thought on “Memory technologies”

  1. Funny, I’ve been thinking about “memories” a lot lately and came to the same conclusion, that most of my earliest memories were fixated by my parents retelling of early events in my life.
    One of my mother’s favorites was used to point out my “stubbornness” when I refused to take anyone’s hand while crossing a creek and feel in. I remember the incident vividly as my cowboy hat bobbed down the stream. In retrospect, I realized I couldn’t have seen the cowboy hat bobbing down the stream because I was UNDER it, though I didn’t realize that until I was in my late 50’s.
    I wonder how many of my other early memories were “imprinted” on me.

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