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Spring Series Revew #3: Memory Bytes

 

Lauren Rabinovitz, Abraham Geil, eds. Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Culture

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004. 352pp. ISBN: 0822332418

Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Culture suggests that there ought to be a paradigm shift in how we historically understand the internet’s rise to a prominent cultural, media and technological force. one overused and simplified cliché can be replaced with another overused and simplified cliché. The book suggests that the internet, and the digital culture that it helped inspire, was such a monumental departure from what had previously existed that it requires new models in order to properly engage it. The editors of this anthology: Lauren Rabinovitz and Abraham Geil clearly find fault with this notion. Instead, they posit that the history of the digital can be found behind the curtain of the progression through electronic and mechanized media forms. In so doing, the twelve articles within Memory Bytes do not dull digital culture’s sharpness or lessen its significance. Instead, the book seems to want digital culture to take its proper place within the pantheon of media cultures. This potentially underappreciated task is accomplished through a series of interdisciplinary and inter-methodological articles that frame the social, mechanical, and economic histories of under-discussed mediums.

While the articles in Memory Bytes are broken into four sections that move from pre-electric innovation to an inevitable digital arrival, it is perhaps not useful to think of the book through this laborious structure. Instead, a potentially better way is to think of the scaffolding as the merging of the social individual with the mediated object. In general, the relationship between the individual and the mediated object undergirds this entire project. Part I: “Intellectual Histories of the Information Age” attempts to create a context for this encounter. Ronald E. Day’s “The Erasure and Construction of the History of the Information Age,” the most successful of the first group of essays, argues against what was, at the time, a rash of positivism towards the potentiality of the information age. Day’s article dismantles the utopic idealism that still persists, even if only in Silicon Valley circles, not through some of the critical ways that have become popular, but as a historian. Day fairly convincingly argues that the criticism of the early information age of the 1920s, and thus, in actuality, media technologies, by Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin and others has been erased.   For both Heidegger and Benjamin, the critiques against technology are formed in critiques against modes of production that alienate the spectator through a process of mechanization that is similar to the way in which the individual encounters the digital. Day, like the other articles in the first section, frames the discussion of the digital within a historical context that satisfies the book’s initial thesis: that the digital movement has one foot in the past.

If Part I employs a historical methodology in order to understand the trace the progress the electrical undergoes in order to become the digital, Part II uses cultural studies to make sense of this progression. This is best emphasized in Judith Babbitt’s “Stereograph and the Construction of a Visual Culture in the United States. Babbitts does not simply historicize the stereograph’s trajectory as a media object to illustrate the way visual culture took root in late nineteenth century America, although she certainly does that; however, she also pre-supposes the individual’s digital assimilation by suggesting that the stereograph was meaningful because cultural understanding was not only spread through the images depicted, but constructed by it. In short, people viewing a stereograph of a far off location did not just learn what that locale looked like, but their idea and understanding of that place was formed by the stereograph. This coincides with the larger argument for the book itself as digital has often been opined to create a new space for interaction between the individual and the text (Hansen 172). More specifically, Stiegler’s notion of epiphylogenesis suggests that culture evolves through the mediated object and builds the human through the relationship (Stiegler 169).

While Part II elucidates the sensorial relationship between the individual and the media object, Part III explores the reproduction of the material form in non-representational ways. In John Durham Peters “Helmoltz, Edison, and Sound History,” sound marks in an early foray into the anti-temporal and the embodied relationship between the individual and the object is highlighted digital culture. In an almost affective sense, Peters states that the phonograph pulls the strings of the nervous system, functionally bypassing personal intention, and activating an automatic response within the individual. Even more, Peters examines the relationship between the media object and the individual through corporeal dimensions. Meaning that according to Peters, Mcluhan, Stiegler, and others media extends the human experience, while exteriorizing the individual’s interiority. This has tremendous importance for the digital since we might understand new media technologies as a semi-permanent access point for the brain’s memorization.

Part IV “Digital Aesthetics, Social Texts, and Art Objects” finally completes the arch of the book by doing the two-sided task of illustrating how “traditional” technologies presupposed digital technologies, while also explicating the merger of the individual and technological. In a sense, this chapter is the history of the present as it attempts to connect past technological actions with contemporary theories. This integration is most prominently shown in N. Katherine Hayles “Bodies of Texts, Bodies of Subjects: Metaphoric Networks in New Media.” As is the trend throughout the book, Hayles situates this historically by dismissing the notion of bodies and texts as separate entities. She states that the relationship between bodies and texts intertwine when the text is inscribed onto the book. This relationship further mediates itself because the physical body and the actual text alter at similar rates, particularly the gendered body and its artifact. This correlates to points made earlier in the book when bodies signify alteration in texts, and thus the epigenetic evolution of larger cultural transmissions.

Ultimately, while Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Culture manages to successfully historicize the present, it does so through as well-worn a cliché as it is attempting to combat. This implicit cliché, that there is nothing new under the sun, is as equally problematic since it purports that the digital belongs to a much longer technological and theoretical tradition: the encounter between in vitro Enlightenment thinking and post-Enlightenment thinking. And while Rabinovitz and Geil are aware that by locating the discussion on the digital within this frame they delimit this conversation to a particularly western perspective, they simultaneously fail to account for ulterior understandings of cultural placement within the digital.

 By using this common argument, Rabonitz and Geil simplify the complicated progress of electronic media into digital. While it might be fair to suggest that digital media’s roundabout antecedent can be found in any number of technological and cultural objects, the articles within the book make more tenuous claims. Earlier, I brought up Hansen and Stiegler because their research reveals exactly how explaining the transition from the electrical to the digital in purely linear terms is problematic. For instance, Stiegler, who is far from optimistic about the relationship between the individual and the digital, sees the increased reliance on technology as altering the course of human evolution in potentially dangerous ways.  In contrast, the claims made by Memory Bytes simplify this process by making it analogous to a previously existent reality without properly contending with how the digital has altered the human. For a book that attempts to conjoin the material with the dematerial, this lack of tangible support is striking. 

That said, the faults of this collection do not rest with the essays, but with a structure that attempts to frame the essays in an overly specific context. For their part, the essays are mostly well-written, clear, and relevant to those looking for a trail of breadcrumbs from the contemporary to the pre-modern. It is the introduction that gives the articles a burden that they cannot carry. The essays are loosely strung together by an introduction whose thesis is, at best, overstated. Even though the editors acknowledge the difficulties in making historical comparisons because of mediated, temporal, and philosophical delimitations, this does not stop them from locating the solution in the collection of the essays. These essays require far more than an introduction and section headings to coordinate their various themes. While the absence of a conclusion or epilogue is notable, even if one had been included, structurally orientating such a theoretically and methodologically diverse set of articles under a singular thesis would have been impossible. At best, the introduction would have been better served to suggest similar thematic patters evident in the interdisciplinary texts.

Criticisms aside, Memory Bytes is useful for coordinating the various strategies for historicizing digital culture in one volume. Even if the texts cannot adequately convey the stated mission of the book, they still offer individual moments of insight that are welcome in any historical account of the of digital culture.

 

Hansen, Mark. “New Media.” Critical Terms For Media Studies. University Of Chicago Press,      2011. 172-185. Print.

Stiegler , Bernard. Technics and Time, 1: The Fall of Epimetheus.  Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998. Print.

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