Forgetting to remember

From Franco Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody

The modalities of memorization depend on the mind’s capacity to store information that has left a deep impression, was active over a long period of time or in repetitive fashion. Memorization modifies the conscious organism and shapes its identity, given that identity can be defined as a dynamic accumulation of the memory of places and relations forming the continuity of an experience.

But what happens to memory when the flow of information explodes, expands enormously, besieges perception, occupies the whole of available mental time, accelerates and reduces the mind’s time of exposure to the single informational impression? What happens here is that the memory of the past thins out and the mass of present information tends to occupy the whole space of attention. The greater the density of the info-sphere, the scarcer is the time available for memorization. The briefer the mind’s lapse of exposure to a single piece of information, the more tenuous will be the trace left by this information. In this way, mental activity tends to be compressed into the present, the depth of memory is reduced and thus the perception of the historical past and even of existential diachrony tends to disappear.

And if it’s true that identity is in large part connected to what has dynamically settled in personal memory (places, faces, expectations, illusions), it is possible to hypothesize that we are moving toward a progressive disidentification, where organisms are increasingly recording a flow that unfolds in the present and leaves no deep imprint because of the rapidity with which it appears to the eye and settles in memory. The thickening of the info-spheric crust and the increase in quantity and intensity of the incoming informational material thus produces the effect of a reduction of the sphere of singular memory. The things that an individual remembers (images, etc.) work towards the construction of an impersonal memory, homogenized, uniformly assimilated and thinly elaborated because the time of exposure is so fast it doesn’t allow for a deep personalization.

This theory about how memory and identity work seems entirely speculative, but the questions it raises are interesting to me. I would frame this phenomenon less in terms of “information overload” narrowing one’s perceptual capacity and more as what happens when an archive of personal experience can be assumed and conscious “remembering” can become a more selective, intention-signifying process. We can choose to remember something and experience that more as a kind of shopping choice from among the buffet of phenomena our senses offer us.

Another way to look at this perceptual narrowing is as a manifestation of “getting into the zone” or “flow,” where action is unburdened by self-consciousness or hesitation, and thought and action seem perfectly integrated because they are not disrupted by documentation, for the need to remember to remember. Here, I would liken it to machine gambling and Pavlovian social-media checking and those sorts of things, where “information overload” actually leads to a desired depersonalization, and escape from responsibility for identity and all the risk management that comes with having a palpable, foregrounded “personal brand.” Frustrating the development of “deep personalization” is exactly the experience we are seeking. Personal depth just compounds the risks of having a self exponentially — there’s so many more things one would have to be strategic about presenting and managing. 

Complicating this interpretation — that we want to use the offloading of memory as a way of shedding the self — is the possibility of being in “flow” precisely by foregrounding acts of documenting, of, say, using a camera phone to frame perceptual experience. In this case, documenting is less about “remembering” experience than engaging in it, of being able to “do something” with reality by capturing it. Taking pictures is arguably not about documentation or memorialization at all but a means to engage with the real as experience is occurring. That is how I understand what Berardi is talking about above when he describes “mental activity compressed into the present.”

The automatic archive, paradoxically, enables YOLO rather than inhibiting it. Yes, everything we do will be archived, and this raises the stakes of our behavior; it can always be used against us or taken out of context to construe our identity in some way we would be displeased with. But to an extent, that happens with or without “evidence” that the archive supplies.

The more direct effect of a having an automatic backup of our lives as they progress is that we can be in theory more fully present in the moment, not as “ourselves” worried about the continuity of our identity, but as a consciousness skating on the surface of sensual experience. As Berardi suggests, “the perception of the historical past and even of existential diachrony tends to disappear.” You get to experience time as limitless space.

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