Krapp’s Last Facebook Memories

Are we okay with Facebook Memories now? I came across a way of thinking about them while reading Alex Goody’s excellent Technology, Literature and Culture. She reads Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape using ideas around cyborgs and the technologized body, influenced by Donna Haraway. She discusses the role that the tapes play in Krapp’s attempt to coherently understand himself. Krapp, the sole actor, is a man of 69 who listens to tapes of himself speaking, giving accounts, from the previous years of his life. The entire play is a form of monologue, shared between the physical Krapp on stage and the various disembodied technologized versions of him we hear through the tapes. Discussing the effect of this dramatic device on notions of identity in Beckett’s text, Goody writes:

what it seems to offer is the possibility of transcending the mutability of the physical self by fixing a material embodiment of the self which can be infinitely retrieved. The machine seems to offer Krapp the chance of extending himself through technology […] the same memories, preoccupations, hopes and anxieties endlessly repeating themselves.

It’s this notion of infinite retrieval which made me think of Facebook Memories. It occurs to me that, in the future, we might receive a notification which is a memory of a memory – something we reshared last year will become something to remember in the next. This raises questions about how this archival revenant, a daily visit from the goon squad, influences our understanding of subjectivity – and might even alter what we think of as a memory. Is the effect of an archive of the self in fact to emphasize in an everyday mechanism that we can’t think of ourselves as a continuous subject? It points at the patchwork lives and narratives which you’ve chronicled thus far without any kind of lens or bias – because it was you who put it there before. Looking at a memory on Facebook instantly recreates a kind of physical echo, because you’re there, looking at Facebook. Goody articulates for us:

Technology which allows us to archive physical versions of ourselves, which can be reactivated at any future point, forces us to ask questions about the materiality or not of our consciousness and the status of our identity in time and space.

So how should we ask these questions, and what kind of answer might we get near? For Krapp, at least, Goody sees these technologized selves as serving to highlight the difficulty of grasping one’s own identity, or put another way, of the impossibility of gaining a perspective on the present self:

[Krapp’s selves] multiply in the technological prostheses that outlive him. The tragedy of the play is that these selves are fundamentally non-coincident so that, even as technological subject, the individual can never be present to himself.

Facebook memories provides a version of this concept, I think. In one respect, it’s a twee social media gimmick, an archive which is designed to package nostalgia, to the extent that you can do your own form of digital  curation-cum-repression (“Didn’t like that ‘memory’? We can make it go away for you.”) But perhaps it’s more effectively seen as a version of Krapp’s tapes, an observing of a technological self. It can remind us to ask questions about how we understand ourselves from year to year, not in a the form of some plastic nostalgia, but by reminding us that we’re not really one fixed person, but part of a number of different non-coincident narratives. The bigger tragedy is a life – the previous stuff that someone who was a bit like us was part of – forgotten, repressed, not remembered even by the self. Rather examine, reconsider and remake the disembodied, technological selves into another narrative, accepting both the loss and the gain of viewing the past.

 

References:

Goody, A. Technology, Literature and Culture. (Cambridge: Polity) 2011

“These readings are close, Dougal. Those readings are far away.”

For academics, teachers and students of English Literature, I think questioning the nature of their main activity – reading texts – is pretty central to the practice itself. I don’t raise this in order to restate the notion that the humanities are in ‘crisis’ (see Paul Jay’s book or this Times Higher Ed piece) but rather to articulate the strange “wood for the trees” moment provided by Barbara Hernstein Smith’s excellent talk-turned-paper “What Was Close Reading? A Century of Method in Literary Studies”. It helps us to consider how we might be said to take close reading for granted as a practice, especially in the secondary school classroom, seeing it as a kind of a priori thing to do, without really understanding the ideological – and pedagogical – drives behind this particular method.

‘Method’ is a word that’s been knocking around my head a lot lately. I’ve been trying to think about clarifying the methodology for my PhD. I’m not a social scientist, nor am I gathering any data as such – I read. I’m tempted to put down that I’m adhering to the obvious practice of reading the texts and then writing about them (this kind of petulant response might be a version of RTFM) but this isn’t doesn’t demonstrate an understanding that every reading has an ethical or ideological structure to it, which drives the type of interpretation we come to. Even the choice to close read something stems from a particular way of thinking about the value of a literary text.

Smith’s piece outlines the context from which close reading evolved, that being the classrooms of New Criticism. What’s interesting is that it stems from a pedagogical needs to establish a mode of viewing a literary text which will enable students to interact with it productively. Experienced English teachers will know the feeling of trying to get students to view a text in the right way, and might be a little affronted by the idea there are other ways to support interpretation which aren’t simply close readings. But is this all we do as part of our varied levels of criticism? Smith identifies that part of the problem with viewing this method in isolation is that it ignores a lot of the other cultural material we make use of when writing criticism. It also suggests a kind of automatic aestheticism, a “reverse engineering” as it is referred to in the paper, although arguably this method can always be put the service of any kind of reading.

Part of the need to readdress the issue of close reading is, as Smith suggests, to do with the phenomenon of distant reading in the digital humanities. This suggests that examining patterns in large number of texts using computational or algorithmic methods can demonstrate things which a traditional close reading can’t, and that to stick with the former method is maintain a practice that is outdated. While the example from Franco Morreti is certainly interesting, the idea that distant reading should replace or usurp close reading misunderstands the nature of literary criticism, and subordinates the object of study itself.

I can see the use of a digital approach to literary scholarship – we use networks, search tools and digital archives as ways of making our research a smoother process, as well as allowing us the capacity to make new connections. But Smith hits the nail on the head when she identifies that any question around the value of close reading is a question about the essential value of literary criticism:

the grounding in personal observation and experience opens the possibility of shareable insights and of connection to shareable experiences, which—largely, if not wholly–is what motivates our interest in a literary interpretation as such. And, along with connections to broader intellectual issues and other concerns, that grounding and that attendant possibility—of shareable insights and of connection to shareable experiences—are also what sustain the value of much historical and theoretical research in the humanities as such.

Arguably, the notion of “shareable insights” relies on the kind of personal interaction with the text that close reading promotes – without close reading, we limit ourselves to the sole position of digital historians of literary texts. Why not augment close reading through the synthesis of ‘big data’ approaches with personal interpretation? I don’t doubt that this is happening already.

Further to this, Smith confirms the idea that close reading defines the discipline, because of the desire for this kind of reading to be carried out which is found in all those involved with the practice reading and writing:

[the] ability and disposition also remains more generally crucial. The hope of receiving such reading is what keeps most of us scholars and researchers as well as poets and novelists writing.

Although there are firm arguments for the value of close reading, Smith’s paper does demonstrate that it is important to critically evaluate the modes of inquiry we use to interpret – even those which seem to be utterly at the heart of the practice in the first place.

The Ethical Environment – technology as ‘threat’?

I’ve started the project by reading some basic Ethics in the last few weeks. Simon Blackburn and Alasdair MacIntyre have been my main ways in, as well as looking at Aristotle’s Ethics. A common idea has been that a particular ethical environment or historical context is always seen to influence the first principles of an ethical system. It sound a bit like saying “well, it’s all relativism then” but the notion is more nuanced than this. These philosophers seem to be saying that to understand ethics we must first understand that ethical rules are themselves partly constitutive of the societies they appear to define.

If we accept this as a feasible way of beginning an analysis of a particular society or ethical situation, then to understand contemporary culture we must first define the ethical environment. There are ethical questions being asked in ways that they were not asked before. I would suggest that a central concern of a twenty-first century ethics, alongside happiness and social justice, is something like humanness or human connection. This is engendered by the post-industrial Internet-conditioned mode of developed living, because human beings now have many new ways of acting with regard to themselves and others in society. This opening of ethical dimensions has occurred through technological leaps and the ubiquity of personal technological apparatus, as well as through the ability to transfer information instantaneously – the overall liquidity of existence, as Baumann describes it. MacIntyre confirms this idea, that ethical standpoints cannot be divorced from the mechanisms through which they are enacted, that “[m]oral concepts are embodied in and are partially constitutive forms of social life.”

So how does technological interaction make up part of our social life?  Evidence that this is a central question in 2015 isn’t hard to come by. The comments section of any broadsheet science piece reporting on social networking will usually contain the following popular arguments: we’re losing something by talking online too much; we isolate ourselves through interaction via computer screens; we’re losing the art of conversation; we don’t talk to each other anymore. Just as easily we can provide rejoinders to these ambiguous arguments: we’re gaining something through the ability to communicate online; we are able to connect with others we wouldn’t normally be able to connect; we can communicate in ways which allow us more control and make us more comfortable and confident.

Obviously there is a concern in contemporary culture defined by the notion of connection and the way we choose to connect to other human beings, but too often it falls into a kind of unfounded disquiet, part nostalgia and part hysteria. Some major commentators have looked in detail at the negative impacts of this alteration of connection. Sherry Turkle is probably the most well known, and her latest book – Reclaiming Conversation – is one example of how our ethical environment is being defined. 

 

How do we understand this environment objectively if we’re ‘in it’ all the time?

In investigating the nature of computer-mediated interaction in the twenty-first century, we need to examine techno-ethical situation as explored by fiction writers, for fiction provides us with a way of imagining and exploring the difficult-to-define notion of humanness, of connectivity. To understands what we might be losing, or gaining, through the development of connective behaviours, we must examine the documents which provide us with visions of Others. The ethical environment demonstrates that we are keenly conscious of our ever-connected state, and concerned about the effect it might have on our ability to maintain genuine, valuable connection with other human beings. David Foster Wallace said that “Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved.” If we are worried about the further development of our own loneliness, then we must confront it through understanding the fiction which articulates it. 

 

Bibliography

1 Alasdair C. MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics : A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. edn (London: Routledge Classics, 2002).

2 Simon Blackburn, and Inc NetLibrary, Ethics : A Very Short Introduction, Very Short Introductions 80 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

3. David Foster Wallace, in interview