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The Digital Subject

Larsonneur Claire
Regnauld Arnaud
Cassou-Noguès Pierre
et al.

Digital World-Forming

Memory Disorders: Memory Forms

Patrick Vauday
Traduction de Anthony Cordingley

Texte intégral

1 It is well known, individual memory works by forgetting, all memory is selective. While on one hand, Bergson maintains that “[consciousness] means, before everything else, memory” (1920, 7; “conscience signifie d’abord mémoire” 1919, 5-6), and on the other, Freud holds that consciousness is but a minute part of the mind’s unconscious realm, their contradiction is only one of appearances. If consciousness was free of all attachments in the present, and if it was not polarized by interests and plans, it would be, according to Bergson, the complete conservation of the past. But life decides otherwise, privileging “The virginal, vibrant, and beautiful dawn” (Mallarmé 1994, 67; “le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui” 1994, 67). From this, the sphere of consciousness is reduced, and the only elements of the past that it calls up are those that may renew themselves and be used again. And while Freud attempts to reduce substantially consciousness’s scope and control, it is to endow the unconscious mind with a memory that is all the more reliable because it is not aware of negations and contradictions, in other words, of time’s succession and irreversibility. In both cases, consciousness would ideally only have to widen its narrow viewing angle to 360 degrees, in a sense dilating, for all the past to be included in the field of its present.

  • 1 Freud describes this little device in the following terms: “The Mystic Pad is a slab of dark brown (...)

2The Freudian image of the “mystic writing pad” is ultimately well-suited to these two theories for the living human: on one hand, it is a perceiving instrument receptive to current sense impressions, sustaining its reactivity by being untouched by all memories; and on the other hand, it is a writing surface that conserves the trace of past experience so as to form a memory that may be engaged for learning and prediction.1 This very simple psychic model has, amongst other things, the dual advantage of taking account of memory’s formation and conservation. It clearly demonstrates first of all that memory does not form after perception, but indeed during it, for the internal or external impression prints itself at the moment that it takes place. Secondly, it shows that forgetting and memory, hypomnesia and hypermnesia, are perfectly compatible. One of the differences separating Freud from Bergson lies in the question of the intensity of the trace, which, for Bergson, loses its strength in finding itself excluded from the sphere of consciousness by new perceptions. Freud demonstrates in contrast that its exclusion from consciousness is motivated by the repression of a particularly intense unconscious conflict. In spite of this, for both authors the past haunts the present, waiting for the present to offer it the chance of resurrection. For Bergson, this presents itself when current events become less pressing, authorizing distraction. For Freud, it is when the mobile unconsciousness discovers an echo, however insignificant it may be, in a detail of the present.

  • 2 The plastic arts offers an equivalent to this book of mystic inscriptions that has become unreadabl (...)

3If the mystic writing pad offers a basic model of the psychic apparatus, the Freudian metaphor of archaeological sedimentation offers another that allows one to see a little more clearly in those mystic inscriptions how a memory might happily absorb trace upon trace, running the risk of producing an inseparable and indecipherable scribble.2 Starting with the way that Rome presents itself to the modern world, where ancient ruins from different periods coexist with the edifices of more recent times, and so as to map out the unconscious, Freud crafted the fiction of a Rome whose successive layers would be entirely conserved. While the Freudian image points to the impossibility of a time that is entirely displayed in space, it is not far from connecting with a classical definition of culture, “that which remains when all has been forgotten”, or rather, that which survives the erosion of time and history. Culture is another form of memory that is transmitted through the conservation and transmission of heritage. While it is no less human than individual memory, it distinguishes itself by being collective and external. It is hardly trivial that the anthropological meaning of the word appeared in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, around the same time that a taste was developing for ruins, especially Roman ruins. Roman geography is a concentration of great moments of the past to which its monuments of different periods and styles attest. For Nietzsche (Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen 1873-1876) this exemplified what he termed monumental history. Freud inherited this notion from the German tradition, as indicated by the very title of his work, Civilization and Its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur 1930). Nevertheless, he does not fail to underline the highly selective and exclusive, not to say amnesiac, character of a memory that represses under the shadows of monuments, the brutality as much as the banality that inevitably accompanied them.

4The book and the library are another form of memory, one that is surely selective if reduced to writing alone, yet which remains nevertheless open to an infinity of readings, collages and journeys. Whether we think of Montaigne writing the Essays (Essais 1595) surrounded by the familiarity of the books in his library or whether we think of Borges’s vertiginous and labyrinthine library (Borges, Ficciones 1956/1994), one has an idea of the immense space of potential circulation created between all books. For a book never arrives unaccompanied, contrary to the romantic image of the solitary genius, but it feeds off others just as it makes its way by following the many forking paths of language. The ideal library is a place of generalized intertextuality, murmuring with all texts interwoven together, just as All the Memory in the World (Toute la mémoire du monde), according to the fine title of the documentary by Alain Resnais devoted to the Bibliothèque Nationale, ends by opening the world to infinity. This excludes neither the taking of a tour nor the making of a map, even if it were only provisional. The point was proven by D’Alembert and Diderot with their Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts (Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers 1751) when, two and a half centuries after Magellan’s circumnavigation of the planet, they attempted to give the public access to the combined theoretical and practical knowledge of their time. Their innovative project avoided borrowing Descartes’ stratified and branching model and its assumption of first principles, proposing instead a presentation of knowledge in alphabetical order, undermining a hierarchical structure of knowledge, while at the same time organizing a logical circulation between elements of knowledge through cross-references. Thus, Diderot’s article on “Chocolate” links with cocoa, pepper, achiote and vanilla, all of which are ingredients of chocolate.

5 And still, a fourth state of memory appears in network form. Visiting, for instance, the website of the University of Chicago’s ARTFL project, which has published the Encyclopaedia on line, it is not only possible to consult the work from the comfort of one’s own home, but one also has the choice to consult the work in different modes: by entry (article title), author (predetermined list), subject, grammatical category (predetermined list), type of entry, full text search. This hyperlinked system allows one to access directly, for example, a list of all the articles corresponding to an instance of “government”, written by an author (Diderot, Rousseau, Daubenton...) or to all masculine and feminine nouns, verbs or adjectives with an existing definition. Other procedures of a similar nature are possible and imaginable through other queries and other sites. The original Encyclopaedia is more classic labyrinth—where one follows a thread, however sinuous it may be, in order to find what one is searching for—than rhizome, which is open to chance connections. Current memory of the original Encyclopaedia, which corresponds to a defined project and a taking stock of eighteenth-century knowledge, has just been augmented with a virtual memory, which is in some sense plural, and whose forms and content will be shaped by the requirements that will configure and compute it. This is not a simple extension of the contents of memory with facilitated access by digital means, but a new form comprising the creation of memory, or even a creative memory, which allows one to use digital data to go beyond the status quo, that is, to create. We are no longer in the realm of All the Memory in the World but in a memory that can open to a plurality of worlds, to a (poly) mnesia that, for this very fact, can no longer be a memory of “all”.

Hypermnesia, Hypomnesia, Amnesia

  • 3 “The common meaning and the etymological meaning of a word cannot teach us anything about ourselves (...)

6Taking charge of the mechanics of memory, digital memory frees one from the effort to memorize and acquire techniques to facilitate memory. It favors a well reasoning mind over an overloaded one, a mind less concerned with retaining and containing quantities of information than it is with calculating, reasoning and imagining. But just because digital technology generates new operational competences that allow one to have freer access to memorized data and use them, one is not spared the need for a personal and living memory that is alone able to direct choices, to select materials, to assess and control the fertility of completed operations. Incongruous proximity and chance encounters are more likely to open new perspectives to one looking for them than for one who is not interested in them, just as, relatively speaking, the random practice of using the trusty old dictionary may or may not spark flashes of meaning between distant words. Yet one must also reckon with encounters shaped by software that, as if by magic (!), presents Internet users with content that revolves around their tastes and habits, reducing all the more the risk, or rather the chance, of fruitful liaisons. Far, then, from being incompatible with living memory, digital memory presupposes it, a bit like the way a compass allows hikers to orient themselves, aligning map with landscape, route with intention. Its use poses problems however when it becomes a quick fix with a tendency to substitute the use of living memory rather than being its extension and concentration. To choose but one example, when one is pressed for time, but in the grips of a memory blank, digital memory presents a solution with its abundance of hyperlinks that offer many different ways of finding what one has momentarily forgotten. The memory blank, in French the well-termed “trou de mémoire”, literally a memory hole, is nothing more than knowledge which evades and escapes, like the shadow cast from that which one knows but which cannot be brought to light; in this way it is very different from amnesia, which is a forgetting of forgetting, a forgetting that is not conscious of itself. The ability to access almost immediately forgotten data leads one to neglect the resources of living memory, which, unlike digital connections and navigations, spark off chains of associations and subjective pathways that bring back to life untold memories, drawing up unexpected landscapes. This is recall, or in other words, anamnesis. And yet, the process is not a simple reproduction or restitution but an authentic production that brings to light the intensity of a first time which, in this very act of its bringing to light, has the quality of a “forever”. By abandoning one’s memory, one denies oneself not only the treasures of what Michel Leiris calls “the Babel of the mind”3 but one also risks seeing reflected through the screen’s window what one has excluded from memory, as if one were watching a strange amnesiac landscape where one no longer recognizes oneself.

7Memory has always been accompanied by some “aide-memoire” in the form of material media, where memory was set down in the inscribing. Words learnt and transmitted, rhythmical inscriptions on the walls of stone caves, rituals, traditions and writing, were and are still, of course, bearers of memory that rekindle the past in the present. Though since prehistoric times, there has been a discernible trend towards a visible dematerialization or rather, in the sense of the term formerly used by alchemists, towards a subtilizing of media, from engravings on solid materials (stone, wood, horn, etc.) up to printing on paper, from painting on wood to photographic recording and even cinematographic projection, it would appear that memory is not part of this technical lineage. Admittedly, digitizing presupposes a material medium or format, however miniaturized it may be. But there has been a jump, rather than a simple step, after the standardizing of graphics demanded by writing and the printing press, and even after the iconic or analogic standardizing of images brought about by photography, each of which materialize through actual, singular media (the plate of the printing press or the negative of photography — both of which the French language designates with the same word, cliché). This jump means that rather than having a medium (a page, a book or an image) that is tangible to the eye as much as to the hand, and even to one’s sense of smell, one finds oneself before an inert, neutral and lifeless screen. And even if this screen is tactile, everything that appears upon it is ready to disappear, where a window upon a text, an image or a soundtrack, opens over another effacing and replacing it. To put it differently, there is nothing that appears on the screen that does not disappear, and it is not so much the presence of this or that as the presence in the contingency of its sudden appearance itself. The screen is the great leveler and the great mediator. It levels sensations by homogenizing intensities and textures, images, texts and sounds. It is a form of mediation that refuses to deliver everything at once. And because one click is enough to summons what one is searching for, the computer and the Internet maintain the illusion of the greatest proximity, even though they suspend and neutralize the possibility that one will ever arrive at what one is searching for. While I can certainly discover something there for the first time, nothing can stop it being infinitely, countlessly reproducible.

8The computer does however remind one of Freud’s “mystic writing pad”: nothing that appears on the screen disappears without the power to return, be it from a website, a folder, a document that may be consulted, or, what is more, from an operational history. But a history does not make history any more than a chronology makes a chronicle, they offer us, at most, the elements.

9There is no doubt that memory in a network form leads to positive hypermnesia, in the sense that it unburdens memory from memorizing data (dates, provinces, countries, capitals, etc.), freeing it up to concentrate on operations that it is possible to carry out on and with these data. Let us pass over the matter of indistinguishable genres, qualities and values that make the Internet a gigantic hodgepodge, for this can easily be remedied with education and training in how to use these new tools to distinguish and prioritize sources. Let us, rather, linger on a form of hypomnesia that is perhaps one of the shadows cast from this positive hypermnesia. Go to a bookshop, buy a book that cannot be reduced to a text, a physical object that one picks up, a volume large or small and more or less seductive with its colors and print, the quality and rustling of its paper, which turns more or less easily before one embarks upon reading – all of this leaves behind oneself, in oneself, silent traces and sensations that will form the substance of a personal history. But when this is mediated through a screen, what happens if no trace remains of the object or the very real site that gave rise to it all?

  • 4 “The pianist would play for them […] that little phrase by Vinteuil which was, so to speak, the nat (...)

10Pierre Nora has theorized that which, following him, are now called “sites of memory (lieux de mémoire)”: locations, objects and emblems that carry and condense collective emotional memory. But all memory, from the most unique to the most intimate, forms only when it comes into contact with a material or an object that holds its attention, a place that marks and shelters it forever, a voice or melody that engraves itself there always. In In Search of Lost Time (À La recherche du temps perdu 1913-1927), Swann and Odette find themselves in unison during the Verdurins’ gatherings, listening for a little phrase of the Vinteuil sonata, “the national anthem of their love”4, which they delight in being the only ones present to hear. It is their secret alliance, setting them apart, and placing them above the common people of this world that is, nonetheless, theirs. Memory implies memories of places and circumstances; it is set with signs that, however fragile they may be, are perceived by the senses, and which are often visual, but which may also be audible, tactile and olfactory. The memory of an emotion produced by reading is often inseparable from the place in which it arose, from the particular aspect of the book that occasioned it or sometimes even from the page and the position of a passage that inspired it. That which surprises or arouses curiosity is tied to an original material format and a singular place that returns in memory, like a foreshadowing or a stele that recalls less the actual content of the remembrance than its circumstances and context. This, in sum, leaves its mark, a stake in time and in a personal history. The computer’s memory is not one, since it stocks only data, occurrences and dates. Surely, one will always remember a film one discovered on the Internet, but will one remember, like in the cinema, the shadow that it projected onto oneself and the place where one was. This is the stuff of the fine novel by Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961), where protagonist John Bickerson Bolling (known as Binx Bolling) leads one of the most banal lives in New Orleans. His points of reference hardly extend beyond the memories of movie theaters he visited and the films he saw. There is no question that he offers us the image of a life that has been relieved of its ballast, which finds itself threatened with disappearing into the flowing mass of everyday lives. But this life resists being effaced, for despite all it manages to turn the unique moments and locations of screenings into the proofs and tests, in an almost photographic sense, of a life story.

11Traces left on a computer or in data collection centers are hardly subjective, though they may allow one to establish a profile for an e-business or a consulting agency. They do not however weave the threads of a narrative or bring up to the surface an experience from the past. The dematerialization of memory results mostly from the absence of sensations that root it in a narrative; it is less like the chapters of a story that must always be picked up again in order for their meaning to be found, than the inalterable and unbreakable steles of a life that subsists. They remain absolutely non-negotiable and uncompromising, testifying more than they speak. When Joyce said that if one day Dublin were to disappear it could be reconstructed with Ulysses (1922), he evoked less the book’s topographical and documentary accuracy than his sense of having managed to distil into his work the city’s atmosphere, its mood and polyphony. John Cage captured it in his Roaratorio (1979), the magnificent sonic equivalent of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939). Ulysses is no more a map or guide than a photograph would be. Rather than tracing the shape of a city, in the way that Julien Gracq (The Shape of a City 2005) used Nantes, it is above all the variegated sensation of a city becoming a world, a little world of recurring characters and places, but a world nonetheless. We are not dealing with a situation where imagination compensates a lack of memory, but one where sensation, which cannot invent itself, finds itself and sculpts itself like a statue in the marble of time. Living memory has nothing to do with the vastness of a memory, it comes alive with sensations that reinforce an encounter, and quite possibly the birth of a subject with a piece of the world; they are unforgettable experiences that will be able to be forgotten without ever being effaced.

12Memory is not a store that would contain, like a chemist’s jars or drawers, remembrances to draw upon, nor is it an archive more or less well organized, where one simply extracts an interesting document. It is, as Bergson taught us well, a sum of absolutely original experiences often written in the register of the past under a false name, or rather a sensation or a complex of sensations that we no longer remember but which return spontaneously. Feeling “the stiff starched towel” (Proust, In Search of Lost Time II 1913-1927/2005, 289), the Proustian narrator is overwhelmed by Balbec’s whole life, all the freshness of its echoes, its smells and movement coming back to him. What one remembers is not what returns, for memory is not available for whichever purpose, it remains a latency of the past that awaits a moment to leap into the here and now like a phantom that is quickened with life when touched with a spark from the present. That phantom would surely seize the present if it were not for the vital urgency of one’s needs, actions and plans, and which stave it off in favor of the here and now and the future. The past does not respond to our call, it cannot be summonsed; rather, it comes of its own accord ex abrupto. If everything meets up in the nebulous realm of the digital, including that which we expect least to find, this hodgepodge returning through the screen’s window releases not time’s colors, smells and textures, but their erratic phantoms floating in the gray zone of an inter-world. Digital memory is without a past because it carries no world.

  • 5 “L’archive, si ce mot ou cette figure se stabilisent en quelque signification, ce ne sera jamais la (...)

13That which retains, or rather contains, a computer or web site does not arise from living memory, from what Freud called anamnesis, but from a dead memory, from what one must join Jacques Derrida in calling an “archive”: “Because the archive, if this word or this figure can be stabilized so as to take on a signification, will never be either memory or anamnesis as spontaneous, alive and internal experience. On the contrary: the archive takes place at the place of originary and structural breakdown of the said memory” (Derrida 1996, 11).5 According to Derrida, the archive replaces, rather than supplements memory; it is in the place of, in the place of the past, and not because it finds itself there like the investigator at a crime scene, but, on the contrary, because it assumes the place of living memory. It functions not as a reminder or as an aide-mémoire making up for a breakdown or a lapse, but indeed as a loss and substitution of the originary. Derrida’s text revisits a lecture he gave in 1994 and echoes Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins (Parti-Pris) (1993), a book in which he refers notably to the Greek legend of the invention of drawing by Dibutade, who held that painting, rather than contemplate its object forever, only takes place, literally, at the loss of sight and at the cost of its mourning. Far from lifting the veil of Isis or identifying tears in its fabric, the archive weaves its veil in the form of memory, to see what we cannot see.

  • 6 On this subject see the fine book by Arlette Farge, Le goût de l’archive (1989).

14But in Derrida’s “archive fever (mal d’archive)”, this troubled condition of seeing and knowing, and state of lacking an originary past, one can also hear the “archive chest (malle d’archives)”, from the creaking sound it makes as it is opened.6 This chest is not a stock of archives in the image of institutional sites responsible for their conservation, classification and, more and more, for their digitizing. It does not contain the past, but carries the past’s sign, uttering it like distant sigh blowing across the present. While like a ruin or a trace it bears witness to a past to be constructed or imagined rather than recovered, it presents itself no less as a remainder or a relic, from the Latin reliquia, which in the plural reliquiæ, could refer to the survivors of a battle or the leftovers of a meal that escaped Chronos’s ravenous appetite. The archive chest (malle d’archives) is the metaphor of that which, far from referring to the past, delivers it into the present. It is a pure anachronism against which the present collides, a repetition or hiatus, rather than memory, which causes time to stutter or branch out, rather than letting it carry on blindly into the future. One hopes that in the chests of a not too distant future there will be, if there is not already, a pile of obsolete electronic devices ready for the games and intrigues of the present.


1 Freud describes this little device in the following terms: “The Mystic Pad is a slab of dark brown resin or wax with a paper edging; over the slab is laid a thin transparent sheet, the top end of which is firmly secured to the slab while its bottom end rests upon it without being fixed to it. This transparent sheet [...] itself consists of two layers, which can be detached from each other except at their two ends. The upper layer is a transparent piece of celluloid; the lower layer is made of thing translucent waxed paper [...] To make use of the Mystic Pad, one writes upon the celluloid portion of the covering-sheet which rests upon the wax slab” (Freud 1925/1991, 228).

2 The plastic arts offers an equivalent to this book of mystic inscriptions that has become unreadable from superposed writing in the extraordinary painting by Simon Hantaï Ecriture rose (Pink Writing), recently exhibited in a retrospective dedicated to the painter at the Centre Georges Pompidou.

3 “The common meaning and the etymological meaning of a word cannot teach us anything about ourselves, since they represent the collective fraction of language, that which was made for all of us and not for each one of us. By dissecting words we love, without concerning ourselves with following etymologies or accepted meanings, we discover their most hidden virtues and the secret ramifications that multiply through all language, channelled by associations of sound, forms and ideas. Thus language transforms itself into an oracle and we have (as fragile as it may be) a thread to guide us into the Babel of our mind” ( “Le sens usuel et le sens étymologique d’un mot ne peuvent rien nous apprendre sur nous-mêmes, puisqu’ils représentent la fraction collective du langage, celle qui a été faite pour tous et non pour chacun de nous. En disséquant les mots que nous aimons, sans nous soucier de suivre l’étymologie, ni la signification admise, nous découvrons leurs vertus les plus cachées et les ramifications secrètes qui se propagent à travers tout le langage, canalisées par les associations de sons, de formes et d’idées. Alors le langage se transforme en oracle et nous avons là (si ténu qu’il soit) un fil pour nous guider, dans la Babel de notre esprit” (Leiris, 1966).

4 “The pianist would play for them […] that little phrase by Vinteuil which was, so to speak, the national anthem of their love” (Proust 2006, 217; “Le pianiste jouait, pour eux deux, la petite phrase de Vinteuil qui était comme l’air national de leur amour” 1966, 218).

5 “L’archive, si ce mot ou cette figure se stabilisent en quelque signification, ce ne sera jamais la mémoire ni l’anamnèse en leur expérience spontanée, vivante et intérieure. Bien au contraire: l’archive a lieu au lieu de défaillance originaire et structurelle de la dite mémoire.” (Derrida 1995, 26)

6 On this subject see the fine book by Arlette Farge, Le goût de l’archive (1989).


Professor of Philosophy at University Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis, Head of the L aboratoire d’études et de recherches sur les Logiques Contemporaines de la Philosophie (LLCP), and has held a Chair at the Collège International de Philosophie CIPH (2001-2007). His recent publications include La Matière des images (2001), La Décolonisation du tableau (2006), L’Invention du visible. L’image à la lumière des arts (2008, translated into Spanish in 2009: La invencion de lo visible), Gauguin, voyage au bout de la peinture (2011), Faut voir! Contre-images (2014).

Anthony Cordingley (Traducteur)

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