How to be Free: Proustian Memory and The Palest Ink

[An artist wrote me to ask if this essay was online; I had written it for the show Free at the New Museum, and it had been taken down. So I am reposting it here for posterity.}

The palest ink is better than the strongest memory.

                                                        — Chinese proverb

In 2001 the hard disk on my laptop crashed and everything on it was lost. I’d been using the computer for two, almost three years, and had all my work on it—email, which was stored locally; photos; fragments of poems; presentations; sketches; ideas; love letters; everything. I lamented the loss to my friends and got lectured on doing backups. I sent the disk out to be repaired, but word came back from the shop that there was nothing that could be done. Miserably I thought of all the precious memories I’d lost.

Days later, after the initial shock had passed, I had a sudden sense of liberation and relief. 1999-2000-2001—I was completely free of those three years— I had no archive.

Recently I tried to recover some old blog posts from 1998–2003, and found they were also gone. I went to the Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine, but it turns out at some point I’d blocked the Archive on my robots.txt. And I remembered the impulse that inspired the blocking: the ruthlessness of computers and how, if you set them up a certain way, the way that has become, today, the default— they never, ever forget.

Several years later, I started a website called Flickr with a team of people in Canada, a site for digital photographs, shared among a social network, with the photos defaulting to a public view. It incorporated tagging, groups, an API, posting photos on other sites, and other features that have now become standard in social media. It grew very rapidly, and as one of my friends told me, Flickr was a great place to be a photograph. A photograph could remember the name of the wine you liked at that restaurant, that brunch where your friend made the funny jokes, the slant of sun on a winter’s day, your lover’s face that morning in May. We’d improved ourselves by improving our recall, our memory.

One of the first users of Flickr was a guy who seemed to photograph every minute of every day. Untied shoelaces, spots on the pavement—nothing seemed too trivial to escape his documentation and attention. This is excessive, even pathological, I thought. But it was nothing like what was to come. The participatory media of Web 2.0—MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and so on—made documentation, sharing, deliberate and passive documentation a daily activity for billions of internet denizens, including businesses, governments, and citizens.

Free” is the museum show of our times, presaging the whole Wikileaks dustup, and it shows shifting power dynamics and a glimpse of the human in a world of flowing data. Pervading the show is this sense of how the “data”—the “facts,” if you will—tells us something, but fails to capture the human drama, the story, the suffering, the lived lives behind the information gathered and displayed.

Lisa Oppenheim gathers photographs that American soldiers stationed in Iraq have taken of Iraqi sunsets and posted on Flickr, prints them, and then holds them up, re-photographing against her own, local sunsets in an act of tribute and attempt at communal experience. The gulf yawning between her experience and theirs, the impossibility of connection, is emphasized. The sense is that their lives in a war zone cannot be known, and only a gesture is made to demonstrate fellow feeling.

Images of people caught on Google Maps “Street View” appear in Jon Rafman’s work, of which Rafman says:

The world captured by Google appears to be more truthful and more transparent because of the weight accorded to external reality, the perception of a neutral, unbiased recording, and even the vastness of the project.

We are bombarded by fragmentary impressions and overwhelmed with data, but we often see too much and register nothing.

Although the Google search engine may be seen as benevolent, Google Street Views present a universe observed by the detached gaze of an indifferent Being. Its cameras witness but do not act in history. For all Google cares, the world could be absent of moral dimension.

Joel Holmberg collects earnest, whimsical and profound questions on Yahoo! Answers, foregrounding their often earnest, whimsical, and profound responses. They are both mock-serious and mock-comic in attitude, showing, again, the gap the medium creates between the querent and the human truth. Martin Hendrick’s video of shockingly callous texts (LOL!!!I) in response to the footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution shows how people become things, how digital experiences are reduced to entertainment, and how meaning is leached out of the most significant or fraught events. It’s impossible not to see how the anonymity of online interactions dehumanizes us.

This effect is nowhere more tragic than in the real-life suicides of various teenagers living their lives online: Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, was having sex with another guy when his roommate and a female student broadcast their intimacies on the internet, resulting in Clementi throwing himself off a bridge and killing himself. Abraham Biggs, a young nineteen-year-old man from Florida, committed suicide live online, on the “lifecasting” site while viewers said “go ahead and do it, faggot.” And Megan Meier, a thirteen-year-old, hung herself after her rival’s mother created a fake MySpace identity “Josh Evans” to bully and humiliate her.

Can you withdraw? Can you escape? Is it possible to exist without being recorded by people’s devices, the unscrupulous roommates who would broadcast our most intimate moments, not to mention the ubiquitous closed-circuit cameras? Writer Evan Ratliff conducted an experiment for Wired magazine, in which he attempted to vanish for thirty days. His data trail was collated by various self-anointed online detectives (a $5,000 prize was offered to the person who could find Ratliff, say the word “fluke,” and take a photo of him) and he was eventually found. The sheer difficulty and inconvenience he underwent to attempt to evade detection was a lesson to us all. The project has launched an entire movement of efforts to disappear.

”Free” includes Jill Magid’s work Becoming Tarden (2010), a book-length profile of 18 Dutch secret service agents, created in collaboration with the agency. The final product did not meet the agency’s approval, and 40% of the text was censored — to protect the agents and the agency, to permit them secrecy, to allow their work to continue, as a secret service agency does, in private.  Many arguments against the release of documents by Wikileaks covered the same territory: is some level of privacy required for diplomacy to take place?  Not secrecy, mind you. Privacy. All of our parents had to do something in order for us to be conceived and born. It’s not a secret. But it likely happened in private. A necessary distinction.

Becoming Tarden is exhibited at the New Museum, copies of the book printed with the text blacked out, hiding the any information that might identify the secret service agents. Did their real selves escape behind those black boxes? You get the feeling it was never there to begin with. The book’s final quote is from Jerzy Kosinski’s Cockpit, where the character “Tarden” appears:

All that time and trouble, and still the record is a superficial one: I see only how I looked in the fraction of a second when the shutter was open. But there’s no trace of the thoughts and emotions that surrounded that moment. When I die and my memories die with me, all that will remain will be thousands of yellowing photographs and 35mm negatives in my filing cabinets.

The works of art in “Free” show the gap between the impassive data-gathering technology, human input, and the strange hybrid that is result of those interactions. As the human and data combine, as we appear in surveillance cameras, and leave behind traces on the internet, we’re in an alien netherworld, our selves and our humanity fugitive beyond the machine. There’s a reason we say IRL: our real life happens offline, unrecorded.

I often wonder if we should build some kind of forgetting into our systems and archives, so ways of being expand rather than contract., an online file sharing service, allowed you to choose the length of time before your data would be deleted. This seems not only sensible, but desirable. As Heidegger said, in Being and Time, “Forgetting is not nothing, nor is it just a failure to remember; it is rather a ‘positive’ ecstatic mode of one’s having been, a mode with a character of its own.” Proustian memory, not the palest ink, should be the ideal we are building into our technology; not what memory recalls, but what it evokes. The palest ink tells us what we’ve done or where we’ve been, but not who we are.

If we are not given the chance to forget, we are also not given the chance to recover our memories, to alter them with time, perspective, and wisdom. Forgetting, we can be ourselves beyond what the past has told us we are, we can evolve. That is the possibility we want from the future.

I remember a quote from the pre-digital, offline version of my high school yearbook, more than 20 years ago, which seems impossibly corny to me now, but so very true:

teach disappearing also me the keen

illimitable secret of begin

— e.e. cummings

Author: Caterina Fake

Literature, Art, Poetry, Homeschooling Mother. Founder & CEO, Findery. Co-founder, Flickr & Hunch.

7 thoughts on “How to be Free: Proustian Memory and The Palest Ink”

  1. The subconscious memory is what we need digitally, that sorts all the memories as we sleep and keeps the best. Our brains cannot hold everything, nor should machines.


  2. Martin Hendrick’s video of shockingly callous texts (LOL!!!I) in response to the footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution shows how people become things, how digital experiences are reduced to entertainment, and how meaning is leached out of the most significant or fraught events. It’s impossible not to see how the anonymity of online interactions dehumanizes us.

    This is a rather facile observation. Crowds have always behaved like jackals at public executions. Online interactions dehumanize us because humans dehumanize. The role of social media in this phenomenon is overstated to the point of silliness.


  3. Shelby Foote tells how society ladies brought picnic baskets to a hillside overlooking the first battle of the U.S. Civil War, leaching meaning, if you will, from this fraught event. Had Facebook and Flickr been available in the 19th century, well of course those southern belles would have shared the spectacle with distant friends.


Comments are closed.