The Spacial Structure of Memory
Our individual capability for memory and recollection is striking in its scope and multivalence—and equally in its fickleness and insularity. Both its endurance as well as its fungibility, its proclivity for conflation, redaction and confabulation, has made it the fascinating object of philosophical and psychological inquiry.
Yet the Subject-centered, or cognitive discussion of memory often overlook the socially constructed aspects of both the experience of memories and their representation, indeed, seemingly endless re-representation, to both the self and others. Recently interdisciplinary approaches to memory have taken seriously what might be called the "distributed" model of memory. Key to these discussions is the rather ambiguous concept of the "trace," that is, the storage of fundamental cognitive "data" both within the remembering subject (as a neurological and psychological process) and the objective world (as part of various systems of inscription, signification and communication). In light of these discussions, I have become increasing interested in the concept of "distributed" or "external" memory, its relationship to current models of cognition and signification, and the technological possibilities that follow on from them given the recent rise of new forms of social networks.
While seemingly intimate and subjective, distributed memory nonetheless manifests in a variety of traditional objective forms, ranging from the largest—memorials, monumental sculpture, advertisements, even graffiti—to the smallest and most ephemeral—family scrapbooks, virtual memorials, even Post-ittm notes. Established and emergent technologies have provided tools for non-traditional approaches to the collection, aggregation, and transformation of external memory. Two initiatives of particular interest in the new media context are Robin Rondeau and Michael Wichers' Semapedia project and Counts Media's Yellow Arrow both of which seek (albeit in differing ways) to provide systems that allow users to "annotate" the world at large by binding spatial-physical locations to online information. These activities provide an interesting (and occasionally humorous) spin on the old concepts of semantic and episodic memory as they appear in an expanded field.
Currently, my consideration of the subject centers on construction of a "memory landscape" that closely integrates the physical world, the private/public interaction of personal memory, history and the social character of collective memory work.
PennSound: The Digital Poetry Archive
When professors Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein at the University of Pennsylvania conceived of creating an online archive of digital poetry readings, you might not have expected the project was destined to become a phenomenal success. After all, wasn't poetry something of a dying form, both a victim of a general decline in cultural literacy and the rise of Internet culture? Yet today PennSound boasts over 10,000 recordings of poetry and poetic performance works contributed by poets, fans, scholars and other like likely archivists. Attracting over 8 million free downloads a year, it dwarves many commercial ventures in online media.
What is more, the availability of PennSound's recordings opens the door for creative reuse, extensions and annotation of recorded poetry— potentially even reconsideration of the nature of the poem itself.
Some of these uses follow—not an exhaustive list of course—but a few to get you thinking:
- The Portable Poem: I've been particularly interested in lately is the easily toteable poem. Now it's possible to take a reading of say, William Carlos Williams' "Patterson: The Falls" up the Garden State Parkway for a little onsite listen.
- The Poetry "Walk": Take fives poems, load them on your iPod. Select five locations that relate to the poems in interesting ways. Pick a closet, a bridge, an Eastern forest on a dew wet morning, a busy street. Listen. Contemplate. Take a friend next time. Discuss.
- The Poetry Performance: A "poem" is clearly more than an anthologized text object, where is the body of the poem? Certainly the voice is at least as complex a semantic instrument as the written word. If I can enjoy, for example, six copies of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps recorded by various orchestras, lead by different conductors, performed in several cities, for all their subtleties, can I not possibly have six recordings of a single poem reciting a single poem over 20 years in various states, for various audiences? To answer otherwise, it to say that music is sheet music.
- The Wide Stage: While much of the PennSound archive is comprised of works by canonical poets, what shall become of this canon as over time when confronted with the ubiquity of recorded performance, non-canonical authors, sub-genres of performance poetry?
- The Deep Archive: Previously archives of recorded material were managed much as other library materials. However, the potential for an online archive to reveal more complex relationship between its objects is very appealing. Map the social network of poetry readings, linkages of influence, support and collaboration.