7.0004 R: Literacy; Memory; Legend; Writing (1/70)

Tue, 11 May 1993 23:24:13 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 7, No. 0004. Tuesday, 11 May 1993.

Date: Sat, 08 May 93 10:36:24 EDT
From: Andy Lakritz <AL6HENGF@MIAMIU>
Subject: Re: 6.0710 Rs: Literacy; Memory; Legend; Writing

Although Dean Hoekema has already written the "Afterword" to this discussion
on writing and memory, perhaps the book has yet to be put bed and pressed to
the page. Professor Rabkin's remarks about not taking a camera to Europe in
favor of one's memory reminded me of Franklin's account in the <Autobiography>
of the Dunker's, and Michael Welfare's refusal to publish his sect's beliefs
and principles, even if it meant that a rival sect might continue with their
calumnies against them. Franklin was fascinated by their modesty, for they
claimed (or feared) that they had yet to receive the full and final wisdom
of God, and if they were to set down their theology in a book they would feel
"as if bound& confin'd by it, and perhaps unwilling to receive farther Im-
provement" (1417, Library of American edition, <Writings>). It makes a certain
sense that this incident would have stuck in Franklin's memory, along with the
other heroic tales of inventions and civic improvement; it constitutes a rare
instance of the refusal to be conscripted by technology, even though Franklin
was offering this group social power. Perhaps it sticks in my memory as one
who is admonished each year by the department chair to finish and publish my
work. Be that as it may, what occurs to me is that we would not be in this
situation of near fear or whorship or awe of technology--the book, the image--
if we had not in first place granted it such power. It is unnecessary that we
do so. I understand that Rabkin doesn't take a camera to Europe because he
doesn't want his memory tyrannized by the technology, but that assumes that
memory is totally dominated by the image: the sunsets, rainbows, waterfalls,
peaks in exotic places. What I remember most about my travels typically has
nothing to do withthe photographs I bring home, or the postcards I send to
friends. I am one of those sensualists condemned by Hawthorne who can recall
nearly every meal I've ever had, and that is only to talk about two of the
other senses. On my last trip to Greece I brought a sketchbook and watercolors
and saw the landscape in a different way than I had the first time there. No
doubt my memory will be different for this trip, but it seems to me that
placing higher value on one form of seeing over another is a mistake because
it presumes that say photography is an intrinsically suspect way of seeing the
world--it produces complacency, it mediates experience, protects us from the
"other," whatever. It certainly can do all of those things. I traveled with
my father recently through Europe and he was trying out his new video
camera. In Berlin he found a man on the street who was selling images of him-
self, with extravagant claims that he was the ugliest man alive. My father
was shooting him from somewhere on the sidewalk 10 meters beyond when the
man caught him "stealing" his image; he became instantly enraged, making ob-
scene gestures at my father, and my father, realizing that he was suddenly
being looked at, quickly put his camera in the bag and motioned for us to
make haste. On the other hand I have a friend who just came back from Romania
with astonishing photos of peasants; she had made friends with everyone she
met, ate mealsand shared conversations with them, spent time with each one,
and used the camera as a medium for the encounters, so that
her subjects took pictures of her, just as she took pictures of them. She
also sent prints to each person she had taken.

What one does with the technology we have available is what is important. The
more difficult question for me is what we are doing with this e-mail gaget.
Don DeLillo the novelist has written that the family is the cradle of mis-
information, and his family in <White Noise> is a fun instance of that maxim.
There is so much information, that memory is stressed in new ways. If it is
"true" then that more people do not die by home electrocution, according to
Rabkin's almanac, and that memory is a pliable and sly thing, what we perhaps
should try to remember is not to say "absolutely" or "in truth" when we use
such media as this one here. Or is that just a cop-out? We do tolerate
really nasty consequences of technology, the automobile I think is the best
example, but there are hundreds of other major technologies in operation now
that the government determines tolerances for--pollution, injury, death. The
technology of writing is a threat to tyrrants I think because it disperses
authority. The new technologies are threats to all of us, but only if we
fail to find ways of using them that do not establish a healthy relation
between the subject and the technology.
But how do we come upon that healthy relation when it is precisely the subject
that is in question? That government agencies determine the tolerances for its
subjects? That social organization is so complicated that decisions have to
consider such wide ranges of groups, segmented in multiple ways? Is it enough
to say, I can go it alone, with or without my camera in hand?

Andy Lakritz, Miami University AL6HENGF@MIAMIU