On melancholy at STS

Here at STS 2011 (at Penn State, not NYU), Morris Eaves set an elegiac tone with a meditative keynote on oblivion, the works of the past that scholars dream of recovering as a counterpoint to technofantasies of absolute visual and aural recall.

He put me in mind of Borges’s Funes the Memorious. Funes is cursed by perfect memory, the ability to remember every leaf on every tree. To manage, to calm the chaos in his mind, which denies him the ability to abstract and think, he catalogs every sensation. To sleep he imagines the interior of houses that he only knows by their exterior, ones in which he has never set foot.

The conference is being tweeted (or twittered), and I dutifully set out to tweet and be twittered at—to watch the fluttery waves of 160-character commentary. When I began reflecting this morning on Morris’s talk, I had a fantasy that I remembered the title of Blake’s lost work, the one that Morris imagined could be edited in its absence. As I began writing, I discovered that I didn’t. And so I thought—well, there’s Twitter—and so I learned that Twitter too has forgotten, its traces older than eleven hours now consigned to worshipful oblivion—unless retweeted. I’ll have to rediscover memory the old-fashioned way, by shared social context.

Morris said that editors live more in a stated of anxiety or panic than melancholy, and I think I agree. But the appeal of melancholy is strong. Two weeks ago, I visited the Digital Imaging Lab at Kent State to snap pictures of an edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After I finished, I tried to copy the pictures to a hard drive. For some reason, that hard drive only connects to some PCs. And it would not connect to the one in the lab. Therefore, I decided to copy the 15 scans to an SD card. While waiting for it to copy, I had no signal from PC that it was working. So I decided to remove the SD card. Then I was warned that data could be lost. The data was still on the hard drive, and I had to rush to lunch before another class. So I decided to save this transfer for another day. When I contacted a faculty member who runs the lab, she informed me that my pictures, if saved to my user account, would be obliterated when I signed out. So the only evidence that I have is my memory. But I am not melancholy about that. The book that I was taking pictures of is a beautiful edition, with gilt-edge pages. In order to take pictures, I open it. I flatten not so much to damage the spine, but enough to flatten the pages so they are clear. After taking the images now gone, I glanced at the top of the gilt-edge pages, and a line in the gold leaf now appears. As Hanno Biber reminded us, before he began his discussion of the sadness of the digitization of books, this is no sadness as compared with events in Japan. But it is a loss.

I begin to believe that we are more attuned to melancholy as we age. As a literary scholar, we lament works unwritten, manuscripts lost, unique copies burned, the fading of vigorous minds. We lament less the losses of youth, though these are more acute, and Morris did remind us of Thomas Gray’s “mute inglorious Milton.” In one’s 20s or 30s, undone things have the future’s promise. In one’s 60s or 70s, undone things have the promise of never being done. Yet in social terms, when Medicare and Social Security and tenure and pensions are protected, we preserve and protect those marching closer to oblivion, based on society’s solemn obligation, while—at least in my home state of Ohio—we piously burden the current and future generation with higher contributions to retirement, the austerity of cutbacks in social services, higher taxes, higher tuition, school debt, higher levels of unemployment. Can we manufacture a motivating melancholy for the future’s losses? One generation must be protected from tax increases and loss of social services at all costs, another must pay the bill. Can we manufacture melancholy for them—or is youth better served when its seething anger motivates others to fear?

Whitman, during the Civil War, made a pleasure trip to Montauk, out on the edge of Paumanock, which I would be near were we in Manhattan. In “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Clementine and Joel promise to meet again at Montauk. Clementine’s attempt to reach beyond the oblivion, as the doctors at Lacuna are about to succeed at erasing her from his memory, allows Joel and Clem to reunite, where they can repeat the past, but wiser. Joel’s attempt to hide her in memory, where the Lacuna doctors could never expect her, fails. I fear that digital editorial work is more like the latter, but I hope that it is more like the former.

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