BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 SEP 11
Featured in
Issue 141

Tell Tales

How memory has changed

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 SEP 11

Installation view

When I try to remember what has changed over the past two decades, I keep coming up with the same answer: memory itself. Of course, I have amassed 20 more years of experiences: from the joyful (a mini-pearl found in a mussel in Norway) to the tragic (two friends lost in aeroplane crashes). But I’m speaking here about collective memory, which is not to do with specific events but how we save, retrieve and share them.

Collective memory has often been divided into two categories: orality and literacy (societies without and with writing). Eric A. Havelock, Marshall McLuhan, Walter J. Ong, Frances Yates and even Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘The Storyteller’ (1936), all reflected on the differences between these two modes in forging a link between the past and the present. It’s hard for us to imagine living without writing. But oral societies are not more forgetful, nor do they have poorer memories; they simply have different ways of recollecting, from telling stories to consulting elders.

A few examples may be helpful to understand not only orality and literacy but also their deep incompatibility. Storytellers in oral societies use a host of techniques – exaggeration, repetition, rhyme – to make stories easier for their listeners to recollect and to retell. An exaggerated fishing tale is more memorable than the dull facts of a modest catch; repetition drives any point home. Rhyme also helps: ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ sticks in your mind more readily than, ‘In the long run, consistent work is more productive than rushed efforts, in sewing and other tasks.’ Literacy makes such mnemonic techniques unnecessary because everything can be written down. Moreover, in a literate world, exaggerations can be errors or even lies; repetitions seen as redundancies; rhyming consigned to poetry alone.

One of the deepest incompatibilities is in the saving of past events. In orality, sharing – the telling and retelling of stories – is the key to preservation; any event taken out of circulation and stored away would be irreversibly consigned to oblivion. By contrast, literacy stores things that are supposed to last, whether in paper archives or digital ones – which brings us back to the transformation of collective memory over the last two decades.

Is digitization oral or literate? When Havelock, Ong, McLuhan and Yates were writing – roughly from the 1960s to the 1980s – computers were generally understood to be an extension, if not an intensification, of literacy: more words and numbers to be stored on microchips instead of paper (although Ong glimpsed a ‘secondary orality’ in electronic technology). By the 1990s computers started to realize their full potential and developed from isolated databases into mobile handheld devices with amazing multi-tasking and communication abilities.

I believe that digitization is not only changing collective memory but also recombining orality and literacy in a new and often explosive manner. Despite their deep incompatibility, there were always traces of orality in literacy, long before computers were invented (think of jokes, which are funnier when told in person than read in a book). Orality lost its legitimacy for collective memory to literacy but never entirely disappeared. Now digitization – especially online social networking – creates novel hybrids, whereby literate elements suddenly appear in oral settings and vice versa.

For example, there is no such thing as authorship – or copyright – in orality because the tales are continually being retold by new tellers. There doesn’t seem to be much place for authorship and copyright online, where texts are continually being circulated by new users: not retold but recommended, re-tweeted or even plagiarized. The oral tales retold the most become the cornerstones of collective memory, just as the online sites with the most hits get the most attention, although the information can be as trivial as dog tricks. Oral societies don’t have the interiorized, private subjectivity proper to literacy; Facebook doesn’t either.

Such hybrids are explosive because they bring the constant circulation of orality to the eternal storage of literacy. Like orality, digitization shares; like literacy, digitization never forgets a single detail, however compromising it may come later in life. In a way online digitization subjects literacy to the rules of orality, despite the computer’s dependence on reading and writing skills. The move from typewriter-like keyboards to touchscreens may just reflect the end of literacy’s reign over orality as our primary way of saving, retrieving and sharing events.

frieze is a testimony to many changes over the last two decades, which are explored in this anniversary issue. But by hitting the news-stands at the dawn of online digitization, the magazine captures the transformation of collective memory: a seismic shift from a predominantly literate model to an infusion of orality into literacy. Just as classicists once read Homer not only for the poetry but also to grasp the shift from orality to literacy in ancient Greece, so art historians may some day read frieze not only for the art but also to grasp the impact of digitization on art writing and history. I’m no clairvoyant, but some characteristics already stand out, such as the equal value placed on a critic’s personal narrative (oral storytelling) and theory (philosophical literacy). Of course, the rest is for a columnist of the future to figure out.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.