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Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture

Author: Darren Tofts, Murray McKeich
Publisher: North Ryde, Australia: G + B Arts International, 1998
Review Published: May 1999

 REVIEW 1: Carolyn Guertin

You should make room on your bookshelf next to Marshall McLuhan and Walter J. Ong because -- love it or hate it -- you will want to own a copy of Darren Tofts and Murray McKeich's Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture.

Conceived as a "jam session" (10) between media theorist Darren Tofts and digital artist Murray McKeich, Memory Trade is actually two books and two distinct prehistories of cyberculture. Tofts traces the history of writing and mnemonic technologies, the evolution of mental geographies of space, and key moments in the genealogy of prophetic literary 'machines.' This is one prehistory, but his text is simultaneously juxtaposed with McKeich's startling, nightmarish portrait gallery of grey-scale images. McKeich constructs visual collages, hybrids and cyborgs, a literal collision of technologies and bodies (be they animal, vegetable, or mineral) in the scrap heap of the planned obsolescence of twentieth century culture. With as large a scope and vision as the unwieldy, oversized dimensions of this volume and as opulent as its beautiful production, Tofts and McKeich fabricate a past for the current trends of cyberculture. They acknowledge that this is not a history. "Histories record," they say, whereas "Prehistories invent" (10). And so they explore and connect the gaps in a hypothetical geography of cyberculture's unconscious, tracing the pauses between the heartbeats in the syncopation of word and image of over 2500 years or more of Western culture and literacy.

Pulling together a vast range of knowledge and sources, Tofts weaves together many disparate theories and thinkers in an effort to map the shifting geography of virtual influence. He begins with the difficulties of trying to define precisely what cyberculture is -- and even that starting point poses its own problems. Through a study of the major theorists, Tofts ultimately defines cyberculture as a new mode of human interaction with technology. He traces its genealogy through communication and information systems, examining how they have evolved over time. Acknowledging that cyberculture is an aggregate term for a spectrum of diverse subcultures, Tofts proposes an archeological investigation to unearth the "sedimentary record" (24) of its history. He subdivides its imagined layers into three main sections: literacy and writing technologies, notions of space, and literary precursors. The linking of orality, literacy and the history of writing is not new, tying together the ideas of earlier theorists McLuhan and Ong to name two, but Tofts's union of this history with the philosophical and literary traditions -- particularly poststructuralism -- is illuminating. Drawing on conceptual models as diverse as Plato's cave, Yates's Art of Memory, Freud's mystic writing pad, Derrida's grammatology, Haraway's cyborg and Kristeva's semiotic chora, Tofts constructs a history of mnemonic technologies and systems.

In essence what Tofts gives us is a history of the science of memory and how technologies affect not just how and what is remembered in different historical periods but how memory and its storage is context-sensitive. Literacy is also integral to memory being one of the earliest information storage systems. Oral cultures practiced an entirely different kind of memory work and writing was born of the need to extend the capacities of the human mind for remembering. This was initially represented by inventories and lists. The move to literacy from orality gave birth to the first recorded incidence of the "technofear" that spans the period from Socrates to present and, within that, Tofts undertakes a study of writing in a poststructuralist context as the original "technology of alienation" (40). This suggests a contextual continuity from Socrates through to cyberpunk literature. Poststructuralist thought upended the Classical tradition of speech as the superior and originary mode of communication, and instead Jacques Derrida controversially argues that writing precedes speech in a literate culture. In fact, he proclaims writing the fundamental building block of cybernetics and believes that the blending of human and machine in this field is the result of the principle of writing.

Tofts sees this cyborg-style blurring in our technologies reflected in the hybridization of art and technology in writing itself. Phoeneticization was the great revolution which gave writing the primacy that only speech had enjoyed up to that time, producing a paradigm shift in the relations between senses and language, audio and visual-spatial dimensions, and rendering writing as material as orality. This innovation collapsed the advantages of oral discourse into a whole new world of technological transformations in print through the introduction of the "spatial dimension of the alphabet...the abecedarium" (48). Tofts's supposition that cyberculture has its origins here in the history of writing technologies (including ASCII code as a linguistic component of that tradition), rather than in mathematical systems, is an astute acknowledgment of the immersive natures of both language and culture. His belief that the alphabet and literate world we inhabit is a conceptual space -- with immersion being the "apotheosis of virtual culture" (73) -- poses interesting considerations for how we interface with the world. Tofts states: "To come to terms with the historicity of cyberculture, we need a concept that identifies the ur-foundation of technologized consciousness, as well as its extension in the current preoccupation with the creation of digital worlds" (51).

The concept he proposes is called "cspace." An abbreviated means of conceiving of cyberspace, Tofts argues that cyberspace and real space cannot exist simultaneously and that his cspace is distinct from both of these concepts. With a silent 'c', cspace is the virtual state of living in language, standing outside of the speakable system and standing in for the immersive notion of a technologized human sensorium. According to Tofts, this spatial geography is both where writing happens and what writing is -- just as in a media-dependent culture "to be immersed in information is to be information, not a sender or receiver of it" (116-117).

The principles of navigation and spatial architecture are central to computing systems and virtual worlds, but Tofts links them to a historical tradition: a visual architectural mnemonic system known as the Art of Memory -- another invented prehistory, by Frances Yates. A classic in its own right Yates's Art of Memory, published in 1966, investigates the oral practice of memory that was used from Classical times until the Renaissance. Not the first to evoke this work in relation to computerized environments, for Tofts the appearance of Yates's "forgotten" cultural anthropology marks a return to an encyclopedic practice of mnemonic technology that parallels the capacity of contemporary computers in information storage and retrieval. Practitioners of the Art were legendary for their ability to recite, for example, the works of Aristotle or the Bible from memory. In the shift from orality to literacy, their abilities were no longer required and their art form was lost; however, in the period of Ong's "secondary orality," Yates's history of the form becomes a key text for our times. "The revived attention to technologies of memory in the age of cybernetics amounts to a continuation of the ars memoria" (82), Tofts believes, that reflects the conceptual origins of technologies of memory in writing and literacy.

The importance of Yates's visual system is in the way that memory was linked to a subject's replayed recollection of walking through a conceptual model of an architectural site on which the practitioner mentally projected images. For Tofts, there is an eerie similarity between this Art and the current obsession with digital worlds and virtual reality environments. Both of these forms also echo theater as an architectural space and immersive environment. In other words, these memory spaces are performative, embodying not just interactivity but agency, with the first person point of view being paramount. Where the reality of virtual reality has yet to catch up with its mytho-poetic nature, the premise of computer systems that canrecreate the world in glorious techno-color and stereophonic sound has become something of a holy grail quest for cyberphiliacs. Tofts ties this quest into the dramatic tradition with virtual reality being a form of theatrical mise en scène where interface technology presents the journey within a virtual, spatial architecture.

After examining the history of writing technologies and the construction of space, Tofts turns to the literary machine and analyzes how the "constituent threads of cyberculture have...taken shape in an early-twentieth-century work of art, James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake" (87). He elaborates: "While Finnegan's Wake is unquestionably a book, it is a special kind of book. It is a literary unicum that marks a transitional moment in the age of print literacy, as it converges with electronic digitization. Finnegan's Wake transforms the book rather than ends its epoch" (87).

The first work that deals with television (and, Tofts argues, invents the concept of the television program), Finnegan's Wake is a large book, perhaps even large enough to support Tofts's assertions. He sees the Wake as "the consummate literature machine" and "the ur-textbook on media and communications theory" (88). Demonstrating the Wake's connections to cyberculture via its relations to hypertext, Tofts reveals the spinning webs of polysemous meaning and the circuits of language that flow within the text, and likens the shifting natures of the characters to modern day avatars in virtual environments.

Tofts's assertion, however, that the Wake demonstrates definitively that hypertextual thinking is innate to alphabetic technology is something that has been proven over and over again throughout Western culture: from the generations of rabbis' marginalia in the Talmud to granger books to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Tofts also points out that Vannevar Bush's invention of a hypothetical memory machine called the Memex was first postulated in 1939 (108) -- the year that the Wake was also published. These trans-temporal trends seems to support Jay David Bolter's assertion in Writing Space that hypertext emulates the cognitive functioning of the mind. Tofts's attempt to identify this new mode of thought as a product of the Wake's influence is overstated. It is an emblematic and exemplary text to be sure, but Tofts's Joyce-bias results in the exclusion of other important authors of experimental writing and avant-garde thought in the twentieth century.

Tofts's focus on James Joyce and the Wake in particular -- with Joyce's inclusion as the criteria by which he judges hypertext theorists -- is reductive at best. This is not to say that Joyce was not important and even central to the evolution of hypertext and hypertext theory, especially in terms of his influence on thinkers as diverse as Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Jacques Derrida, and Michael Joyce. However, my quarrel is with the sin of omission in this blinkered view. Surely there are other authors whose influence should be acknowledged, particularly Gertrude Stein and William Burroughs. For example, could cyberpunk have come into existence if it were not for Burroughs' influence? And even William Gibson paid homage to Stein when he transposed her infamous remark about Oakland -- "there is no there there" -- to describe cyberspace. Using his Joyce-criteria for judging hypertext theorists, Tofts finds George Landow irrevocably remiss, gives a nod in the direction of Michael Joyce (although this work mysteriously makes no mention of his important book, Of Two Minds) and celebrates Ted Nelson as the heir-apparent of the world and legacy of Finnegan's Wake.

Nelson's influential vaporware -- the never-to-be-realized, thirty-years-in-the-making hypertext project named Xanadu -- has certainly molded the descendants of what he named "hypertext" in 1965; however, bearing in mind Tofts's own focus on the history of writing technologies, it is surprising that he seems dismissive of hypertext as all hype with merely inferior text. For example, it seems a large omission that he never assesses hypertext within the context of the history of printing conventions. Considering how long it took for the book to stabilize into what we now deem a transparent medium, hypertext is thirty-four years young and as yet unformed or at least unstandardized. He concedes that hypertext is an "enabling technology" (106), but does not seem to recognize it as a cardinal technology, a technology that changes the tools it is created with. Ultimately, Tofts dismisses hypertext, finding it infantile (rather than in its infancy), and proclaims that "the book is actually better suited to facilitate the multi-tracking andindividualized nomadic orienteering prized by aficionados of hypertext" (107). Why, I wonder? Tofts has already revealed the interconnection of hypertextual thinking, memory systems, and information revolutions. Once conventions are established for hypertext, might hypertextual thought not be irrevocably transformed by its realization in electronic media? Perhaps a comparison of James Joyce with that other Joyce, Michael, commonly known as 'the Gutenberg of Hypertext,' might have revealed more about the evolution of the thought behind the form. Perhaps these are questions for Tofts's next book.

While the Wake is for Tofts the pinnacle of achievement in alphabetic culture, hypertext returns us to that old form of symbolic discourse: print. Mapping the transformation of the senses within and through the literary traditions of mnemonic technologies and cyberculture, Tofts concludes that any technology ultimately modifies what it means to be human. Turning cyborg, we now have access to information storage systems that are unprecedented in the history of human memory and that are moving us toward revolutionary reconceptions of literacy, writing and space. Tofts helps chart our present interim coordinates in this paradigm shift as images and text rearrange themselves over a new four-dimensional plane, a plane that will be visible only to future generations conversant in a new kind of electronic literacy.

It is a testament to the scope and depth of Tofts's study that I found so many places where I wanted to argue with him, where I wanted to ask him: "What about...?" Any text that gives birth to so many possible areas of future investigation -- just as McKeich's digitally-manipulated images raise so many questions about the nature of hybridity and technology -- is a rare read and one that invites us to return again and again.

Carolyn Guertin:
Carolyn Guertin is a doctoral candidate (ABD) at the University of Alberta, Canada, specializing in the feminist avant-garde, hypertext, and the technologies of writing. Widely taught, her hypertexts have appeared in BeeHive and the Electronic Book Review. 

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