Thursday, January 30, 2003
posted 10:30 AM

There was a copy of the actual Putnam hardcover waiting, when I returned from Denmark. I haven't looked at it. The tour-readings are, in some very serious way, both the first and the last time I get to access the text, so I prefer to come to each reading (always a "new" part of the book) as if I were seeing it for the first time (which in a way I am).

Be that as it may: lots of people, not least myself, have tried very hard to reduce the noise for you, the reader. We've all done the best we could, under our particular circumstances, but there will still be some noise. With the fable of the princess and the pea in mind, I advise you to concentrate on the signal.


I'm waiting for at least one interview call. Tomorrow is Canada.

So I will fob another piece of old speechifying off on you. Actually this isn't a speech but it sure reads like one. My syntax must have twisted, as I got out of bed, the day I wrote this. This originally appeared in FORBES ASAP, which (I think) is a sort of glossy hi-corporate giveaway. Funny how I work things out, in pieces like this, often written for publication where I figure relatively few people will see them.

This was was published as DEAD MAN SPEAKS:

Time moves in one direction, memory in another.

We are that strange species that constructs artifacts intended to counter the natural flow of forgetting.

I sometimes think that nothing really is new; that the first pixels were particles of ochre clay, the bison rendered in just the resolution required. The bison still function perfectly, all these millennia later, and what screen in the world today shall we say that of in a decade? And yet the bison will be there for us, on whatever screens we have, carried out of the primal dark on some impulse we each have felt, as children, drawing. But carried nonetheless on this thing we have always been creating, this vast unlikely mechanism that carries memory in its interstices; this global, communal, prosthetic memory that we have been building since before we learned to build.

We live in, have lived through, a strange time. I know this because when I was a child the flow of forgetting was relatively unimpeded. I know this because the dead were less of a constant presence, then. Because there was once no rewind button. Because the soldiers dying in the Somme were black and white, and did not run as the living run. Because the world’s attic was still untidy. Because there were old men in the mountain valleys of my Virginia childhood who remembered a time before recorded music.

When we turn on the radio in a New York hotel room and hear Elvis singing “Heartbreak Hotel”, we are seldom struck by the peculiarity of our situation: that a dead man sings.

In the context of the longer life of the species, it is something that only just changed a moment ago. It is something new, and I sometimes feel that, yes, everything has changed. (This perpetual toggling between nothing being new, under the sun, and everything having very recently changed, absolutely, is perhaps the central driving tension of my work.)

Our “now” has become at once more unforgivingly brief and unprecidently elastic. The half-life of media-product grows shorter still, ‘til it threatens to vanish altogether, everting into some weird quantum logic of its own, the Warholian Fifteen Minutes becoming a quark-like blink. Yet once admitted to the culture’s consensus-pantheon, certain things seem destined to be with us for a very long time indeed. This is a function, in large part, of the rewind button. And we would all of us, to some extent, wish to be in heavy rotation.

And as this capacity for recall (and recommodification) grows more universal, history itself is seen to be even more obviously a construct, subject to revision. If it has been our business, as a species, to dam the flow of time through the creation and maintenance of mechanisms of external memory, what will we become when all these mechanisms, as they now seem intended ultimately to do, merge?

The end-point of human culture may well be a single moment of effectively endless duration, an infinite digital Now. But then, again, perhaps there is nothing new, in the end of all our beginnings, and the bison will be there, waiting for us.

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