Why We Need to Remember How to Forget
This article by Professor Emma Smith was originally posted at The Conversation.
Three US neuroscientists published a case study in 2005 detailing how a woman, AJ, was plagued by memories of her own life and of public events such as the dates of death of Elvis and Princess Diana. The discussion of AJ’s memory never mentions it, but it seemed clear to me that her overactive remembering was structured like our digital biographies – personal “moments”, as Twitter like to call them, tagged to Wikipedia facts. The researchers named this case “hyperthymestic syndrome”, from the Greek thymesis, remembering.
AJ’s situation may indeed be remarkable, but it’s clear that we all live in this age of hyperthymesis. Memory has become prosthetic – outsourced to the internet, to external hard drive or cloud storage system. What should we remember? What should be preserved? The paradox of the digital future is the burden of the past that we are constantly archiving.
Theatre offers a particularly pressing case study. Because theatre is a live medium – subject to the vagaries and imperfections of the moment – it is perhaps the art most similar to life. Therefore its particular attitude to archiving and to memory has wider implications. Industry statistics show the increasing importance to theatres of digitally preserving and archiving live content. Some 78% of theatres digitally preserve and archive their productions by capturing their live productions and make them available online.
In this archival process, the word “live” is under some pressure. “Live” streaming of theatrical events into cinemas is morphing towards designing productions specifically for the camera rather than the theatre audience; routine “encore” showings now make clear that those formerly “live” events are in fact recorded; DVD productions advertised as “recorded live” bring out the paradox. “Recorded live” might summarise human existence in the digital age.
Looking over a similar revolution in representational technologies, Walter Benjamin observed that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be”. Perhaps theatre is the art form that has most retained what Benjamin calls “aura” – that unique existence within time and space – but the implications of “recorded live” make clear how much that is changing. The availability of recorded theatre online has increased substantially over the past 18 months: it won’t be long before almost all theatre productions are available online.
Writing about a similar process in the area of pop music, Simon Reynolds suggests in his book Retromania that contemporary music is clogged up with retromania, the endlessly easy online availability of its past. In his words, “history must have a dustbin, or history will be a dustbin, a gigantic, sprawling garbage heap”. So much of our discussion about the future potential of the digital sphere is how it will better enable us to preserve the past. The paradox is clear: the defining characteristic of being human in the digital age is that of being overwhelmed by the past – and the threat to our creative present and future is that the past becomes too omnipresent for us to move forward. Enter the creative potential of forgetting.
The so-called right to be forgotten is usually discussed as part of the rights of the rehabilitation of offenders. But what I want to suggest here is that the right to be digitally forgotten should be extended. Rather than always looking to record and archive we might want to reinstate the idea that being “live” demands impermanence, ephemerality and forgetting. The best theatrical experiences are the ones we have half-forgotten, where the subjective highlights have crystallised in inauthentic and highly personal tableaux of remembrance. Forgetting – or half-remembering – is the way we collude with art to make it our own. We construct our own “highlights package” that is unique to our own often faulty memories of an experience.
Changes in expectations of the theatrical medium are symptoms of a wider phenomenon: the deadening hand of recording everything for posterity. We don’t have time to watch all this stuff now, so why should the future? It’s not only those things we regret that might have the right to be forgotten. My academic work is on Shakespeare – perhaps it’s because we have allowed ourselves to forget how Shakespeare’s plays looked in the 16th century that we are still able to perform them 400 years later.
Remembering, not forgetting, is the enemy of creative reinvention. Not everything that is live should be recorded.
Emma Smith is a Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Oxford. Watch a video of her TORCH talk on 'Forgetting in the Digital Age' here.
Images via The Conversation/ Shutterstock