The Convivial Society: Vol. 1, No. 3

Time, Death, and Remembering

“What anthropologists distinguish as ‘cultures’ the historian of mental spaces might distinguish as different ‘memories.’ The way to recall, to remember, has a history which is, to some degree, distinct from the history of the substance that is remembered.”

— Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text (1993)

I’ve found it difficult to begin writing about the topic I’d identified for this opening section of the newsletter. The difficulty has been twofold. First, I wanted to take my point of departure from an item that deals with incredibly sensitive realities, namely grief, memory, and death. Secondly, having chosen that point of departure, it’s not been entirely clear in which direction I should go. So, finally, I will do what I often do in any case: begin writing and see where we end up.

On February 7th, Fast Company published a story titled, “Watch a Mother Reunite With Her Deceased Child in VR.” The title gives you the gist of the piece. In its imperative mood, though, it does a bit more. Watch, we are instructed. My immediate response was to this imperative rather than to the contents of the article. Why ought I to watch this? It seems the sort of thing that ought to be shielded from public view, something I, at least, had no business intruding upon. It’s becoming increasingly clear that my reservations on this score are quixotic and quaint, but I’m afraid I’m becoming obstinate about insisting upon them.

“Therefore, it appears to me,” Ivan Illich wrote in a speech honoring Jacques Ellul,

“that we cannot neglect the disciplined recovery, an asceticism, of a sensual praxis in a society of technogenic mirages. This reclaiming of the senses, this promptitude to obey experience, the chaste look that the Rule of St. Benedict opposes to the cupiditas oculorum (lust of the eyes), seems to me to be the fundamental condition for renouncing that technique which sets up a definitive obstacle to friendship.”

It is tangential to Illich’s point here, but it seems to me that the chaste look in the age of digital media involves not only a reclaiming of the senses so that we might see what is truly there, but also a refusal to gaze upon that which we ought not to see (indeed a recovery of the category itself). In this case, it is not necessarily a matter of illicit or obscene images, but of any phenomena in which we have no real part even if they are offered up to us freely by the participants, insofar as these are extracted by an emerging net of top-down and bottom-up surveillance and documentation, which is transforming the private and social human environment into little more than raw material or standing-reserve to be extracted for profit and social capital. To put it in Kantian terms, we risk transforming ourselves and others into means rather than ends in themselves. Put more straightforwardly, we are being primed to render others as merely things to be used.

So while I have not watched the clips that accompany the story, the author gives us a picture of what is going on: “… [the mother] stands in front of a massive green screen while wearing both a VR headset and what appear to be some sort of haptic gloves. In the latter, she and her daughter talk, hold hands, and even have a birthday party complete with a lit cake.” Except that, tragically, the girl is deceased.

I have two daughters and I have absolutely no words with which to express what their loss would entail for me. So, to be clear, I tread here with great care and with absolutely no desire to pass any kind of judgement on the mother. I want to note, rather, how the author frames her discussion after describing the project and explore its meaning.

The author wonders how far off we are from something like this being more widely available. She then asks the inevitable questions—

“And what sort of impact will that have on the grieving process? Will seeing a loved one in VR help people find closure and move on following a death? Will some people become addicted to this virtual world, spending more and more time in it and less and less in the real one?”

—before proceeding down predictable paths: What if it doesn’t stop with VR, she wonders—digital avatars of the living and the dead, android clones—some company or other is already working on them. Comparisons to a Black Mirror episode. An Ivy League expert assuring “There is nothing wrong or unethical about it.” A final empty gesture toward the possibility of regulation: “Rather than letting startups offer the public the chance to interact with virtual versions of their dead loved ones — undoubtedly at a cost — maybe we can make the technology available only to people who’ve submitted to a screening with a psychologist.”

As I read this story, I was reminded of how historians of technology have observed that one of the first uses imagined for new media technology has often been conjuring the dead. It was true of electricity, the telegraph, the phonograph, and the telephone. In a similar vein, a few weeks ago I read about how holograms of dead musicians are now going on tour to keep revenue streams alive—necrocapitalism, Adam Elkus aptly called the phenomenon.

Death is the one enemy we all have in common, of course, so it is not surprising that its overcoming is among the many consolations we’ve sought from the power of technology. While conjuring the dead through the telephone, as the “phone-voyants” of the early 20th century claimed to do, may now strike us as a fool’s (or huckster’s) errand, the dream of conquering death by technical means, already announced by Francis Bacon in the early seventeenth century, remains a tantalizing object of desire. Death, viewed in this light, appears merely as one more technical problem to be solved by the application of proper technique.

Beyond the matter of death, we might also consider the fear that reality is being overtaken by simulation, and, more pointedly, that these simulations will increasingly serve to anesthetize segments of society who are unable to succeed or adequately navigate its hostile terrain.

The more pressing reality to reckon with here, however, seems to me to be the matter of memory. That memory is involved seems obvious at first, but then not entirely so. Whatever else is happening here, we might say, someone is being aided in the work of remembering, specifically in remembering someone who has passed away. But, someone might wonder, these are not, in fact, memories. The VR experience is a novel one, not a recreation of some past event.

At this point, we are, as it turns out, treading upon an ancient distinction. “Socratic philosophy,” Paul Riceour has observed,

bequeathed to us two rival and complementary themes on this subject, one Platonic, the other Aristotelian.  The first, centered on the theme of the eikōn [image], speaks of the present representation of an absent thing; it argues implicitly for enclosing the problematic of memory within that of imagination.  The second, centered on the theme of the representation of a thing formerly perceived, acquired, or learned, argues for including the problematic of the image within that of remembering.”

In short, Plato encouraged us to think about memory as a matter of bringing to presence some absent thing or person. For Aristotle, on the other hand, “all memory is of the past.”

In light of this distinction, we might say that the VR experience is a Platonic form of remembering. An absent thing is made present with reference to no particular moment in the past. It expresses a different sort of desire than the desire to reconstruct some past event, it expresses a desire for the object whose presence we invoke.

From this perspective, then, VR used to conjure the dead becomes just another aide-mémoire. Although, of course, it’s too trite to put it that way. It becomes an especially powerful and involving aide-mémoire, and one more way in which digital media structures how and what we remember with significant consequences.

While this VR experience is clearly distinctive and rare, it throws into relief a question we may ask of any number of more mundane memory practices. Is it good that I remember in this way? This is not merely a question of what is remembered, although that might be part of it. It is also a question of the manner in which remember. Surely it is good that we remember a loved one lost to us. But to what degree and in what manner? Is it possible to surrender to a form of remembering that unduly circumscribes our action in the present?

That last question arises from my recent thinking about how to rightly order our relationship to time, specifically, in this case, to time past, which we access through memory. While much more might be said, it seems that a rightly ordered relation to the past empowers our action in the present, while a disordered relation to the past inhibits our action in the present. Regret, for example, can paralyze. An inadequate memory of the past, insofar as some map of the past often helps us make our way in the present, can do the same. Interestingly, an obsessive recollection can also burden us in such a way that we find it impossible to move forward, to act.

These disordered relationships to time can manifest themselves at both a personal and societal level. I’ve been thinking, for example, about how digital media enables our immersion in highly personalized streams of remembrance or, additionally, an immersion in niche traditions of memory. A commonly held cultural memory is harder to come by. Consequently, we seem to be unable to move productively forward.

As Arendt observed in her posthumously published The Life of the Mind, “the thread of tradition is broken and that we shall not be able to renew it … What has been lost is the continuity of the past as it seemed to be handed down from generation to generation, developing in the process its own consistency … What you then are left with is still the past, but a fragmented past, which has lost its certainty of evaluation.”

Commenting on Proust in the opening chapter of How Societies Remember, Paul Connerton observed,

“Across generations, different sets of memories, frequently in the shape of implicit background narratives, will encounter each other; so that, although physically present to one another in a particular setting, the different generations may remain mentally and emotionally insulated, the memories of one generation locked irretrievably, as it were, in the brains and bodies of that generation.” 

In the case of Proust’s narrative, the span of twenty-five years was in view when two characters from different generations failed to fully understand one another. In our own age of fractured experience and algorithmically structured remembering, no particular space of time need be involved. We all, as it were, inhabit alternative timelines. If it does not seem that we share a common world, it is, in part, because we have no common memory.

I will give the last word, as I often do in discussions of this sort, to Derrida, who once observed the following: “They tell, and here is the enigma, that those consulting the oracle of Trophonios in Boetia found there two springs and were supposed to drink from each, from the spring of memory and from the spring of forgetting.”

That recognition, of course, only gets us so far and leaves most of the hard work before us.

The Waters of Lethe by the Plains of Elysium – John Spencer Stanhope

Fast Company article
Illich on Ellul
Riceour’s Memory, History, Forgetting
Connerton’s How Societies Remember

News and Resources

  • Paper out of Stanford: “The Welfare Effects of Social Media.” From the abstract: “In a randomized experiment, we find that deactivating Facebook for the four weeks before the 2018 US midterm election (i) reduced online activity, while increasing offline activities such as watching TV alone and socializing with family and friends; (ii) reduced both factual news knowledge and political polarization; (iii) increased subjective well-being; and (iv) caused a large persistent reduction in post-experiment Facebook use.”

  • A pre-print of John Danaher’s article, “Freedom in an Age of Algocracy,” in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook on the Philosophy of Technology edited by Shannon Vallor: “This chapter tries to address the shortcomings in the existing discussion by arguing for a broader conception/understanding of freedom as well as a broader conception/understanding of algocracy. Broadening the focus in this way enables us to see how algorithmic governance can be both emancipatory and enslaving, and provides a framework for future development and activism around the creation of this technology.”

  • On walking and thinking: “What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry.” A few years ago someone got me a copy of a little book whose sole purpose was detailing in a page or two the work habits and routines of famous writers. I remember being struck by two things: lots of drinking and lots of walking.

  • A 1965 paper by the late Hubert Dreyfus: “Alchemy and Artificial Intelligence.”

  • “Deepfakes and the Epistemic Backstop”: “This paper prepares for that danger by explicating the unappreciated way in which recordings have so far provided an epistemic backstop to our testimonial practices. Our reasonable trust in the testimony of others depends, to a surprising extent, on the regulative effects of the ever-present possibility of recordings of the events they testify about. As deepfakes erode the epistemic value of recordings, we may then face an even more consequential challenge to the reliability of our testimonial practices themselves.”

  • In 2015, Jonathan Lipps, a programmer with a deep interest in the philosophy of technology, had the opportunity to visit the philosopher Albert Borgmann in Montana. Lipps, an admirer of Borgmann’s work, had been in the process of blogging through Borgmann’s classic title, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. Written in the mid-80s, that book is definitely still worth reading. And here is a link to the first of four posts on Lipps’s site in which he transcribed his informal and informative conversation with Borgmann: “Interviewing Borgmann, Part 1.”

  • There’s a chance that the star Betelgeuse, the red supergiant that forms Orion’s right shoulder, could explode in the very near future causing a supernova lasting several months and rivaling the brightness of a full moon. I don’t know, I’m not sure we’re in any mood for dark portents.


— The Distance from Our Food: Stepping into the mud of a moral ecology of production and consumption” by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft in The Hedgehog Review:

“Whether in the United States or elsewhere in the developed world, we mostly eat plant and animal foods whose life cycles we never come near. We experience them as products, not life forms. They reach us after so much processing that their origins are obscured. Consider the corn oil in an energy bar or in a cardboard box of breakfast cereal. Consider the pork chop, taken from an animal fattened on corn during a brief life so unpleasant that cameras are, by and large, banned from industrial feedlots and slaughterhouses.

Distance can breed ignorance of the ecosystems and individual animal lives that feed us ….

But it is too cheap and easy to say that proximity is good and distance bad.”

— From “How to Grant Your Child An Inner Life” by Jess Row:

“There aren’t many places where children and teen-agers can go today to escape the noise of others—especially us, their (usually) benevolent overlords, who trade passwords, touch I.D.s, and credit-card numbers for 24/7, immersive, surround-sound access. Earlier this year, well before we had agreed, my daughter rode the subway for the first time by herself. Her usual subway partner, a couple grades older, unexpectedly had to stay late for a drama rehearsal; there was no other obvious solution, so she sent us a quick text and departed, not waiting for permission. I imagined all the worst-case scenarios first. Then I thought of her sitting quietly on the train, with her backpack in her lap, listening to music, reading, or just looking around her, feeling the sheer largeness of the world, the strangeness of being one person among so many others, unwatched.”

The Conversation

A reminder that this is the section where I tend to stick personal updates, works in progress, shameless self-promotion, etc.

The next issue of The New Atlantis, which includes my revised talk in D. C. from last November, is off to the presses. It may be that I’ll have a link to share in the next installment. I may also have a link to share for a piece in Real Life, provided I wrap it up in the next day or two.

I once read a tweet that humorously captured the evolution of a writer’s attitude toward their editors. It began with the first submission and an expression of disdain for any editor that would dare change a word. It finished with something like “Please take this inarticulate jumble of words and turn it into something actually good.” Bottom line: good editors are a gift, and I’m grateful to them.

Regrettably, I had no editorial assistance in compiling a collection of essays from my recently shuttered blog into an ebook a couple of months ago. I’m happy to say that this has not kept some folks I respect deeply from giving it a good word, most recently the aforementioned Albert Borgmann as well as Shannon Vallor and Tom Chatfield. Many of you have already picked up a copy, for which you have my thanks. If you haven’t or if this is the first you’re hearing of it, click through and take a look.

Not only did I not have any editors, I have no publicity department. So, if you think the work merits it, please do share. You can also support my work by becoming a paying subscriber to this newsletter or passing along a link. To those who already are, know that your support is important to me and I’m deeply grateful for it.

Indeed, grateful to all of you for reading along.

Till next time, my best to each of you,