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Texts, Traces, Trash: The Changing Media of Cultural Memory

Author(s): Aleida Assmann

Source: Representations, No. 56, Special Issue: The New Erudition (Autumn, 1996), pp. 123-134
Published by: University of California Press
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Texts,Traces, Trash:
The Changing Media
of Cultural Memory

Speaking withthe Dead:

The Text as a Medium of Cultural Memory

IN THE FIRST SENTENCE of his book Shakespearean Ste-

phen Greenblattconfesses:"I began withthedesireto speak withthedead."' With
these words he reminds us of somethingall too easily forgottenby salaried,
middle-classliteratureprofessors:thatwe are shamans at heart,recreatinga con-
tinuousconversationwithancestralvoices and the spiritsof the past. We not only
workwithmedia in the technicalsense,literarytextsand theatricalperformances,
forinstance,but we also are media in the occultsense of establishingcontactwith
a transcendentworld for a collectivebenefit.Although Greenblattconcentrates
on the technical medium, he speaks of "the textual traces that have survived
fromthe Renaissance" as thoughsuch tracescould be creditedwitha lifeof their
own. His projectis preciselyto analyze this"life"of literarytextsin termsof the
social negotiations,exchanges, and transfersin which the artisticprocesses are
In the beginningof thiscentury,an art historiananchored his ideas in the
same concept thatreturnsin Greenblatt'sproject-energeia.Aby Warburg,when
others were contentto praise the transhistoricalpermanence of art, set out to
investigatein detailthe precisemechanismsthatproduce whatwe so nonchalantly
of social
call the "life"of a work of art. Whereas Greenblattpoints to circulation
energyin art, Warburglocalized thisenergyin certainvisual formulaecharged
withhighlyaffectivepotential.For him,the artisticcondensation and poignancy
of an affectivepresencein whathe called the"pathosformula"(Pathosformel) could
be reactivatedby beholders at a later period in a differentcultural setting.He
thoughtof the work of art as "stored energy" (Energie-Konserve), containingin
itselfthe powers of itsown regeneration.2
In theirdifferent ways,thesetwoRenaissance scholarsraise an epochal ques-
tion thatitselfresonatesbeyond itstime.What indeed makes possible a dialogue
withthe dead across periods of time?In thispaper, I want to returnto thisques-
tion, focusingneitheron the social transactionsnor on the hidden potentialof
images but on the textin its writtenand printedform.I hope to show how the


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Renaissance mythof revivingthe dead is literallyrooted in letters,that is, in an
epistemologyof writingas a medium able to transcendtimeas well as space.
Litterae,I want to suggest,operate at the heart of literaturein a tacit,mostly
unheeded dimension of everydaytextualwork. Further,since the medium mat-
ters, lettersin this formal sense can be "read" as clues to importanthistorical
changes in the structuresof culturalmemory.I shall begin withconcepts of writ-
ing in the Renaissance, then move to the eighteenthcentury,when culturalesti-
mationsof the letterfelleven as literacyrates and the tide of printculture rose
dramatically.Finally,I shall turnbrieflyto the transformations under way in our
age of mass media and electronictechnology.

Stored Energy:
Renaissance Concepts of the Letter

The convictionthatwrittentextsmay outlastthe ruins of civilizations

is, of course, a topos much older than the Renaissance. The ancient Egyptians,
looking back over more than a thousand years of theirown culture,could not
help noticingthat,while colossal buildingsand monumentshad fallen to pieces,
textsfromthe earlyperiod were stillbeing copied and praised. Minimaltracesof
ink on a brittlepapyrus provided more lastingmonumentsthan tombsand pyr-
amids. One of these papyri,datingfromthe thirteenthcenturyB.C.E., declares of
the sages of the past:
theyare hid,itis true,buttheirmagic
touchesall whoreadintheirbooks.3

This discoveryappealed to the scribes,who could thusconsider themselvesmore

powerfulthan the pharaoh himself,and hence the topos of writing'sexemption
fromthe destructionof time,the powerfuland even magical art of writing,was
taken up bythe "scribal"intellectualsof latercultures.
In a number of sonnets,Shakespeare rehearses what had already been the
Horatian topos of the immortalizingpower of verse. So, famously:
Of princesshalloutlivethispow'rful

Unlike Horace, however,Shakespeare grounds thisimmortalitynot only in the

poem but also in itsmaterialsubstance,tracesofblackinkon paper. In thecouplet
of sonnet 63, the poet proclaims
His beautyshallin theseblacklinesbe seen,
Andtheyshalllive,and he inthemstillgreen.5

In sonnet65 he is at the same timemore tentativeand more explicitin countering

timidquestions about time'sdestructiveforce:


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0! none,unlessthismiraclehavemight,

Yetlettersalone are notsufficient.The antidote"gainstdeath and all oblivious

enmity"is incompletewithout"thelivingrecord of your memory":livingbecause
of its alliance withlivingmemories.7Only in alliance withmemorycan writing
stand against ruin and death. Writingprolongs life and ensures remembrance
onlyif planted in the memoriesof futuregenerations.
Francis Bacon, advocate of the new sciences,discusses the power of letters.
Toward the end of the firstbook of The Advancement ofLearning,he connects
writingwith"immortality or continuance," which he considers thefundamental
universalhuman aspiration,and observes,stillwithinour well-knowntopos,"How
farthe monumentsof witand learningare more durable than the monumentsof
power or of the hands. For have not the versesof Homer continued twenty-five
hundred years, or more, without thelossofa syllableor letter;during which time
infinitepalaces, temples,castles,cities,have been decayed and demolished?"8
The verses of Homer survived"for twenty-five hundred years" not because
they were continuallymemorized but because they persisted in their material
form"withoutthe loss of a syllableor letter."In the next sentence,Bacon reflects
on the differencesbetweenimages and writingas media of culturalmemory:

It is notpossibleto havethetruepicturesor statuesof Cyrus,Alexander,Caesar,norof

thekingsor greatpersonagesof muchlateryears;fortheoriginalscannotlast,and the
copiescannotbutleeseofthelifeand truth.Buttheimagesofmen'switsand knowledge
remainin books,exemptedfromthewrongoftimeand capableofperpetualrenovation.
Neitherare theyfitly tobe calledimages,becausetheygeneratestill,and casttheirseeds
in themindsofothers,provoking actionsand opinionsin succeeding
and causinginfinite

While images, belonging to the mimeticarts,can only present a diminished

copy of the original,writingbelongs to the operativeartsand does not presenta
copy of outward appearances but emanates directlyfromthe intellect.The life
and truthlost in the visual media are retainedin writing,whichis potentiallyan
ever-freshand preciseindex of ideas. While images are diminished reproductionsof
an original,lettersare themselvesan instrument withthe miraculous
capacitynot only to preserve but also to generate. For Bacon, there is no such
thingas a purelymaterialand inertstockof knowledge;lettersdo not simplystore
ideas, theyalso regeneratethemin otherminds.
For Renaissance scribes,then,the letterdoes not kill; on the contrary,it is a
lifeforcepar excellence. It is a magic stillacknowledgedby humanists,criticalas
theymay be of error and superstition,a magic promotinglife afterdeath and
securinga continuityof learningacross centuriesof oblivion.What ships achieve
in space, lettersdo in the dimensionof time.Once more Bacon:

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So thatiftheinvention of theshipwasthoughtso noble,whichcarriethrichesand com-
moditiesfromplacetoplace,and consociateththemostremoteregionsin participationof
howmuchmoreare thelettersto be magnified,
theirfruits, whichas shipspass through
of thewisdom,illuminations,
thevastseas of time,and makeages so distantparticipate
theone oftheother?'0
and inventions,

Today we are onlytoo aware thatthese same technologiesmade possible new

formsof oppression,colonization,and exploitation.But Bacon stressestheirevo-
lutionarypotential.While Shakespeare associateswritingwitha manuscriptcul-
ture, Bacon already thinksin termsof the printingpress, an inventionthat he
ranks,togetherwiththe compass and gunpowder,as the foundationalpillarsof
the new world. The secular Bacon uses religious imageryin describingthe ar-
chives of learning as modern sanctuaries;libraries,he says, "are as the shrines
where all the relics of the ancient saints,full of true virtue,and that without
delusion or imposture,are preservedand reposed." As the deceitof religiongives
wayto the truthof science,the magicof lettersreplaces the magic of rituals.False
priestsgive way to the scholars of a new disciplinecalled philology.Instead of
canonized saints,now there are canonized texts,"the new editions of authors,
withmorecorrectimpressions,morefaithfultranslations,more profitableglosses,
more diligentannotations,and the like.""
The "word-love"of philologyis not so much logocentrismas graphocentrism
and bibliolatry.Withthe supportof printing,the threatof another dark age and
"thealarms about the loss of mankind'smemory"were considerablyreduced and
the way was clear for a progressiveaccumulationof knowledge,for a linear ad-
vancementof learning.'2 By the seventeenthcentury,the convictionthatprinted
textsoutlastall otherculturaltraceshad become a fixedtopos. The professional
pride of printersand publishers gladly stressed the point in their prefaces to
published volumes; as this editor of a collection of German baroque dramas
pillars,and sculptures
It is wellworthconsidering ofvariousmaterialsare
destroyed eitherbytimeorhumanviolenceandfinally . .. thatwhole
and coveredwithwater;writing
citieslie sunken,forgotten and books,however, are ex-
emptedfroma similarfate,forifsomeeditionsbe lostin one place,othersare savedin
another.This provesthatthereexistsnothingmoredurableand immortal thanbooks.'3

This topos can be found even in our chastened and disabused times. In his
book Truthand Method,Hans-Georg Gadamer writes,
In thematerialprocessof culturaltransmission, has a singularstatus.The re-
maindersand ruinsofpastlives,ofbuildings, oftools,theequipmentoftombs-allofthis
is shakenand erodedbythestormsof time.Written texts,however,iftheycan be deci-
pheredand read,containa purespiritthatspeakstous in an eternalpresence.The artof
readingand understanding writtentracesis likea magicart. .. in whichspaceand time
are suspended.In knowinghow to read whatis transmitted, we are partakingof and


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The Decline of the Letters:
From Universal "Time" to
Historical "Posterity"

Renaissance poets and scholars never believed that a lost life could
actuallybe restored,but theywere firmly convincedthatthelifeof the spiritcould
be coded in lettersand keptin storeforlaterages. Shakespeare could stillpromise
his lover:
Evenin theeyesofall posterity

Far frombeing the guarantorof the perpetuityof texts,by the eighteenth

century,posteritycame to be seen as its severestthreat.The literary market, with
its laws of production and consumptionand the short-livedwhims of fashion,
became paradigmatic for differentexperiences of time. In this new context-
where textswere not necessarilywrittenfora circleof friendsor printedforthe
benefitof humankindbut produced forthechangingdemands of an anonymous
reading public-the vision of the perpetuityof writingevaporated. Instead of
guaranteeingduration,printedmaterialrhythmically perished in rapid cyclesof
innovationand obliteration.
In a prefaceto his Taleofa Tub,JonathanSwiftwritesof his book thatit"seems
calculated to live, at least as long as our language and our taste admit no great
alterations."'6 These alterations,however,mayhappen as soon as tomorrow.The
text is no shelteragainst the assaults of time but time'starget. It needs special
paratextualprotection,such as prefaces,apologies, dedications,and epistles.One
of Swift'sparatextsis "The Epistle Dedicatoryto his Royal Highness Prince Pos-
terity."This prince lives under the tutelage of a terriblegovernor,Time, who
I beseechyoutoobservethelargeand terriblescythe whichour governour affects
abouthim.Be pleasedto remarkthelengthand strength,
continually thesharpnessand
hardnessofhisnailsand teeth;considerhisbaneful,abominablebreath,enemyoflifeand
matter, and corrupting:
infectious and thenreflect,
whether itbe possible,foranymortal
inkand paperofthisgeneration, tomakea suitableresistance.
(JS, 42)

Time, forall his familiarbaroque pomp, is no longerthe directopponent and

addressee of the poet. He is replaced byhisward,theyoung PrincePosterity, who
is yetlackingin wisdomand judgment but who will,itis hoped, once he has come
of age, disarm his terribletutorand succeed him as a governor.Even so, Swift
substitutesolder claimsto immortality witha new appeal to posterity."We confess
Immortalityto be a greatand powerfulgoddess,"he writes,"but in vain we offer
up to her our devotionsand our sacrifices"(43). Permanence is not, so to speak,
inherentin theletter.Literaryworks,even thoughtheyare "lightenough to swim

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upon the surface for all eternity"(42), have no immanentperpetuatingenergy.
They owe whateverdurationtheyattainto a social construction,to a transgener-
ationalpact thathas to be establishedand upheld. Posterityis an immatureprince:
"Although your highness is hardly got clear of infancy,yet has the universal
learned world already resolved upon appealing to your futuredictates,withthe
lowestand mostresignedsubmission;fatehavingdecreed you sole arbiterof the
productionsof human wit,in thispolite and mostaccomplished age" (41).
Time stillrules,exercisinghis inveteratemalice againstbooks so that"of the
several thousands produced yearlyfromthisrenownedcity,before the next rev-
olution of the sun, thereis not one to be heard of" (43). The multiplicationand
disseminationof printedbooks is no safeguard: "It is true,indeed, thatalthough
their numbers be vast, and their productionsnumerous in proportion,yet are
theyhurriedso hastilyoffthe scene, thattheyescape our memory,and elude our
sight"(44). Satirizinga verymodern institution,theorganized evanescence of the
literarymarket,Swiftwritesthathe had hoped to compile forthe PrincePosterity
a listof newlypublished and announced books,but aftera fewhours he could no
longer finda traceof themin the town,as theyhad alreadybeen replaced bynew

I enquiredafterthemamongreadersandbooksellers, butI enquiredinvain;thememorial

of themwas lostupon men;theirplacewas no moreto be found:and I was laughedto
all tasteand refinement,
scornfora clownand a pedant,without
and thatknewnothingof whathad passedin thecompaniesof court
of presentaffairs,
and town.(44)

Swiftdoes not end here. "What is then become of those immense bales of
paper," he asks, "which must needs have been employed in such numbers of
books?" (45). His answeris that"books,likemen theirauthors,have no more than
one wayof cominginto the world,but thereare ten thousand to go out of it,and
returnno more" (45). In theirmaterialform,theydisappear silentlyand contin-
uously,abused in public lavatoriesand burned in ovens, patched to the windows
of bawdyhouses and reused as lampshades. Textual tracesin themselveshave no
chance of "surviving";withoutculturalinstitutions of memorizingand continuous
appreciation,books are doomed to perishinstantly. The assumptionthatthe mes-
sage stored in lettersand restoredat a later period is stillpresentaftera lapse of
timefailsfor Swifteven as he is writing:"That what I am going to say is literally
true this minute I am writing:what revolutionsmay happen before it shall be
ready foryour perusal, I can byno means warrant"(45).
A centurylater,Charles Lamb reflectedin a similarvein on the ephemerality
of writtenwords. In an essaywiththe title"DistantCorrespondents,"he writesto
a friendin Sydney,Australia,knowingthat what he writeswill be received ten
monthslater: "It is no easy effortto set about a correspondence at our distance.
The wearyworldof watersbetweenus oppresses the imagination.It is difficult to


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conceive how a scrawlof mine should ever stretchacross it. It is a sort of pre-
sumption to expect that one's thoughtsshould live so far. It is like writingfor
posterity."'7Lamb notes thatwhat is true in his own present of writingmay no
longer be true in his addressee's presentof reading; what was meant as a crude
fictionmay ripen into truthin time.But even the truththathasn'tchanged is no
longer of value because she has in the meantime,to use Lamb's words, "unes-
senced herself."'8 This is a strikinginversionof Bacon's panegyricpraisingletters
as heroic voyagersacross vast seas of time,"consociating"authors and readers
fromdistantcenturies.It is as iflettershad losttheiraura as "storedenergy"that
can be reactivatedat any time and place. While Bacon had stressedthe linking
power of writing,Lamb stressesitsdistancingand estrangingeffects.
We are used to referring,mutatismutandis,to theexperienceof distanceand
estrangementas historicalconsciousness.One historicalperiod is divided from
another by qualitativechanges in its modes of perceptionand centralvalue sys-
tems. Texts regulated by the structureof cultural memorythat we have called
traditionwere writtenand read withina shared space of images, tropes, refer-
ences, and values thatpreventedthe experienceof an aged or strangeor obscure
text.In the culturalframeof innovationand historicalconsciousness,however,a
special artof reading is needed to compensateforthe loss of a directunderstand-
ing. We referto thisart as hermeneutics.Its firstprincipleis expressed by Alex-
ander Pope in hisEssayon Criticism, when he declares:
A perfect

What Lamb, speaking of correspondence,calls "my Now" and "your Now"

and describesas "thisconfusionof tenses,thisgrand solecismof two presents,"20
can be takenas such an expressionof historicalconsciousness.While the artof an
interpretermediates between two foreign languages, the hermeneutic art of
interpretationmediates between two differenthistoricalperiods. This historical
differencewas notyeta problemfortheRenaissancehumanists,who rediscovered
and edited antique manuscriptsthattheyrescued fromoblivionand restoredto
culturalmemoryin the frameworkof tradition.

The Decline of the Letters:

From Texts to Traces

In classicaltraditionand erudition,the textsof canonical male authors

were a privilegedroyalroad to the past. Differentroutesof access to the past were
opened by bypassingtextsand traditionand concentratingon nontextualtraces
such as ruinsand relics,fragmentsand sherds,and songs and tales of a neglected
oral tradition.From textsto traces-this proved to be a consequentialshiftin the

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structureof culturalmemory.While the texthad extended memoryinto the past
as wellas intothefuture,tracesprovideda memoryof thepastalone. The concern
withthe past became purelyretrospective.It was the domain of the antiquarian
to recreatea past thatwas notelucidatedbya textualtraditionbut preservedmore
or less accidentallyin isolated documentsand unconnected fragments.The two
souls livingtogetherin the antiquarian,the imaginativeand the historical,were
separated during the nineteenthcenturyinto two differentdiscourses thatwere
henceforthdivided by institutionsand genres. The poet of historicalfictionas-
pired to restorea lost past to lifebyan act of the imagination;the otherinheritor
was the historian,who restoreda past byactsof methodicalreconstruction.While
the formerwas interestedin creatingthe illusionof a past somehow recalled to
life,the latteracknowledgeditsdistanceand difference.
WalterScott,followingin the footstepsof the antiquarians of the sixteenth
century,was a collectorand a genius of the imagination.His ambitionwas pre-
ciselyto recreatethose "dark ages" thatwere not linkedto the presentin a textual
tradition.Edgar Allan Poe revisitedeven the canonical sitesof classical antiquity
witha similarsense of historicalloss and alienation.Standing in the midstof the
broken walls and columns of the Colosseum in Rome, the visitoris overwhelmed
gloom,and glory!
Vastness!and Age!and MemoriesofEld!
Silence!and Desolation!and dimNight!2'

In his trance,however,the dreamer is not altogetheralone withhis associations;

the echoing stonesanswerhis questions,assuringhim:

"Weare notimpotent-wepallidstones.
"Notall ourpoweris gone-not all our fame-
"Notall themagicofour highrenown-
"Notall thewonderthatencirclesus
thatinus lie-
"Notall themysteries
"Notall thememories thathangupon
"Andclingaroundaboutus as a garment, . "22

Poe is obviouslysearchingforanotherRome thanthatof the textbooks;thetraces

and places tellanotherhistory, vaguer but also much more intensein the waythey
workon theimagination. a similarway,theantiquarianemphasized nonliterary
evidence. His new eruditionwas based on a detour fromthe path of textualtra-
dition. Arnaldo Momigliano cites the founder of the modern discipline of nu-
mismatics,Ezechiel Spanheim,who boaststhathe has discovereda remedyagainst
the notorious falsifications of historiography:"If there is any certain historical
evidence, it lies in coins and sculptures.And, to be sure, neitherreason deceives


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here, nor the event. While textual transcriptionsyield dubious evidence, these
onlycan claim the foremostdignityof autographs."23
As an heirof theantiquarian,theculturalhistorianalso privilegestracesabove
textual documents as media of cultural memory.Jakob Burckhardtelaborated
the distinctionbetween texts,which encode messages, and traces,which provide
indirectinformation.While the textspreservethe conscious articulationsand in-
tentionsof the age, the traces,accordingto Burckhardt,preserveitsinvoluntary
memories.The culturalhistoriancould findthe richesthistoricalevidence in the
traces to which Burckhardtascribed the highestdegree of truthfulnessand au-
thenticity: "primum gradumcertitudinis."24
Although a doubting stance toward historicaltruthwas already present by
the end of the seventeenthcentury,25 Thomas Carlyle'stheoreticalreflectionson
historybetray a thoroughlyskeptical attitude: "Of the thingnow gone silent,
named Past,whichwas once Present,and loud enough, how much do we know?
Our 'Letterof Instructions'comes to us in the saddest state;falsified,blottedout,
to read or spell."26
torn,lost and but a shred of itin existence;thistoo so difficult
The lucidityof the past, then,owed itselfto firmtextsin an establishedtra-
dition that guaranteed their continuous readability.To deviate from this royal
path was to findoneself,as Carlyledid, in the wildernessof opaque history,the
complexityand densityof which remained hopelesslyinaccessible.The images
Carlyleuses to describe the past are those of a magic web, a complex aggregate,
an obscure palimpsest.For Carlyle,historyis made up less of what is preserved
than of what is lost: "Wellmaywe say thatof Historythe more importantpart is
lost withoutrecovery."27 What we are used to referringto as historyis the result
of a thoroughgoingcompressionof data acheived not byconscious selectionsbut
by temporal decay. Although Carlyle describeshistoryas "a miserable defective
shred,"he is farfromregrettingthisstateof affairs.Could all the data of the past
be reliablystored,itwould mean theend of culturalmemory.For eventsto fitinto
the necessarilyconfinedspace of memory,decay and oblivionmustdo theirwork
of destructionand reduction.Withoutthe assistanceof these operators,cultural
memorywould be overchargedwiththe eventsof onlyone hour.28"Memoryand
Oblivion,"Carlylecontinues,"like Day and Night,and indeed like all other Con-
tractionsin thisstrangedualisticLife of ours, are necessaryfor each other'sex-
istence: Oblivion is the dark page, whereon Memorywritesher light-beamchar-
acters,and makes themlegible; were itall light,nothingcould be read there,any
more than ifitwere all darkness."29
According to Carlyle, memory,as well as historiography,is dependent on
forgetting.Carlyle'snotionsdisplaya remarkableshiftin the theoryof memory;
thistheoryis no longer based on inscriptionand storingbut on a dynamicmodel
of forgettingand contraction.As more and more data are registeredthrough
printmedia and ascertainedbynew modes of historicalerudition,culturalmem-
oryis redefinedand reconfigured.It is less and less constructedin termsof stable

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textsand normativetraditionsand more and more defined by effacement,de-
struction,and irretrievableloss. Moreover,the shiftfromtextsto traces signals
intothe media of culturalmemory.While textualsigns
the intrusionof forgetting
had contained the promise of a complete recoveryof past sense, materialtraces
could restore only "a miserable defectiveshred" of the magic web of the past.
Traces are signsin whichrememberingand forgettingare inextricablyencoded.
It is thisacknowledgmentof forgetting, builtinto traces,thatdisruptsthe conti-
nuityof past, present,and futureand estrangesthe past.

Letterand Litter,or,
Traces and Trash

Makinga daringleap fromthe nineteenthto the twentiethcentury,we

mightsay thatsome contemporarywriters,searchingfor authentictracesof the
past in a mass media culture,are discoveringthesein trash.Withthe development
of new technologiesand channelsof communication,writingis ceding itsposition
as the foremostmedium of communicationand culturaltransmission.
To be sure, the electronicmass media have only amplifiedcertaintrendsal-
ready visiblein earlierstagesof printculture.Swiftexposed the tendencytoward
restlessand recklessinnovation,describingitas a dialecticalprocessof production
and rubbishing.Yet he stillbelieved in the possibilityof speaking withthe dead
across the abyss of time, if such a contact could be guaranteed by a pact with
posterity.30In Thomas Pynchon'sdescriptionof a world organized and scanned
by the mass media, we look in vain forsimilarstructuresof culturalmemory.In
one respect,the differentsystemsof the mass media cultureand the totalitarian
stateconverge: both shutout the past and create an absolute present.In George
Orwell's scenario of a totalitarianworld,windowsand even the tiniestglimpses
into the past are blocked because theywould yield the vision of another reality
and undermine the absolute power of the present.In the world of mass media,
the consciousnessof a past silentlyevaporatesin the cyclesof continuousproduc-
tion and consumption.
The mass media world presented by Pynchonorganizes amnesia in the col-
lectiveimaginary.Togetherwithmemory,the sense of personal identityand the
sense of realityare lost.In TheCrying ofLot49, theheroinecollectshintsand traces
thatrevealto her,step-by-step, an alternativenetworkof W.A.S.T.E., an unofficial
counterculture-unpublicized, private,separate, and silent-outside the official
channelsof communication.Oedipa Maas facesthepredicamentof remembering
in a world of forgetting:"Shewasmeanttoremember. She faced thatpossibility....
She testedit,shivering:I am meant to remember."'3'Her situationis not too dif-
ferentfromthatof WinstonSmithtryingto recovera suppressed past. Both Oe-
dipa and Winston find in thingsdiscarded physicalcues to memory.Winston


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discoversa littleslip of paper here and a piece ofjunk therethathad escaped the
"memoryholes,"Orwell'subiquitoussitesofcontinuousdestruction.Oedipa Maas
discoversa piece of trash that to her becomes an emblem and a paradigm of
of thismattress
memory:the mattressof an old sailor.It is the "insatiablestuffing"
"thatcould keep vestigesof everynightmaresweat,helpless overflowing bladder,
viciously,tearfullyconsummatedwetdream,like the memorybank to a computer
of the lost."32In bodily traces-bones, sweat,secretsalts,the "stuffedmemory"
of an old mattress-Oedipa has her revelationof contactwithrealityat last. But
thiscontactis, at the same time,the momentof a recognitionof loss: thereis no
way of coding and restoringthe realityof human lives. With the disappearance
of the mattress,"the world would bear no furthertrace" of them: "the set of all
men who had slept on it,whatevertheirlives had been, would trulycease to be,
forever,when the mattressburned. She staredat itin wonder.It was as ifshe had
just discoveredthe irreversibleprocess."3
Is the past,as Pynchonsuggests,a foreigncountryto whichwe hold no pass-
ports? Has the magic of the letterbecome a historicaltrace scheduled itselfto
disappear? Perhaps contemporarycultureapproaches a statein which-just as in
JamesJoyce'splayfulunconsciousof language-remembering and forgettingare
no longer clearlydistinctfromeach other.Joyce,exploringthe unconscious side
of cultureand language, was fascinatedwiththisconflationof rememberingand
forgetting.In his playfullyrevolvinguniverseof language, he reminded us that
the word letter has a close kin,namely,litter.


1. Stephen Greenblatt,Shakespearean Negotiations(Berkeley,1988), 1.

2. Ernst H. Gombrich,AbyWarburg:Eine intellektuelle Biographie(Frankfurtam Main,
1981), 327. There are of course otherdifferencesbetweenGreenblattand Warburg.
For example, Greenblattis careful to emphasize that when he speaks of energy,he
speaks of it not in termsof physicsbut in termsof rhetoric,society,and history;War-
burg,on theotherhand, is deeplyaffectedbytheambitionof histimeto treatproblems
of culturein scientificterms.
3. PapyrusChesterBeattyIV, verso 3, 9-10; see Jan Assmann,SteinundZeit:Menschund
Gesellschaft (Munich, 1991), 177.
4. WilliamShakespeare,sonnet55, in TheComplete WorksofWilliamShakespeare,ed. Henry
N. Hudson (Boston, 1894), 20:117-18.
5. Shakespeare, sonnet63, in ibid., 122.
6. Shakespeare, sonnet65, in ibid., 123.
7. Shakespeare, sonnet55, in ibid., 117-18. See also sonnet81, in ibid., 131.
8. FrancisBacon, TheAdvancement ofLearning,1.8:6, in TheAdvancement ofLearningand
NewAtlantis, ed. Thomas Case (London, 1974), 70 (myemphasis).
9. Ibid., 70. 10. Ibid., 70. 11. Ibid., 74.
12. Elizabeth Eisenstein,"Clio and Chronos,"History and Theory5 (1966): 46-48.

Texts,Traces, Trash: The Changing Media of Cultural Memory 133

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13. Jakob Ayrer,Dramen,ed. Adelbertvon Keller (Stuttgart,1865), 1:4, quoted in Walter
Benjamin, Ursprungdes deutschenTrauerspiels (Frankfurtam Main, 1963), 153 (my
14. Hans-Georg Gadamer,Wahrheit undMethode:Grundzuge Hermeneu-
tik(Tubingen, 1960), 156 (mytranslation).
15. Shakespeare, sonnet55.
16. TheWorks ofJonathan Swift, Dublin,withNotes,and A Lifeofthe
D.D., Dean ofSt.Patrick's,
Author, byWalterScott,ESQ. (Edinburgh, 1814), 11:12.
17. Charles Lamb, "DistantCorrespondents"[1823], in TheEssaysofElia (London, 1894),
18. Ibid., 143.
19. Alexander Pope, "An Essay on Criticism"[1711], in D.J. Enright,Ernstde Chickera,
eds., EnglishCriticalTexts:Sixteenth
Century toTwentiethCentury (London, 1962), 117.
20. Lamb, "DistantCorrespondents,"143.
21. Edgar Allan Poe, "The Coliseum" [1833, 1845], in Complete WorksofEdgar Allan Poe,
ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1902), 7:56-57.
22. Ibid.
23. Non aliunde nobis certiusquam in nummisaut marmoribusantiquis praesidium oc-
currit.Nec certe ratio hic aut eventusfallit.Subsidia quippa reliqua, dubram semper
transcriptorumexemplariumfidem,haec autem sola primigeniamAutographorum
dignitatemprae se ferunt;Arnaldo Momigliano,"AncientHistoryand the Antiquar-
ian,"JournaloftheWarburg 13 (1950), 299.
and CourtauldInstitutes
24. "Cultural historyfor the most part relies on what sources and documents proclaim
unintentionallyand disinterestedly,even involuntarilyand unconsciously";Jakob
Burckhardt,Die KunstderBetrachtung: Aufsatzeund Vortrdge zur bildendenKunst,ed.
Henning Ritter(Cologne, 1984), 175.
25. Momigliano refersto this movementas "historicalPyrrhonism";"AncientHistory,"
26. Thomas Carlyle,"On HistoryAgain" [1833], in Criticaland MiscellaneousEssays(Lon-
don, 1899), 3:168.
27. Thomas Carlyle,"On History"[1830], in Criticaland Miscellaneous Essays,3:87.
28. Carlyle,"On HistoryAgain," 172.
29. Ibid., 173.
30. FriedrichNietzschedefinedfameas thebelief"in the communityand continuityof the
great of all times,"and as a "protestagainstthe change of dynastiesand general cor-
ruption."Werke in dreiBdnden,ed. Karl Schlechta(Munich, 1962), 1:221.
31. Thomas Pynchon,TheCryingofLot49 (Philadelphia, 1966), 118.
32. Ibid., 126. 33. Ibid., 128.


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