Tag Archives: memory

My Lost Art of Writing Electronic Mail

I was not an early adopter of email, or internet browsing in general. Like a lot of people of my generation — those of us who attended college in the early 90s — my first experience with email and the Internet occurred as a college student. The most tech savvy of my peers at the small art school I attended in Philadelphia were huddled around PC terminals, logging on to text-based MUDs or communicating with old high school friends on distant campuses via Telnet email. Although I had grown up around PCs in home and at school, at the time I was too preoccupied with some other version of life in which the analog tactility of spaces, objects, images, and sound consumed by life. I suppose that the black and green text-world of those early interfaces proved too opaque for a visual artist whose conservative art education gave little import to the coming digital revolution.

Soon enough, though, the GUI of Windows 95 and the oddly segmented Internet within its realm (eg. AOL’s “you’ve got mail!”) encroached on my world. This more accessible and graphical interface coincided with a greater number of my friends going online. (The language we used at that time is so awkward — “going online” — the image of Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Mnemonicdonning VR googles and gloves haunts me.) Finally for me, email began to make sense. I had always been a letter writer, and here was a much more immediate and equally gratifying medium of correspondence. Let me qualify “more immediate”: I would sit down at a desktop computer once or twice a day, boot it up, unplug the phone in order to plug the line into the computer modem, open the ISP software, dial up, and finally access the browser. The friends I exchanged email with did more or less the same with varying frequency — very much a “pull” technology; our brains had not yet been rewired to crave the dopamine rush of instant gratification that pings and vibrates in our pockets today, that incessant “push.”

My point of reference for this new communication, this electronic mail, was still the writing and sending of letters via the postal service. And that activity was essentially a literary one, a matter of crafting through careful language very precise expressions of ideas, imagery, emotion, and memory which were meant to affect the recipient. I carried this craft into the digital domain of email, ignorant of the intrinsic properties that we have come to value and loathe in the medium. Email had not yet become such a tool for coordinating daily routines, arranging meetings, and planning everything, much less the singular organizing and managerial force in our contemporary work lives. The choice of my first email address is telling for its overt bookishness: pursewarden@juno.com. Pursewarden is a second-tier character in Lawrence Durrell’s tetralogy, The Alexandria Quartet, books which loomed so large in my imaginative life at the time that I needed to roll them into my first online identity. I must have chosen Juno.com because it was a free email service, but I’ll claim the reference to classical mythology in support of the literary motif.

I unexpectedly recalled these early days with email while listening to an interview with Errol Morris on Reply All. The interview recounts Morris’ very personal investigation into the life of his brother, Noel Morris, a brilliant computer scientist who worked at MIT and invented the first electronic mail system there with his colleague, Tom Van Vleck. During a conversation with Van Vleck, we learn that when testing the system he would write whatever fragments came to mind: “I used to send scraps of poetry and stuff like that.

Scraps of poetry. It was that quick, inconsequential aside that pricked my memory. I, too, once sent scraps of poetry via email in those crafted messages of nearly two decades ago. I haven’t done that in a very long time. I wonder if it’s me who has changed, or if the medium has changed, or perhaps if my sense of possibility in the medium has just been so diminished by its profound banality. It doesn’t have to be that way. I could email you some scraps of poetry.

Loggias, Benjamin and Me

I recently discovered a remarkable (to me, anyway) connection between my past and the past of Walter Benjamin — or rather, my past as reconstructed in images drawn out of memory and Benjamin’s as recounted in a memoir (of images) of his childhood in Berlin. What we share is a vivid, vital, shadowy architectural space, one which looms somewhat significantly in my intellectual and creative evolution as it seems to anchor both a sense of loss and an aboriginal permanence in the early life of Benjamin the expatriate. Thinking back to his youth in the city of his birth, he writes in “Berlin Childhood around 1900” (excerpt available) of the loggia, that classically modeled transitional space wavering in between interior and exterior depending upon the relative push and pull of light and dark, warmth and coolness. Here, he remarks on the loggia as memory space:

In the years since I was a child, the loggias have changed less than other places. This is not the only reason they stay with me. It is much more on account of the solace that lies in their uninhabitability for one who himself no longer has a proper abode. They mark the outer limit of the Berliner’s lodging. Berlin — the city god itself — begins in them. The god remains such a presence there that nothing transitory can hold its ground beside him. In his safekeeping, space and time come into their own and find each other. Both of them lie at his feet here. The child who was once their confederate, however, dwells in his loggia, encompassed by this group, as in a mausoleum long intended just for him.

My explicit engagement with architecture and memory began with the above image of a loggia, sketched shortly after returning from a year abroad in Rome as an undergraduate. The loggia held a similar fascination for me as a very particular container of memory, a representation capable of describing the relationship between memory and architecture. (Albeit often suffused with nostalgia and romanticism; it became my task later to problematize such notions and investigate the politics of memory, both personal and collective.) This image led to the construction of other images of architecture — half-remembered, half-invented, part literary, part autobiographical, part who-knows-what — and then provoked me to enter grad school to actually study architecture and understand the role of memory in the practice and theory of architecture. In the preface to my master’s thesis — ostensibly about 20th century Italian architect Aldo Rossi — I recalled this potent remembered architectural image in order to begin an exploration of how we make meaning in the buildings and spaces we inhabit:

Later, there was a time when architecture happened to me and I became conscious of its happening.  I remember it.  I remembered it.  Meaning, I first became conscious of architecture happening to me as it happened to me in my memory.  Meaning, the architecture was just an image, but an image of such profound significance that it single-handedly provoked me to embark on what can only be called my “life’s work” — meaning architecture.  Meaning meaning.  Meaning building.  Meaning building.  Building meaning.  Making meaning out of the memory of architecture.

Curiously, I first noticed architecture as it appeared to me in an image, as a brief flash in my memory.  I was a painter; I quickly drew it on paper.  Where did it come from?  It was familiar yet vague; it was the place I had never been but revisited everyday for the past year.  Some ancient loggia in Italy — in Cinque Terre, by the sea? or in Rome, on the bank of the Tiber?  (The previous year, I had lived in Rome and studied art and art history.)  I became obsessed with the image.  I made paintings about it, returning to it, exploring it (at this time I was working in a dingy studio in the midst of a very cold and gray Philadelphia winter).

It’s satisfying to me to unexpectedly share the loggia with Benjamin in this way. Like most young art students, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” was one of my earliest introductions to art theory in general and critical theory in particular (I serve it up to my undergraduate students as well). I’ve found solace and inspiration in the richness of his multivalent reveries; I’ve wandered the streets of Berlin with his words and ideas supporting my own thoughts; I’ve imagined the stalls of Les Halles while thumbing the pages of his Arcades Project; I’ve wrestled with his political philosophy. This latest reengagement with Benjamin is borne of a current video project dealing with the structure of memory and a summer spent in Berlin and small recorded fragments of everyday life, and I find that his words say more effectively the things that I am thinking:

Language shows clearly that memory in not an instrument for exploring the past but its theater. It is the medium of past experience, as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging. This confers the tone and bearing of genuine reminiscences. He must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. […] (from “A Berlin Chronicle”)