The “Techne” of Memory: Conversations on How Memory is Brought Forth


The mind/body divide has been elemental in philosophers’ and scientists’ debates about human consciousness and behavior. How the mind works and the brain functions are intertwined, yet contradictory. The material world has attempted to bridge this divide with technological supplements and prostheses to brain function. The confrontations between mind and body, as well as the intervention of technology, is nowhere better illustrated than in memory. While scientists and philosophers have generally drawn strict boundaries between the function and form of memory, technology has provided new criteria for their delineation. By exploring this frontier, alternative interpretations of the “technology” of memory can be formed, based not only on theoretical areas of synthesis between the mind/brain dichotomy, but also the conceptual world of the virtual.

The Debate Between Form and Function

Memory’s residence between science and the humanities is well illuminated in exchanges between neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux and philosopher Paul Ricoeur in What Makes Us Think?. While often inherently disagreeing with Changeux, Ricoeur finds accord on the subject of memory: “The case of memory is particularly favorable to the continuation of our discussion. Phenomenology,” Ricoeur’s approach to philosophical reasoning, “and the neurosciences are in agreement, in fact, with regard to description [of memory] while diverging with regard to interpretation” (141).

The two have a fundamental consensus about what could be considered the form of memory, interpreted by Ricoeur as the ability to retain, which he compares to Changeux’s explication of short term memory, and the ability to remember, affiliated with long term memory (143). In a broad definition of memory, an individual is able to retain information through past experience and to recall that information in the present, whether consciously, through physical action, or by habit. Ricoeur and Changeux differ, however, in how to reconcile the functional and measurable aspects of memory with the feelings and actions associated with all forms of recollection.

Their disparate theories expose deep rifts between the humanities and the sciences in regards to memory. For Changeux, memory is primarily an utilitarian apparatus. Through “brain imaging” (139), he exposes where and how long and short term memories are sustained and recalled within the synapses. Focusing on memory’s functionality, he stresses not only the biological mechanisms of memory’s retention and recollection, but also qualifies memory using technical terms, such as “encoding, storage, and recall” (Changeux and Ricoeur 150).

Changeux underscores the ability of science to discern the complexities of remembering: “The neurosciences provide a definite basis for asserting a connection between the memorized cognitive representation, the knowledge trace, and the emotional trace associated with this knowledge” (141). At the same time, the scientist acknowledges the important role that phenomenology and philosophy can play within the context of understanding the ambiguous topic of memory.

The memory trace, or “evoked memories… laid down by perceptual experience” (Changeux and Ricoeur 317n28), implanted and retained within the synapses, becomes one of the centerpieces of the debate between Changeux and Ricoeur. Ultimately, for Changeux, more research is requisite into the functions of memory. “The neuronal inscription of memory traces is thus clear. Much nevertheless remains to be done in order to decipher these synaptic hieroglyphs” (141).

Ricoeur is more reserved about memory’s relationship to the sciences. While seeing a natural fit in the study of dysfunctions associated with memory, Ricoeur states that “the use of such knowledge as a practical matter seems to me more problematic, indeed irrelevant, in the case of felicitous memory” (146). He fears a constriction in the scope of memory’s definition. Particularly as the means by which to deal with the traces of memory recalled (148), Ricoeur wonders whether the entire past can actually be found within the biological trace of the memory. He expresses this apprehension by comparing such traces to the “concentric circles of a tree,” (149) which are only physical demarcations of the past.

Ricoeur instead favors an expansive understanding of memory that embraces examples taken from the personal bodily experience to those created and mediated by culture. He draws distinctions between pure memory and habit, spontaneous and deliberate memory and the memory of oneself, particularly of the body and the other (Changeux and Ricoeur 144). He even extends memory to the cultural sphere, asserting that “[i]n the case of the most memorable events, these places are ‘marked’ by collective memory, as a result of which the events linked to them are made memorable” (Changeux and Ricoeur 145).

For Ricoeur, the greatest mystery is the certainty with which memories are believed: “This doesn’t prevent us from expecting our memories to be trustworthy, and our memory faithful to what has actually taken place… As untrustworthy as a memory may be, it is all we have to assure ourselves that something previously took place” (146). It is this enigma, along with his expansive and amorphous definition, that comprises the humanities’ stance. Ricoeur insists that it is not just information and its recollection that influences memory, but also the body, the phenomenal aspect of memory: “Memory keeps the phenomenal (and no longer merely material) trace of this initial passivity – an experienced trace of attention, of being, affected by the event” (150).

Cybernetics and Technology

Etched within this debate of memory is the role of technology, from the brain imaging cited by Changeux to the technology of language, art and drawing, what Ricoeur refers to as “material support distinct from the body” or “distinct mechanisms of long-term memory” (152).

The techniques and technologies used to measure human behavior and the potential conflicts that arise from such practices plagued the Macy Conferences, which came to define the cybernetics movement. Specifically, according to Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s analysis of the conferences’ events, divergent methodologies, including the humanities, sciences and social sciences, contributed to the conferences’ contention. At one point, Dupuy mentions memory explicitly in a dispute about behavior, when Arturo Rosenblueth attacked a presentation by Herbert Birch. As Dupuy describes it: “Rosenblueth exploded. These distinctions, he said in effect, are meaningless: they rely on certain notions – intelligence, consciousness, memory, learning, anticipation, intentionality, content – that refer to what goes on in the mind of individual beings and, being inherently unmeasurable, do not pertain in the least to the problem of communication” (Dupuy 48).

Cyberneticians ultimately adopted technology as a means of constructing a potential framework for human communication and behavior. Part of this structure was functionalized memory, along with other aspects of thinking and consciousness. As Norbert Wiener, one of the founders of cybernetics, states in discussing the relationship between communication and action: “A complex action is one in which the data introduced, which we call the input, to obtain an effect on the outer world, which we call the output, may involve a large number of combinations. These are combinations, both of the data put in at the moment and of the records taken from the past stored data which we call the memory” (23). Wiener continues to portray memory through both individual and evolutionary development, attempting to decipher how memory in different animals is retained throughout their maturation: “The biological individuality of an organism seems to lie in a certain continuity of process, and in the memory by the organism of the effects of its past development. This appears to hold also of its mental development. In terms of the computing machine, the individuality of a mind lies in the retention of its earlier tapings and memories, and in its continued development along lines already laid out” (101).

Wiener drew inspiration from Vannevar Bush, whose Memex machines supplemented the process of memory explicitly. As Bush describes: “Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, ‘memex’ will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory” (198).

Bush’s theoretical Memex is important because it details brain function implicitly. Bush segregates the functions of the brain into storage, enabling the Memex to house almost infinite information (208), and logic, enabling the machine to make tangible connections between points of storage within the brain. Bush writes: “This is the heart of the machine, for, where the brain reasons and ponders, searching its memory as it does so, the process it employs is this identical one of following trails of association” (166).

Ultimately, Bush’s conception of memory’s transmission and reception of information adheres to that of Wiener in terms of functionality. Bush envisions the Memex as “[g]oing beyond the extension and ordering of man’s memory, it can also touch those subtle processes of the mind, its logical and rational processes, its ability to form judgments in the presence of incomplete and contradictory data, as these become facilitated by better memory. The machine’s primary service lies primarily in extending the mass of recollection, and in rendering this explicit rather than vague” (168). Part of this reasoning stems from a general set of assumptions about the mind itself: “It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of ideas, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. The mind has other characteristics, of course: trails not frequently followed are apt to fade; few items are fully permanent; memory is transitory.” (198).

This is a theoretical progenitor to Changeux, who by contrast conceives of the activity of memory recall as biologically based on the “number and topology of synaptic connections as on their efficiency in transmitting nerve signals” (141).

By perceiving memory in terms of information reception and storage in which technology can overcome the mind’s imperfections, Changeux, Bush and Wiener provide the foundation for allowing technology to play an integral role in facilitating the memory process. At the same time, this information model excludes aspects of the practice of memory, such as the phenomenological, bodily and cultural experiences cited by Ricoeur.

For Bush, technology is not merely a supplement, but can be instrumental in altering the way people remember. “This, in turn, remolds the trails of the user’s brain, as one lives and works in close interconnection with a machine of scanned records and transistors. For the trails of the machine become duplicated in the brain of the user, vaguely as all human memory is vague, but with a concomitant emphasis by repetition, creation and discard, refinement, as the cells of the brain become realigned and reconnected, better to utilize the massive explicit memory [the Memex] which is its servant.” (Bush 178).

It is worth noting that for the theoretician, memory could be encoded similarly, if not perfectly, to that of the machine. Bush imagines that this development would lead to further advances on a cultural level. “He [humanity] has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment in its proper paths and not become bogged down when partway home by having overtaxed his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important” (Bush 215).

The relationship of technology to memory, according to Bush, is not completely removed from that of Ricoeur. Rather, by distinguishing memory as a set of functional processes which can be supplemented and improved by the Memex, Bush desires to effect changes in ways of thinking, which will have repercussions on the very notions of what Ricoeur considers as memory. This more complicated relationship between technology and philosophy is further elucidated by Changeux’s reflections of “cultural inscription” which he considers shared memory: “Inscriptions in stone, clay, wood, papyrus or paper, and now on magnetic computer disks constitute so many prostheses, as it were, of cerebral memory – prostheses that are remarkable for being more stable than cerebral memory and transmissible from generation to generation” (152). Changeux concludes his discussion of memory prostheses by positing them as a means of explaining not only learning, but also sharing and even mimesis.

It is Bush’s ultimate goal that the use of the Memex would supplement the arts and society by offering new means of cultural inscription. “His memory is severely taxed, and much of his time is consumed in labor that does not call on his true skills. He ought to be able to turn to a machine with a specification of a compound, in terms of either its form or its properties, and have it immediately before him with all that is known about it” (Bush 214). What remains unresolved within Bush’s conception of memory is the ineffability of memory as a process. The production of memories and memory experience would be only supplemented by the logical functions of the Memex.

Technology’s Relationship With Human Consciousness: Fears and Metaphors

The conceptualization of memory through technology, by contrast, has wrought apprehension among various scholars. Particularly, Friedrich Kittler is wary of significant changes to the ways humans remember through machines. Kittler traces different forms of machinic prostheses: “Machines conquer functions of the central nervous system, not merely the muscular system as they did previously. And it is only then – not yet with the steam engine and railroad – that we have a clean division between matter and information, between the real and the symbolic” (46).

Granting such functionality to machines comes at a cost: “In order to optimize writing for machines, it must no longer be dreamt of as an expression of individuals or as a ‘trace of bodies.’ The forms, differences and frequencies of letters have to be reduced to formulas. So-called man becomes physiology on the one hand and information technology on the other” (46). His most stirring arguments occur with the potential loss of creativity: “[a]s soon as optical and acoustical data can be put into some kind of media storage, people no longer need their memory. Its ‘liberation’ is its end. As long as the book had to take care of all serial data flows, however, words trembled with sensuality and memory. All the passion of reading consisted of hallucinating a meaning between letters and lines: the visible or audible world of romantic poetry” (Kittler 39). For Kittler, the word of the digital is “incredibly primitive” (48) and a “cypher not a sense” (48). It is this rudimentary language which inhabits modern information technologies.

From Kittler’s perspective, the software utilized by digital media, furthermore, does not facilitate mining the depth of human knowledge. Memory is in some ways incommensurable with such elementary language, which Kittler exemplifies by highlighting what is lost in poetry after the advent of recording technologies: “Then even Homer’s rosy-fingered Eos is transformed from a goddess into a piece of chrome dioxide, which used to be stored in the memory of those rhapsodists and could be combined with other pieces into whole epics. Primal orality or oral history are technological shadows of the apparatuses which they can document, only, however, after the end of the writing monopoly” (36).

Kittler’s opinion is echoed by Daniel Dennett, who insists that the computer brain and human brain differ in self-perception: “The von Neumann machine,” Dennett’s term for the modern digital computer and its predecessors, “by being wired up from the outset that way, with maximally efficient information links, didn’t have to become the object of its own elaborate perceptual systems” (224), though both computer and human systems have been utilized for far-reaching and unexpected purposes. For Dennett, technology and, specifically writing, aided human consciousness, which had to be “self-organizing and self-correcting,” as well as “context sensitive” (220). Writing not only allowed for common transmission, but sustained the type of consciousness humans possess, what he calls the “virtual machine,” which “can exist only in an environment that has not just language and social interaction, but writing and diagramming as well, simply because the demands on memory and pattern recognition for its implementation require the brain to ‘off-load’ some of its memories into buffers in the environment” (Dennett 220).

Dennett also provides a corollary and potential response to Bush’s notions of storage and logic, bridging the gap between the inventor and Kittler. Drawing on artificial intelligence research, Dennett evokes the pragmatic theorems of retention and storage of memory, in which there is working memory, analogous to Changeux’s conception, as well as an “inert memory” (Dennett 266) in which thoughts are stored. Dennett insists that, through a series of actions and conflict resolutions (265), consciousness can be shaped. He introduces a more nuanced form of memory storage and recall, in which working memory is aided by production memory, which matches potential unknowns with known memory, and declarative memory, used for more direct storage and retrieval.

However, a conception of memory based upon artificial intelligence is, as Dennett admits, overly simplistic, and is only a “sketch” (267) of a wider understanding of consciousness. While the functional aspects surrounding memory are codified into Dennett’s system, the actual functions within that system are unclear. Such a model does not explain the memory phenomena described by Ricoeur, nor his desire to “escape the connection between memory and language” (145) or more broadly, the desire to no longer imagine memory in terms of information.

While Dennett supplies an incomplete rendition of human consciousness through technology, Kittler’s unease about the impact of technology seems equally amorphous and unfounded. His worry that “everything goes from the analogous machine to the discrete,” while theoretically provocative, does not actually address the workings of the mind.

Lydia Liu, in The Freudian Robot, articulates the relationship between the human psyche and technology in a decidedly different, though related way: “It is one thing to argue that the memory capacity of the human brain can be greatly extended by the increased power of a microchip computer and quite another to argue that the logic of the computer-and communication networks in general-is the same as the logic of the human psyche itself” (loc. 149).

Liu’s analysis suggests caution in characterizing the human purely in terms of functionality, as well as information, what Martin Heidegger in “The Question Concerning Technology” regards as the standing-reserve: “Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering” (Heidegger 17). While Heidegger, who was underlining the a priori state of thinking technologically, instills the fact that man “drives technology forward” (18), Liu advances this doctrine, applying such technological thinking to man: “The essence of technology lies not in instrumental productions or manipulation of material, but in the process of a special kind of knowing through the techne. If the computer or a robot is made to mimic ‘thinking’ at the unconscious level, does it mean that the techne of the unconscious is bringing out the essence of digital media in a guise people generally fail to recognize?” (loc. 402).[1]

The “Techne” of Memory

Liu and Heidegger’s comments expose the superficiality of the conflict between the function and form of memory. The divide appears to be due not only to the anomalous definition of memory itself, but also beliefs about its place in defining human existence. As Liu states, in describing the work of artificial intelligence expert Marvin Minsky, “it [artificial intelligence] raises fundamental philosophical issues about cognition, memory, reflexivity, consciousness, and so on. For example, what makes human beings unique or not so unique? Or what is it that makes robots endearing or uncanny to humans?” (loc. 2812). How memories are created, and their greater function, is part of what defines the human and remains elusive.

While technology is able to impart a procedural understanding of memory functions, or at least the perceived functions of memory, it does not provide the means by which to understand the techne or “bringing-forth” (Heidegger 13) of memory itself. Liu elevates the Heideggerian concept of techne to the unconscious: “The techne of the unconscious here means the scientific, social, and political framings of the ineffable mental processes” (Liu loc. 396). When the bringing-forth of memory is described as techne, rather than as function or form, a fundamental disparity is revealed between the procedural understanding of memory cited by the scientific world and the more experiential understanding of memory advocated by Ricoeur and Kittler. While the authors tend to conceive how memories might theoretically be produced on the one hand and their effect on the individual and society on the other, how the memory comes into being in the conscious itself remains absent.

Also evident is that technology can assist in comprehending the creation of these memories. This can be seen in the contentions of Bush, Wiener and Changeux, who espouse the prosthetic relationship of memory and technology, as well as the informatic, and who invoke technology to reflect on human weaknesses like retention, logic and recall. However, as Liu suggests, technology can also provide a metaphorical connection to the workings of memory construction. Dennett applies this metaphor to consciousness itself: “Conscious human minds are more-or-less serial virtual machines implemented – inefficiently – on parallel hardware that evolution has provided for us” (218). Dennett’s comment is particularly informative, in that the metaphor binds the “hardware” of memory retention with the virtual “software” of what appears to be, self-consciously, remembered.

This idea can be applied culturally as well. As Changeux and Dennett imply, the act of sharing memories can advance culture. “What seems to me important is the notion of sharing and cultural inscription,” writes Changeux. “The two elements can’t be separated, for cultural representations are intended to be shared, not only at a given moment in a particular community, but across generations as well” (152). By incorporating the processes by which memory could be retained and expanded, the models proffered by Bush and Dennett begin to hint at a techne of memory, or an understanding of how memory is brought into being on both an individual and cultural level.

Memory and the Virtual

In Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze investigates the processes of memory development within the framework of consciousness. Looking at memory as repetition, he, like others, dissects memory into two modes based on active and passive synthesis of thought. These formulate what he regards as habit and memory:

We have seen how memory, as a derived active synthesis, depended upon habit… But this does not tell us what constitutes memory. At the moment when it grounds itself upon habit, memory must be grounded by another passive synthesis distinct from that of habit. The passive synthesis of habit in turn refers to this more profound passive synthesis of memory… Habit is the originary synthesis of time, which constitutes the life of the passing present; Memory is the fundamental synthesis of time which constitutes the being of the past (that which causes the present to pass) (Deleuze 79).

Deleuze identifies different forms of memory in order to understand time. While habit may provide the foundational understanding of time, memory is a kind of synthesis which orients the individual to the past. Ricoeur similarly distinguishes between habit and what he calls pure memory. He adds: “The phenomenon of recognition,” certainly a type of memory synthesis “is itself very interesting, in the sense that the remembered past and present moment of recall overlap without being identical: the past is not known, but re-known, as it were recognized” (Changeux and Ricoeur 144).

Deleuze’s theories appear congruent with those of Ricoeur, especially when he describes the active synthesis of memory, which “may be regarded as the principle of representation under this double aspect: reproduction of the former present and reflection of the present present. This active synthesis of memory is founded upon the passive synthesis of habit, since the latter constitutes the general possibility of any present” (Deleuze 81). However, for Deleuze, the movement of the past into present creates a significant complication:

The passive synthesis of habit constituted time as a contraction of instants with respect to a present, but the active synthesis of memory constitutes it as the embedding of presents themselves. The whole problem is: with respect to what? It is with respect to the pure element of the past, understood as the past in general, as an a priori past, that a given former present is reproducible and the present present is able to reflect itself. Far from being derived from the present or from representation, the past is presupposed by every representation. In this sense, the active synthesis of memory may well be founded upon the (empirical) passive synthesis of habit, but on the other hand it can be grounded only by another (transcendental) passive synthesis which is peculiar to memory itself. Whereas the passive synthesis of habit constitutes the living present in time and makes the past and the future two asymmetrical elements of that present, the passive synthesis of memory constitutes the pure past in time, and makes the former and the present present (thus the present in reproduction, and the future in reflection) two asymmetrical elements of this past as such (81).

Deleuze’s analysis infuses new temporal elements and functions into the process of bringing forth memories into being. Not only does the act of remembering become bifurcated into a synthesis of habit and a recognition of the past, but by acknowledging a “transcendental” or a priori past into such synthesis, the ineffable enters the memory process, as he describes it, the “pure.”

Deleuze augments this conceptual model with the virtual as a means of addressing the act of thinking:

Virtual objects belong essentially to the past. In Matter and Memory, Bergson proposed the schema of a world with two centres, one real and the other virtual, from which emanate on the one hand a series of ‘perception-images’, and on the other a series of ‘memory-images’, the two series collaborating in an endless circuit. The virtual object is not a former present, since the quality of the present and the modality of its passing here affect exclusively the series of’ the real as this is constituted by active synthesis. However, the pure past as it was defined above does qualify the virtual object; that is, the past as contemporaneous with its own present, as pre-existing the passing present and as that which causes the present to pass. Virtual objects are shreds of pure past (101).

Composed of some recollection of the present experience, the virtual object can never be the present. Instead, it is partially formed from the past. Deleuze’s philosophical approach is “rhizomatic,” preferring a non-hierarchical means of establishing the ways individuals think. As a consequence, in his description of virtual objects, the pure memory does not supersede or transcend the hierarchy of thought, but rather exists in an interplay within it. The past and present would not vie for importance. Furthermore, the virtual object presents a new device through which to analyze the functional aspects of memory development.

Not only are virtual objects an intermediary in explaining the differences between what Ricoeur calls “habit” and the “pure memory” in which an individual recalls a “nonrepeatable event that occurred once in the past” (144), but they also bring new meaning to Dennett’s interpretation of consciousness as a virtual machine. Through the virtual, Dennett is able to eschew the dichotomy of mind and brain: “[The virtual machine’s] successful installation [into the mind] is determined by myriad microsettings in the plasticity of the brain, which means that its functionally important features are very likely to be invisible to neuroanatomical scrutiny in spite of the extreme salience of the effects” (Dennett 219).

The virtual also provides humans with an illusory conception of what appears to be real, according to Dennett, akin to a computer “operating system.” This “illusion” is part of what makes the act of retrieving a transcendental past seem pure: “the idea of the user illusion of a virtual machine is tantalizingly suggestive: If consciousness is a virtual machine, who is the user for whom the user illusion works?” (Dennett 219). Dennett even makes an analogy between human and computer storage by means of the virtual: “Also, of course, the plasticity that somehow subserves memory in a brain is not isolated as a passive storehouse; the division of labor between memory and CPU is an artifact for which there is no analogue in the brain…” (219).

Mark C. Taylor, in Confidence Games, also stretches the virtual beyond the philosophical into larger cultural landscapes, providing a context for Ricoeur’s desire for an explanation of cultural memory. Taylor’s suppositions about memory emerge from a complex virtual network. While his focus is primarily economic exchange and religion, his notion of the past aligns with Deleuze’s description: “The past not only conditions the future but the future also influences the past. The past, after all, exists only in our memory of it. This memory is not set in stone, but is constantly revised in the light of changing expectations” (Taylor 278). For Taylor, the virtual also derives from this interchange of “human and machinic agents whose knowledge is always mistaken and memories as well as expectations are inescapably incomplete” (295). Taylor imagines this interchange as a vast network of relationships, placing the virtual on the societal, and not only the individual level.

Taylor puts the virtual in dialogue with the concept of redemption, which is replaced by uncertainty and insecurity of what may emanate from the societal network because all being exists and emerges from within that network rather than from an omnipotent force. His definition of the virtual bears this uncertainty: “Always betwixt and between, it is neither imminent nor transcendent, neither here and now nor elsewhere and beyond. Since the virtual is never present as such, it cannot be represented but can only be traced in its aftereffects” (322). The virtual not only affirms the techne of memory, but also expresses the ineffable, being either “pure” to Deleuze or “spectral” to Taylor (323). In both cases, the virtual is connected with the representative.

Taylor’s virtual is also related to what he deems the current state of currency within global society. Currency has become increasingly virtual, a set of floating signifiers, though always “a reification of the general form of existence according to which things derive their significance from their relationship to each other” (Taylor 112). This idea of symbolic value derives in part from Lacanian psychoanalysis (p. 357n12).

According to Taylor’s reading of Lacan, signs are primarily “arbitrary” (Taylor 48) codes for the way people communicate, literally forcing thoughts through the arbitrary structures of language (49). Taylor also calls signs “synchronic forms” (49) which are essential, a kind of “pure,” and based on binary oppositions. Lacan sets a different path for navigating the past, where memories are constructed from relational symbols, which are synchronic and, therefore, pure in some ways. The memories are shaped by the architecture and infrastructure of the mind, which is itself ordered by sets of symbolic code. Lacan lays not only the symbolic underpinning for understanding functions of brain, but specifically of memory states: “… we can find in the ordered chains of a formal language the entire appearance of remembering… I will therefore go so far as to say that the burden of proof rests, rather, with those who argue that the constitutive order of the symbolic does not suffice to explain everything here” (Lacan 31).”

The Symbolic and the Technology of Language

Lacan links the virtual and the symbolic. The virtual object is a kind of symbolic representation of the past. Similarly, the pure past can be seen as inherently symbolic. Still, while incorporated into the body, virtual objects can be additionally assimilated “into ‘very special objects such as toys or fetishes’ (101), but are not ‘integrated’ (101) with the object, according to Deleuze. Instead, the virtual object is ‘stuck there’ (101)” (Foxman) unable to join the material object. A fissure is created between the virtual object and the real (Foxman), but the real object is endowed with symbolic meaning. From this perspective, the virtual exhibits the true value of material objects to memory, which can easily be extended to technological objects as well.

Technology has the potential for realizing the symbolic within the human construction of memory. This is revealed in commentary on the value of language, particularly the written word, another form of technology in and of itself. Seen as storage technology, rather than solely as a means of communication, language enables the articulation of “memory” afforded by Wiener in discussing “complex actions.” Wiener even alleges the symbolic as a key feature for human development and memory: “Yet even the most vocal members of the sub-human world fail to compete with man in ease of giving significance to new sounds, in repertory of sounds carrying a specific codification in extent of linguistic memory, and above all in the ability to form symbols for relations, classes, and other entities, of Russell’s ‘higher logical type’” (75).

The ability to discern symbols and to retain the knowledge of that symbolic structure distinguishes humans from other creatures. Memory and language, furthermore, relate well to Liu’s ideogram: “Ideography here defines a mode of abstraction that addresses the conceptual, spatial, and modular (or systematic) aspects of the material sign, whether written, printed, deaf-mute, indexical, numerical, optical, etc.” (Liu loc. 441). Liu categorizes the alphabet, within the digital age, as turning toward ideography. Significant to her, as well as to Taylor and Lacan, is that the ideogram is relational: “The answer is that mere abstraction will not suffice, because ideographs are modular and exist in a system of other equivalent signs whose combination is governed by semiotic rules” (Liu loc. 447). Such ideography is programmed into modern digital technology, which then can create potential signs associated with memories. They can even be regarded as kinds of virtual objects in and of themselves.

If symbols within technological forms promote a kind of virtual object, then even written \]language itself becomes a purveyor of the virtual. Hence, Ricoeur’s desire to see the phenomenological removed from the symbolic technology known as language is fundamentally flawed. This idea is further explored by MR Bennett and PMS Hacker in Philosphical Foundations of Neuroscience. Bennett and Hacker, emphasize that the act of recalling a memory is not a representation, but rather a “verbal expression of what is remembered.” (Bennett and Hacker 166) However, they retain what might be considered an ideographic understanding of how the stored memory is not “remembered,” but could be “an inscription, which expresses what is remembered or a picture which represents what was experienced” (Bennett and Hacker 166). Such a representation is not literal and may involve “no mental imagery” (Bennett and Hacker 168). What can be concluded from their analysis is that the recall of memory can be symbolic without necessarily having the symbols resemble those in the real world.

Language provides an interesting intermediary between the wholly symbolic and the representative because of its basic need for understanding and interpretation. Language as a technology also provides the components by which scientists have come to define the functional process of memory: namely, the ability to store and logically order thought. In this way, technology can transcend and iterate the form and function of language.

Perhaps nowhere is this idea of language as the virtual object of memory better articulated than in critiques of James Joyce. Dennett associates Joyce’s stream of conscious with digital technology, and equates this literary technique to the operating systems of the von Neumann machine (Dennett 214). However, Jacques Derrida and Donald Theall appraise Joyce more directly. Derrida elicits a visceral response from reading Joyce. Citing Finnegan’s Wake, Derrida writes: “You’re not only overcome by him,whether you know it or not, but obliged by him, and constrained to measure yourself against this overcoming. Being in memory of him: not necessarily to remember him, no, but to be in his memory, to inhabit his memory, which is henceforth greater than all your finite memory can, in a single instant or a single vocable, gather up of cultures, languages, mythologies, religions, philosophies, sciences, history of mind and of literatures” (Derrida 147).

Broaching the poetic, the idea of embodying the memories of Joyce through his wordplay is evocative, reminiscent of the very concerns earlier noted by Kittler. By contrast, Theall draws out the theoretical aspects of Joyce’s experiments with language in order to further display its effect on memory on a cultural scale: “The etym, Joyce’s imaginary unit for the true source of a word in historic terms, and the atom, as the basic unit of matter until 1931 when the possibility of atom smashing arose‚ are based on a conception of assemblages of different bits… For Joyce, TV’s annihilating the etym alters the relationship of memory with the root language. Since the etym does not completely disappear, the process is an ab-nihilisation, not actually a destruction” (Theall 149). Joyce is a paradigm for the relationship between technology and memory, and that different technologies, as a means of creating memory, can change the symbolic relationship between individuals and their perceived understanding of the past.

In terms of the virtual, Dennett posits a theory of the importance of writing, regarding it a vital tool that “in the development and elaboration of the virtual machines most of us run most of the time in our brains.” He adds, “the virtual machine that I am talking about can exist only in an environment that has not just language and social interaction, but writing and diagramming as well” (Dennett 220). Dennett’s own conceptions of language is that it provides a way to “share software” (220) between roughly biologically similar pieces of hardware ie humans. As I have written elsewhere, “The virtual object appears to be, according to Deleuze, a means by which to traverse, evaluate and extend the goals to other objects, as he illustrates by the child opening a book, even if he can’t read. However, the conjuring of this action is still of the body, while concurrently an external object. This leads Deleuze to define the object as a ‘partial object’ (100)” (Foxman). Language can be seen then as a partial object of memory itself, as well as a means by which to share that memory with others. However, as a technology, it alters the very way by which those memories can be conveyed. Furthermore, as the technology of language is transformed by other technologies, from television to the world wide web, language and its relationship to memory are further affected in unexpected and still widely unknown ways.


Through an analysis of the virtual and the symbolic, a model of memory begins to materialize that transcends the strict confines of both Changeux and Ricoeur. While functional memory is important, it doesn’t probe the techne of memory, which derives from the virtual, consciously beyond the functional processes of living. The reason for memory’s ethereal and ill-defined quality may be attributed to it being embedded within the symbolic, and made tangible when acquiring symbolic meaning and when accessed by technology. The means by which memory is stored are also diverse, ranging from technologies like language to other forms of ideography, whose importance is only discerned in connection to the activity of recollecting. Technology and its relationship to memory is less relevant as a prosthesis or even measurement of the process of memory, since memory itself appears to have traces of technology within it. Rather than being separate from the bringing-forth or crafting that is known as techne, the very act of exercising memory becomes the manifestation of the techne and the technological within us all.

Works Cited

Bennett, M. R., and P. M. S. Hacker. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Bush, Vannevar “Memex II” and “Memex Revisited.” James M. Nyce and Paul Kahn, eds.From Memex To Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind’s Machine. Eds.. Boston:Academic Press, 1991.

Changeux, Jean-Pierre, and Paul Ricoeur. What Makes Us Think?: A Neuroscientist and a Philosopher Argue about Ethics, Human Nature, and the Brain. Trans. M. B. DeBevoise. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002, Chap. 1-7.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. New York: Back Bay Books, 1992, 21-42.

Derrida, Jacques. “Two Words for Joyce.” Post-Structuralist Joyce: Essays from the French. Ed. Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 145–59.

Dupuy, Jean-Pierre. The Mechanization of the Mind: On the Origins of Cognitive Science. Trans. M. B. DeBevoise. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Foxman, Maxwell. “Virtual Objects | The Digital in the Humanities.” The Digital in the Humanities 1 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Lacan, Jacques. “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’.” Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. 1st ed. Trans. Bruce Fink. W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. Print.

Liu, Lydia H. The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Kindle Edition

Taylor, Mark C. Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World without Redemption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Theall, Donald F. “The Hieroglyphs of Engined Egypsians: Machines, Media and Modes of Communication,” In Joyce Studies Annual 1991, edited by Thomas F. Staley, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991, pp.129–76.

Wiener, Norbert. The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1954. Kindle Edition.

[1] Here techne, as Heidegger states, “reveals whatever does not bring itself forth and does yet lie here before us, whatever can look and turn out now one way and now another” (13).

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