- Memory, Orality, Literacy, Joyce, and the Imaginary: A Virtual History of Cyberculture
What might more properly be referred to by a more prosaic term such as “the digimediatrix” or “the digi-infomatrix” has through the poetic magic of William Gibson come to be known as “cyberspace.” And by the same token, the new cultural formations that are emerging from this amalgam of telecommunication, digital computing, information storage, and the merging of media are now denominated “cyberculture.” The standard approach to these new cultural formations is to examine them as if they represented a radical, near absolute break with the past by which we are moving beyond history. Whether pessimistic, enthusiastic, theoretic, or critical, most commentators place primary stress on the uniqueness and radical newness of the contemporary experience. With a few remarkable exceptions, academic historians, literary critics, and linguists have produced accounts of “hypertext” and “hypermedia” which are keyed almost entirely to the present. They have given us a view of some fundamental transformations in our understanding of the act of reading and the nature of the material text, but have failed to discover the ways that the cyberculture is shaped by critical moments of our remote as well as our more recent history.
In this situation, Memory Trade: A Pre-History of Cyberculture written by Darren Tofts, Chair of English and Media Studies at Swinburne University of Technology, and illustrated by the Award-winning digital artist Murray McKeich from the Department of Creative Media at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, is a major contribution to the current debate. This is an elaborate, complex, and yet compact book which is as remarkable for its splendidly satiric, posthuman illustrations and its high-quality production as for its intellectual and perceptual richness and the intensity of its writing. In a short review it is only possible to sketch the main points of Tofts’s analysis and critique of cyberculture, and to indicate a few of the pre-histories of the cyberworld that he proposes in his attempt to situate our cultural moment within a problematic of permanence and change. I will try to give a sense of the book’s broad contours, particularly as they relate to Tofts’s conclusions regarding the role of machines, memory, literacy, and writing in cyberculture. Special emphasis will be placed on Memory Trade’s last chapter, which offers an important discussion of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as a work which, published on the eve of World War II, helped to accelerate the emergence of cybernetics.
I do not wish to give the impression that the other chapters of Memory Trade are lacking in interest: Chapter One, which treats the current landscape of cyberphilia, cyberhype, cyber-revisionism (including panic-oriented theorists of cyberculture such as Arthur Kroker or Paul Virilio) and those who are hyping up the text; Chapter Two, on the history and theory of “the technology within”—writing, gesture, hieroglyphs, and hypermedia; and Chapter Three, which examines various aspects of memory in the age of digitalization, including the art of memory and mnemonics, machinic and technological memories, databases, and Gregory Ulmer’s conception of chorography. While each of the first three chapters makes a definite contribution to the literature, the fourth inaugurates a particularly compelling piece of pre-history. Here, Tofts explores the implications of Joyce’s Wake—published just nine years before Norbert Weiner’s announcement of the cyberworld in Cybernetics (1948)—for an understanding of our contemporary scene. He stresses the importance of Joyce’s having declared himself “the greatest engineer” to comprehending how his assemblage of the Wake as a literary machine aids our understanding the new post-electric world in which cyberculture is emerging—the world of “modernity’s wake.” Tofts examines Joyce’s concern with the “abcedminded[ness] of writing (FW 18.17); its dramatization of “memormee” (FW 628.14) as a phenomenon rooted in the differences and repetitions of this “commodius vicus of recirculation” (FW 3.2); and its navigation of the multi-dimensions in which “we are recurrently meeting... in cycloannalism, from...