Living for the Moment in the Age of Memory Abundance

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The most famous section in arguably the most famous book about photography, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, dwells on a photograph of Barthes’ recently deceased mother taken in a winter garden when she was a little girl. On this picture, Barthes hung his meditative reflections on death and photography. The image evoked both the “that-has-been” reality of the subject, and the haunting “this-will-die” realization. That one photograph of his mother is also the only image discussed by Barthes that was not reproduced in Camera Lucida. It was too personal. It conveyed something true about his mother, but only to him.

But what if Barthes had not a few, but hundreds or even thousands of images of his mother?

I’ve long thought that what was most consequential about social media was their status as prosthetic memories. A site like Facebook, for example, is a massive archive of externalized memories preserved as texts and images. For this reason, it seemed to me, it would be unbearably hard to abandon such sites, particularly for those who had come of age with and through them. These archives bore too precious a record of the past to be simply deleted with a few clicks.

But more recently I’ve realized that I had not fully appreciated the most important dynamic at play. I was operating with assumptions that were formed during an age of relative memory scarcity, but digital photography and sites like Facebook have brought us to an age of memory abundance. The paradoxical consequence of this development will be the progressive devaluing of such memories and severing of the past’s hold on the present. Gigabytes and terabytes of digital memories will not make us care more about those memories, they will make us care less.

We’ve seen the pattern before. Oral societies which had few and relatively inefficient technologies of remembrance at their disposal, lived to remember. Their cultural lives were ordered by ritual and liturgical acts of communal remembering. The introduction of writing, a comparably wondrous technology of remembrance, gradually released the individual from the burdens of cultural remembrance. Memory that could be outsourced to texts could also be effectively forgotten by the individual who was then free to remember their own history. And it has been to this task that subsequent developments in the technology of remembrance have been put to use. The emergence of cheap paper coupled with rising rates of literacy gave us the diary and boxes of letters. Photography and film were also put to the task of documenting our personal histories. Until recently, however, these technologies were subject to significant constraints. The recording devices were bulky and cumbersome, and they were limited in capacity by the number of exposures in a roll of film and the length of ribbon in a tape. There were also important practical constraints on storage and access.

Digital technologies have burst through these constraints and they have not yet reached their potential. Now we carry relatively unobtrusive devices of practically unlimited recording capacity, and these are easily linked to archives that are likewise virtually unlimited in their capacity to store and organize these memories. If we cast our vision into the not-too-distant nor fantastical future, we can anticipate individuals engaging with the world through devices (e.g., Google Glass) that will both augment the physical world by layering it with information and generate a near continuous audio-visual record of our experience.

Compared to these present and soon-to-be technologies, the 35mm camera which was at my disposal through the ’80s and ’90s seems primitive. With regards to a spectrum indicating the capacity to document and archive memories, I was then closer to my pre-modern predecessors than to the generation that will follow.

Roland Barthes’ near mystical veneration of his mother’s photograph, touching as it appears to those of us who lived in the age of memory scarcity, will seem quixotic and quaint to those who have known only memory abundance. Barthes will seem to them as those medievals that venerated the physical book do to us; they will be as indifferent to the photograph, and the past it encodes, as we are to the cheap paperback.

It may seem, as it did to me, that social media revived the significance of the past by reconnecting us with friends we would have mostly forgotten and reconstituting habits of social remembering. I have even expressed concerns that social media might allow the past to overwhelm the present rendering recollection, rather than suppression, traumatic. But this has only been an effect of novelty upon that transitional generation that did not grow up with digital technologies of remembrance and upon whom they appeared in medias res. For those who have known only the age of memory abundance, there will be no reconnection with long forgotten classmates or nostalgic reminiscences around a rare photograph of their youth capturing some trivial, unremembered moment. It will all be documented and archived, but it will mean not a thing.

It will be Barthes’ contemporary, Andy Warhol, who will appear as one of us. In his biography of Warhol, Victor Bockris writes,

“Indeed, Andy’s desire to record everything around him had become a mania. As John Perrault, the art critic, wrote in a profile of Warhol in Vogue: ‘His portable tape recorder, housed in a black briefcase, is his latest self-protection device. The microphone is pointed at anyone who approaches, turning the situation into a theater work. He records hours of tape every day but just files the reels away and never listens to them.’”

Andy Warhol’s performance art will be our ordinary experience, and it is those last few words that we should note: “and he never listens to them.”

Reconsider Plato’s infamous critique of writing. Critics charge Plato with shortsightedness because he failed to see just how much writing would in fact allow us to remember. But from a different perspective, Plato was right. The efficient and durable externalization of remembrance would render individuals personally indifferent to those memories. As the external archive grows, our personal involvement with the memory it stores shrinks in proportion.

Give me a few precious photographs, a few minutes of grainy film and I will treasure them and hold them dear. Give me several terabytes of images and films and I will care not at all.

Technologies that have brought about the age of memory abundance will not only change our relationship to memory, they will also restructure our experience of the present.

We live for the moment because the moment is what an image captures.

It’s not uncommon, I presume, to snap a picture again and again in the often vain attempt to get it just so. Getting it just so in such cases entails matching the image captured by the photograph to the image in our mind of what that moment should look like (and feel like).

Two questions follow.

First, where did that image in our mind come from? Likely from countless similar images we’ve seen on Facebook or Pinterest or Flickr or television or Norman Rockwell or whatever.

The other night, I stood in a near empty section of a big box store waiting, surrounded by aisles of Christmas decorations, enveloped in the projected sounds of Christmas music, and I thought to myself, if this were a movie, this is the scene in which the director would zoom further and further out, showing me standing there alone with would-be purchases in hand, and it would scream that tired-late-capitalist-suburban-ennui cliché.

And even if I had felt as much, not simply thought that this was what the image suggested, but actually felt that ennui, would it have been because I was, in fact, an instance of the case, or would it have been because I had that pre-interpreted image in my head?

We’re Platonists, but our Ideas are not eternal, timeless Forms remembered from glimpses we caught of them in some preexistent state of our souls. Our Ideas, against which we seek to test the truthfulness and reality of our experience, are the Images that have become iconic commonplaces generated in the age of photography, film, and Madison Avenue, and now by social media on which we all play Don Draper to our own curated brand identity.

The second question, then, is this: Why are we so intent on getting that image just so?

Because it is what our dominant forms of remembering will receive. To be remembered is to appear, to be taken notice of, to be; so we desire deeply to remember and be remembered. So much so that we will transform the logic by which we make sense of our lives so that our lives may be subject to means of remembering.

In the age of stories, be they stories told by the rhapsode, the bard, or the novelist, what mattered was the whole, not the part. Individual scenes were subordinate to the logic of the whole plot. They gave one the sense that there was a beginning, middle, and end; and it was not until the end that the whole significance of the beginning and the middle could be perceived, much less understood.

In the age of images this is reversed. In the image, the whole is instantaneously present. We crave that moment and the image that captures it, and so we pose and point and click and frame and click and click again and pose again, but naturally, and click.

We are connoisseurs of the moments and scenes that the camera can frame, but we have little patience or taste for the satisfactions that arise not in the moment, but in deferred time, when, long after the moment has passed, it may finally be understood in light of some larger canvas. How, then, could we be expected to take notice of and live in light of some as of yet future whole. There is no memory to sustain such a project any longer. But there is memory enough and more to sustain the capture, storage, and retrieval of the moment.

No one will write our story, and even if someone would, who would have the patience to listen to or read it. If we will remember and be remembered, it will be by the image — and so we will live for the image, for the moment.

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About the Contributor

Michael Sacasas

Michael Sacasas
Michael Sacasas received an MA in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary and is currently pursuing a PhD in Texts and Technology at The University of Central Florida. His research and writing focus broadly on the relationship between technology and culture with a special interest in how bodies interact with tools to shape experience. His writing has appeared in The American, The New Inquiry, Mere Orthodoxy, and Cyborgology. He blogs at The Frailest Thing


  1. Well said, well said. You may be interested in Rushkoff’s Present Shock (or you may have already read), which expands on this subject and speaks of the end of narrative:

  2. Daniel Reader says:

    We live for the image and the moment because we are searching for meaning and what is meaningful. But the meaning we most want is found in Love. Why? Because it is fulfilling and satisfying. Unfortunately, moderns exalted romantic love (Eros) which we pursue. The agape love of Christianity has long been in decline, but is just as potent as it was 2000 years ago. Whatever memories we have, they ultimately need to be purified by God.

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