#19: Burn after Writing
Tibetan monks used to sit on the banks of streams “printing pages of charms and formulas on the surface of the water with woodcut blocks.”
(From Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy, quoting Jack Goody quoting R. B. Eckvall)
Last month, I wrote about notebooks, which is to say memory. This month, I’ll write about publishing, which is to say forgetting.
When I was in college, I spent my summers working for the Laurel Leader, my hometown newspaper, which (R.I.P.) unceremoniously ceased local coverage on July 1 after 120 years in operation. I wrote stories about new businesses on Main Street and dispatches from the Fourth of July celebrations. I wrote about the anniversaries of rabbis and restaurants. Once, on a Sunday when everyone else was at home, my editor sent me to the scene of a fatal shooting to collect eyewitness accounts. A police officer had been killed while pursuing a suspect. I was nervous and wore a tie, and carried a large reporter’s notepad around the low-income housing complex where the shooting had taken place. At 19, I was shy and socially awkward. It went against every impulse I had to walk up to a stranger and ask them to talk to me. But I got the interviews—no tape recorder, just notes—took them home, and typed them up.
I learned a lot working for the Leader. Sometimes I sat in on meetings where local cranks would pitch stories about their favorite conspiracy theories or about the cosmic wrongs they’d suffered, or tag along with the editor-in-chief as he investigated suspicious construction sites and illegal dumping grounds, always fruitlessly. (There was no money for a lawyer to vet hard investigative stories before publication, so we tended to abandon any potentially litigious reporting.) I saw how a small city worked and how it failed its citizens. I saw what a local newspaper uniquely offered in forms of vernacular knowledge and attention. I saw parts of Laurel I would not have known to visit, the poorest and most underserved quarters. I also saw my name in print for the first time at the head of columns of words I had written. My stories went out onto doorsteps and driveways, wrapped in a blue plastic sleeve, and into newspaper vending machines at the train station and local butcher’s shop. I made almost nothing—$50 a story, I faintly recall.
In 1997, Laurel Leader was bought by the Baltimore Sun, then a subsidiary of Times Mirror, which in turn was bought by Tribune Publishing. During the summers I worked there, the Leader never had a stable online presence. When I was writing most of my stories, around 2004 and 2005, the web was coming awkwardly for local news. My articles would sometimes appear online, on an ad-filled, barely readable web site covered with sprites and banners, but sometimes not. When they did, they remained unsearchable. (I couldn’t plug my name or the headline into a search engine and find them). Often, they would later disappear from the web for reasons I couldn’t divine. Updates to the site design were always causing content to vanish. Eventually the Leader’s whole web site came down. My work was black holed. My physical copies, a binder of clips, were all that remained outside the Leader’s own archives—which may or may not exist. If you’re my age, you remember this sort of thing as normal. The web was garbled, cheap, and unpredictable.
Years later, when I was in grad school, I hosted a literary interview radio show, The Lit Show, on KRUI 89.7 FM, Iowa City’s public college radio station. The caliber of writer who comes to read or teach in Iowa made this an interview show that punched above its weight.
There were similar shows out there—our model was Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm—but they were all, like us, on the radio. Podcasts were in their infancy and neither I nor anyone I knew had ever heard of any that interviewed writers. My experience with The Lit Show was if anything more ephemeral than my time at the Leader. The show’s founder tried to record every episode, but sometimes we forgot to start the recording at the right time or forgot to upload it later. There was no serious attempt to archive or make episodes permanently available or searchable. It was a radio show, vanishing by design. You had to know to tune in. Eventually, the founder stopped paying the hosting fees for our web site, which was where we dumped the mp3s, and everything disappeared. There’s still a Facebook page, but, to my knowledge, you can’t find most of my interviews online, whether with Geoff Dyer, Roxane Gay, or Ben Marcus, whether my fawning hour with Nicholson Baker or, thank God, my first, nervous, awful interview with a patient Colson Whitehead.
An important distinction between artists and writers a little older than me, and those even a little bit younger, is the difficulty of forgetting and being forgotten.
The disappearance of one’s work runs counter to our archival impulses. We share a drive for preservation whose potential ambition the internet has effectively made limitless. We can now save whatever we want, or try to. It often happens automatically, even against our will, when we publish work through a third party: a magazine, a record label, an app. The status quo for a piece of work is no longer to vanish into the mortal space of a physical archive or simply into oblivion, as happened at the Leader and Lit Show, but to be lost in a digital library of Babel, rendered insignificant by the scale and chaos of all that’s been saved. Even then, what you’ve made can often be found, if someone knows what to look for. Your earliest articles and interviews will live on, even if you forget them, even if you become a different person, even if you die.
Others have written enough about the professional pitfalls of eternal searchable memory, where a writer is beholden to her earliest opinions and mistakes. She may lose her job over youthful overzealousness or a politically inconvenient—or disgusting, or actually evil—stance. The viewpoints on this issue are seem pretty clear, even if the solutions aren’t.
Less clear to me is what digital victory over forgetting means to an artist or writer’s own sense of self: their ability to change, reinvent themselves, or disappear. I wonder whether the archival impulse as manifested online has changed how writers and others think about themselves: no longer a mutable voice or many voices, instead a steady product, a legacy brand with responsibilities to long-term shareholders.
I wonder, for example, whether artists feel less able to produce work that does not follow from their past successes, or that falls afoul of their established public identity, which even for very young writers feels so much more known and permanent than it once did for me. I wouldn’t have been cancelled for anything I wrote for the Leader or said on The Lit Show (at least, I don’t think so). But if it were part of my persistent professional identity, I would feel differently about myself and my work. I might feel like I was set on a track I couldn’t deviate from, my wheels in ruts. Could I write something that contradicted something else I’d written years ago (in content, in tone)? On top of a Right to be Forgotten, do others feel a Desire to be Forgotten? I do. Is it possible to evolve a way of creating that is less permanent, without reverting to the exhausted materials of nostalgic return (zines, cassette tapes) and/or withdrawing from the online world altogether?
A useful skeuomorph for digital archives would be something to imitate the process of natural decay. Imagine if the default setting built into online archives, newspapers, or even places like Facebook or Twitter caused old posts to become progressively more degraded, harder to read, abraded, misplaced, and finally lost altogether. Why not? Why, except out of greed and data gluttony, have our Silicon Valley masters chosen to emulate the order of our physical archives but not the material limitations that make them approachable and human—the features that would make the digital archive a more accurate reflection of our vast but mortal collective memory?
What was collective memory, before the overlords got hold of it?
Forgetting is powerful. Collective forgetting is collective power. The mind, too, needs to forget if it is to function. The burden of eidetic memory (like in some harrowing Oliver Sacks profile) would be crushing to the soul. Is it possible to conceive of an artificial intelligence unable to forget? Not one whose intelligence we would recognize as human. Digital memory, like all memory, distorts. Infinite memory distorts infinitely. The “mind” of the internet is written and read collectively, and so falls somewhere between cultural and personal memory, but it does not forget like we do, and this produces many funhouse effects. People make a category error when they assume that Google (or whatever) will return search results in order of meaningful concepts of relevance. Whose order? Whose relevance? My own name returns a strange hierarchy of returns, including ancient web stories written for rent money that I would never include in a portfolio of my work. And of course, other Ben Mauks mixed in, plus Ben Smiths who once played in bluegrass bands with Ralph Mauks. People I could not possible mean to look for. Intelligence, stripped of forgetting, is utterly alien.
Students and young writers often make the same mistake when conducting research, assuming that all information is now stored online and can be easily retrieved. There are almost no stories worth writing that can be written this way—by trusting that an algorithm built to sell ad space, beholden to stockholders and sovereign governments, could ever divine an objective atlas of world knowledge. For this reason, my least favorite rejoinder is to tell someone to “Google [something],” and a current activist slogan that often comes across my timeline—“Google Uyghurs”—strikes me as a woefully naive leap of faith in Silicon Valley’s trustworthiness, its ability to reflect political realities.
The more my work takes me into spaces outside the administrative state, into marginal communities, into rural regions, and into zones of refusal and refuge, the more impoverished I find the internet as a research tool, to say nothing of a zone for publishing. Errors and elisions abound. When I was in Tawi-Tawi, in the southern Philippines, doing research for my book, a city administrator asked me for a thumb drive so that she could give me a simple PDF filled with municipal information. The internet on Bongao was so slow and unreliable she couldn’t email me anything other than plain text. The information I wanted and that she wanted to give me, including city budgets and demographic data, simply did not exist online or elsewhere in the Philippines. Although it was digital and therefore, in theory, infinitely reproducible, it existed only on a computer inside the town hall on a fairly inaccessible and little-visited island in the Celebes Sea. When she failed to send a courier with the thumb drive in time to catch me before my puddle jumper back to Zamboanga, she arranged for a passenger on the next day’s flight to bring the thumb drive to a hotel lobby, where I went to retrieve it.
Some parts of the world are contingently offline, others deliberately so. Another, more widely understood reality of the internet’s prodigious memory is state and corporate control of official knowledge. When I have written about Xinjiang, I’ve found that certain textbooks or other primary documents mentioned in research papers and histories have not only simply disappeared—the fact of their existence has disappeared from the Chinese internet. No evidence can be found for them, except maybe physically, in certain landfills in China. When we cannot collectively forget, we forfeit the power of forgetting. We give it over to authorities. They decide what we remember.
We have wallpapered the internet with fantasies of perfect, retrievable knowledge, but the fantasy itself long predates computers; it is the central fantasy of writing itself. We think everything has been written down when almost nothing has.
Consider the formal constraint suggested by the fact that 98 percent of all languages are spoken by less than 10 percent of humankind. These peripheral languages are mostly oral, minimally recorded, and lacking in any official status. It follows that something approaching 99 percent of the sum of human discourse is oral, and only oral, and is therefore always one generation removed from extinction. Of the 3,000 or so languages spoken today, most have never been committed to writing. It is only a slight generalization to say that all language is spoken, not written, that language is in other words overwhelmingly oral. Print, even literature itself is a remainder. It is a hangnail on the body of language.
To the ‘primary oral’ or ‘radically oral’ cultures who have made up the majority of humankind across our history, language is spoken narrative, oratory, and gossip—it is talk. It is conversation and formal speech as well as silence, intonation, and gesture. In its most common form, language is always social; myths and stories must be generationally renewed in order to live. Indeed, languages from outside the cores of empire actively resist efficient alphabetization; the tools scribes work with weren’t made for them. (A baffling variety of scripts—at least 14—have been invented to write Hmong.) For most languages, to encourage transmission of information across time requires meter and rhyme, alliteration, and other mnemonic devices. These devices evolve socially and often in public. They are ritualized. This is not to exoticize the process. (How did you learn “I pledge allegiance to the flag…”?) It is just to say: every act of remembered speech refers to a specific previous act. Song is the memory of songs sung.
Less explicitly, devices of forgetting must be used to pulp remaindered language from the brain. Our responsibilities are great—not just to preserve what is worth passing on, orally or in written form, but in choosing what we will consign to oblivion. History, removed from the pedestal of writing, is the formal act of forgetting.
A recognition of the power of forgetting would require us to abandon the myth that the shift from orality to literacy in human cultures was part of a linear evolution from primitive to advanced civilization. (The belief is ingrained in most large, official languages; in Simon Leys’s collected essays, he notes that the same Chinese character denotes both “civilization” and “the written word.”) The idea is as influential as it is wrong, as any study of oral communities quickly reveals. As Pierre Clastres writes, peoples without a writing system are no less adult than literate societies. Their history has the same depth as ours and, short of racism, there is no reason to judge them incapable of reflecting on their experiences and of discovering the appropriate solutions to their problems. Above, I wrote of “our archival impulses” but whatever those impulses are, they aren’t universal. They emerge from the technologies of literacy and print, both historically contingent ways of producing knowledge that have often been wielded by imperial forces over the vast realms of the ungoverned. (A Yiddish witticism attributed to Max Weinreich: “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”)
Archivists know this discourse well, but nevertheless can often speak of memory itself as an obvious good, and remembering a quality to aspire to. The value of memory is foundational to the archive. The goodness of memory is likewise assumed in discourses of human rights (“never forget”) and psychological health (“try to remember”). Even when memory is interrogated in an academic setting, the very form of the debate assumes its supremacy. Yet in life, we are constantly forgetting, individually and communally, discarding the vestigial, traumatic, and tired. In the view according to which language is alive and in which language is talk, literacy and script come to resemble language’s scars, dead flesh that provokes involuntary reminders of the past.
A major difference between primarily literate and primarily oral cultures even seems to be the flexibility with which material can be forgotten. As James C. Scott writes (in a chapter that is admittedly among his most speculative) “the absence of writing and texts provides a freedom of maneuver in history, genealogy, and legibility that frustrates state routines. If swiddening and egalitarian, mobile settlement represent elusive ‘jellyfish’ economic and social forms, orality may be seen as a similarly fugitive jellyfish variant of culture.”
Among oral cultures, strategic forgetting can resolve old feuds and absolve old crimes. It can remake relationships and social standings anew. Forgetting is forgiveness and jubilee. Among other effects, oral culture tends to proscribe authoritative speaking: one person cannot speak for a whole group, subgroup, clan, or lineage in oral Hmong society. Anyone is entitled to speak publicly. (This does not mean that everyone is heard equally, or that all voices carries the same authority.) Literacy, by contrast creates a stratified class of writers above those who cannot communicate in the language of authority/memory. Script lets the record show.
I’ve come to think of the more radical form of forgetting in oral culture as existing along a continuum with the forgetting of the physical archive—libraries burn, books moulder, newspapers proliferate only to be discarded—which was already becoming obscure in my childhood and which now no young person would feel to be the case. The oral record is flexible compared to the written just as the physical record is flexible compared to the digital. And just as writing detached a discourse from its speakers, the virtual archive detaches a discourse from the context (event and time) of its creation. The persistence of online memory collapses the effect of time on art and work, effects we once understood as natural.
It has changed and will change things. But it may not change things as we think, and I don’t want to reproduce the techno-doom predictions every generation seems to find irresistible. I know that younger people use the internet differently. They often don’t have personal and professional web sites; they don’t use Facebook or Instagram to catalogue, curate, and advertise their tastes in the way my generation, the first on social media, did. Even platforms themselves are starting to adapt, with “stories” and “fleets” designed to disappear, although even then they are never deleted and remain both recordable and retrievable. They are hardly flexible or egalitarian in the way oral communication tends to be. To be sure of an object’s finitude, you must burn after reading, and especially after writing.
For most languages and their speakers, in every sense but an archival one, script is superfluous. Of the tens of thousands of languages spoken throughout history, only around 106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to produce literature. Most have never been written at all.
Most stories, too, are never written, but even to write a story down is not to affix its essentially oral presence. What is prolonged on the page is a residue: the stain of an event. Stories, like people, are events passing in time. They are not things. Their capture is impossible.
Adrienne Raphel is a poet, journalist, and scholar. She is an excellent thinker, a careful puzzler, and a good friend. In 2020, Adrienne published the definitive book on the crossword puzzle, Thinking Inside the Box, to much deserved acclaim. Read it if you’ve ever been cruciverbally fulfilled, or if you admire cultural histories. She writes:
I'd love to recommend a book! Three come to mind. The first one is, bizarrely enough, The Magic Mountain, which I listened to this spring for the first time -- what a way to emerge slowly from the pandemic, to meditate on the extension and melting of time -- and the “silent sister” thermometers! The scene in the snow!
The other is The Driver's Seat, a slim and razor-sharp Muriel Spark novel I picked up on a fortuitous staff recommendation from Book Soup in LA -- an incredibly taut “whydunnit” feat. a woman who's about to die (you know she's going to be murdered from the first scene) -- a gripping bright claw of a book.
All quarantine I've also been recommending The Secret Language of Birthdays to anyone who will listen to me; the quasi-astrological cult classic that tells you all about your birthday personality and vacillates between devastating accuracy and hilariously off-base (I love my birthday because it's flatteringly “The Day of Soaring Imagination”).
That’s all for now, hello from a mostly masked, fully vaxxed summer in New York.
P.S.: Some sources and inspirations for this newsletter include Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy, James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, K. David Harrison’s When Languages Die, Stanley Diamond’s In Search of the Primitive, Jack Goody’s The Domestication of the Savage Mind, and Simon Leys’s Collected Essays. I’m aware there is a recent Lewis Hyde book on cultural forgetting but, to my shame, and maybe out of the fear it will contain all my own ideas, I haven’t read it.