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Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum: Time, Memory, and Computers

I’m re-reading Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, mostly for some concepts that were formative in some of my own thought years ago, but which I want to revisit and subject to a more recent version of my attention. Here is a particular set of passages I find astonishing:

In this passage, our protagonist reads a computer file written secretly by his now-disappeared friend. This file was addressed to his new (at the time of compositon) word processor, which he had named Abulafia , after a medieval cabalist.

The digital metaphor which occupies this passage is thereby explicitly compared to a magic of memory and forgetting which is more ancient than computers, and not limited to their technique. This may represent a criticism by Eco of Foucault’s conception of power, though it also applies to much of his later writing, which was more explicitly occupied with questions of technique and power. But it also finds a more recent expression in academic writing by Andreas Huyssen on contemporary amnesia and media.

Regarding Jacopo Belbo’s relationship to Abulafia, the word processor, but more impressively, a meditation on the relationship (or a relationship) between writing, poesis, forgetting, and mechanization, that sources each strain without judging any of them, see this passage, describing Belbo’s liberated response to his word processor:

But, forgetting the usual ghosts that haunted him, he discovered that playing with the word processor was a way of giving vent to a fifty-year old’s second adolescence. His natural pessimism, his reluctant acceptance of his own past were somehow dissolved in this dialog with a memory that was inorganic, objective, obedient, nonmoral, transistorized, and so humanly inhuman that it enabled him to forget his chronic nervousness about life. (24)

In specific, note this excellent passage written by Jacopo Belbo to and about his new word processing machine:

If I wanted, I could remove the offending passage from the screen but nor from the memory, thereby creating an archive of my repressions while denying omnivorous Freudians and cituosi of variant texts the pleasure of conjecture, the exercise of their occupation, their academic glory.

This is better than real memory, because real memory, at the cost of much effort, learns to remember but not to forget.

In describing the “palaces of memory” that real memory can use to improve its recall, he notes that they found it impossible to construct

an ars oblivianis that day, we couldn’t come up with rules for forgetting. It’s impossible. It’s one thing to go in search of a lost time, chasin labile clues, like Hop-o’-My-Thumb in the woods, and quite another deliberately to misplace time refound. Hop-o’-My-Thumb always comes home, like an obsession. There is no discipline of forgetting; we are at the mercy of random natural processes, like stroke and amnesia, and such self-interventions as drugs, alcohol, or suicide.

Abu, however, can perform on himself precise local suicides, temporary amnesias, painless aporiuas.

Where were you last night, L.

There, indiscreet reader: you will never know it, but that half-line hanging in space was actually the beginning of a long sentence that I wrote but then wished I hadn’t, wished I hadn’t even thought let alone written it, wished that it had never happened. So I pressed a key, and a milky film spread over the fatal and inopportune lines, and I pressed DELETE and, whoosh, all gone.

But that’s not all. The problem with suicide is that sometimes you jump out the window and then change your mind between the eighth floor and the seventh. “Oh, if only I could go back!” Sorry, you can’t, too bad. Splat. Abu, on the other hand, is merciful, he grants you the right to change your mind: you can recover your deleted text by pressing RETRIEVE. What a relief! Once I know that I can remember whenever I like, I forget. (25-26)

There are two aspects to these passages I find especially lovely. The first is the relationship between forgetting and creativity which is implied: bound down by memory, Belbo can think of nothing else, or what he has to think of it bad – like the location of L., or his personal failures of courage – and these hobble him with bad conscience. This bad conscience shortcircuits his ability to create – he has resigned himself to being a rewriter of books, an editor, rather than a writer of them, an author. It is only with a machine capable of encrypting the files, and of performing strategic and targeted acts of both remembering and forgetting, that he is released from his bad conscience.

Eco uses the process of typing as a way of reflexively disturbing narrative flow. For me, this results in a close focus on time. We read the words, as it were, in the same moment as they were being type. The passage has the uncanny nature of a verrfremsdungseffektor, disrupting the easy flow of narrative. You find yourself beginning to think, “Oh, so if he pressed RETRIEVE, does the text return to the place in which it was DELETED, or at the spot where my cursor is now?” And scanning the page for possible evidence, as if the page of the book was actually the manuscript. But even in the story, they are reading an electronic file, not pages of paper.

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