Memory Embodied

Erin Suzuki, English 111, Autumn 1997

Memory is a strange thing. It tricks you, it deceives you. It can be entirely unreliable or it can be painfully precise. A week from now, what will you remember about today? Will you remember what you heard in lecture, or will you remember the kind of sandwich you had for lunch? Will you remember that column you read in the newspaper, or will you remember this week's episode of "ER"? On the other hand, will you ever really forget any of these things?

Memory is fraught with triggers. These triggers can be words, smells, sounds. A casual comment made by a friend may cause you to remember that article you read in the newspaper the other day. Catching a whiff of coffee as you walk by a Starbucks may unexpectedly trigger a memory of sitting with a friend in a cafe; you remember looking past them at the light coming in through the open windows, which reminded you of the first time you saw the sun rise over the ocean, and how you watched the first few rays of morning skitter over the surface of the water...and on, and on. Memories you didn't even know you had rise into the forefront of your consciousness, triggering others in turn.

The associative nature of memory--the way memories flow and overlap with one another--is in its way similar to the links and lexia used by hypertext. The links act as triggers, the lexia as experiences remembered. Both memory and hypertext are systems that attempt to recapture an experience.

I have in mind a non-sentient, transitory creature, nothing more than memory embodied, yet infinitely sadder than handwriting, photograph, or the preserved sound of another's voice.

This passage from Michael Joyce's hypertext fiction, Afternoon, could be describing a way of approaching hypertext: as "memory embodied." One is able to recreate the text by piecing together fragments of the hypertext's component parts, just as one can remember a certain incident by recalling and linking together all of the individual experiences surrounding it. The individual lexia that comprise Joyce's story are very similar to fragments of memory: they are brief, sensual. The characters' dialogues are short and to the point, with little editorializing. In my reading of the hypertext, one of the main scenes of the story--that of Peter's ex-wife's car crash--is never bluntly stated. We do not even know for sure to what extent she was involved, whether she or her son are alive or dead. Rather, these things are implied by the linking of the surrounding circumstances, the each different lexia in its turn describing a certain exchange of words, or an image, or an impression.

Is hypertext "nothing more than memory embodied"? It is, after all, only an invention, a technology, a means to an end. Hypertext is not self-sufficient; it is a mass of bits and pieces, dependent on the reader to breathe life into it, to link it together, just as memory lies fallow and inert without the stimulation of a trigger. The position of hypertext, like that of memory, lies in that grey area between what is life and what is not-life, neither completely real nor completely representational. While hypertext shares many of the same qualities of memory, I leave it up to you whether or not the simile ends there. More and more experimental hypertexts emerge every day; we will see how far it can go.

Afternoon Discussion overview Hypertext Cyberspace Web