Reflections on philosophy and culture

Monday, October 24, 2011

Lost in the Library of Babel

To anyone familiar with his fiction, it should be no surprise that Borges's short story "The Library of Babel" provides, in the titular Library, a prophetically ideal image for contemporary mass culture.  The Library contains every possible book - every combinatorially possible string of letters, spaces, commas and periods, including:

"the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus."

-Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, p. 61.

The analogue I have in mind for the Library is, of course, the internet.  It is, in the contemporary imagination, the Omniscient Archive of all human symbolic production.  And despite the fact that a moment's reflection will reveal that it doesn't deserve this description at all, I find it hard, in practice, to imagine it any other way.  Surely this explains my caving to the impulse to create a professional website, a blog, a number of social network profiles...each time feeling that I was giving in to the inevitable, affirming my existence as one of the symbolic animals.

In the last few years, I've come across a handful of interesting essays about the consequences - aesthetic, social and psychological - of this situation.  Like Borges's Library, the Omniscient Archive promises an end to questioning - to be the oracle who will deliver up the answer to any question, if only we can find the right phrase to google.  But insightful writers have pointed out that its sheer massiveness is also a force for oppression and anxiety of a sort that human beings have not encountered before. 

For example, David Grubbs, in his essay "I Am a Recording. I Don't Age," points out that the easy online availability of seemingly every piece of music ever made holds memory and time hostage.  The fact that the past is lost, that one possesses it only in the distorting medium of memory, is part of what gives one the sense that one's life has a definite temporal shape, an extension which becomes more flattened and deadened the more one can retrieve aspect of one's past with perfect accuracy: Grubbs's example is a song from his youth that he has happily been unable to retrieve.

Another, more widely circulated example of this sort of anxiety is Patton Oswalt's justly famous (and hilarious) essay from Wired magazine a couple of years back, "Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die," in which Oswalt mourns the death of the pleasures that used to be the special domain of geeks of all stripes.  Oswalt's essay really speaks to my own experience.  At one point in my youth, discovering a new musician like Bert Jansch, a new writer like Comte de Lautreamont, or a new filmmaker like E. Elias Merhige was like stumbling upon a secret treasure.  And the joys of such a discovery bred special kinds of relationships to other people: meeting someone who had made the same discovery was something akin to discovering a soulmate - someone who, by a rare and uncanny coincidence had found the same secret treasure as I.  Now, it's hard to re-create these experiences: everyone is a google search away from having a Wikipedia entry's worth of working knowledge of anything you can think of.

Now, all of this might sound like the belly-aching of old fogies: "in my day, you had to work much harder to get the same things..."  But my point isn't so much to mourn what has been lost as to voice the fact that something important about our relation to symbolic production has changed with the onset of the Omniscient Archive. 

I don't have anything particularly original to add to the mix.  Right now, I'm immersed in what might very well be the most interesting meditation on these and other matters I've ever run across, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.  Maybe at some point I'll venture some thoughts about Wallace: the book is having such a profound effect on me, that I feel I'll have to try and say why at some point.  Until then, I'll be on the look-out for more to read on these themes...

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