I’d like to write a post summarizing the Computers and Writing conference. But right now, I’d rather live in the world of memory than summary. I want to think through the threads of uncertainty, time, and music that the conference brought to mind, which are so wrapped up in my ideas about memory.
I’m Washington, DC right now, even though I just left a conference in Raleigh and live in Orlando. Yesterday, a friend picked me up in Raleigh and I drove her to DC, where she’s moving.
Both of us used to live in DC, and it’s our favorite city. As the sun set, we crossed the 14th Street bridge and gawked and gaped and said things like, “Hello, crazy drivers zooming around me! Hello tourists with fanny packs! Hello unnecessary circle of flags around the Washington Monument!”
Now, I’m in the old terminal at Reagan National Airport, waiting to fly home. I’ve lived in this space before. I remember reading C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce sitting in the same collection of seats, even though that was six years ago.
I’ve only been in this city for seventeen hours, yet there is a pit of sadness in my belly over leaving.
For my musical presentation at the conference, I played a video with my voice talking over some images (and occasional black screens), while I played records live as a musical accompaniment. My motif was the musical prank, the moment where an audience’s expectation for how music will sound is thwarted, complicating the idea that we identify with music and make meaning from it based on how our expectations are met or not met.
To mess around with expectations in the audience, I changed the speed of the records, played them backwards, and played them along with video footage that they were never meant to accompany.
But my expectations weren’t met, either. A piece of fuzz in my needle kept the records from sounding the way I expected. The weight balance of the needle arm was probably misbalanced, leading to more skips than I expected. My arm was shaking more than I expected, so I missed a couple of precise arm placements thad had worked fine when practicing at home.
And just as when an audience is surprised, and thus is led to make meaning from the surprising sounds, I was surprised by what sounded, and I made my own meanings as well.
I asked my friend to drive me by my old neighborhood in Washington, DC, the Columbia Heights / Petworth area. Even when I left five years ago I knew the area was gentrifying, that the pedestrians were getting whiter and the stores were getting sleeker, bigger, more national.
But I didn’t expect the difference in the feel of a space that is surrounded by new, tall condos instead of three-story townhouses. What used to be on that corner, I kept asking myself, where that tall, metal building is now? I’ve walked by that spot hundreds of times–how could I have forgotten?
Anne Wysocki gave a keynote address introducing her long-term project on the rhetorical canon of memory. She’s designing a beautiful interactive web space that allows users to simulate a walk through the different ways people have engaged with memory over the last 2,500 years. It was lovely and important enough that I thought, I want to be involved in this project. I want to engage with memories from now on. I don’t want to forget.
Much of Wysocki’s talk reminded me of a book by musicologist David Burrows called Time and the Warm Body. (At rhetoric/composition conferences of late, I find myself mentioning Burrows once a day, and twice on days I present.) I tweeted the book title to Wysocki as she spoke, just in case she hadn’t come across it. It’s Burrows’s consideration first of how our bodies experience time and the “now,” an experience of time that he situates as the epistemological nature of how we experience music, given our nature as embodied, time-based creatures. Language draws our minds to other spaces and other times, but music draws us to the now.
Wysocki tweeted back, later, an earnestly cheerful reply that she didn’t know the book and was excited to look it up. It made me feel good, and it made me think about all the books the people in the room had read individually and all the books we had read collectively, as a massive library of memory that could never be perfectly tapped.
Drinking with Trauman the next day, he mentioned that I have an earnestness about me.
On the drive to DC, I told my friend that I always think of my wife as the earnest one, but that I liked the idea being earnest myself, too.
I want to be earnest. I want to construct things, and engage with memories through my earnestness.
At one point during the conference, I jokingly tweeted that the theme of Computers and Writing 2014 should be The Goonies.
Scott Reed rewteeted it with an earnest “THIS –>” preeding my tweet.
I could look up these tweets to make sure I’m quoting them correctly, relying on the exactness of a computer’s memory. But my memory is just fine, in this case, even if it’s not always accurate.
I remember where I was when I read another David Burrows book, Sound, Speech, and Music: the waiting room of the Tire Kingdom near my house in Orlando. The coffee was bad, and the 24-hour news network on the loud TV was worse.
I don’t remember what my car was in for that day. But I remember being surprised by Burrows’s prose, his theories of music and speech that included lines about psuedopods of meaning reaching between humans engaging and identifying with each other. And in my surprise, I found meaning. And in my meaning, I created memory.
Before taking the Metro to the airport this morning, I met an old DC friend in Union Station. At first, I felt turned around: there is construction that blocked off the path I expected to take inside the building. And maybe it shouldn’t matter, but a net a few feet above my head blocked bits of my sight as I glanced up at the pounds and pounds of air between me and the distant windows near the ceiling. Even though I wasn’t walking vertically, the net made me feel even more disoriented.
But the Corner Bakery was still there, and so was the bookstore (though it’s a Barnes and Noble now), and so was the line of people outside waiting for taxis, and so was the neverending construction outside the station.
I’m not sure how I felt so comforted and discomforted at the same time, helped along by the con/destruction around me, and my confirmed and demolished memories.
Jody Shipka presented on the process of archiving and remediating found texts as a way to remember and honor the people who created them. She has amassed an astounding collection of old photos, home movies, and slides from various yard sales and such.
The clips she showed were comforting and discomforting, constructing and destructing (as some of the film she showed literally burned to pieces just after she digitized it). I tried to tweet during the talk but eventually had to stop, pulled to the now that Shipka drew to my attention with a beauty I didn’t expect. It was one of those wonderful presentations with ultra-small audiences that makes me feel I witnessed something rare.
During the question and answer period, we talked about what it means when bodies encounter retro, analog media. Keith Dorwick (whose presentation just before Shipka’s was also evocative and tremendous) said, “And I hope Kyle doesn’t mind my saying this, but it was a powerful moment during the question and answer of his presentation when he told us that his hand was shaking while he cued the records. There’s an inevitable indeterminacy that comes from the interaction between any physical media and a human body.”
I responded that there was something lovely and important–and indeed, unexpected–in the physicality of the analog, the touch of a record.
I also said, “Yesterday, I apologized to a friend about how many pops and crackles there were in the records, but so many people have told me how much they loved hearing those pops.”
Shipka replied earnestly. “Why did you apologize?”
I thought for a moment, said, “I think it’s because of this: I love vinyl, but I know there are people who love vinyl with a seriousness that I don’t have. They know how to wash it, and they have all the right brushes, and they hold it right, and all that. For me, it’s a much simpler preoccupation. Like, I like to buy ninety-nine cents records from the thrift store, to listen to them, not to preserve them or be an audiophile or something. I love them, but as an enthusiast, not a collector.”
Dorwick said, “There are people who say that listening to CDs is too sterile an environment. There are people who say that when you listen to a recording that is too perfect, you’re not hearing it right. We need the pops and crackle to hear it as a lived experience, as something that’s really there.”
The quotations above aren’t exact. I remembered them that way.
While waiting in the airport terminal a few minutes ago, a demolition project began outside. I watched out the window as a small, golf-cart-ish thing rammed into the concrete exterior wall of the terminal and shook with anger as it (I assume?) drilled cracks into the area marked for destruction. It looked like a small animal who was positive that it could knock over a skyscraper, if only it rammed and shook it hard enough.
But the quality of the sound had none of the cute, unassuming nature of the vehicle’s appearance. It was like a giant with metal teeth was chewing concrete for breakfast, like a jackhammer underground was coming at a square of sidewalk from below and I happened to be standing on it, like a memory being forcibly removed from my head instead of being allowed to fade into smells and images and sounds in the gentle way they’re supposed to go.
I moved to the other side of the circular terminal, but even there, it seemed just as loud. I couldn’t escape from it, regardless of how hard I tried, unless I wanted to leave security and come back in later. I looked up at the circular, 60s-ish ceiling of the old terminal and tried to focus on what I was seeing instead of what I was hearing.
David Burrows, in Sound, Space, and Music, writes, “Noise is a concept rooted in the domain of sound rather than sight, because the promiscuity with which sound addresses itself to appropriate and inappropriate receptors alike means that we must so often hear things we do not want to hear, whereas we can look the other way, or close our eyes, when we see something unpleasant or superfluous. Our auditory defenselessness casts us often in the role of victim, our privacy invaded by someone else’s stereo or car horn” (24-25).
I’m on the plane now, finishing this post in the loud, fuel-tinged air of the next-to-last seat in the cabin, so unlike the space in Union Station I wandered through so recently.
I’m hoping for a good glimpse of the National Mall as I leave, even as I know I can hardly bear it. It’s that pain you get when you have braces and you bite down on your aching teeth, and it’s good and hard at the same time.
Leaving the conference was cleaner, if more awkward. There were so many people I wanted to properly say goodbye to, who have begun to matter to both my professional and personal lives. But instead, I waved at the people I saw, hugged a couple, and slipped out the back door of the Syme Hall basement.