An ironic thing happened to me on the way to writing this column. I’d forgotten the page number for a reference I’d found in a snail-text (book) I’d checked out of the AU Library. Google’s wonders shortly provided the needed notation: the answer, as such, was to be found on page 30 of Jean Baudrillard’s The Illusion of the End. The content in question was Jean Benveniste’s supposed discovery that at a molecular level water retains a memory impression. Somehow, some way, researchers in 1988 found that “water diluent ‘remembered’ the antibody long after it was gone”. Like a couch left with the impression of a certain backside who’d spent the day loafing rather than studying, water seemed capable of remembering aspects it’d encountered in its environment.
Methodological concerns remained, however. Maybe researchers were unconsciously getting results they wanted to see? In the end, we’re all humans—even when technology in a lab or in our life seems to be doing the work for us. By the time I emerged from the wriggling morass of competing reputable claims, the hue, tone and texture of my thinking was irrevocably changed. My mind was like a river diverted; the online spell had reframed my thoughts and led inexorably back to the hard fact that facts themselves are fodder for endless debate. Technology had got the better of me in that the process of information production had itself become my mental theme. I’d been, in a sense, reprogrammed by the tools which I’d used to seek a simple answer.
Do Machines Have All the Answers? It Depends What You Think!
Just by knowing that Google Books would provide me with the answer let me quickly and easily utilize the total recall capacities of technology. Our thoughts themselves do not necessarily function like machines, however. As Victor Frankl famously noted, between stimulus and response there is a space. And that space, in poetry known as a caesura, sets a tone or metre or rhythm that often makes all the difference as the discourse unfurls. The thoughtful flow of my being was punctured and interrupted by my resorting to the technology of the times to find an answer. Had I leafed through the library book itself I’d have stayed in character, as such, and my thought would have embodied a more stream of consciousness flow based on Baudrillard’s words that I was originally reading. The trade-off would have been time, but perhaps we human machines are too punctual anyway.
The Technology of Memory
The memory of water became for me an inquiry into the technology of memory; a whole new metrical methodology was introduced to my thinking by this caesura. A caesura, says Merriam Webster, is one of “those slight pauses one makes as one reads verse…more often we need these little stops (which may be, but are not necessarily, set off by punctuation) to introduce the cadence and phrasing of natural speech into the metrical scheme. The word caesura, borrowed from Late Latin, is ultimately from Latin caedere meaning “to cut.”…the general meaning of “a break or interruption” is thus conveyed. My train of thought, though not derailed, had certainly been diverted by my wading into the marshes of the internet. A new flow had been created out of a momentary rupture. The information on offer from the internet was literally writing me differently; just as a poem in its construction creates a certain syntax and diction.
Perhaps contrary to popular belief about the cornucopian panoply of the information superhighway we all know and love, the dangers of becoming distracted whilst seeking to retrieve a vital detail are numerous, numinous, and downright sinister. It’s all fun and games until someone misses a course deadline. I’d veered close to total distraction in the details of a minor notation. At AU we are always on the cusp of such impetus to procrastination; be it dishes, the dog, the job, or recreational reading a million things in life can tear us away from our diligent scholarly activity.
So what did it mean that I had to tear my doe eyes away from a paperback to consult the internet for faster information retrieval? Certainly my stream of thought was silenced; the irony that the original reference was about memory seemed to arise as a by-product of the proceedings. Or did it? To remember, I had to use a machine to remember me into the place I was at, thus matching my mind with the key notation required to justify the reference. Scholarly activity lives in thickets like these; an uncited reference is the bane of every professor. So the enforced silence of a caesura implies more than just a stopping point on the path toward the production of true meaning. Sometimes, like most times, the spacing pause that refreshes comes to impart a sigh that produces a syntactical response all on its own.
To ignore the rhythm of a text and the implication of technology on our life’s work as living, thinking, and expressing beings, is possibly to veer into a dark wood of madness. To lose oneself without even realizing it surely a definition of insanity. Where do we draw the line between our thoughts and their social and technological substrates from which they arise? Perhaps what we don’t say while we seek information and ‘the right words’ is what matters most.
Quoth Jacques Derrida: “madness is indeed, essentially and generally, silence, stifled speech, within a caesura and a wound that open up life as historicity in general. Not a determined silence, imposed at one given moment rather than at any other, but a silence essentially linked to an act of force and a prohibition which opens history and speech.” (Derrida, 54). A caesura ensures this technical break between meanings (think of the difference between rushing to a paper dictionary versus the rush to a laptop to Google a phrase). A pause, a gap, a stop, a space introduces itself between the thing in mind and the linguistic tools on offer to speak oneself truthfully in text or speech.
Lost in the Space of a Caesura
Whatever I was going to say about Baudrillard’s reference to the mysterious possibility of the memory of water, a rare citation from a philosopher who chose almost exclusively to use his own words as his text, was lost in the shifting mental abyss of time spent using technology to discover a fact. In this sense, as the phrase ‘knows all but knows naught’ aptly demonstrates, machines may have the answers, but its our minds that give them colour and meaning. At AU our academic journey is inherently personal; there are less buffers to the magical impressions made upon our being as we evolve in tandem with our course material.