The Art of Retrieval
Tending to our humanity in a technological age.
Pandemic time is not like regular time. On a bad day that means you may not know what day (or week) it is. On a good day you are reminded that ordinary time doesn’t need to be regular in the sense of our “normal” modern lives—linear, progressive, inexorable but not particularly cumulative, relentlessly “in the moment.”
In the pandemic, memory becomes all-important. We need to remember, and sometimes that means bringing more care to the order of what already happened than what is unfolding around us.
In this fashion the pandemic tells us plainly what we dimly, if strongly, intuit. The reshaping of our inner and outer world by digital technology throws a pall of disenchantment over what, until so recently, was the seat and heart of our pride: our “boundless” imagination. There is nothing new under the sun of the robotic archive that subsumes all our content and ourselves along with it. In such a milieu, memory—ours or the computers’—comes roaring back.
In more analytical language, it is retrieved. The way digital media works to retrieve things that had been backgrounded under TV conditions, when imagination (and its expert masters) ruled all, has already flipped the tables of Western life—stunning settled elites who bet big on the technological perfection of their fantasist form of rule. They could not—and still do not—see how the digital environment obsolesced modern answers to ultimate questions, inviting premodern answers to flow into the opening void in our consciousness and conversation.
But if our technological world has betrayed the modern psychology and the modern sensibility, it stands in more complex relation to the other two pillars of our American political identity—the democratic and liberal ones. For as everyone from the founding generation to Tocqueville’s and Lincoln’s well understood, the liberal and the democratic long predated modernity, whether pegged to the Reformation or the Enlightenment or the Electric Age.
So the proper political upshot of the shift in habits and perceptions brought on today is not as straightforward as sweeping “liberalism” or “democracy” into the dustbin of psycho-technological history. Our own responsibility to our habits of memory, and to our human agency as memorious creatures, reveals how different we are from our bots. Our recollections work unlike theirs, the ambitions and commitments of certain scientists notwithstanding.
Neither do our retrievals work like those of our media. We will want and need to bring back things that, by digital lights, are no more than pieces of content filed in the universal dump-cum-library of online—to unearth wisdom about who we, unlike our bots, are—artefacts connecting our identity through the eras, across revolutions in our surrounding, suffusing media.
This is the aim of The American Mind’s new Retrieval vertical. It’s a place where the history of thought about who we are and what we’ve done to ourselves might be as fruitfully explored through art and literature as it is through political theory and the philosophy of statecraft. The lines that link Aristotle to Locke, Shakespeare to Lincoln, or Augustine to Jefferson take, as Tocqueville said of divine designs, infinite paths toward the same objects.
Pursuing those threads, and spooling them in, is in this time of unraveling an instructive and industrious path to happiness, and a noble habit for Americans grappling with the strange and unsettled new leisure of pandemic time and beyond.