Smartphones, Memory and the Cross

The smartphone has become the sacrament (James KA Smith calls it the “liturgical instrument”) of the postmodern city. More specifically, it is the one concrete site where one has a concentrated experience of the forces circulating through contemporary urban life.

One thing that the smartphone demonstrates about the contemporary city, it is that our social context is hostile to memory. Indeed, the postmodern city is proactively destructive of memory. Looking at one’s emails on a smartphone, for instance, one notices that only a certain range of communications are stored on a device. Details of the past are lost almost as instantaneously as they appear. A rather disturbing parallel can be found in a report from the BBC on the retention of old data on social networking sites, another icon of the postmodern city. Rather than being a limitless storehouse of memory, the report refers to an article which outlines a tendency within social networking to lose information about an event, whether through manual or automatic deletion, as early as a year after its occurrence.

This treatment of communications as disposable is symptomatic of the postmodern city’s attitude to memory. Now in its post-fordist phase, the city embodies a culture of authenticity that emphasises living in the now. “Now” is the special messianic moment within postmodern culture. However, this is far from the fulfilment of the same passage we find in 2 Corinthians 6:2. To intensify the significance of “Now”, “Now” is deliberately cut off from its connections with the past as well as the future, and life for the urban dweller ends up becoming a process of disjointed present moments.
Such a life of commodified time snaps have a profound influence on one’s attitudes, particularly to memory. In a world dominated by the “Now”, memories are something that we presume we can relegate to the past so we can “live for the moment”. We presume that this rendering of experiences to manageable micro-units is something that liberates us from the determinative effects of our past, in pretty much the same way that the individualism of Liberal thought liberates us from the domination of traditional communal belongings.
This attitude is understandable, given that many memories are marked by what psalm 92 calls “emptiness and pain”, be they failures in aspirations, brokenness in human relations, or the scars of what Shakespeare calls the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. We understandably prefer to free ourselves from the grip of such memories by concentrating on the present, and the postmodern city’s never-ending production of new pleasures to replace the old provides the perfect social backdrop to help “take our mind off things”.
In spite of these assurances for our mental comfort, however, we cannot simply “take our mind off things”. The urban dweller’s quintessentially embodied experience of the city is guaranteed to bring up such painful memories in ways and moments that will surprise and disarm. These memories can come from sights and sounds as mundane as the sight of a table at a cafe, the wrong turn down an arcade, the sound of a bird or a taste of a particular dish (the author Marcel Proust spoke of memories being triggered by Madeleine biscuits in his In Search of Lost Time). This is so because the body has deeply embedded imprints of experiences that are more visceral and more enduring than the memories that reside in one’s mind. As a result, the things of the city that the body experiences will often trigger a memory that the mind may have conveniently forgotten. If this memory is painful this will lead to an anxiety, and the urban dweller may intensify his efforts to expunge such memories by immersing himself ever deeper into the momentary pleasures of the postmodern city.
For the Christian, such struggles with memory in urban life should remind us that we carry within ourselves a whole corpus of memories that cannot be expunged by the mind. We can neither “take our minds off things”, nor can we pick and choose the memories he wishes to retain, contrary to the techniques and associated promises of the postmodern city. Part of the Christian call to “take up one’s cross” thus will involve taking up one’s memories imprinted within the body, rather than trying to cut them off (as an aside, it is significant that one service the postmodern city offers as an opportunity to forget one’s past is through various forms of plastic surgery, though this must be explored in another post). This need not be masochistic and hermetic, but can be a concrete way to be what Paul calls the offering of one’s body as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1) in an urban context.
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