Winter 2001–2002

The Practice of Failure

Emma Kay and the memory of the world

John Roberts

What a deep joy there is in making confessions of objective errors.
—Gaston Bachelard1

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, “memory men” (and they were usually men) were a familiar act on the music hall circuits of Europe and North America. Though many of the acts were clearly scams relying on stooges in the audience to feed prepared questions to the performer, some featured performers who demonstrated what we call “the power of photographic memory.” However, whether an illusion or a prodigious feat, these acts were accorded a huge amount of respect. This is because the performers were appreciated as popular scholars, individuals who were capable of answering what the audience wanted answered—invariably questions on sports, the miracles of nature, and the histories of kings and queens. In this they fulfilled, superficially at least, a similar role to the successful TV quiz winners of today, those who return week after week, answering questions on the widest and most arcane subjects, or the person who can recite to order large chunks of the Guinness Book of Records. Both performers and contestants are admired for their spontaneous encyclopedic knowledge.

But unlike today, the Victorian and Edwardian “memory men” also performed in a culture where the formalization of knowledge was the province, largely, of the educated middle class. As such, for the Victorians and Edwardians the pleasure taken from the “memory men’s” spontaneous demonstration of knowledge was the pleasure in being able to put questions to an expert without feeling shame for asking the question—even if in principle, the purpose of the entertainment was for the audience to outwit the performer and see him fail. Thus, under earlier conditions of mass illiteracy, a significant part of the working class’s pleasure in watching memory men perform their prodigious arts was based on being in the presence of a knowledge that felt attainable, amenable, and inclusive. Today, impressive acts of memory are certainly admired, but in the same way that juggling is “admired”—as a skill that astonishes through its dexterity, but nevertheless is viewed, ultimately, as being a skill without purpose, and therefore of abstruse value only. This cynical response is not because the popular arts of memory have become any less popular.2 Working class autodidacticism, as it gets played out in sports knowledge—lists, tables, dates—remains formidably extensive. Rather, the response is because of the way acts of human memory have been displaced by the ubiquitous and fast memory of machines. The exponential increase in computer memory has left human acts of memory trailing behind. Indeed, new technology has exposed how feeble human memory actually is even at its most careful and assiduous. The human brain is not designed to recover large amounts of information at will. Rather, the ways in which the human brain has proved to be efficient are in the creative and contextual application of knowledge, a set of skills at which computers are dismally poor. In this regard what computers have eliminated is the popular magical function of the (limited) arts of memory that the early music hall celebrated; no human act of memory today can come anywhere near in its speed or depth to the instantaneous recall of the search engine or the detail of the in-car navigational system. Now, obviously the erosion of oral systems of knowledge transmission is not solely the result of computer efficiency. Since the invention of the book and various technological developments in the recording of data and indexing, humans have been able to separate the storage of knowledge from its oral dissemination, widening the conditions of who produces and who “owns” knowledge. With the routinization of knowledge through the use of the written document, knowledge becomes a shared entitlement (for those who can read and write) rather than a cultic experience. But with the advance of computers and the expansion of the sciences, the separation between storage and common use has widened to unprecedented levels. One of the consequences of this is that what is treated, in philosophical terms, as the fallible relationship between human memory and knowledge is now taken, on a social scale, to be irrevocable: Memory fails absolutely because humans are simply unable to both digest the vast quantities of readily available information and compete with the computer’s forbidding powers of organization. The interrelation between knowledge and memory has become, therefore, not just a problem of extensity and quantity—as it always has been under a complex division of labor—but of the stark visibility of memory’s impotence. This is why, in popular terms, the perceived impotence of memory is seen as a crisis of storage capacity: The impotence of memory is gauged on the basis of the mind’s physiological and cognitive limitations—an updated version of John Locke’s theory of consciousness, where human cognitive faculties are never quite up to the job of understanding or representing the world. The imputed failure of consciousness in the age of hyper-efficient memory machines, therefore, veils a trauma: the impossibility of knowledge in a world where knowledge no longer seems capable of being assimilated and evaluated.

Cultural reflections on cognition, knowledge, and memory, however, are rare these days—despite the “memory industry” and developments in artificial intelligence. Discussions of cognition and memory are usually confined to the philosophy of mind or cognitive psychology, which is why the English artist Emma Kay’s recent work on cognition, memory, and knowledge is particularly engaging, given its artistic context.

Kay’s incorporation of various feats of memorization into her art—drawing a map of the world from memory complete with place names, rewriting the Bible and the plots of Shakespeare’s plays from memory—clearly recalls the braggadocio of the music hall memory men, albeit mediated by the discipline of the junior high school classroom. Indeed, the powers of recollection on display here are those nominally associated with the school exam and classroom recitation. But more pointedly, in the case of her use of the Bible and Shakespeare, they enact a certain kind of lost or marginal cultural capital in the contemporary world of culture. Familiarity with the Bible in the West (discounting the beliefs and commitments of the religious) has long been an esoteric knowledge, just as the contemporary readership of Shakespeare is largely professional. Thus, despite the huge amount of cultural capital still associated with Shakespeare, and particularly with the Bible on the grounds of its vast pedagogic influence, popular, attentive readers of these works are few. Kay’s acts of memorization are attuned, therefore, to the social and ideological conditions under which cultural capital and tradition are produced. The Bible and Shakespeare may weigh in with a huge amount of cultural and educational force—state force, in fact—but the popular conditions of reception (under which memory of the tradition within which such works live) have been diminished and fragmented. Hence there is an obvious gap between what the culture invites people to remember in order to attain cultural and social capital and what people choose to (or are in a position to) remember. Kay’s point, though, is not that of the cheap cultural studies jibe at high culture and religious belief. Rather, what preoccupies her, and what interests me, are the conditions under which modernity produces, organizes, and derogates memorization. In this, her performance from memory of culturally sanctioned texts is concerned more significantly with the occlusion of memory and knowledge generally. For as with our popular user of computers, her memory skills are produced out of a deflationary, Lockean sense of human consciousness as inadequate to the production of knowledge. Thus we might marvel, as with our imaginary juggler, at her rendering of the Bible and Shakespeare, but the act itself doesn’t compel; it has no social function. It seems to be merely fanciful, the work of a frozen, artificial culture—a dead pedagogy.

In this sense, the work involves an intriguing contradiction at the heart of the interrelationship between knowledge and memory: In straining after a purported truthfulness, it inevitably demonstrates its own incompetence. The outcome, therefore, is substantively not like the vaudeville “memory men,” because her appointed task is actually self-defeating and therefore an enactment of failure rather than its unconscious or incidental outcome. There is no illusion of exactitude here, even if the demonstration of memory skills remains impressive.

It is wrong to assume, then, that this work is simply an anti-art act of violation against high cultural norms. Rather, the embrace of the failure of memory is wholly strategized. That is, the limits of memory here are transformed into a post-conceptual act of cognitive closure. Forms of cognitive closure in art are strategies or acts of artistic self-disablement or self-constraint, which test or expose the inherited skills or cognitive competences of dominant or prevailing practices. The character of these forms of cognitive closure can be elastic, but relevant examples might be Dieter Hacker’s and Art & Language’s “painting by mouth” (in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively), Vito Acconci’s blindfolded and earplugged documentation of his immediate gallery environment in 1971, and Ian McKeever’s “painting in the dark” of the 1980s. The overriding aim of these strategies is to critique or derogate what are perceived to be culturally unproblematic notions of “expression,” “representation,” and “authorship.” Such strategies of negation, therefore, should not be confused, for example, with the use of syntactic and alphabetic constraints in the fiction and poems of Oulipo and Georges Perec, where self-imposed demands function as obstacles to be overcome in a display of wit and ingenuity. In this way the notion of cognitive closure has its intellectual and cultural home in the aesthetics of amateurism, rather than in the bravura realms of puzzle solving or game playing.

Amateurism is the model by which the deflationary function of artistic incompetence in modernism and the avant-garde is embodied. It is the amateur artist—that is the artist who in some sense fails the test of professionalism and “good” taste—that modernists and avant-gardists have looked to in order to secure what is anti-bourgeois and anti-aesthetic. Of course the cognitive demands and social conditions of amateurism have changed—the bourgeois audience for art is no longer troubled by the performed incompetences of Cézanne, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism—but nevertheless, the performance of incompetence remains something that haunts the art world’s continual call to order and identity. Indeed the performance of incompetence drives an enormous amount of contemporary art, in its widespread affection for poor materials and poor workmanship, juvenile symbols and childlike marking, misregistration of forms, bad spelling, camp obsessions, and the DIY use of scientific hardware and knowledge. Much of this work, though, does not adopt strategies of incompetence systematically as a cognitive constraint. This is because there is a darkness and deconstructive urge at the heart of the systematic use of cognitive constraint, which a lot of contemporary art is antipathetic to, given its confusion of amateurism with a love of loucheness. Kay’s use of the cognitive constraint of the failure of memory then, occupies a different position, closer to the notion of constraint as a form of ideological exposure; that is, the notion of the failure of memory becomes a performative contradiction. The incompetence of the activity provides the conditions for critical reflection.

One of Kay’s most ambitious works recently is Worldview (1999),3 a narrative written from memory of the history of the world. As an adolescent, Jane Austen wrote an unfinished history of the world. Whether in sly homage to this or not, the text performs a similar manic ambition: the would-be narration of all significant events that fall under the description of “world history” from the origins of civilization circa 4000 b.c. to the New Year’s Eve Millennium celebrations. It is claimed that Kay wrote the text without recourse to any study aids, relying solely on what she could remember from her school and university days, TV, and general reading. What isn’t clear though is whether this primary process of memorization was supplemented prior to the writing by vast amounts of cramming which she then regurgitated, as if she was a student of a particular megalomaniacal history master, sitting for an impossibly overarching exam—the mother of all history exams. The issue here, though, isn’t about the means by which she actually compiled the text—as if knowing she studied for its execution diminishes our admiration of the performance—but what finds its way into the text, on what terms, and under what assumptions. This is where the performative work of the text begins to unfold.

Kay has produced a narrative that is compiled unashamedly from received ideas, clichés, obvious mistakes, empirical experience, and hearsay, but in a voice that is unswervingly confident about its own claims. The writing has an authoritative relentlessness as it passes from one period, one set of events, and one set of facts to another. But, coextensively, this relentlessness is always subject to a process of interruption and breakdown as Kay’s evident lack of knowledge of a given period or event is reduced to a few details and inconsequentialities leaving the narrative hanging in the air. In this respect the text is actually desperately boring and unrewarding in the claims for objectivity that it sets itself, as if, in order to signify to the reader the authenticity of her process of memorization, the writing had to be untainted by theoretical argument, polemic, or stylistic invention. Thus, what is remembered and noted down is written in such a way as to convince the reader that this is a work of labored recovery, an exacting exercise, and not the underachieving commentary of an expert. Consequently the dullness is a trope; and, as such, functions in the text as a prerequisite of the reader accepting or appreciating the labor of the exercise. Literary invention would only foul up the image of honest amateurism by concealing the frustrating inaccuracy and lack of focus of the process of memorization.

The banality of the text, therefore, is the key to the truth-effects of the memory exercise. By adopting the voice of an earnest compositor of facts, by incorporating non-sequitors and jumps in continuity, by excluding any reference to written authorities, by focusing principally on Britain for a large part of the book, the character of the historical narrative is self-evidently that of England-domiciled autodidact. As such, the text’s “memory work” is inseparable from its generic and provincial conditions of production. Worldview may have ambitions to be a world history, but its voice is clearly overdetermined by what Kay remembers from her education growing up in England in the 1970s and 1980s, and what she remembers directly from this period. The historical detail gets denser and more expressly national when the narrative coincides with her own biological life span. In this respect, the book advertises itself as a world historical narrative, but it is actually written in the form of a memoir or diary. The idea that diaries or memoirs possess stronger claims to historical truth is commonplace. Indeed, on the basis that they are privileged sites of the truths of micro-history, the diary and the memoir have become perhaps the most popular genres of historical writing today. But the discrepancy between the localized knowledges of Worldview and the world historical ambitions of the writing means that the local and generic are here revealed as theoretically insufficient to sustain the narrative. Hence by performing the failure of memory, Kay exposes the relationality of her authorship and subjectivity and the limits of her knowledge, and, therefore, the conditions of her own ideological formation. For in demonstrating the failure of memory as a failure of knowledge, the relationship between ideology and knowledge is foregrounded. The failure of memory as a failure of knowledge, then, becomes a means of exposing how historical knowledge is produced out of a shared cultural memory of historical representations over which we have little control. In other words, Kay exposes the impotence of memory not just as the result of cognitive limitations, but as the outcome of certain processes of socialization. This leads to a very different reading of the text’s would-be factual content. What appears to be the neutral structure of Kay’s powers of memory becomes, in its gradual unfolding, the self-fulfilling liberal democratic ideology of history as a process of progressive self-enlightenment. Kay’s voice becomes the voice of liberal reason.

This is what makes Worldview particularly intriguing. We are never sure under what basis the failure of memorization is taking place. Is Kay’s indifference as a historian the actual outcome of the failures of memory and obvious lack of knowledge and theoretical reflection, or is her lack of knowledge being simulated at certain points in order to emphasis the myth of neutrality? This question is particularly pertinent when we compare Kay’s surprising display of early mediaeval historical knowledge—“the best known shrines were at Santiago de Compostela on the route which led from England to Rome”4—to her knowledge of modern and ubiquitous media events, such as Kennedy’s assassination and the American moon landing. Strikingly, she gets the dates of these two events wrong. Not to say that she shouldn’t get these dates wrong, but these errors look odd against the partial displays of erudition elsewhere in the text. Accordingly, such slips allow the performativity of the writing to be interpreted in two ways: Either the book was written fast without much revision, or the finished text was then rewritten with added mistakes. To discover which path she took is not necessarily to make a value judgment here, but to realize that the display of memory’s impotence is not just enacted but actually performed. On this score there is an obvious point to be made about the intertextuality of the historical text, or any other text for that matter: Kay’s historical narrative is a convocation of remembered lessons, reported speech, newspaper articles, film dialogue, TV narratives, and books, which are themselves, in turn, the composite remnants of remembered texts. But what is of principal interest about Worldview is not that it demonstrates the limits of historical objectivity—as if the whole project was an elaborate post-structuralist exercise—but, to return to my earlier remarks, that it invests an enormous amount of intellectual effort into the demonstration of intellectual failure. All intellectual work, in a sense, demonstrates this paradox in some capacity. But this is not something to which writers, intellectuals, and historians would willingly expose themselves. It is hard to imagine a scholar, or anyone who takes their intellectual identity seriously, exposing himself to memory’s impotence by publishing a text without recourse to any written aids and citations. In this way, Worldview uses the impotence of memory to field a number of questions about the function of intellectual expertise. One of the few critical functions that artists still possess is their access to modes of negation that deflate the conjunction of power and knowledge. This is because artists can lodge themselves into discourses without any social investment in those discourses. No one but an artist could have produced Worldview, because no one but an artist would have wanted to expose themselves to its intellectual embarrassments. Thus, Kay’s reworking of the notion of the amateur or autodidact is a reconfirmation of the deflationary powers of the artist. That is, artists must of necessity make themselves masters of “failure” in a culture where the truths of the dominant perform an inflationary ideological role of triumphant elucidation (Aufklärung). In this sense, Kay’s employment of the impotence of memory can be seen as related, indirectly, to the politicization of a post-Freudian psychoanalysis. By recognizing the failure of memory as an acceptance of insufficiency we are able to confront the problem of knowledge as a comedy of critical struggle, rather than as a tragedy of imperfect realization.

In this I detect a critical tension at play in Kay’s recourse to memorization. As I outlined above, Kay’s engagement with memorization seems inseparable from the trauma of knowledge. On one level, her employment of the impotence is a direct response to the complexities of the contemporary division of labor and the power of intelligence machines. In her performance of failure—as in other contemporary art—there is flight from formalized knowledge. This is her Lockean voice. But hidden in the performance of the failure of knowledge, and the deflation of knowledge’s triumphant elucidation, is a different understanding of pedagogy, one in which error is grounded in reason. If claims to knowledge could only be made where there was no possibility of error, communication between humans would become inconceivable. Yet the possibility of error is used, invariably, by those with intellectual power and authority to silence or subordinate those without such authority and power. Indeed, the fear of making a mistake, of showing up one’s lack of knowledge, is one of the most powerful determinates of daily conversation, with its evasions, platitudes, and alienated civilities. This is because the sense of social exclusion experienced by those who don’t pursue critical or theoretical knowledge is minimal compared to those who do try and fail.5 “I am not interested,” “I don’t want to know,” or, “that’s boring,” are invariably the self-protective responses of someone who knows the penalty and does not want to be humiliated. The shame attributed to the possibility of error is a powerful servant, therefore, of bourgeois ideologies of spontaneous knowledge. As such, the fear of error is a means of socializing people out of certain critical intellectual skills into an acceptance of prevailing anti-intellectual and conformist ideologies. Recognizing the intimacy between the pursuit of knowledge and the acceptance and acknowledgement of error can be liberating, therefore, insofar as it can expose the linguistic and ideological self-protection that dominates everyday discourse. This is turn means addressing ourselves to something that Jacques Rancière has pursued in his extensive writing on working-class autodidacticism: There is no hierarchy of intellectual capacity that says who, or who is not, capable of the pursuit of knowledge. “Emancipation is becoming conscious of this equality” in nature. In other words, the pursuit of knowledge is not simply an acquaintance with ideas, but is an attribute of practice. On this basis we should all try writing a history of the world from memory.­

  1. Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964), p. 100.
  2. There are still many organized memory championships. The 2001 World Memory Championships were held in London on 25–26 August 2001.
  3. Emma Kay, Worldview (London: Book Works, 1999). Worldview is also exhibited as a digital print on paper.
  4. Worldview, op. cit., p. 35.
  5. See Trevor Pateman, Language, Truth and Politics: Towards a Radical Theory for Communication (Lewes, UK: Jean Stroud, 1975).
  6. Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant School Master: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans. Kristin Ross (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), p. 27.

John Roberts is the author of The Art of Interruption: Realism, Photography and the Everyday and has written for a wide number of journals, including the New Left Review and Radical Philosophy. He lives in London.

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