These days, you don’t need to worry about remembrance of events. Whether celebrating a birth, a wedding, a first communion, or simply taking a trip to the beach, you can trust that everyone is deftly snapping away and uploading tokens of the latest happenings. And, unlike the analog photography of previous generations, these films and photos will be available to all on Facebook or Instagram almost instantaneously.
Yet, maybe we should worry about remembrance of an event. What if taking pictures for future reference steals something from the present moment? Or what if it’s stealing something from the past? What if the attempt to secure pictures to aid our memory of an event actually ends the event prematurely? As we hasten to capture a token for the future, the present event is instantly memorialized and disappears before its time.
Why is this? How are digital photographs and home movies any different from other memory-aiding technologies? Isn’t writing, likewise, a quest to memorialize and remember? The technology of writing, of course, is not without problems. In fact, one of Plato’s characters in the Phaedrus tells a cautionary tale against writing, arguing that it actually causes people to become more forgetful. Writing places a thought or memory outside a person (on paper) instead of compelling him to keep the memory written on his mind.
Digital technology and writing pose similar philosophical problems, but the distinctions between these mediums produce different consequences. Photographs are taken by a machine with minimal human effort. (Granted, humans can put effort and thought into how they photograph or film, but the machine does not require them to do so.) In order to memorialize something in writing, a human being cannot avoid the work of mental recollection. This takes time and reflection. A certain measure of distance between the event and the act of memorializing is necessary. By contrast, digital photos are produced with almost no distance from the event. Because the act of memorializing happens concurrently with the event itself, the present is uncannily pulled backward into the past. Such immediate memorializing inadvertently celebrates death by encouraging the moment’s passing in order to keep it artificially alive.
If this preservation of the moment is artificial, why do we keep at it? Perhaps one of the primary reasons is the profound sense of loss that characterizes human life. We live in a perpetual state of loss. Time cannot be stopped; life is constantly in flux. As soon as we step into the present moment, it disappears. If we pause to reflect on this transience, we begin to ache for our loss. The memory of what we once had (and will never have again) cuts us deeply.
We avoid memory because the painful cognizance of death comes with it. Instead of living, losing, and pausing to remember with sadness, we work hard to forget. We try to distract ourselves from the passage of time by perpetually moving, thinking that if we can avoid stillness, we can evade death. If we become still, we remember that we and everything around us is dying. Conversely, only death can free us from the fluidity of Time. Because human life is characterized by loss, the only way to stop the perpetual sense of loss is to die. In death, in being lost, we are no longer subject to the loss that accompanies life in Time.
This suicidal sense is not, of course, usually lived out in visible extremes. Most do not perpetually think about death or actually commit suicide. Instead, we constantly try to “capture” events, bringing about their untimely death. Subconsciously, we come to think that if we can film it, we can keep it. We believe that we are preserving life, preventing loss. Put differently: we have the suicidal sense because we desire life. We want to live forever, but the flow of Time constantly reminds us that we can’t, and so we do things that invite Death into our lives before Death gets the chance to invade and plunder.
In some ways, the attempt to capture a moment through digital technology is not very different from writing. Writing is, in many ways, a quest for immortality. Before the invention of writing, the only way to be remembered was to have children who would carry on your name, stories, and traditions by passing them orally to the next generation. That generation would, in turn, pass everything down to successive generations. Writing made it possible for a person’s (or community’s) words to be remembered even after death. But unlike writing, which acknowledges the inevitability of future death and yet express a wish to be remembered after death, digital images fight against death and inaugurate it at the same time. Through writing, the memory replaces the event after the event has already died. Through filming, the memory eclipses the event in its moment of life and kills it.
From a theological perspective, this is the exact opposite of the kind of remembrance enacted through the Christian ritual of Communion. In the memorial of Communion, the memory and the event occupy the same space, yet neither is eclipsed by the other. This act of remembrance pulls the past into the present and the past is made alive through participation in the present-ness of resurrection. According to Christian tradition, Christ was born, lived, died, and rose again. Yet because he rose again, he is not dead, but living. When we remember his death, we remember his life, too; but not a life that has passed and is now no longer. Because he lives presently, the memorial of his death simultaneously celebrates a past and present event.
In film, the memory replaces a present event and transforms it into a past event. In Communion, the past is caught up in the present and transformed by it; the past becomes present in the ever-present Christ. In Christ, the passage of Time no longer means death. Life is still in flux, but it is no longer characterized by loss. Why is it no longer characterized by loss? Because the moment that was is no longer a signal of death. The past is not lost or replaced by memory. Rather, that past is revivified by the present and exists forever in the present, eternal Christ who defeated death through his own death and resurrection.
Digital photography does not have to be used as an instant memory-maker, but its convenience, and the reflexive mode of discourse established by internet culture, make it hard to use intentionally. The immediacy of the medium makes it easy to short-circuit the emotional and mental processes involved in remembrance and leave us a little more forgetful than we were before.