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the Complete Review
the complete review - internet / philosophy



Fragments of an Infinite Memory

by
Maël Renouard


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Fragments of an Infinite Memory



Title: Fragments of an Infinite Memory
Author: Maël Renouard
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 223 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Fragments of an Infinite Memory - US
Fragments of an Infinite Memory - UK
Fragments of an Infinite Memory - Canada
Fragments d'une mémoire infinie - Canada
Fragments d'une mémoire infinie - France
Fragmente eines unendlichen Gedächtnisses - Deutschland
directly from: New York Review Books
  • My Life with the Internet
  • French title: Fragments d'une mémoire infinie
  • Translated by Peter Behrman de Sinéty

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyable and often sharp reflections, well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       The English translation of Maël Renouard's Fragments of an Infinite Memory adds a subtitle, My Life with the Internet, suggesting more a personal than abstract treatment of the material. Much here is, indeed, personal, as Renouard speaks of and reflects on his own experiences -- useful also, among other things, in situating his frame of reference, as he points out (in the final entry of the book):

I'm thirty-seven years old; I went online for the first time when I was nineteen; I can still say I've lived more than half my life without the internet, though this ratio will soon tip the other way.
       This half-way point is, in many ways, an ideal vantage point, with sufficient awareness of both worlds (as it were), with a younger generation already much less likely to be able to truly fathom aspects of life -- notably communication and the retrieval of information -- in a pre-internet age. Renouard usefully does point out that, while this transformation that has come with the use of the internet over, say, the past quarter of a century, appears to be us completely transformative, a leap of unimaginable scope, previous technological advances and their consequences seemed similarly great in their time; only time will tell whether this has been the biggest of leaps, or simply another easily accommodated step along the human way. (Considering the ease with which we seem to have adapted to the internet, the transformation seems, so far, to have been deceptively simple.)
       As the title suggests, this is a collection of 'fragments' rather than a traditional long-form essay; fittingly for our internet age it comes in easily digestible pieces that are a paragraph or at most a few pages long, with a great deal of variety to them (mirroring, in some ways, the online-reading experience, that rarely stays in one place, as it were, for long). While often writing from personal experience, Renouard ranges far and wide. He includes numerous accounts of others' experiences, presenting revealing anecdotes from friends and acquaintances that he heads: 'Psychopathology of Digital Life'. And he reaches back in history with clever examples, neatly presented -- contrasting, for example, present day instant communication with how: "Long and unpredictable delays in the flow of mail were a constant obsession and immense burden for the kings and emperors of these past time" (complete with quote from a letter by Cardinal Rambouillet to Charles IX to make the point), or reminding readers of a scene from Flaubert's A Simple Heart in which the servant Félicité is shown a map of Havana and: "probably even expected to see a picture of her nephew" -- a laughable mis-understanding in the book, but something Google Maps and Facebook now practically make possible.
       Renouard's focus is on memory, in its broadest sense. He begins by recalling how he imagines: "Googling to find out what I'd been up to and where I'd been two evenings before, at five o'clock, since I couldn't remember on my own". As he notes, the internet has expanded 'memory' to the near-infinite: the amount of information readily available and accessible, from historical facts to the contents of all books to images and video to the personal, without phones tracking our locations (not to mention so many people posting every moment of their lives on Facebook, Twitter, and the like), is explosively expanding to include evermore, and ever farther reaches. Facts that previously were cumbersome to seek out are now at our fingertips with simple Google searches, while practically every image one can imagine is readily available online. He mentions not bothering to take pictures at one point, because he knows that he can find practically every shot already online in some form -- though he acknowledges the personal connection, the memory that comes with certain pictures and the taking of them, or the circumstances, is generally lost in reliance on the hive-mind's store.
       Early on he points out: "A lessening of the difference between inner and outer has already largely begun". He sees the internet as already having achieved much that we anticipate from the singularity, knowledge, images -- everything we have, can, and imagine seeing --, and, increasingly, experience already all there, out in the open, shared, and accessible. (Originally published in 2016, Renouard does not really look into efforts at data protection and personal control much, though the 2014 decision in Google Spain SL v. Agencia Española de Protección de Datos that mandates (with some exceptions) the removal of links to personal information from search engines at the request of an individual would certainly be relevant to his discussion of public and private memory.)
       Renouard ranges far in his study, helpfully often going beyond the obvious, in both his many historical and other examples and the concepts he discusses. So, for example, he points out the usefulness of the internet for translators -- not in discussing Google's translate feature, but in the possibility of finding: "a whole series of images of the thing denoted by the word one seeks to understand". (Amusingly, he does find that this doesn't (yet) work for everything -- a Google image search for Fensterpult brought him no closer to truly understanding what might Walter Benjamin might have meant by this (as, indeed, it still doesn't ...).)
       Among the interesting things he considers is the consequence of having all this information instantly at hand on the writing of fiction, a question that has come even more to the fore in the years since Fragments of an Infinite Memory was first published. He suggests Schott's Original Miscellany and (dear god ...) Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones were: "the last books in which we admired feats of erudition that are now within reach of almost everyone". And so, among his conclusions is that:
Precision has become to easy; the anguish of the blank page has been almost completely eradicated from our lands. The work of writing has suddenly come to resemble that of sculpture, whose entire material is given at the outset and whose motto is: Chisel away ! The accumulation of details found on the internet backfires against the realist ambition that naively motivates it, because these details ring false. We have to cast aside entire cargos of useless specifics. We have to strive to be vague.
       The over-abundance of information -- much of it simply noise -- is largely a new problem, but Renouard understands there's little possibility of retreat from it. Indeed, there's less so now: Renouard describes experiences of losing writing or images stored on his computer and phone, but in this age of almost universal 'Cloud'-back-ups, even these blips of electronic loss have become much, much rarer. (Interestingly, however, he does not consider the surely likely, at some point in our futures, doomsday scenario, the EMP burst or the Russian cyberattack or the like that, one way or another, fries a significant chunk of electronic infrastructure and leads to the catastrophic and complete loss of much stored data and/or the ability to retrieve or use it.)
       Fragments of an Infinite Memory is an enjoyably readable tour across our changing interior and exterior landscapes and their overlap as the internet has taken hold (of us and all our information). Renouard presents his material well and writes with a comfortable ease -- eruditely but not off-puttingly so (i.e. allowing the reader to feel clever). One section (9) is an outlier, mixing a variety of classical figures and contemporary situations, strays a bit far in its playfulness, but at least he doesn't go on too far in this direction and is soon back on course.
       Discussions of the internet date quickly, and even in the five years between its original publication and that of the English translation there have been shifts that presumably would now also be addressed here -- certainly regarding Facebook (the social media that he mentions most often), but also in other regards. Yet many of the basics, and especially his fundamental interest, on the change in 'memory' -- personal and collective --, are certainly still current and well worth (re)considering. It is good -- and often enough quite thought-provoking -- reading.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 February 2021

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Links:

Fragments of an Infinite Memory: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Maël Renouard was born in 1979.

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© 2021 the complete review

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