A Limitless Memory
It was sometime during the 1920s in the Soviet Union, and Sherashevsky sat with his fellow reporters listening to their editor assign the day's stories. The process was intricate, for it involved the names of contacts, directions to addresses, as well as dates and times of deadlines. Reporters dutifully took notes. Sherashevsky did not. It was only a matter of time before the editor noticed the paperless reporter, and in a burst of anger he asked Sherashevsky to repeat what was said that morning. Not only did Sherashevsky do so, he recited his editor's briefing word for word, without error. It is not known if his editor apologized, but the psychologist A.R. Luria recorded that Sherashevsky was surprised by his editor's disbelief. Sherashevsky wondered if there was "really anything unusual about his remembering everything he'd been told?" 1
Luria described the endless horizon of Sherashevsky's memory in a novella-like case study, The Mind of the Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory. The two met after the editor insisted that Sherashevsky see a specialist for his gift. At first, the psychologist ran the budding mnemonist through dozens of tests. He read off tables of numbers for Sherashevsky to repeat in order, then in reverse order, then in diagonal order. The tests varied in complexity, but no matter how baroque they became, Sherashevsky performed flawlessly. It didn't take long for Luria to conclude that his memory "had no distinct limits." 2
Sherashevsky's mind worked by means of synesthesia, a mental effect in which one sense is apprehended through another. Although many people can claim to hear a colour or feel the warmth of a tone, Sherashevsky actually saw vivid images with every word, number, and syllable. Nonsensical syllables appeared to him as "splashes" and "puffs of smoke" so real that all he had to do was picture these images to recall the associated syllable. The mnemonist associated more concrete words with perfectly conceptualized objects hidden in imaginary locations so lifelike that all Sherashevsky needed to do was simply describe the objects he saw in his mind's eye.
This being said, "limitless" is not synonymous with "perfect." Like Borges's Funes, basic abstraction eluded Sherashevsky. For example, Sherashevsky was very good with numbers, syllables, words -- but not with faces. To remember a face, he claimed, was difficult; it changed too much. It was tricky for the mnemonist to relate a face in pain and the same face overjoyed to a single person. Images produced by synesthesia also posed a problem. A word on a menu would not only label a particular food, it would explode a hallucination of colour so distracting that Sherashevsky often found it difficult to order anything at all.
Then there was the problem of forgetting. After years of performing, Sherashevsky's mind became cluttered. The memories of different performances tumbled into one another. In a fit of desperation, the mnemonist looked to his audiences for a strategy. "People jot down things so that they'll remember them. This seemed ridiculous to me...."3 Sherashevsky figured that if everyone else wrote in order to remember, he could write in order to forget. So, he made lists of things he could live without, lists of everyday objects and details of his performances. "But I got nowhere, for in my mind I continued to see what I had written." 4 Then, he tried writing these lists on identical sheets of paper. The results were no better. Finally, Sherashevsky burned the paper, thinking that he could literally destroy the memory by reducing it to cinders. To his horror, Sherashevsky still saw the traces of his past in the smoking ashes.
In 1979, just before the US Embassy in Tehran fell, the remaining American officials tried to destroy as many intelligence documents as they could. Their work was frantic, but when the embassy was seized, militant Islamic students found the shredded documents, and instead of considering them to be useless, the students decided to reassemble them with the aid of a small corps of carpet weavers. When completed, they assembled enough internal memos, progress reports, and intelligence assessments to fill seventy-seven published volumes.
Two decades later, the artists Julia Meltzer and David Thorne found a complete edition of the documents in the library of the University of California, Los Angeles. Meltzer was reading about the revolution and came across a mention of the seventy-seven volumes in a book written by a participant in the occupation. She and Thorne recently began working together under the name Speculative Archive, a collaboration devoted to studying, as their mission statement ambitiously says, "the production of documents, their collection, circulation and reception, and their socio-political effects." 5 Here, however, they mean secret government documents, the kind that confirm one's wildest suspicions, and also prove them to be not wild enough.
I spoke with Meltzer and Thorne over the phone about the twenty-five-minute video that resulted from their research, It's Not My Memory of It: Three Recollected Documents (2003). I had seen the video several times, first at a screening in 2003 during the New York Video Festival at the Lincoln Center, and at a number of other screenings since. It is a kind of abbreviated trilogy: three short episodes on three different declassified "documents" punctuated by interviews with intelligence representatives.
Research at a university library is one thing; interviews with intelligence officials about official secrets are another. During a phone interview with Thorne and Meltzer, I asked Meltzer how it all happened. She explained that by using official letterhead and a disinterested tone, she and Thorne secured their first interview.
"I said that we were interested in knowing about the process, solely the process of how information is collected and considered for release," Meltzer explains. "We were careful to say that we didn't want to know anything specific to any historical event. We just wanted to talk to people about their jobs." Helpfully, Meltzer added, "I said we were artists." 6
After their first interview with an intelligence official, others followed. Then things began to snowball; each interview justified the next. Meltzer would say to a reluctant official, "So-and-so gave us an interview -- what about you?" Of course, Speculative Archive knew that this was all part of the process of declassification. Most US intelligence agencies have a public relations office that is more than happy to give a few releasable facts and a good dose of disinformation. Meltzer is quick to make an exception for the nation's biggest intelligence agency, the National Security Agency (NSA), which, according to her, did not even have a fax number.
Cooperation was not complete, however. When I asked about the first interview on the videotape, which sounded as if it was recorded in a studio, Thorne responded that after arranging to talk with the CIA and securing permission to record the discussion, an agent was taken aback when Thorne produced a tape recorder. "What's that?" the agent asked. So Speculative Archive had to write it all down and record it later. Thorne wondered: "I don't know if it was miscommunication, or if they were having a little fun."
Following the conclusion of the first brief interview, the video's narration resumes in Farsi as spoken by a fictionalized SDURN. We learn through simultaneous translation that SDURN is the code name the CIA assigned to an Iranian man in the late 1970s, that he was a political moderate and possibly a cooperative informant. Using a map taken from his CIA file, Speculative Archive shows us the exact route he was to use to meet his designated agents. For an unknown reason, SDURN did not show up. Then he disappeared.
"We encountered his files in volume 56," Thorne explained. "This particular volume was about moderate political figures in Iran who were interested in democratic reform, and in most cases cooperated with the United States in some capacity. This story of SDURN occupied maybe twelve pages of files. There was something about the narrative trajectory that was compelling. So what we did was write a script based on those twelve pages."
Despite all the details (volume numbers, maps, actual pseudonyms), Meltzer's claim to the agents that she was not interested in specifics was truthful. The revelation of secrets is not what Speculative Archive is after. They are not conspiracy buffs. What concerns them is memory itself -- institutional and political memory stored in vast white-collar fortresses. For Speculative Archive, there is no puppet master hidden in some government bunker. There are just mountains and mountains of paperwork. This explains the fascination with those seventy-seven volumes. Like debris washed ashore after a disaster at sea, the fragments point to something vaster, more morbid and hidden.
A literal disaster at sea follows SDURN's narrative: a top secret American mission to recover a Soviet submarine, K-129, which sank near Hawaii in April 1968 due to an onboard explosion. K-129 was carrying nuclear warheads, and since the Soviet Union lost track of the sub, it could not stage a recovery mission. The CIA acted quickly, and began concocting a literal cover for the recovery operation, turning to the reclusive Howard Hughes for both the cloak-and-dagger technology and a nutty cover story. As the fabulists from Langley spun, the bunkered billionaire wanted to do some deep-sea mining, and the Hughes Tool Company along with Global Marine was to build a vessel called the Glomar Explorer for the reconnaissance attempt. By 1974, the Glomar was built and working in the Pacific, ostensibly mining for Hughes, but in reality it was bringing the submarine into its hull through a process that is still mostly unknown. The sub was brought back to California and dismantled in a government warehouse.
Or that's the story as reconstructed from the few partial accounts that exist. The CIA has still not officially acknowledged the Glomar debacle. Nor have they denied it. But in 1993, another piece of the Glomar resurfaced: a film showing the burial at sea of several of K-129's crew by US Navy shot after the recovery of the submarine. The tape was brought into public consciousness when the head of the CIA at the time, Robert Gates, gave the tape to Boris Yeltsin, an event that, for Gates, marked the end of the Cold War.
As seen in It's Not My Memory of It, the film is dark, grainy, a copy of a copy of a copy. Strangely enough, even though the footage has not been officially declassified, ABC News owns the rights to it.
"It's not in the public domain," Meltzer tells me. "They charged $23 per second. I said to them, I'm not broadcasting this on any major network. I think I paid $2,300 or $3,000 dollars for it."
The six minutes of video Speculative Archive shows is only an excerpt of the fourteen-minute source tape. Two cameras record the event: one from above the coffins and one from behind the chaplain who leads the ceremony. Prayers are uttered, statements are spoken, and then the bodies are lowered into the ocean. The ceremony is surprisingly compassionate. It is theatre, yes, but a theatre whose players have become convinced of their roles.
"At one point he talks about swords into ploughshares and his voice cracks," Thorne remembers. "He's not faking it, I don't think. There is something genuine about the ceremony even though it was so over-determined."
Meltzer continues the thought: "I do think that man who leads the ceremony is very heartfelt. The fact is that this ceremony is staged. They did it in order to have a document because they were afraid that the story would blow, and they would be accused of not having treated the bodies correctly. The whole thing was, in a sense, a fake, even though it was real. And they all played the part, and then really got into it."
Maybe this is an optimistic view of things. Approximating the interpretation that Meltzer and Thorne make of SDURN, which overlays a quality of decency onto what was probably and unsavoury informant, the viewer wants to see something at least slightly humane in the ceremony. We won't know anytime soon -- or ever -- if the impulse is realistic. In fact, the Glomar inspired its own intelligence term, owing to the fact that, despite the film, no one has even admitted to the existence of the mission in the first place. In a phrase that has crept onto late-night TV and Hollywood films, a Glomar is a "neither confirm nor deny" response.
The video concludes with a recent image of a Hellfire missile strike launched from a Predator drone in 2002 against six al Qaeda suspects, including an alleged high-level al Qaeda operative who was travelling through Yemen. The image of the charred remains of the car carrying the six dead suspects appeared on the cover of the New York Times on November 5, 2002.
"Both of us remember seeing that photograph on the cover of the New York Times. It was just such a striking image," Meltzer remembers. "We started doing a lot of research on that incident. There's very, very little to be known about that incident. A few journalists reported on it. It just happened, it was reported on, and then, because there was very little information, it was gone."
The image portrays an open secret. As the last segment of It's Not My Memory of It, the drone strike marks the latest in a typology of government secrecy. Both the Iranian documents and the Glomar were publicized intentionally or unintentionally, but both were supposed to be "secret secrets," they were hidden from the public through traditional means. In the case of the Hellfire missile attack, a secret program was carried out under relatively open circumstances. The photograph is meant to intimidate. What is worse, it is meant to impress the American public -- an example of Bush doctrine at work.
Hewlett-Packard researcher Phil Cheatle is trying to discover how to "capture terabytes of images from a person's daily life and store them in data centers, where they could later be retrieved for conventional printing." 7 This last year, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) scrapped a project called Lifelog, which explored the possibility of logging all of an individual's activities to an immense government database. After a few months, the project was restarted under a different name and governmental department. Recently, a company named Seisint was responsible for the unimaginatively named MATRIX -- Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange -- a system that combed a massive amount of personal data collected by for-profit companies and government agencies to use for anti-terrorist data mining. In September 2003, an already largely discredited John Poindexter attempted to justify in a New York Times Op-ed his involvement with another DARPA data-gathering project ludicrously called Total Information Awareness (TIA). The program was renamed, and then dumped. One year after Poindexter's Op-ed, the United States Army admitted to surreptitiously number crunching already surreptitiously obtained JetBlue flight passenger data. The Army said the data processing was done for the public's security, and the information was deleted.
The United States has seen a number of such projects surface in the past four years, most of them representing collaborations between private corporations and government institutions. Data mining, the practice of using artificial intelligence to find patterns in data, is crucial to the success of any such project. The science of data mining was developed in a mostly academic context during the 1980s, but later proved useful (and profitable) to private corporations. Billions of records of data detailing a population's medical history or book buying habits are useless without the diagnostic tools provided by data mining. Corporations can specialize in analyzing the data, but many also supply the data itself.
A sense of reality retreats from such names as Total Information Awareness and MATRIX. They plead for dismissal and psychoanalytic readings. But improbability does not embarrass their creators. It is flaunted. It is turned into an asset, a selling point. They are impossible to take seriously, but no matter how infeasible, how laughable, these programs are not merely sinkholes for federal funds. Behind the adolescent sci-fi names and techno neologisms is a desire for absolute memory. In the bookkeeper minds of US intelligence, everything is to be recorded, regardless of privacy, regardless of worth. A plane ticket? A library book? A security video of an elevator ride? It doesn't matter; in it goes, recorded, filed and cross-referenced; it is a product of what one commentator in the Financial Times called "suspicionless surveillance." 8
It is in this context that the work of Speculative Archive becomes historically charged. Meltzer and Thorne claim to be interested in the process of declassification, but another preoccupation, the failure of memory, encroaches upon their work. It's Not My Memory of It is possessed by an anxiety about the possible existence of total memory, a memory that cannot be erased. As Thorne explains during our interview:
"There is this assumption that we should be able to remember everything, so everything is over-documented. It's interesting if you begin to ask what kind of crisis of memory does that point to."
Not unlike Sherashevsky's memory, gigantic government archives and corporate databases are massive repositories of details. Creating abstractions from these details represents intelligence, an ability that is only partially possible to program into data mining software. One can't help but think of facial recognition programs when hearing that Sherashevsky could never forget a face, but could also never fully put those faces together to represent a person.
Put another way, what is at stake here is narrative -- the ability to construct a story from the singular events of one life. In that sense, Speculative Archive is directly involved in this process of recollection through their imagining of SDURN. They tell us that those seventy-seven volumes describe the actions of someone designated as SDURN. Those black lines of ink hide his real name and those documents tell us that he failed to show up to meet the agents on a certain date. However, for the SDURN as imagined by Speculative Archive, those volumes do not contain his memory. His conflict is not unreality versus reality, but one testimony versus another. He is forced to become a partisan for his own past. If Speculative Archive's video has any relevance at all, if the story of SDURN seems in some way familiar, it is because the fiction dramatized is current. It is our own.
1. Aleksandr Romanovich Luria, The Mind of the Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2003), 8.
2. Ibid., 11. Luria's emphasis.
3. Ibid., 69
4. Ibid., 70
6. Excerpts from a telephone interview with Speculative Archive conducted by the author. All such quotes stem from this conversation.
7. http://news.com.com/2100-1041_3-1009127.html Also see: http://www.hpl.hp.com/news/2004/jan-mar/casualcapture.html
8. Edward Aldan, "Privacy Fears Curb Efforts to Unmask Potential Terrorists: Risk of Abuse in Official Access to Personal Records and Air Passenger Profiles Alarms Civil Liberties Defenders, Writes Edward Aldan," Financial Times, Thursday, October 2, 2003, The Americas, 2.