Mark Dery on Thu, 7 Feb 2002 21:36:01 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Memo Mori

A belated Elegy in a Corporate Graveyard, along with some musings on
invisible literature...

 Memo Mori

 Long before the premature End of the World As We Know It and the resultant
Death (not again!) of Irony, the SF novelist and master ironist J.G. Ballard
predicted (with tongue only partly in cheek) that "one day in the near
future.anthologies of 20th century inter-office memos" would one day be "as
treasured as the correspondence of Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot."1

Ballard is a constant reader of what he calls "invisible literature"---the
paper trail of the Information Age, which comprises "market research
reports, pharmaceutical company house magazines, the promotional copy for a
new high-energy breakfast food, journals such as Psychological Abstracts and
the Italian automobile magazine Style Auto, the internal memoranda of TV
company planning departments, sex manuals, [and] medical textbooks such as
the extraordinary Crash Injuries."2

Of course, Ballard's inventory is hardly exhaustive. To his mental library,
we might add press releases, chain letters, religious tracts, self-help
books, psychological tests (such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality
Index), government publications (for example, the Warren, Meese, and Starr
reports), lunatic-fringe manifestoes (Industrial Society and Its Future by
the Unabomber, S.C.U.M. by Valerie Solanas), trial transcripts, cockpit
voice recordings, technical manuals, mail-order catalogues, mission
statements, and annual reports. In the decades since Ballard coined the
term, around 1970, the flood of invisible lit has swollen to biblical
proportions, gushing through the burst bulkheads of our lives in the form of
faxes, spam, blog, and personal e-mail, not to mention the old-fashioned
dead-tree stuff.

 For Ballard, the literary productions of executives, scientific
researchers, and the stage managers of consumer psychology (advertisers,
marketers, public-relations firms), properly read, are an inexhaustible fund
of insights and inspiration, perfectly attuned to the neuroses and psychoses
of everyday life in the 21st century---unlike the mainstream novel, still
suffering from a humanist hangover that blinds it to our increasingly
posthuman reality of designer babies and intelligent interfaces, computers
that run on bacteria and heart valves made of engineered tissue. Like
DeLillo and Pynchon, Ballard reads the literary output of corporate America
as a collective dream journal, extracting from its eerie banalities and
arcane data the true mythology of the 21st century. Crash Injuries, the
Warren Report, and the Hollywood Yellow Pages are his Kraft-Ebbing, his
Interpretation of Dreams, his Man and His Symbols---and his Great American
Novels, too. As for traditional fiction, well, "the great majority of
English and American novelists.have nothing of interest to say whatever, and
an hour spent in not reading them is an hour gained forever."3 Hence, his
arch prediction that, when the electronic cottage and the free-agent economy
make the corporate office obsolete, the prosaic communications of today's
companies will become precious things, transformed by their obsolescence
from memos into mementos.

"[W]hen the last corporate headquarters has been torn down," is how he puts
it, but that's just a blind; his future tense, borrowed from the prop room
of pulp SF, is purely ironic. In truth, Ballard is using the elevation of
inter-office memos to literary status to make the argument, equal parts
Warhol and Duchamp, that the individual voice is giving way to the
collective hum of the corporate hive (see Warhol's use of hired hands to do
the gruntwork of actually making his art, or his famous confession that he
wanted to be a robot; see also Duchamp's use of mechanical drawing and
professional signpainters to expunge all traces of "the artist's hand" from
his work). Ever the wag, Ballard is also saying that scientific journals,
industry studies, government white papers---hell, even advertising
copy---offer a more relevant vocabulary for delving the depths of our info-b
litzed, hyper-mediated psyches than the serious novels beloved of the New
York Review of Books crowd, an assertion calculated to give Dame Sontag a
fit of the vapors.

 But Ballard's "one day in the near future" has arrived ahead of schedule,
on the wings of a horror unimaginable to him or anyone, burying his
prediction under an irony heavy as death. The corporate HQ isn't an
archaeological site just yet, but the world's best-known office complex, the
World Trade Center, has been reduced to a smoldering hellpit, and the
inter-office memos of its former occupants, many of them now dead, have been
filed under a mountain of debris or scattered to the winds.

A snowfall of them joined the choking white grit already blanketing Liberty
Plaza, near the debris field that was the WTC. In a photo in the September
23 issue of The New York Times Magazine, waves of paper lap at twisted
metal, drunkenly leaning trees, and J. Seward Johnson Jr.'s superrealist
sculpture of a corporate footsoldier, Double Check (1982).4 The pall of
lunar dust---soot, pulverized concrete, and god knows what---lends the scene
a ghastly beauty. It resonates at the same aesthetic frequency as those
hauntingly poetic human shadows frozen on Hiroshima walls by the atomic
flashbulb. And like those indelible shadows, some of these papers may be all
that remains of some blue-, pink-, or white-collar Twin Tower worker who
will never be found.

 That thought is never far from the minds of Times writers Jane Fritsch and
David Rohde, whose story "Trade Center's Past In a Sad Paper Trail" is an
exercise in forensic trashpicking, sleuthing out the fates of the WTC
workers whose lives entwine with the "mangled, singed and occasionally
pristine" papers blown out of the building and lofted, in some cases, on the
southeasterly wind that carried them as far as Brooklyn.5 The reporters find
the year-old resume of someone who wanted a job at a firm with offices in
the Trade Center (she didn't get the job, a twist of fate that now seems
portentous); the credit union statement of a man who worked on the north
tower's 88th floor (he made it down); the cell-phone bill of a woman whose
number, when called, triggers a recording that says her voicemailbox is
full, an everyday message that suddenly sounds chilling.

 Intimations of mortality came to rest at the novelist Jonathan Lethem's
feet, as well. On Henry Street, in Brooklyn, he watched "crisped
papers.twinkling to the ground," among them a computer printout with the
coded I.D. "7WTC 034" and the name "Kirshenbaum, Joan." The document
admonishes, "For any report change complete this section and return to ops
support, data centre." Lethem adds, "Joan Kirshenbaum, if you're reading
this, I've got your scrap of paper."6 Lethem is whistling past the
graveyard, but the wry note he's reaching for turns sour when we remember
that Joan Kirshenbaum may not be reading this, Joan Kirshenbaum may not be
reading anything, Joan Kirshenbaum may never read anything again. To
someone, somewhere, Lethem's found object may be all that's left of somebody
they love: the inter-office memo as ashes in an urn.

 Indeed, some New Yorkers seemed not to know what to do with the melancholy
fallout of crumpled, charred or burning documents. Throw them out? Save them
as pieces of history or morbid souvenirs? Enshrine them in some sort of
secular reliquary? To the writer Kurt Andersen, who lives in Brooklyn, the
papers that drift down, into his backyard, seem like "instant archaeological
objects retroactively charged with meaning, too sad and strange to keep but
too sad and strange to throw away."7

 Why not preserve them in a memorial anthology, to be read well into the
21st century, "as treasured as the correspondence of Virginia Woolf and T.S.
Eliot"? Then again, if they ever build a museum to the tragedy of the Twin
Towers, perhaps the papers that fell from the sky could be sent aloft again,
freed to flap and flutter like disembodied things in a giant, multistory
version of one of those Plexiglas columns that you see in science museums,
where a jet of air keeps a ball afloat. In the mind's eye, at least, there's
a mute poetry to the image of all those papers arcing up, up, into the
clouds, across the East River, over Governors Island, and down, into
Brooklyn. Somehow, it seems like an elegy, more eloquent than words. It
reminds me of the sweet, sublimely sad little pirouette of the plastic bag
in the movie-within-a-movie in American Beauty. Only a minute in length,
that slow-motion dance of a scrap of trash, brought to life by a gust of
wind, said things about the emptiness that gnaws around the edges of our
lives, lives that are over in an eyeblink, and the fleeting glimpses we
catch, in the least likely places, of the sublime.

 Alan Ball, who wrote the screenplay to American Beauty, based that scene on
a memory. One Sunday in spring, in the early '90s, he was walking, alone,
through Manhattan's deserted financial district. "It was a beautiful day,"
he told an interviewer, "very still, kind of overcast, and the light had
that perfect, kind of flat quality."8 Suddenly, he noticed "this plastic bag
in the wind, this white plastic bag. And it circled me, it literally circled
me, like, 10 or 15 times. And after about the third or fourth time I felt
very, um, I started to feel weird.I really did feel like I was in the
presence of something."9 That he was standing in front of the World Trade
Center at the time is one of the uncanny coincidences that mean
everything---and nothing. Like life itself.

-Mark Dery is a cultural critic. His most recent book is the essay
collection, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink

(This essay originally appeared, in shorter form, as my "Invisible Lit"
column in the Winter 2001 issue of Bookforum.)

1 J.G. Ballard, A User's Guide to the Millennium (New York: Picador USA,
1996), p. 76.
2 J.G. Ballard, quoted in J.G. Ballard: Re/Search 8/9, ed. Vale, Andrea Juno
(San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984), p. 156.
3 J.G. Ballard, quoted in J.G. Ballard: Re/Search 8/9, ed. Vale, Andrea Juno
(San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984), p. 156.
4 Jeff Mermelstein, "Windows on the World," The New York Times Magazine,
September 23, 2001, pps. 64-65.
5 Jane Fritsch and David Rohde, "Trade Center's Past In a Sad Paper Trail,"
The New York Times, September 14, 2001, p. A1.
6 Jonathan Lethem, "9 Failures of the Imagination," The New York Times
Magazine, September 23, 2001, p. 62. Happily, Joan Kirshenbaum is alive and
well, as Lethem informed me by e-mail. "Because of the clue you
inadvertently reproduced in your piece -- "7WTC" -- I wrote my piece knowing
that Joan Kirshenbaum would have had to be sensationally unlucky to die that
day," he wrote. "WTC# Seven didn't collapse until five o'clock p.m. In fact,
she's been in touch, and her scrap of paper is back in her posession. I
think she's making a collage with it."
7 Kurt Andersen, "Fallout," The New York Times Magazine, September 23, 2001,
p. 78.
8 Quentin Curtis, "The Man Behind American Beauty," The Age, February 3,
9 Russ Spencer, Salon, "In a Culture of Detritus, American Beauty
Screenwriter Alan Ball Discovers Heartbreaking Beauty in Garbage," March 25,

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