Trapped in the Present Tense: Meditations on American Memory
( Counterpoint Press, 2022)
Have you heard of Mondaugen’s Law? Named for an engineer in Gravity’s Rainbow who studies atmospheric radio signals, it has the economy of an epigram. Here it is in full: “Personal density is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth.” Temporal bandwidth, by Mondaugen’s lights, is one’s sense of the present moment. Those who lurk in the past and future have a compressed “sense of Now” and are doomed to inhabit a more “tenuous” self. On some level, everyone knows this—it’s folk wisdom dressed up in a three-piece suit. Yet what happens when we enlarge the scale of analysis to take in a whole nation? What, if anything, accounts for civic density?
Such questions are the focus of Trapped in the Present Tense, a collection of light-footed philosophical essays by Colette Brooks. “The act of remembering itself [has slipped] into cultural obsolescence,” she observes early on—and her book is dedicated to making this unso. She attempts to do this by carbon dating various phenomena that litter our shared landscape, from wars and mass shootings to mass surveillance and the rise of innumeracy. In the space of a fleet 240 pages, she canvasses an array of topics, including the mysterious author of The Pillow Book and Zapruder’s footage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and leaves room still for personal recollections. Some disquisitions unfold in no more than one or two pages, while others deliver more sustained inquiries into what it takes to recover what has been lost. All dance around the maypole of memory.
Trapped in the Present Tense is loosely clustered into five segments: Shooters, Soldiers, Secrets, Statistics, and Snapshots. “Shooters” opens in 1966 on a blood-soaked vista: the nation is reeling from “a traumatic assassination, but doesn’t yet know that others are soon to follow.” The chapter tells the story of Charles Whitman, the twenty-five-year-old student who opened fire on the campus of the University of Texas, and whose savage actions would be repeated on other school grounds in ensuing decades. (The names Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and Parkland scan now like a haiku of horror.) Brooks somewhat disturbingly conjures a reenactment of the day’s events: she speculates that “the sight of animate specks moving far below [Whitman] might be mesmerizing” and goes on to describe how he made his way up a clock tower and, over the course of ninety-six minutes, “indiscriminately” unleashed a spray of bullets on the quiet college town, taking out bikers, pedestrians, and children. The death toll is sixteen—seventeen if you include Whitman.
Fifty years later, America is caught in a sinister loop: “each incident [captures] a news cycle until supplanted, seamlessly, by the next,” writes Brooks, by way of indictment. Like the cleaning crews summoned to scrub away biohazard on rugs, floors, and walls in the aftermath of shootings, we’ve found “a way to reverse engineer catastrophe so that routines can be resumed, property values restored, lives rebuilt.” Brooks also weaves into this section a discussion of Zapruder’s footage of Kennedy’s assassination—a shooting of a shooting. This initially struck me as a perplexing choice: are his 26.6 seconds of film really in danger of fading into the fog of history? The Internet, after all, offers up a welter of interpretations about Zapruder’s 486 frames, and there’s an unslakable public interest in “the infamous headshot, the one that shows an explosive pink mist.” But the hideous presentness of Zapruder’s film—and the sundry variations it has inspired—is part of the problem; “given enough time,” Colette argues, even the unlikeliest conspiracy theories can seep into history’s topsoil. There’s also this: every citizen with a smartphone is a Zapruder now.
Wars, like shootings, tend to recapitulate themselves. “Soldiers” looks at the “vast machinery” of war and how a “casual habituation to conflict has helped to create a vicarious warrior culture in which most of us just watch from afar.” The essays here meander along and are only tangentially connected to the central theme: they cover mass surveillance, whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, the 1918 flu pandemic, and COVID-19. A discussion of the Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd shades into an analysis of how the police have morphed into a “paramilitary” force in the past sixty years, stockpiling “surplus hardware”—those terrible remnants from overseas wars. We hear the faint yet ominous tick of the Doomsday Clock in every chapter. Brooks also poignantly interleaves the story of a relative’s experience in World War II (though the fact that he is kin only becomes clear in the book’s closing moments) with the development of the A-bomb, “the closest-kept secret of the war, involving secret production sites, secret cities, the secrets of nature itself.” She includes fragments from her uncle’s scrapbook (a photo of a Japanese girl, some postage stamps) and reading this section is not unlike thumbing through a stranger’s photo album. The theme of how trauma can be passed down through generations is taken up as Brooks deftly draws out parallels between the lives of famed historical figures and individuals who led “lowercase lives.” She consecrates both types in these pages.
I hear some readers wondering what the accretion of impressions is in service of. What does one take away from the jumble of juxtapositions? This question is, in many ways, orthogonal to the book’s vision. While a lesser writer might have used these episodes to scale an edifying edifice, Brooks wisely lingers in the foothills. She doesn’t give us paint-by-numbers platitudes like “those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it,” but often surrounds her photo essays with wide, airy margins, as if to signal an aporia, or simply to hold space for a contemplative vigil. In an essay for the Virginia Quarterly Review, Brooks paid tribute to her grandmother’s magpie sensibilities this way:
If I were to characterize my grandmother in a word, and were not so fanciful as to term her an “explorer” or an “adventurer,” I would call her a forager, one who prodded and shook and poked into each bit of experience, however unpromising, until she came upon something that sparked her interest, found some odd glint or angle of note in ground that others had already passed over.
She could well have been describing her own habits as a writer.
For all her lucidity and stabbing insights, Brooks sometimes fumbles. She writes, of a survivor of Whitman’s shooting spree: “He might be speaking for many whose thoughts dwell on such a day.” The thought turns up again, like an unlucky penny, when Brooks writes about a man mourning the loss of his brother to COVID-19: “He could have been speaking for 100,000 other families, each coping with sudden, singular loss.” Yet just how singular is a life that can smoothly be assimilated into a larger whole? Her impulse to bear witness to a single person in all their irreducible individuality—whether her dead nephew, her uncle, a reclusive diarist—simply fights against Stentorian statistics. The book’s weakest section, “Statistics,” is given over to this kind of granularity, cataloging the percentage of people who wear masks outside at the outset of the pandemic, who stop exercising, who reach out to medical professionals, who decide to get a vaccine, and on and on. It reads like an extended Harper’s “Index” and is as vulnerable to the pace of events. Elsewhere, she makes a less-than-convincing case that signifiers of past and futurity are losing their purchase, as trite expressions like “‘ask me later,” someday you’ll understand,’ and ‘the long arc of justice’ make less and less sense, as if language is faltering.’” She seems here to confuse the prescriptive for the descriptive—to substitute desire for delineation. At least in the social-justice sphere where I spend most of my days, “the long arc of justice” seems to be invoked in every other speech given at protests or rallies in Washington, DC. You see an almost obscene number of posters and placards emblazoned with the expression, and even President Obama was such a fan of the precept that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office. Still, one can appreciate its promiscuity while wishing to interrogate it. Should we discard a phrase that has rusted into cliché? Can one intelligibly speak of being on the “right” or “wrong” side of history? Does it induce a sense of political quietism or slyly conscript us into a belief that justice is preordained? These questions all deserve a further airing, but the failure to even bring them up in an otherwise restlessly discursive book verges on malpractice. It betrays its own kind of magical thinking: that insinuation is a wobble away from instantiation.
We now live in a time when we are all but inundated with news and prognostications about this election or that ballot measure. As I write this, my news feeds froth with regular updates on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Trying to keep track of the very latest developments, as a friend once put it to me, can be like trying to hold an ocean’s worth of beach balls underwater. Yet, as Brooks reminds us, “No one who has lived long enough exists only in the moment.” She’s speaking at once from a personal and a much larger standpoint. Past, present, and future may be obdurate ontological concepts, yet they share porous boundaries. The past flowers into the present. Future events are just memories in the making. To forget this and to live only in the moment, for the moment is to be embalmed in a narrow temporal bandwidth. Brooks points the way to an alternative: “The challenge is to preserve that capacity for surprise, to keep memory alive, then pass that power along to those who follow.”