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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Archive
Or, How To Perform an Exorcism on your iPhone
It happened once, and then again the next day, then the day after that, too. I opened up Instagram to share a picture of my dinner (delicious) or the view from the lake (more delicious) or the Funkadelic song I was listening to (most delicious), but instead of seeing my vacation photos reflected back at me, I had received a digital slap in the face. A gentle suggestion courtesy of Meta: Do you want to share this post as a reel? accompanied by a slideshow of film photos from a hazy college summer, with the inevitable and intimate headshot of the ex-boyfriend in the dairy aisle.
We had broken up, mathematically speaking, over three and a half years ago. Emotionally speaking, it may as well have been a geological epoch ago. I was eighteen and then nineteen, an art major then a history major. He was twenty-two and then twenty-three, balding and then salaried. I was desperate to feel wanted by someone closed off, to pry them open with my teeth and bitten-down fingernails like the last, most difficult pistachio. He wanted someone to pry for him, someone he could abandon with cruelty and the confidence they’d return, to feel like he was worth prying for. I was burning mixtapes for him in the radio station office. He missed my birthday.
The third (or fifth, depending on how you count them) breakup was the last, three days after New Year’s Day. Three months later he called, asking for forgiveness. I know I said no and that I had been drinking heavily (vodka and room-temperature tap water) and listening to Jagged Little Pill (on CD, from Goodwill) to prepare for the call. I hadn’t thought of him in years. It doesn’t matter. Or, I guess, I thought it didn’t matter, until these algorithmic apparitions started haunting my phone. Then the nightmares started again. I woke up twice last night, making sure the doors and the windows and the shutters were locked and double-locked, I dreamt that a man with his face broke into my room and stabbed me between the ribs with a kitchen knife and in my dream I both hoped he thought I looked beautiful bleeding out in the moonlight and knew he couldn’t care less. I know that’s not his fault.
It doesn’t feel like a very spiritual world. Can’t sleep one night, since the blue light burned its way to the back of my brain while I was writing a dozen cover letters for a dozen entry-level job applications that will be thrown away by an algorithm before a human being ever sees them. Passing by the homeless man and his dog on the street, reaching for my pleather wallet, realizing I have no coins or bills to drop in his McDonald’s cup because my phone pays the subway fare. Can’t sleep the next night: took my Vyvanse too late. A new coffee shop opens up, it has a self-referentially generic name and a bevy of venture capital firms behind its real estate acquisition. The old coffee shop that used to be there had orange walls and an old leather chair that I mindlessly scratched my initials into while I was supposed to be reading some book to impress someone, or the internet, or myself. I can’t remember. Sometimes I feel more like a board-game piece (yellow was always my favorite) than a person.
But there are ghosts in the machinery of this lithium-ion life. Sometimes white and wispy, sometimes red and bleeding. They are summoned by the “Suggested Memories” of the photos app, an “On this day…” from a social media app, a stray birthday reminder respirated from the dying gasp of Facebook. They feel different, somehow, from the reminders of former friends and lovers that live in shared summer songs played over drugstore speakers, or the stolen and stale-smelling t-shirt in the back of the closet. Maybe it’s the ulterior motive of memory, a company trying to find a way to squeeze one more post out of you, one more hour to obsessively check likes and engagement and passively scroll by more ads in the process. Maybe it’s the strange and plasticine way these algorithms sort life into boxes: days at the beach, Summer 2016, photos of cats. I suppose the uncanniness of this sorting would be preferable to my phone being able to detect the real and rhizomatic nature of memory, generating slideshows behind license-free jingles with titles like “nights when I missed my dead dog” or “pasta dishes I pretended I wasn’t scared of eating.” The live grenade of pain and discomfort embedded in camera roll photos and social media posts is not detonated by the surprise of its suggestion, but by the callous and transactional reason for which they are suggested.
There is one obvious solution: delete the photos. Delete the photos, delete the memories, delete the pain. “Delete”—a fundamentally technological notion that’s become all-too tangible, almost violent, the usage of the term first gaining popularity with the mass-marketing of typewriters and then again with the computer. Its usage is down from its peak popularity in 1997 by about a third, probably because we don’t even really own files anymore; pictures, music, movies live in a cloud where they don’t need to be erased to free up storage space. Everything’s just there, it can be there, then sometimes it’s gone. There are plenty of pictures on my social media and in my camera roll of family, friends, and lovers now removed from my life, some slowly and some swiftly, some painfully throbbing and some wholly unmoving. I’ve taken a small handful off social media, either pictures that were too couple-y or pictures of people with whom our relationship strained because of something selfish or shitty I did. The reason for the former is a mix of pain and utility: I wouldn’t want any future suitors to think I was unavailable. The reason for the latter should be obvious. It’s social media, there’s outward projection, there’s an audience, there’s etiquette.
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But then there’s the question of the camera roll. The power to take—and keep—so many photos has never been so greatly democratized. At present, there are 37,459 photos on my camera roll, 349 of which have been marked “favorites,” spanning the course of exactly 2,400 days, averaging out to fifteen photos a day. Granted, each photo is not unique, most taken in sets of five or ten or thirty to ensure the best lighting and framing and composition. I tried to cull the crop a few months ago, keeping only fifty to a hundred pictures per year that were worth remembering and deleting the rest. I made it through three years before the slow iCloud loading time irritated me, tossing the USB stick in what Charles calls “the scary drawer” of my desk. Most of my life since I was a teenager lives, documented deeply and thoroughly, perhaps more attention paid to the tragedies than the successes, in an iCloud account that I pay ten dollars a month to maintain. I try to take fewer photos, I inevitably fail, I justify it to myself by saying I’m an artist and it’s all part of my art, I know I’m bullshitting myself, I don’t stop. I’ve only ever gone through and erased one person totally from my camera roll, someone I wish I never knew, someone I wish I didn’t have to remember, and most of all someone I wish was unable to remember me. I feel queasy when I think about how I—or some constructed version of me—has to exist in their head, trapped in their memory and subjectivity and perception. I wish I could get my memory out of their head, erase myself from their consciousness completely, a cinematic jailbreak worthy of the big screen.
I can bring myself to remove the most intimate photos from social media, for utilitarian and compassionate purposes, but I can’t remove them from the photo archive of my life. It would be a dangerous and elective biopsy, masses of myself that grew into and then with me, a disingenuous operation to disregard such foundational parts of the person I am now. Moreover, it would be a painful surgery (even if anesthetized with red wine) that would require poking around the most tender parts of myself with a pair of very sharp scissors. Besides, when could you possibly schedule the procedure? Too soon and you might learn the photos are benign, destroyed and deleted in the event of forgiveness and reconnection, leaving you with a vacant hole in your camera roll where something, someone used to be. Too late and the damage might already have been done, or worse, you rupture a healing wound and open yourself up to a septic infection of grief and mourning.
Before the nightmares started, in anticipation of a research project about Paris, I went down to the English-language bookstore by the vegan brunch spot and picked up a copy of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, hoping for the Edna St. Vincent Millay translation and settling for William Aggeler. While I was there, I found a cheap used copy of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, one of the books I’d lie and say I’d read, and picked it up to finally read on the train. It is yellowed and milky-smelling and I made notes in the margins in embarrassingly poor handwriting with navy-blue pen between subway stops. Barthes hates being photographed. “I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I know that I am posing, but (to square the circle) this additional message must in no way alter the precious essence of my individuality: what I am, apart from any effigy.” He writes that being photographed “represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter.” I underline the phrase taking as it appears in relation to “taking” a photo. In my handwriting, at the bottom of page eighteen is the note “photography = taxidermy,” and the exact same note is repeated in the margins of pages thirty, thirty-eight, fifty-five, and sixty-seven.
Perhaps these photographs of my life aren’t, as I have believed them to be, an archive. Social media has always been the contemporary art museum, curatedly confessional and selectively spontaneous, the idea of audience at the forefront of every post and story and caption and comment. The photos app and its 37,461 photos is not a basement with its filing cabinets filled with perfectly-preserved and metadated primary sources. The photos app is the Natural History Museum, hallway upon hallway of dioramas, dolls, taxidermied bodies of myself and my friends eating resin lunches in front of painted backdrops. These photos are taken, they are removing something from my life and my memories, subjects becoming objects and objects becoming props. There is museum upon museum dedicated to myself within the geography of my phone, and like all museums they are fallible to misrepresentation and selective curation, and like most museum-goers I choose to believe they are peddling me an objective truth.
But I can’t pretend like it has no power over me. My camera roll is fallible and nostalgic, but so is my memory. My camera roll and my memory are not distinct entities. But my camera roll is a collection of images, of photographs, and my memory is a collection of feelings. I really should continue the cull, placing most of these images onto thumb drives and hard drives. I want the painful memories and I want the unquestioningly wonderful memories, but I don’t want them with me all the time. I wrote this essay as an exorcism, but it is not the ghosts of friends and lovers past that haunt me the most, constantly conjured by algorithmic seances. I physically carry my phone with me every day. It is an object with weight, and within that object are 37,464 photos documenting—truthfully or not—every day of my life since I was sixteen years old. I could delete the photos that are the most upsetting, but I’ll still be suggested new ones, images that hold nostalgia now but are ripe with the potential to sour.
When I was twelve or thirteen, I took weekend film photography classes at the local art college using my mother’s old Olympus SLR from the 1970s. The instructor, a middle-age man who seemed ancient to my adolescent self, smelled like cigarettes and repeated his mantra almost hourly in a thick Virgina drawl, “We’re not takin’ pictures. We’re makin’ photographs.” These photos, the ones I carry with me every day in my corduroy pocket or canvas tote bag, are shown to me because my phone (or, more accurately, some California megacorporation) believes I will respond to them. And I do. I don’t know exactly what data they base this on; probably some combination of time, location, AI-analyzed subject matter. I don’t know exactly what’s in it for them; probably some combination of reinforcing my already crippling screen addiction or making me emotionally volatile enough to respond more to targeted ads. And to be certain, I don’t want to safeguard myself against experiencing difficult emotions or reflecting on painful pasts (though I also very much do not want to make an Instagram Reel out of them, either). Perhaps the solution—or at least the antiseptic—is to know when we’re taking pictures, when we’re making photographs, and when to turn the camera off entirely.