Pop music has a longstanding interest in the way that traces of our former lovers remain stubbornly associated with places and material objects long after the affair is over. The jazz standards ‘I’ll be Seeing You’ and ‘These Foolish Things’, Bacharach and David’s ‘Always Something There to Remind Me,’ and Paul McCartney’s ‘Junk’ all adopt the form of a catalogue of such remnants of the ex. But what would it mean to write a song like this in the age of interconnected social media platforms? In his great study of Freud, Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida wonders what form psychoanalysis would have taken if its main innovators in the early twentieth century had had access to email. The development of ideas between Freud and his colleagues was so conditioned by the kind of gradual, considered argument imposed by traditional letter-writing, that recasting those debates within the instantaneous and ephemeral form of electronic messaging would have produced an unrecognisably different discipline. Similarly, whereas the old pop songs map the involuntary feelings brought up by ‘all the old familiar places’, or ‘a cigarette that’s stained with lipstick traces’, our past lovers today are more chaotically inscribed within the technologies we have increasingly allowed to condition our private lives.
Predictive text takes a chance on his name when you type its first letter, and his address appears when you do the same in your email address bar. Her face, with profile linked, appears in the photographs of Facebook acquaintances. Soundcloud, having logged how often you used to listen to his band, invites Spotify to have you do so again. Her enthusiasm for Korean animation is forever reflected in your Netflix and Amazon recommendations. And Twitter, after observing how ‘similar to you’ his friends and family are, retweets his tiring missives into your feed. Platforms designed to seamlessly flatter our interests based on how we have used them in the past come up against a limit at the end of a relationship. At this point, they start behaving like Mr Krook, the mad keeper of legal documents in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, who, though illiterate, keeps unwittingly throwing up old secrets by randomly transcribing passages from memory on his walls.
We tend to think of archives as neutral receptacles, reliably compiling and compartmentalising information. Yet the traces of our life in the digital archive are obviously rather more difficult to manage or predict. For Derrida, this is the maladroit and potentially malignant form that archival processes always take: the idiom in Derrida’s French title, Mal d’Archive suggests both a destructive sickness in the archive’s relationship to what it stores, and our own crazy passion that it should store more and more. If there is a difference between the ghosts emerging from memories in old pop songs and those that emerge from our electronic devices, perhaps it is that the ones on our screen are even more persistent because someone is trying to sell them to us. When, in its misguided obsequiousness, the digital archive serves up the ex, this is uncomfortable for more than emotional reasons: it shows that we’ve hired out our unconscious.