I made it about halfway through Meta’s promotional video for its metaverse project before quitting, a little shaken by the misanthropic future it promised. Meta is Facebook’s rebranded corporate identity, signaling a new core focus on building a digital universe. The goal here, ostensibly, is a virtual world, accessed by a VR headset, of boundless opportunity shaped by individual and collective imagination, no doubt underwritten by corporations that get to draw their logos in the sand of the paradise you’ve invented. It sounds fun, but to me it also signals an abandonment—of the self, of others as they are, of the actual world. And when you consider the influence and insatiability of the company behind this endeavor, you can easily imagine tens of millions of customers spending untold hours in a space where simulacra supposedly beats the real thing.
The laptop shut, I thought of paper trails, about the allure and promise and disorienting depths an archive can lead to; of sifting through documents to find a clue to help answer a nagging family-historical question, to fill in a blank. I’d been working with Peter Trachtenberg on his feature essay in this issue, “Family Documents,” around the same time that I caught a glimpse of Meta’s virtual future and saw lessons in the dissonance between the two. Using a cache of documents he inherited, Trachtenberg reconstructs the journey his father made during World War II as he fled Nazi persecution—from Austria to France, then to the US. The papers, as Trachtenberg writes, added a certain complexion to the man he’d known, giving “the sketch of his early life a definition that was previously missing,” injecting something new in his father’s stories—“pulling them toward history.” The essay is family memoir, but it is also a declaration on the art of reconstruction, on what’s found in the archive (if there is one) of a loved one’s life, and the storyteller’s duty to transform it from disassembled facts into something that has compelling shape.
This assemblage that Trachtenberg creates is an act of sharing, but not just in the reader’s direction. As any writer who has investigated their family’s history knows, the research itself is a gesture toward the person they seek to articulate. In that sense, the labor of the paperwork, however tedious, becomes an act of devotion. That act of composition, the effort it requires—the art of imbuing facts with emotional resonance in particular—is crucial labor. That labor, of course, is only part of the equation, since it is the reader’s own agency that allows the story to be fully realized, many times over, and in different ways.
The physicality of storytelling, the work, even the limitations of narrative building as a means of connection, are hurdles that understandably wouldn’t matter much to the architects of digital utopias. They seek a seamless replication of presence, a smoothed-over immediacy, a freedom from imaginative labor, rooted in instant visual gratification, all of which lack a key ingredient to experiential satisfaction: the work of being there.
This issue, then, is a celebration of the gaps, in appreciation of the messiness that the narrative impulse seeks to tame, or at least render with a certain power. For it is inside and across those gaps that the reader and writer share an agreed-upon interest in working toward shape, toward some cohesion, and in realizing it come to an understanding—in their own space, without ever actually meeting—that they’ve completed an act of giving meaning to the lived experience, even if partially, and only for a moment.