Scar Tissue That I Wish You Saw
Blockchains, WWI, and Remembering
Forgetfulness flows in our tap water. We treat each other, socially, as if history were reversible. In even the most rigid and formal court proceedings, you can hear the words most alien to any notion of a perfectly maintained, historically true account — "strike that from the record." The stenographer's reality (which we all inhabit in just a few years, when the details on paper seem fresher than those in our heads) diverges from the reality of that past moment. Our society's story, with each of these small forks, becomes something different from simply "what happened."
When history is reversible, we lose something necessary. In an irreversible world, if I betray you, I will have always betrayed you at least once from now until the end of time. You may choose to forgive me, and we can continue our relationship, but that information is not lost. In today's world, though, if I betray you, forgiveness is often incumbent on your ability to forget what I've done. There's information lost in our eventual resolution — namely, that I once betrayed you.
When we experience trauma, why does it sear into our brains unforgettable pain? Why suffer, on and on, from something that happened in the past? It seems, on the surface, that our inability to forget is a bug. But maybe it's a feature, cultivated in us over millennia of evolution. Counterintuitively, our cognitive biases (and our intuitions of the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious) may actually be ancient coping mechanisms for the fact that we don't naturally forget. Think about how much easier it would be to live in a world where we could selectively choose painful memories and — boom! — they're forgotten.
This framing of our social fabric is one I gathered from Venkatesh Rao's Blockchains Never Forget. In it, he crafts a dichotomy of a wheel and an odometer. The wheel is reversible; it can change direction and undo something that has happened. The odometer, though, is irreversible; it loses 100% of its relevance if it allows for any forgetting. A reversible odometer is, quite literally, a waste of metal and dashboard real estate. If we let this analogy ripen a bit, we see how our internal model is akin to an odometer while our inter-social model is more like a wheel. Dressed in formal robes and speaking in deferential tones, we go through rigorous rituals of collective forgetting the moment we enter a courtroom. But what if that weren’t the case — what if our future rejected, axiomatically, forgetfulness? What do we gain when the record can't be erased?
Art historian Alexander Nemerov once said that trauma is the baptism from politeness into a calling, into meaning. That we do not forget pain immediately is a necessary part of being human. The arcs of our lives bend in unusual, unpredictable, and fundamentally unknowable ways, and the experience of growing often requires that we remember difficult memories so that we can find some deeper meaning in our struggle. If we lose the struggle, the meaning falls away too. Viktor Frankl writes that the wise old man says to a younger man, "Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy." Though our sufferings cannot inspire envy, they are the realities which give our life meaning. They are the foundation of our identities, and, though others need not know about them, there is something lost if painful, but true, moments sink beneath the surface of our memory. In Exhalation, Ted Chiang’s story "Truth of Fact, Truth of Feeling" explores a future where people record every moment of their lives. Reflecting on what conflict is like in this world, Chiang writes: "In most cases we had to forget a little bit before we could forgive; when we no longer experienced the pain as fresh, the insult was easier to forgive, which in turn made it less memorable, and so on ... By fixing every detail of an insult in indelible video, it could prevent the softening that’s needed for forgiveness to begin." Though this softening seems necessary in today's reversible world, it might not be in the future. Maybe we can build cultural muscles of forgiveness that do not require a loss of information just to move forward. But then again, who knows — maybe a permanent record means we lose the ability to forgive each other, and we descend into endless bickering over small disputes.
But maybe not. When we hold on to information that harkens back to painful times, we do gain something. Henry Tonks, a British surgeon and artist working (in both capacities) during World War I, painted with precision the horrors he saw on the front-lines. When I see works likePortrait of Private Charles Deeks and Private Walter Ashworth, I can't look away. Not because I feel some sort of grotesque pleasure in seeing mutilation, but because I'm seeing something I won't forget. And, crucially, it's something someone else could've forgotten, but didn't. What do we gain when this record of violence remains? Why subject ourselves to vicarious pain? Why — of all things — should we remember this bloodshed? It is only because Tonks embraces the past that we can marvel at how transformative the surgeries are. To be transformed, we must remember.
I wonder if we would find these paintings so jarring in an irreversible world. When we plumb the depths of another human's suffering, we gain an appreciation for the person that emerges, victorious, from the pain. If we had seen only the paintings on the right, we'd feel pity for two faces that seem just slightly different from normal. But after we see the story behind why their faces have scars, suddenly, the paintings that might've aroused pity now invoke in us a sense of wonder and pride. We are proud not of the fact that someone's face could ever become so disfigured but rather that it could be mended so well. That, precisely, Tonks's celebration. Both a surgeon and a painter, Tonks does not forget his patients’ (or a subjects’) history. For both the operation and the illustration, inner grace comes from accepting the inhumane past and finding, within its darkness, fragments of a more humane future. The surgeries here are akin to forgiveness. Trauma informs our lives; I think a world where we don't lose everything painful is a more beautiful one. Seeing where scars come from offers us a deeper understanding of people's lives — an un-stricken record may be less clean and succinct, but who is to say it is any less meaningful?
Through his subjects’ disfigurement, Tonks gestures toward a sense of self that makes room for trauma. Private Walter Ashworth looks like the same person before and after his surgery even though his face — the piece of the body most intertwined with identity — has completely changed. It’s in this exact dichotomy that Tonks reveals the genius of his art. How is it that someone can paint two portraits that diverge on the surface level but converge on the deeper level of a cohesive, tangible personhood? Obviously, much seems different after Ashworth’s surgery: his mouth is no longer agape; his tooth is hidden behind the reconstruction; his clothes and surroundings are legible as his face recedes from the spotlight into the general foreground, signifying that his injury has become simply one of many things to focus on.
In a way, there are really two levels of meaning forming here. On the lower-level, the brave new world of plastic surgery (remember, this is back in 1916!) transforms Ashworth’s face through facial reconstruction. Success in this domain is tied quite closely to reversibility — today, the best plastic surgeons leave few clues behind that a surgery happened at all. If a plastic surgery clearly happened for a small cosmetic procedure, that plastic surgeon probably wouldn’t be hired again. Conversely, on the higher-level of Tonks’s painting, meaning comes from irreversibility. If we had just seen either the left or the right painting, we would not feel as moved as if we had seen both. It is the awe-inspiring one-way journey from injury to reconstruction that interests Tonks. And it’s what interests us, too. It’s rare to see such a dramatic transformation laid bare with such cold precision. A painter who wasn’t interested in preserving a legacy of violence (read: honoring irreversibility) behind the dramatic surgery would never have paid so much attention to the painting on the left. That harrowing state of the world really did happen — and if Tonks refused to give it voice, we simply would not understand the significance of Ashworth’s reclaimed sense of personhood. We’d simply see scar tissue along his chin and cheeks and not really understand the meaning behind those marks. When we lose sight of people’s suffering, we aren’t able to rejoice alongside them. It might very well be that Ashworth never wanted people to see his pre-surgery painting; he may have no longer identified with that image. And that’s his right. But if we never got to see it, we’d lose something vital. We would not understand the magnitude of his sacrifice.
In both Ashworth and Private Charlie Deeks’s paintings, Tonks pays a surgical kind of attention to detail. Next to muddy skin darkened by grime and dried smoke, fresh, open wounds burn bright. The almost wet scarlet he uses to paint the soldiers’ open wounds diverges completely from the dirty pastel of their hair and temples. The pre-surgical images have a yellow glow, as if lit by the flickering wax candles and campfires of the warfront. The healed images, on the other hand, seem colder; they are given to us through a blue, calm light. In “On the Spiritual in Art: And Painting in Particular,” artist Vasily Kandinsky writes about these two colors as polar opposites (which, together, make up one of three pairs of opposites — the other two being violet / orange and green / red). Yellow, with an eccentric movement, reaches out of the frame and barrels toward the viewer. Blue, with a concentric movement, pulls us, gravitationally, into the picture. Tonks makes full use of this dynamic — the Great War’s horrifying violence moves viscerally toward us, while the wonders of modern medicine pull us into a state of awe. We think to ourselves: How could someone ever heal another person so well? Importantly, that question arises from within us as we fall into the blue-toned painting’s orbit. Our fear of humanity’s wrath, conversely, assaults us as the yellow-toned painting seizes our attention.
But, of all things to paint, why the face? If Tonks wanted simply to portray the brutality of war, why not depict a bloody battlefield or limbs strewn about? The face is our most humanizing and identifiable feature. When the face becomes disfigured, our identity does too. A mangled arm looks like a bodily injury; a facial wound looks like the identity itself has been attacked. It’s critical that Tonks remembers the stories of the face. In the physical world, our face is the most concentrated center of our identity. Through these portraits, Tonks preserves not the effect of war in general but rather the effect of war on the identity. The two soldiers do not just have a new cheekbone or chin; they have a new sense of self. They look, fundamentally, like different people, like people who have given so much but still have a life remaining to live. An irreversible depiction of reality affords us the ability to be specific and ground claims of growth in truth. Simply saying Ashworth and Deeks “healed” after the war is one thing. Showing us what that healing actually entailed is something completely different. If Tonks didn’t depict the truth of what actually happened, we’d see surface-level scars and completely miss the transformation.
Hold on a moment — amidst all this violent art, where does the blockchain come in? Venkatesh Rao sees blockchains as philosophically novel because they organize people and information in such a way that forgetfulness is not a core tenet. Tonks’s art is a testament to this principle. Unlike other ways of maintaining records, blockchains are unique in that they are immutable, decentralized, and public. If you delete a post on Facebook, no one (except for whoever is maintaining the database) may ever see that the post had ever existed. If you delete a post on a blockchain, people will always be able to see a record of that post's existence — and your "deletion" may just be a new post saying that you disown the content of the former. In other words, there's no one you can rely on behind the scenes to make it seem like you didn't do anything. In the world Rao describes — one mediated by a permanent, legible, and distributed record of what has happened — our social fabric actually aligns with our evolutionary tendencies. Imagine for a moment how different this experience must be: every transaction, every decision, every action recorded, indelibly, someplace that all could see. Granted, today, the vast majority of what we conceive of as transactions, decisions, and actions may live outside the realm of data actually capable of being stored on-chain, but it's not obvious that this will always be the case.
In the digital world, our identity’s center of gravity may not be the face; it may be the data we store on-chain. Tonks’s genius remains relevant – we must learn not to hide our histories but rather to find within them the seeds of a new self that honors what we’ve been through. War has left scars on the faces in Tonks’s paintings, and life will eventually leave our digital histories with scars, too – moments we broke a promise to a friend, memories of unfaithfulness, mistakes we’ve made. A more honest, forgiving, and — frankly — humane, future is one where we build up cultural capacities for understanding by embracing the full histories of our actions. Digging up old tweets seems trivial today, but in a world where anyone can dig up anything, we must be more forgiving. A place for scar tissue to remain visible while making us stronger is necessary. And that’s what I hope an on-chain world can be.