Digital preservation as deletion and Paul Ricoeur

In a discussion about the importance of digital humanities at the “Realising the Opportunities of Digital Humanities” Conference today in Croke Park, William Kilbride of the Digital Preservation Coalition raised an interesting point that we have various ways of conceiving preservation.

According to this way of thinking, it is not the case that we fetishise preservation, as we don’t need some form of totalising memory, digital or otherwise. To attempt this would be tantamount to the shut-ins of urban mythology who hoard every newspaper from every day of their lives. That would be archivist qua bag lady. No, the fundamental, pragmatic point Kilbride appears to be making is that we simply don’t have the resources available to collect and maintain such an all-encompassing system of repositories and archives. Selection is necessary, editing is necessary, and thus knowing what not to hold on to is necessary. As such, then, preservation is ineluctably tied up with deletion.

Coming as I do from philosophy, I can’t help but consider this in terms of a dialectic, a tension, or a conversation between the needs of preservation and the needs of deletion. In doing so, I know this ground has been trod before. It may seem strange to connect philosophy – supposedly theoretical, abstract – with the nitty-gritty practice and pragmatics of preservation. I don’t think it is so. Hermeneutics, as the study and philosophy of texts as elaborated by Hans Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur is effectively an early form of information theory, as it applies to the most important medium of information in our history, the text. Thus the preservation of the information contained in archives and repositories can surely be illuminated by the philosophical discussions which have taken place over the past two centuries in the development of modern philosophical hermeneutics. Paul Ricoeur is the philosopher who has previously gone over some of the issues which we have been discussing in terms of preservation in deletion, in his work Memory, History, Forgetting.

History is the middle term here for many reasons, the main one being the fact that it is the locus of the tension between memory (preservation) and forgetting (deletion). History (in terms of archives, repositories, or whatever other structures) is a process where we have a responsibility to maintain some balance (Ricoeur would prefer “tension”) between memory and forgetting. Most specifically he conceives this in terms of how forgiveness (which is the unspoken, but preeminent term in this work) must play some role in history so that we neither reify and elevate past wrongs done unto us into justification for present wrongs we do unto others, nor that we allow the destruction of memories of past wrongs that seem too terrible to process. This is the broader discussion which contextualises Ricoeur’s work. I want to note a few quotations which popped into my head, which sent me back to his books.

Before I continue, I wish to note I am not accusing anybody in any of the panels of not being aware of the following issues or debates! I am, in the fine tradition of humanities and philosophy especially, problematising (such words we have…) the notion of deletion and forgetting, to maintain the tension which I think we all agree should continue to exist between them and the need for and duty to preservation and memory.

“Our uneasiness concerning the right attitude to take with regard to the uses and abuses of forgetting, mainly in the practice of institutions, is finally the symptom of a stubborn uncertainty affecting the relation between forgetting and forgiveness on the level of its deep structure. The question returns with insistence: if it is possible to speak of happy memory, does there exist something like a happy forgetting? In my opinion, an ultimate indecisiveness strikes what could be presented as an eschatology of forgetting.” [p. 501]

“Admitting that ‘in human experience there is no superior point of view from which one could perceive the common source of destruction and of construction’: such was, above, the verdict of the hermeneutics of the human condition with respect to forgetting. ‘Of this great drama of being,’ we said in conclusion, ‘there is, for us, no possible balance sheet.’ This is why there cannot be a happy forgetting in the same way as one can dream of a happy memory.” [p. 503]

From Riceour’s Time and Narrative: Volume 3:

“Must we, then, give up seeing in contemporary historiography, with its data banks, its use of computers and information theory, its constituting of series (using the model of serial history), an enlargement of our collective memory? […] In fact, the substitution of a new science of history for our collective memory rests upon an illusion about documents that is not fundamentally different from the positivist illusion it thinks it is combating. The data in a data bank are suddenly crowned with a halo of the same authority as the document cleansed by positivist criticism. The illusion is even more dangerous in this case. As soon as the idea of a debt to the dead, to people of flesh and blood to whom something really happened in the past, stops giving documentary research its highest end, history, loses its meaning.” [p. 118]

From a previous post: In The Poetic Edda we have Odin explaining the mythical constitution of the world, saying of his two ravens:

Hugin and Munin fly every day
over the wide world;
I fear for Hugin that he will not come back,
Yet I tremble more for Munin.’

These two birds are sent out into the world of humankind (Midgard) from the home of the gods (Asgard). Where Hegel gave us the owl of wisdom, in Norse mythology Odin himself is the representative of wisdom, and these birds attend to him: Hugin signifying thought, Munin memory. It is a continuous effort to seek after wisdom, an ongoing dialectic, and though Odin here fears a dissociation from thought, it is the disappearance of memory which truly terrifies. We can think anew continuously, but memory is the memory of our systems and networks of thought. It is a gap between gods and men which requires a conduit, and these birds are the media which allows for such exchange. They fly through the void from a divine realm of pure thought, and pure memory to the earthly domain of confusion. This confusion, this tension is given the very last word, in the very last lines of Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting:

“Under history, memory and forgetting.
Under memory and forgetting, life.
But writing a life is another story.
Incompletion.” [p. 506]

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5 thoughts on “Digital preservation as deletion and Paul Ricoeur

    • Apologies for the tardy reply Rick! I checked that out a while back. The thing that struck me first was the dignity with which Taryn Simon treated her subject, which was a welcome chill on the snake-oil huckster hysteria that goes along with most TED talks (which are, let’s be honest, usually trying to (a) sell us something or (b) trying to get research funding to develop something which they can sell to us). I next noted how she attempted to get the full story, without necessarily subjecting people in favour of the story. If they could not or did not wish to be represented, they were not pulled in against their will. It shows that the people must come before their stories: “As soon as the idea of a debt to the dead, to people of flesh and blood to whom something really happened in the past, stops giving documentary research its highest end, history, loses its meaning.”

      • Agreed, her presentation had much more depth than what is typically seen from TED. What struck me is that she seemed able to show “documents” as what they truly represent- actual people.

  1. I enjoyed this very much.

    I wonder if there is a detail missing from the discussion of deletion that can shed light on it a little more? All the evidence points to rapid growth in volumes of data, but that much of it is driven not by data creation so much as by replication. One postgrad research paper I just marked pointed to 40% of duplicate files in one single (though admittedly large) archive. That’s in line with otjher calculations and the 40% referenced only tells us about the bit-replica duplicates. It doesn’t account for version control errors which also proliferate drafts and close copies. So in saying that we can delete stuff we needn’t actually lose anything. In this sense the tension between deletion and remembering is not so great. We can have a totalising memory if we want to: it just doesn’t need to be so big.

    I think a more fruitful line of enquiry – which will yield actual results and which would be fun to play with – are about the process of meaning making and the relative naiveity of the interdependent concepts representation information and designated community. I wonder what Ricoeur would make of that.

  2. Thanks for engaging with me on this. The idea of replication is something which I hadn’t considered at all, so thank you for bringing it up. I would supplement it with another notion, however, namely that in the increasing sophistication of our technologies and techniques of archiving, aggregation, collection, etc., our net is both too fine, and spread too wide. We run the risk that we are collecting noise (or subdata) in the hope that one day we might convert it into data, and perhaps from than make information. This applies more to so-called Big Data (I am inclined to agree with Stephen Few when he says ‘Big data, big ruse’: “Like many terms that have been coined to promote new interest in business intelligence (dashboards, analytics, business performance management, advanced data visualization, etc.), Big Data thrives on remaining ill defined and feeds on ignorance. If you perform a quick Web search on the term, all of the top links other than the Wikipedia entry are to BI vendors.”) and so I am guilty here of conflating it with the considerably more careful stewardship of information that goes on in a repository.

    Your second point about the process of meaning making is something I have had an interest in for quite a while. Ricoeur tended to restrict himself to a formal, textual hermeneutics, and so would not be of central importance in such a discussion. Gadamer, in contrast, did approach this nexus of problems in his own work, and in his famous debate with Habermas about knowledge creation and preservation within communities. Gadamer’s implicit point was that there are pre-conscious knowledge paths that lead how we come to structure meaning, how it is constituted. I call these paths ideas that precede and suffuse anything supposedly neutral like the DIKW pyramid. Other philosophers and theorists use other, more charged terms like ideology or hegemony. Gadamer himself used “prejudice” in the etymological sense of a pre-judgement, a groove in which thought runs before encountering new information that requires constitution in our world of thought. I think working along these lines would for sure be considerable more fruitful and interesting. Lots of room to problematize naïve concepts!

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