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]