On digital oblivion

Knowledge is made by oblivion.
Sir Thomas Browne; in: Sir Thomas Browne’s Works: Including His Life and Correspondence, vol.2, p.177.

Remembrance, memory and oblivion have a peculiar relationship to each other. Remembrance is the internal realisation of the past, memory (in the sense of memorials, monuments and archives) its exteriorised form. Oblivion supplements these two to a trinity, in which memory and oblivion work as complementary modes of remembrance.

The formation of remembrance can be seen as an elementary function in the development of personal and cultural identity; oblivion, on the other hand, ‘befalls’, it happens, it is non-intentional and can therefore be seen as a threat to identity. Cultural heritage institutions – such as galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAM) are thus not only the places where objects are being collected, preserved, and organized; they also form bodies of memory, invaluable for our collective identity.

There is a direct line in these cultural heritage institutions from analogue documentation to digital practice: Online catalogues and digitized finding aids present metadata in a publicly accessible way. But apart from huge collections of digitized books, the material under question is mostly not available in digital formats. This is the reason why cultural heritage – and especially unique copies like the material stored in archives – can be seen as ‘hidden data’. What can be accessed are metadata: the most formal description of what is available in cultural heritage institutions. This structure works in a two-fold way towards oblivion: On the one hand, the content of archives and museums is present and existing, but not in digital formats and thus ‘invisible’. On the other hand, the century-long practice of documentation in the form of catalogues and finding aids has been carried over into digital information architectures; but even though these metadata are accessible, they hide more than they reveal if the content they refer to is not available online. We all have to rely on the information given and ordered by cultural heritage institutions, their classifications, taxonomies, and ontologies, to be able to access our heritage and explore what has formed our identities. Is Thomas Browne right in pointing to the structured knowledge gained from oblivion?

This depends on our attitude to the past and the formation of identity. It is possible to appreciate oblivion as a productive force. In antiquity, amnesty was the Siamese twin of amnesia; the word amnesty is derived from the Greek word ἀμνηστία (amnestia), or “forgetfulness, passing over”. Here it is oblivion which works for the generation of identity and unity: let bygones be bygones. In more recent times, it was Nietzsche who underlined the necessity to relieve oneself from the burdens of the past. It was Freud who identified the inability to forget as a mental disorder, earlier called melancholia, nowadays depression. And it was also Freud who introduced the differentiation between benign oblivion and malign repression.

But it is certainly not the task of GLAM-institutions to provide for oblivion. Their function is a provision of memory. Monuments, memorials, and the contents of archives serve a double bind: They keep objects in memory; and at the same time this exteriorisation neutralizes and serves oblivion insofar as it relieves from the affect of mourning; to erect monuments and memorials and to preserve the past in archives is in this sense a cultural technique of an elimination of meaning. To let go what is not longer present by preserving the available – in this relation the complementarity of memory and oblivion becomes visible; they don’t work against each other, but jointly. From this point of view remembrance – the internal realization of the past – is the task of the individual.

1024px-JuedischesMuseum_4a

Detail of the front of the Jewish Museum Berlin
By No machine-readable author provided. Stephan Herz assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It is not the individual which decides on what should sink into oblivion. Societies and cultures decide in a yet unexplored way which events, persons, or places (the lieux de mémoire) are kept in memory and which are not. If it is too big a task to change the documentation practices of GLAM-institutions, the information architecture, and the metadata they produce, the actual usage of archival content could provide an answer to the question of what is of interest for a society and what is not: The digital documentation of what is being searched for in online catalogues and digitized finding aids as well as which material is being ordered in archives clearly indicate the users’ preferences. Collected as data and analysed with algorithms, we could learn from this documentation not only about what is being kept in memory; we could also learn about what falls into oblivion. And that is a kind of information historians rarely dispose of.

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