Deleting the Deletionists

Amaranth Borsuk's picture

On January 20, 2017, the White House website changed. Along with profiles of members of the new administration and a transcript of the inaugural address, “issues” pages appeared outlining its commitment to “America First” policies, supporting law enforcement, strengthening the military, and “bringing back” American jobs. As some of us will remember, during this shuffle, a number of cultural critics pointed out that references to climate change, the Affordable Care Act, civil rights, and LGBTQ rights had evaporated, starting an alarm call on social media. These erasures were widely reported in the press, singled out as evidence of lacunae in the administration’s values.

That moment of erasure in digital space served as a spur to cultural memory. It drew attention to the role of digital media in electoral politics and highlighted the malleability of such archival documents. This is what governments do: they rebuild their web presence in their own image. The pages in question had not vanished—they had simply changed their address. The Obama administration, foreseeing the importance of its digital communication channels (for both history and legacy), had initiated a plan to move its whitehouse.gov content to a new URL hosted by the National Archives and Records Administration. Turning over the keys to the White House meant giving up both material and virtual real estate: along with its website, the previous administration rebooted all White House social media streams, loading its Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter feeds into archival handles and leaving the new administration a tabula rasa with a deep roster of followers.

In that moment, and in response to an erasure whose consequences I didn’t yet fully understand, I began using The Deletionist, an artistic bookmarklet Nick Montfort, Jesper Juul, and I created in 2014, on every page of the new White House website. When installed in a browser’s bookmarks bar, The Deletionist creates erasure poems from any page on which it is activated (by simply clicking the bookmark). Drawing on a repertoire of poetic techniques, it selects the one its algorithm deems most “interesting” and renders much of the text transparent, leaving behind a web of words. Treating this as an investigative process, I ran my laborious operation every day: visiting each new page on the site, making a screen capture, clicking the bookmarklet, capturing again, and looking for interesting moments, patterns, and revelations.

Starting January 27, I began tweeting screen captures of every page on the nascent site, selecting a resonant quotation and accompanying it with both a full screen capture and detail image of the generated poem.

["America / America / And        Again / All Americans" — America First Foreign Policy #deletion via http://buff.ly/2jBRLJ0]

The texts that resulted were mostly boring, but some moments sang out thanks to the Deletionist’s penchant for alliteration, assonance, and anaphora coupled with our human propensity for apophenia. By late February, although I continued to collect everything, I began to limit my posts to only those texts I found truly interesting, and I stopped providing full page images, reasoning that the detail image and link would enable interested readers to follow the trail to the complete erasure. On April 1, I posted my last image—10 weeks of reading the press briefings, remarks, press releases, executive orders, and memoranda were all I could take. While one might be tempted to extrapolate some overarching meaning from the preponderance of posts using, for instance, poetic apostrophe, or, as I did, to assume that the frequency of alliteration on the letter “a” at the start of the project was due to the prevalence of the word “America” in early press releases, that would be bad data science.

["o keep        o continue / o take      o make              o this country"—VP on Trump's Vision for the Future #deletion via http://j.mp/2mm3CiT]

As a mode of artistic research, the process of creating erasure poems from the White House website reveals more about the nature of our code and the language of press releases than about the values of a particular governing body. Running The Deletionist on the first 10 press releases archived at Obamawhitehouse.archives.gov also uniformly returns poems using alliteration on “a.” Full of “and” and “admiral,” “appointment” and “administrator,” they, too, announce an administration’s axioms and attestations. Having not read these releases before, I was intrigued to find the first, misdated January 13, 2009, is a Spanish-language press release reporting Obama’s telephone calls with world leaders regarding the January 2010 Haiti earthquake. The Deletionist reinforces its message of support.

[“ante / ayuda         ayer” — Información sobre las conversaciones telefónicas del Presidente con líderes mundiales con respecto a Haití #deletion via http://bit.ly/2zLcsyj]

The process does, however, point to an important aspect of erasure and digital memory: the fact that each of us will only ever see a tiny fraction of the material on the web. We designed The Deletionist to highlight the involution of the internet by revealing poems hidden within plain sight, suggesting a network within the World Wide Web that could be systematically exposed. Erasure, as several of the preceding posts have pointed out, is not only a process of removal, but of direction—turning our gaze to something we need to see anew. This project forced me to read transcripts and texts I would not otherwise have seen—texts that will themselves be archived for posterity. It also reminded me that part of what makes an erasure interesting is its relationship to its source. Erasure, whether of poetry or postions, is a dialogic process that gains meaning through context.