A Taxonomy of Digital Erasure

tomstubb's picture

Acts of erasure require both an object and a performative gesture which attempts to diminish its presence.  Starting with this basic duality provides not only a means of understanding the complicated semiotics of eradication, but also of charting the internal dynamics by which these operations obtain mnemonic significance.  At the risk of oversimplifying a complex web of absence and presence with a restrictive binary, this framework suggests that specific instances of erasure might be understood in terms of three primary iterations:  an excess of the gesture (performative erasure), an excess of the object (targeted erasure) or a relative equilibrium between the two (dual erasure).  This three part taxonomy is useful in drawing out the nuances of the role of erasure in the digital sphere where recurring narratives of information glut and omnipresent surveillance tend to obscure its centrality.

In performative erasure, stand-ins frequently suffice for the targeted person, event or thing as the act of eradication is imbued with the power to remove the offending subject regardless of its presence.  An early example of this variation occurs in ancient Rome where rhetoricians developed elaborate techniques to help orators deliver lengthy speeches without notes.  These systems of mnemotechnics often involved constructing imaginary rooms decorated with images which represented the primary talking points of the presentation.  When giving the speech, the orator would mentally walk through these rooms in order to follow the correct sequence of ideas.  However, part of this art also involved responding to changing conditions or simply editing previous versions.  As such, these techniques necessarily included a correlative set of practices to aid in forgetting.  To this end, students were advised to burn the offending image, to envision themselves tossing it out the window, to fabricate a wax image in the likeness of the person or idea and melt it down and so on.  In these instances, the imagined gesture was to safely remove the offending image and its mnemonic referent by virtue of a performative action.

Just as often, however, the target of erasure overpowers the staging of its eradication. One thinks here of the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas statues by the Talban in 2000, an event whose semiotic currency is firmly rooted in the irretrievable loss of the object. However, acts of targeted erasure do not necessarily have to be iconoclastic or even intentional. Consider, for example, the fire at the National Museum of Natural History in New Delhi in 2016, which destroyed the entirety of the museum’s collection of fossils and taxidermies animals. Clearly, the reverberation of this event across the visual sphere played a role in its semiotic currency, but the larger significance of the event is primarily derived from the material destruction of a specific object and place.

Following this binary, it is tempting to say that the digital prioritizes object-based practices of erasure and minimizes the performative mode. After all, the simple click of a mouse can easily belie the significance of removing digital artifacts, especially when compared to the theatrical violence of the ancient orator or the cathartic explosions that fell the Buddha statues in Afghanistan. Rather than grandiose displays of negation, digital assets in fact seem more likely to undergo a soft disappearance at the hands of file corruption, viruses or obsolescence than outright removal. If present at all, the performative aspect of such scenarios appear only in the inadvertent gestures of de-securitization, technical malfunction and/or software updates, processes that are rarely even experienced as gestures of erasure.

However, one can’t forget that these acts of eradication are always already operating in the public sphere of networked culture. As a result, it is difficult if not impossible to disentangle these two modes of erasure in the digital context. Case in point is the act of “unfriending,” which banishes a user and their content to oblivion in often public and melodramatic fashion despite requiring minimal technical action on the part of the user. This collusion between performative and targeted modes is bolstered by the fact that acts of digital erasure are imminently reversible. The seemingly inevitable excavation of incriminating photos or texts of politicians and other public figures proves that the “removal” of private content is always present as a condition for its own reappearance. In this way, networked culture regularly offers perverse confirmation of Marc Auge’s formula: "Tell me what you forget and I will tell you who you are.”1 Framing the digital in terms of this binary, reveals a dual mode of erasure at work in the digital environment, one that interpenetrates the performative mode with its targeted artifacts. As a consequences of this dialectic, erasure is both inaccessible and ever-present, a means of conjuring meaning by way of absence.

1.     Marc Auge, Oblivion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 18.