How do issues of erasure (redaction, deletion, censor, displacement, etc.) in digital spaces impact memory? What can these erasures reveal?

  • We Are Called to Labor Activism in the Digital Age for the Work of Remembering

    Laurie N. Taylor's picture
    by Laurie N. Taylor — University of Florida view

    Shirley Chisholm

    Shirley Chisholm, elected in 1968 as the first Black woman to US Congress wrote: “Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt” (Page 92, Unbought and Unbossed, Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition).  When I think of erasure in digital spaces—be it redaction, deletion, censor, displacement—I hear Chisholm, I hear Virginia Woolf on the books missing from the bookshelves because women were not allowed to write them, and I remember the stories shared with me of archives lost and archives never made.  Things never made are never there to erase. For the things made, so many do not survive long enough to become digital, and are thus erased before their digital birth.

    Working with libraries and archives means regularly experiencing erasures, for the things never made and the things made that did not survive, or that are killed to ensure they did not survive. A concrete example of this comes from the Florida Digital Newspaper Library, which builds upon collective microfilming programs to microfilm and now digitize newspapers for preservation. With the many decades of work, so many of Florida’s newspapers—historic and current—are preserved, with over 140,000 issues representing over 2.5 million pages online. The online and physical materials cannot sufficiently speak to what is absent, to that which has already been erased. The Winter Park Advocate was an African American newspaper from Winter Park, Florida. The single issue that is known to have been microfilmed includes a note that the text is illegible. Other issues are not known to exist. As explained by Julian Chambliss, Professor of History at Rollins College:

    Owned and operated by African Americans residing in Hannibal Square, the African-American district in Winter Park, The Advocate was a weekly that began publication in May 1889. The Advocate provided a forum for community news that included social, political and economic concerns. Heavily reflecting the political landscape of the time, the paper was a strong voice for the Republican Party in a time of resurgent white rule driven by southern Democrats. As such, the stories and opinions in the pages of The Advocate represent a critical primary source documenting the transformation of Florida in the 1890s. Although most of the The Advocate was thought to be lost, significant fragments of the paper can be found in the Winter Park Public Library and in the Winter Park Scrapbook (WPS) located in the Olin Library Archive and Special Collection at Rollins College.  (Advocate Recovered, “About”)

    The Advocate Recovered, by Julian Chambliss

    Chambliss led development of The Advocate Recovered, a critical making digital humanities project which digitized, transcribed, and created a contextual website around the fragments recovered in the scrapbooks. Importantly, The Advocate Recovered is included in the Florida Digital Newspaper Library alongside the illegible single issue from microfilm, with The Advocate Recovered speaking to what has been lost and creating space and presence through the fragments that remain. This critical making work both recovers aspects of the lost newspaper and marks the absence and erasure for what is not there, making a place and space so that the erasure is made visible. 

    For things made and saved, limited resources for cataloging, describing, and making materials findable create gaps that allow for materials to be functionally erased even when they exist. Inclusion of The Advocate Recovered in the Florida Digital Newspaper Library allows it to speak with the others and to be represented. What if Chambliss had not sought out ways to have the newspaper represented? What if the Florida Digital Newspaper Library had declined to include The Advocate Recovered? The fragments and context would be there, but they would be disconnected in the digital world. The lack of connection is also a manner of erasure. Without connection, the fragments would still have been erased from the larger library and collection scope, obscuring and distancing in the digital realm.

    The connections for this work to prevent and resist erasure are technical, and they are also human. People make possible the technical connections. In the digital era, people are too often obscured with narratives of technological essentialism and false techno-utopianism, where the technology will save us. In the digital era, as with the eras that came before, we are the ones who create, utilize, and connect technologies and methods to counter erasure. Working in libraries and archives, I am concerned with the erasures done to things. I am more concerned with the erasure and allowance of invisibility done to people, where too often work and labor go unseen or unacknowledged against the pervasive discussions of technical solutions and the new normal. Technologies can be wielded for our collective benefit against erasure, but only if people are present to do so. Issues of erasure illuminate the necessity of labor activism to ensure people are not erased from processes, and to ensure necessary work that enables us to remember are not allowed to be silenced.

    The loss through erasure distances and disconnects us from our pasts, and thus from our present and our possible futures. As William Faulkner reminds, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” To prevent erasure—spanning across and beyond deletion, destruction, and disconnection—means to put in place the conditions to be able to remember, and thus to be able to build from memory to speculate and dream of possible futures. 

  • Deleting the Deletionists

    Amaranth Borsuk's picture
    by Amaranth Borsuk — University of Washington, Bothell — School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences view

    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 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]

    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]

    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 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]

    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.

  • A Taxonomy of Digital Erasure

    Thomas Stubblefield's picture
    by Thomas Stubblefield — University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth view

    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.

  • Ceci N’est Pas: Richard Prince, Ivanka Trump, and the Politics of Disavowal

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    by Paul Benzon — Skidmore College 1 Comment view

    Before Donald Trump was even in office, his archive had already begun to disappear, although perhaps not in the way he might have imagined. On January 11, eight days before Trump’s inauguration, the artist Richard Prince denounced his Instagram portrait of incoming First Daughter Ivanka Trump. Posting a screen capture of an Ivanka Instagram selfie with a comment from his own Instagram account, Prince wrote of the image on Twitter, “This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This fake art.”

    Prince’s action—one of denial, denunciation, refusal, cancellation—at once both undoes and tightens a complex knot of authorship, appropriation, ownership, and the politics of aesthetic labor, issues that have long occupied his work and the critical conversation surrounding it. Since his 2014 show New Portraits, Prince has been producing works based on appropriation of social media content: he comments on selected Instagram posts, many but not all of which are selfies or other portraits of young women, screenshots these posts, and emails them to an assistant to be printed as approximately six-by-four-foot portrait-oriented images. Before Donald Trump declared his candidacy for President, Prince produced such an image for Ivanka Trump, which he sold to her for $36,000 in November 2014, as he subsequently tweeted. The image consists of a mirror selfie taken by a robe-clad Ivanka in a hair-and-wardrobe session; below her caption “#Selfie on set! Big shoot today!,” Prince comments “Nurse Trump,” an allusion to his pulp-inspired Nurse Paintings, followed by smiley face, lipstick, and pink bow emoji. Ivanka herself posed with the finished image on Instagram, further intensifying a hall-of-mirrors effect in which identity management, ephemeral stardom, vernacular technology, and high art intermingle and recursively cannibalize one another.

    What does it mean, then, to disavow such an image? Prince’s tweets seem not only to reject this object, to disown it, but to cancel it altogether, to undo its already carefully hedged trappings of authorship and authenticity: “SheNowOwnsAfake,” he writes of his now-former patron. In this sense, beyond being a political critique by way of refusal—identification with #resist, as it were—Prince’s action stands in a long line of charged artwork that hinges on erasure (think here of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 Erased de Kooning Drawing), or perhaps more pointedly on self-erasure (think here of John Baldessari’s 1970 Cremation Project, in which he incinerated paintings he had made from 1953-1966). Understood in the context of these predecessors, Prince’s politically engaged use of erasure from the digital archive seems an attempt to beat the Trump administration to the punch, not just through ethical denunciation of their platform, but also through the very acts of deletion that would quickly come to characterize Trump’s early days in office: before the new administration had the authority to delete mentions of global warming from government websites, or discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity from the upcoming census, Prince was deleting the Trump family from the public archive of his work, along with himself as artist.

    And yet such an action is crucially different from either Rauschenberg’s or Baldessari’s for two reasons, the first of which is Prince’s longstanding use of appropriation and authorial play. After all, there’s something deeply self-aware and tongue-in-cheek about his haltingly punctuated initial comment—“This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This fake art”—and if we take his words here at face value, we have to acknowledge that many of the claims he makes there could be made about this work (and perhaps his career as a whole) before this denunciation. I don’t mean to suggest here that Prince is not an artist, or that he is not the artist of this work, or that Prince’s work here or elsewhere is not art—indeed, quite the opposite: as Sarah’s post earlier in this series makes clear, in an archival culture in which every image seems up for grabs, urgently in play in aesthetic, authorial, and political terms, the work of appropriation (and erasure along with it) is uniquely able to provide a necessary engagement with the questions of the moment.

    Given the archival urgency of this current moment, perhaps Prince, ever in provocateur mode, is being playful about the disavowal of the image itself as well. There’s a kind of deliberate Streisand effect at work in his action, in which the more he rejects and cancels the image, the more he claims it, foregrounds it, and pushes it further into circulation as a tool of critique and resistance. By removing Ivanka Trump from his oeuvre, he simultaneously centralizes her within it, marking her, like so many of his other subjects, as a blank pop icon whose power and mythos rely upon inequity and illusion. The image hanging on Ivanka Trump’s wall both is and is not the selfie she posted on Instagram; while Prince might disavow his finished product, its digital counterpart circulates widely and publicly out of his (or her) control, in part because of this disavowal rather than in spite of it. In a charged political moment in which power hinges, as ever, on access to the archive, Prince’s cancellation of his own work draws our attention to the multiple, complex ways in which deletion, persistence, and resistance both rely upon and support one another.

  • #MeToo and the Feminist Politics of Memory

    Debra Ferreday's picture
    by Debra Ferreday — Centre for Gender and Women's Studies, Lancaster University 1 Comment view

    It is just over a month since the digital campaign #MeToo brought and made questions of erasure, denial and traumatic memory into public consciousness and spurred much discussion about the effectiveness of social media activism. This moment has been widely interpreted as one of revelation: the sheer scale of sexual abuse suddenly made visible. To understand how the current call for social change might be sustained, hashtag activism needs to be located in a longer history of feminist re-membering.

    The assembling of collective memory has long been central to feminist scholarship and activism. In the 80’s, Frigga Haug developed memory work as a means of investigating how bodies and feelings are historically constructed and how ‘women, as subjects within culture, are “made”’. For Haug, memory is always contested: ‘it contains hope and giving up; above all, memory is constantly written anew and always runs the risk of reflecting dominant perspectives’. In this climate of mass re-membering,  Haug’s insistence that memory is vulnerable to being rewritten in line with the dominant ideological order is sobering. How is testimony re-appropriated and silenced and what acts of self-erasure might such recuperation involve? These are key questions for feminist digital politics since, as Grace Cho describes, ‘the act of disavowal often proliferates the very trauma that is being denied’.

    A key task for feminism is therefore to identify and resist patriarchy’s attempts to recuperate and make sense of survivor accounts. Sometimes they are overt: survivors are portrayed as hysterical, over-sensitive, unable to ‘get over it’: to quote Sara Ahmed, “oversensitive can be translated as: Sensitive to that which is not over’. Woody Allen speaks of ‘a witch-hunt, a Salem atmosphere’, a dizzying inversion of gendered relations of power in the present as well as historical oppression. As Silvia Federici shows us, witch-hunts are not simply a barbaric practice located in the past: along with the institutionalism of rape, they are central to the emergence of a capitalist order in which the collective becomes commodified and privatised.  It is unsurprising that the image of the witch trials, whose erasure constitutes a primary act of forgetting for heteropatriarchal capitalism, should erupt at this moment of instability.

    But the potential power of #MeToo is managed and contained in less overt ways: as Linda Alcoff argues, survivor accounts are exploited for the entertainment of ‘the anesthetized market of overly stimulated media consumers’. The imperative to ‘talk about it’ as an end in itself becomes an alibi for the erosion of actual support services as well as for the violence of the judicial system. Elsewhere, valid concerns about the triggering potential of #MeToo are mobilised to demonise and silence survivors. CNN devotes a webpage to the strawman question of whether #MeToo is ‘empowering’ or ‘triggering’, splitting survivors into two oppositional camps, as though it were impossible to experience both. Here, the figures of the empowered survivor and the triggered survivor operate equally to produce trauma as individual, a private matter, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of its social pervasiveness. It is significant that ‘empowerment’ - that meaningless abstraction beloved of neoliberal capitalism and postfeminism - is imagined as the best possible outcome, while for the ‘triggered’ survivor, the primary goal is recovery. Social change is presented as too difficult, too demanding, for the exhausted, traumatised subject: the answer is not revolution but mindfulness, meditation and medicine. This is not to suggest that self-care doesn’t matter or that such practices cannot be helpful: still, this individualising discourse does nothing to trouble the underlying structures that produce trauma. A better question is how we might care for ourselves and one another in the struggle for social justice. Expressions of distress in the present resonate with much longer histories of oppression as well as with potential futures: only through sustained collective action can we realise the radical potential of telling our stories.  

  • What happened to Sit-In? : Digital Archival Erasure and Struggles for Open Access

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    by Lauren Tilton — University of Richmond 1 Comment view

    The syllabus for Documenting 1960s America was set.  The reading were neatly organized in folders for each unit, links had been updated, and film viewings were scheduled. The weeks ticked by as we developed our theoretical foundations on which to build our analysis of documentary expression and then moved into our unit on the Civil Rights Movement. Then, the emails began flowing in that the link didn’t work. 

    I had assigned NBC White Paper: Sit-In (1960).  Broadcast in December 1960, the episode was built around interviews with black student leaders and local politicians alongside footage from protests in Nashville in order to reveal the emerging sit-in movement across the South. The hour-long news program was also a part of the TV network's efforts to use documentary to show that networks could produce rigorous, quality reporting. Such an approach by the networks has garnered scholarly attention from media scholars such as Sasha Torres and Aniko Bodroghkozy, whose scholarship I pair with Sit-In in my course. Now here I was, with class in two days, inundated with a fury of emails from students who couldn’t access the film they were reading about. 

    Upon further inspection, it became clear that NBC Universal Archives had removed the film from their digital collections online. It was gone!  I, of course, had broken the golden rule of the internet: when in doubt, download. Fortunately, a few short clips were also available on the Library of Congress website and the class went better than expected. The event revealed how digital archival material can come online as quickly as it can go offline. 

    The erasure of Sit-In served as stark reminder of how dependent I was on corporate archives for my research and teaching. The major networks hold hundreds of thousands of hours of footage that bear witness to forms of oppression and resistance during the liberation struggles. As they did in the 1960s, the networks still control when and where to circulate their media, choosing to provide access one day and remove the next. When access is given, it often comes at a steep price.  The networks can delete or redact at will today as they did in the 1960s when they often chose not to circulate images that would isolate white audiences. As a result,  they remain in significant control of the public memories of the liberation struggles as they did during the era.

    The networks are not alone. They are a part of an ecosystem of for-profit archives such as Google, Kanopy, and Proquest that are digital gatekeepers to significant archival holdings. These companies are engaged in media distribution also choosing what and what not to circulate daily, and part of a genealogy of imperial and colonial archives wielded in the service of the state and capitalism. Unlike NBC Archives though (to my knowledge), these companies are proactively acquiring materials to add to their services. These collections increasingly include alternative and radical media that is stored on these corporate servers and often requires expensive subscriptions for access. What irony that these memories of the past are increasingly reserved for an educated elite accessible only through for-profit corporations.

    Therefore, I want to use this post to contribute to a growing call to action led by our colleagues in libraries who are at the forefront of the Open Access movement. We must resist being complicit in the corporatization of digital cultural collections. The academy  has helped create the market for archives. Therefore, higher education institutions, as the main database subscribers, wield incredible power, when in coalition, to demand certain kinds of access; they can shift this market by funding non-profit archives like Internet Archive for example. I do not think this will change NBC Archives distribution policies anytime soon, but I am hopeful that we can imagine and support a landscape of digital collections that are committed to open access.  

  • The Benefits of Forgetting

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    by Viktor Mayer-Scho... — University of Oxford 1 Comment view

    We dislike erasure, because it so obviously eliminates information, and reduces memory. As much as erasure of memory is problematic and discussions about who decides what is being erased and when are crucially important in a democratic society, we also must not overlook that our aversion to erasure and its consequences is an artefact of our cognitive abilities and their specific constraints: We want to hold on to memory, precisely because we forget.

    But human forgetting (our own individual erasing of memory) is as much a feature of cognitive evolution as it is a bug. It lets us grow as individuals, and thereby focus on the present, rather than being tied to the past. As Borges, in his famous story “Funes” details so eloquently, only as we forget specifics, we can embrace generalizations – by disregarding the trees, the forest comes into view.

    It’s Borges’ point that especially warrants pondering in our digital times. In Borges’ story, Funes has perfect memory; he recalls with precision every sentence he read from the classics of literature, but he can't make connections between them. He can’t see beyond the specifics, because to him every piece of memory is equally important, equally crucial, and thus equally memorable. (The moment he would start weighing his memories, he would put himself on the slippery slope of decay and eventual forgetting.)

    But if everything is remembered equally, one can no longer differentiate between the important and the trivial. By erasing what our mind assumes to be insignificant, it creates space for the memories that seem to truly matter to us. Human forgetting thus not only enables remembering, but more importantly that memory becomes actionable. That because we remember what is crucial, we can act accordingly. Because we forget Aunt Mary’s birthday party five years ago, we remember our wedding day. Because we as a society largely forgot about the intense public feud between proponents of AC and DC electricity, we have space to remember the Holocaust.

    The challenge of digital memory, therefore, is not only that digital memory, too, has lots of (often non-obvious) holes. Digital memory is problematic precisely because it is far more comprehensive, because it captures so much, and makes forgetting so hard. Much like Funes, our challenge in the age of ample digital memory is to see the forest, not just the trees; to be able to focus, to generalize and to abstract. Without forgetting, we run the risk of treating evolution theory and chemtrails as equals, and of drowning human enlightenment in the sea of fake news. That’s why we need to develop skills to weigh and depreciate digital memory, and to preserve the space in memory that we need in order to evolve, as humans as well as society.

  • Lesbian History in the Digital Era: Appearance and Disappearance

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    by Bonnie Morris — University of California at Berkeley 1 Comment view

    The digital age places my generation of lesbian-identified activists, historians and scholars at a peculiar crossroads. The label lesbian has fallen into disfavor, overruled by the well-intentionally inclusive queer, in a semantic and political shift which effectively buries lesbian specificity and the context of lived lesbian experiences. The valorization of trans rights, which a necessary and dynamic revolution of gender, has in some quarters fostered the charge that lesbian are an outdated minority whose woman-only dating and socializing practices are not countercultural but outright transphobic, and thus we see lesbian authors and theorists being “deplatformed” and disappeared.

    This backlash is felt most acutely by older/aging women whose coming out and political activism spanned the 1968-2008 years—the generations corresponding to second-wave feminism and Gay Liberation action after Stonewall, culminating in the rapid gains of LGBT legal rights across two Obama administrations.  For those  40 or 50, most of the physical sites and lavender spaces where we came out (into partnerships and activism) are now vanishing: women’s bars, bookstores, concert coffeehouses; women’s music festivals. Younger women who never knew a world in which lesbians could not marry, or serve in the military, or adopt children, or appear on television night and day, now meet and plot online.

    This is both a political and technological generation gap, but too often is marked by distrust, rather than mutual effort toward understanding how lesbians lived and survived in the still-the recent past of homophobia and ambiguous legal status. My task as an historian and archivist of my own people involves collecting our survival stories.

    How will those stories survive, in the digital age? Although there are more innovative and accessible tools than ever before for inscribing our narratives and interviews digitally, ensuring online data for future generations to learn from, disdain toward the aging “L” peer group throughout social media complicates the honoring of foremothers in struggle.

    Having lived long enough to see the victory of gay marriage and other rights long fought for, lesbians are being stereotyped once again as mere man-haters; in modern parlance, as hateful “essentialists” whose desire for one another, for so long unspeakable, is unspeakable again if alliances with transwomen don’t extend to the bedroom. Thus it is increasingly difficult to gain a publishing platform or a conference workshop to address lesbian lives, for historical content (which lesbian activists did the work gain our LGBT victories?) is held hostage to gender politics (why is this presentation paying homage to the L and not including the GBT?) For the most part, we do not see gay men being held to these same standards in the publication or digital inscription of their activist histories.

    In many of my writings (and a recent book, The Disappearing L), I argue that the variable standards of current LGBT journalism, coupled with a lack of editorial oversight online and the convenience of anonymous social media posts, will soon create a perfect storm of “disappearing” lesbian elders from history, even as states such as California (where I am employed) mandate the inclusion of LGBT history in high school curricula.  If lesbians now represent a group whose coming extinction is welcomed as somehow necessary to complete the gender revolution, there’s little hope of getting a more accurate range of voices represented.  But on the other side of this troubling coin, two generations of dynamic scholars and historians now have the training and the will to preserve recent lesbian history in digital archive format. One need look no further than the Sophia Smith collection and the women’s special collection of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, both of which are institutions attracting and digitizing a breathtaking range of papers willed by lesbian icons, from Alison Bechdel to Adrienne Rich to Judith Casselberry and Alix Dobkin.  If social media has become a shelf often hostile to lesbian-identified narratives, museums and archives are very friendly to sifting through and electronically preserving the paper trail of lesbian survival. These issues of historic preservation—and how history is being shaped by our online debates over queer identity—are as intellectually fascinating as they are painful, to someone like me who risked everything to become a professor of women’s history after coming out as a lesbian teenager the year Ronald Reagan was elected.

  • Event, Fall – Harvest

    Gavin Keeney's picture
    by Gavin Keeney — Agence 'X'/Scholars Minor 3 Comments view



    “Holy Archangel Saint Michael, defend us in battle …” – Franciscan prayer

    If in the so-called Digital Humanities the primary game is the production and dissemination of media across diverse platforms, feeding an increasingly dizzying array of mediatic practices, then what many today see as the emergence of a new super-discipline also draws its primary fire from the production of events. “Event, Fall, Return” is the generative or operative configuration of performative agency – with “Event” being the construction and performance of the work, “Fall” being the archiving or recording of the work, and “Return” the re-performance or transformation of the singular work across works but also for works. “For works” then suggests the “quantum” nature of the life-work, an apparent continuous series of works perceived retrospectively as one work. Arguably, the life-work is of a higher order than mere singular works. At the least, that is the hallmark of Romanticism in the Arts and Letters.

    Since the emergence of post-digital practices, withholding or erasing aspects of production and/or record has been a common theme. Some of the games played with archives are part of this detour through negation. The intentional erasure or withholding from mediatic practices of the concluding form of the work – after performance and after re-performance – suggests the classical via negativa, with an increase in generative agency possible through the elimination of unnecessary or corrupted forms of commodification. Temporarily exiting the house of mirrors of digital production may be seen as one way of honoring the autonomy of the singular work or the emergent life-work.

    In the production of transmedia, this via negativa also resembles an a-theological purge of what is, in fact, the curse of “digital everything” – i.e., the theft or misuse of works. The theft occurs at the point of transfer of the work to the theater of operations best illustrated in the Digital Humanities by “uploading everything to the Cloud.” The Cloud, as everyone knows, belongs to the vectorial class (either the abject for-profit version or the not-so-innocent pseudo-nonprofit academic version). The production of works for works (a concept that bestows agency to the work versus to the author, and a concept that transfers any explicit or implicit ownership of the work to “no one” and therefore “everyone”) is a possible way forward for mediatic arts that reside uneasily in the slipstream of the Digital Humanities.

    “Erasure” then becomes “Harvest” – and “Event, Fall, Return” becomes “Event, Fall – Harvest,” with all of the attendant semantic indeterminacy of a higher-order cycle that escapes both rote instances of eternal return from within the circuit of Capital as effective “work for hire” (whatever form that might take) and explicit capture as de-based cultural commodity (on whichever side of the divide between proprietary or public goods the work first appears in its autonomous path as work for works).

    The terms utilized here to describe the shift from “Event, Fall, Return” to “Event, Fall – Harvest” have their own history or discursive provenance. That history has been developed transversally across multiple disciplines, and one may find traces in Philosophy, Theology, Political Economy, etc. Discourse analysis betrays, however, the discursive depletion of semantic agency over – perhaps – ten-year cycles. This process of depletion is what is present in both the Humanities and the Digital Humanities today, as in related disciplines and super-disciplines, and it is also why aspects of digital enterprise in the Arts and Humanities oftimes go underground or off-stage (e.g., vanish into P2P networks). In the High Romantic sense, singular works are erased for the Time Being – i.e., “erased” or “kicked upstream” on behalf of, or in pursuit of, higher-order works for works.

    September 29, 2017

  • Rethinking the Irretrievably Lost in Analog and Digital Spaces

    Marlene Manoff's picture
    by Marlene Manoff — formerly of MIT view

    A recent installation by artist Rayyane Tabet raises interesting questions about historical memory and its vulnerability to cycles of excavation, destruction, and resurrection. Tabet traces the trajectory across borders and generations of a 3000-year-old Neolithic basalt sculpture of a goddess from Tell Halaf, Syria.   Excavated by Max Oppenheim in 1911, it was destroyed, along with many similarly excavated pieces, in the 1930 bombing of the Tell Halaf Museum in Berlin. The basalt sculptures splintered into thousands of pieces and for years were consideredto be “irretrievably lost".  In 2001 a team of archaeologists began the process of reassembling the 27,000 surviving fragments. Using photos and detailed descriptions, they were able to reconstruct many figures, including what Oppenheim had called his “beautiful Venus.”

    Tabet’s 2017 “Ah, My Beautiful Venus” consists of eight foil pressings made from Oppenheim’s plaster mold of the original sculpture. Each piece represents a small section of the figure.  The only depiction of the full statue appears in the brochure that accompanies the exhibit. Underlining the absence of the actual statue, the installation rests on 6.5 tons of basalt tiles imported from Syria. These are meant to equal the volume of the original Tell Halaf goddess. Tabet thus commemorates an absence. He conjures a vision that exists more as symbolic object than as physical presence. He encourages us to consider the contingency of historical memory and its dependence upon acts of commemoration as much as the persistence of physical artifacts.

    I recognized a similar dynamic when I recently read about an exhibit that includes the crushed hard drive containing unfinished works by the writer Terry Pratchett. This object also commemorates an absence. According to his friend Neil Gaiman, Pratchett requested that his computer and whatever he was working on at the time of his death be destroyed by a steam roller.  Pratchett’s hard drive was accordingly crushed by a vintage John Fowler steam roller at the Great Dorset Steam Fair. Pratchett’s friend Rob Wilkins tweeted before and after photos of the drive and suggested that it had contained at least 10 titles and many fragments. The smashing of this hard drive and its subsequent display are acts of commemoration. And both seem to underline The Guardian’s claim that, Pratchett’s “unpublished works are [now] lost forever.”

    But are Pratchett’s works any more lost than the Tell Halaf sculptures that exploded into thousands of pieces as a result of the 1943 bombing? Technology has enabled the recovery of innumerable “lost” texts and artifacts. What does the crushing of a single drive mean when Pratchett said in an April 2000 interview “Well, yes, there’s always a newer computer. This house has computers like other houses have mice.”

    Even if Pratchett’s unpublished writings were confined to the one crushed drive, can we declare with absolute certainty that they are irretrievably gone? Given newly developing techniques of reconstruction, it is important to ask what it means to be destroyed or suppressed. Its display suggests that Pratchett’s words still somehow inhere, even if only symbolically, in the crushed hard drive. To me, this echoes the story of the burnt papyrus scrolls that survived the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD but could not be unrolled or read for almost 2000 years until the development of x-ray imaging techniques.   These cases raise the question of how our sense of history is affected by the restoration of artifacts previously thought to be lost forever. Although the particular vulnerability of digital objects to erasure and distortion is the subject of much contemporary investigation, equally important is the exploration of the long term implications of recovery and reconstitution and the role of objects that prompt us to rethink what it means to be “irretrievably lost.”

  • Everyday Erasures

    Sarah Sweeney's picture
    by Sarah Sweeney — Skidmore College view

    In my work as an artist I spend hours each week looking through digital photographs I have found on the internet, slides found in online auctions, and gelatin silver prints found in my family’s shoeboxes. I see each photograph as a sort of memory object–a prosthetic device that captures and preserves an ephemeral moment in a tangible form constructed of dye and paper or ones and zeros. These rigid and enduring objects stand in direct contrast to the living and malleable memories recorded and reconsolidated in our bodies. By bringing these objects into the digital space, I can edit and reconfigure these frozen moments and introduce aberrations and deletions that complicate how we understand these memories.

    One example of this type of intervention is Reimaging Erica, a year-long Instagram project I am currently working on. In this project, I use deletion to make visible the everyday erasures that happen when our bodies overlap in the snapshots we take with our friends and family. For this project I chose to reconstruct the photographic archive of Erica Bentley, a woman I found in the Creative Commons of Flickr who is both a wife and a mother. Each of my posts includes all of the images originally posted to the Bentley family’s Flickr feed on that day over multiple years. I digitally edit each of these images to isolate Erica’s body, erasing her husband, children, friends and even people in the background of the places she visits. In over nine hundred images we see Erica’s body as it relates to the people in her life. In some images she is alone and her body is whole and in other images the bodies of her children and husband overlap her body, creating gaping holes and amputated limbs. As the series progresses over one year we experience her life in parallel with our own–pictures of the beach are posted in July and August–but time is also compacted as we see both the birth and subsequent birthdays of her children posted on the same day in October.

    This series asks questions about the invisible erasure that is inherent in the two-dimensional plane of a photograph. What does it mean to cede pieces of our bodies to the people we love? Which body pieces are missing from the communal public memory, and are there populations or groups that are more absent than others? If we study these absences over time, how do they change as our relationships change?

    I have included some images from the Reimaging Erica project as a way to continue the conversation visually. You can also follow the project at All photographs are by Michael Bentley and are available under the CC BY 2.0 license.