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Deletion and Damnatio Memoriae: Theses on the Eventfulness of Forgetting

Bradford Vivian

1. Deletion has emerged as the signature trope of forgetting in the digital age. The late modern compulsion for exhaustive archival documentation and storage—of historical atrocities, witness testimonials, endangered cultural traditions, ordinary social histories, and more—intersects, at the fin de siècle, with systemic limits on data storage and limited human resources for data management. Connotations of forgetting as a form of erasure or amnesia that signified a tragically inevitable loss, lack, and absence of memory throughout the classical and early modern traditions now represent agreeable, if not virtuous, solutions to the apparent dilemma of information overload.[i] “The increasing burden imposed on memory by history,” Harald Weinrich claims, 

becomes in the twentieth century a problem for society in general: the unceasing growth of masses of data that are available for informing oneself and that demand to be taken into account. The globally networked information society including everything connected with life, which only a short time ago we longed for, hasbeen so fully realized that the dream has already become a nightmare. (207)

The basic operation of rapidly expanding and interpenetrating digital networks, Weinrich explains, automatically induce this nightmarish scenario: “the explosion of information in a bureaucratized world has exceeded all boundaries, and today any given administrative unit may well produce as much archivable material in a single year as it did earlier in a century. No archive can grow as quickly as the complexity of the world and the amount of available information” (209). Archivists have invented a bureaucratic vocabulary and practice of digital forgetting in response to this conundrum, the chief term of which is “annulment,” meaning “nothing other than the systematic destruction of documents” (Weinrich 209). “Comprehensive digital memory,” Viktor Mayer-Schönberger posits, “represents an even more pernicious version of the digital panopticon” (11). “Quite literally,” he submits, “Google knows more about us than we can remember ourselves,” which is merely one of many search engines “that retain near perfect memory of how each one of us has used them, and they are not shy to utilize this informational power” (Mayer-Schönberger 7, 8). Mayer-Schönberger therefore advocates dramatically enhancing existing capacities to digitally forget—to literally delete—as a form of personal and social liberation from this alleged panopticon. Forgetting, in the omnipresent digital realm of data storage, now connotes either an efficient solution to the problem of information excess, or a personal and social virtue, a capacity to liberate oneself from matrices of digital surveillance.

2. Forgetting under the sign of deletion reduces the logic of memory, writing, and publicity to the model of a binary code. Weinrich, Mayer-Schönberger, and others who espouse similar views[ii] characterize the conundrum of digital storage and deletion as an intensifying public concern, not a simple matter of technological tidying. Their proposals equate forgetting, in the event, to an untraceable void and memory to an automatic retrieval reflex: Mayer-Schönberger maintains, in representative fashion, that “Remembering is more than committing information to memory. It includes the ability to retrieve that information later easily and at will” (72). The ethics of remembering and forgetting within the increasingly thick nexus of human affairs and digital processes are plausibly reduced to a question of selecting the right computer key: retrieve or delete? This binary model of memory and forgetting applied to public (not merely digital) affairs dilutes our understanding of remembrance and redaction as a frequently productive coupling in social and political life. It disregards, in so doing, the manner in which public procedures of forgetting leave not voids but perceptible memorial remnants—events of remembering and forgetting, in other words, that produce a form of writing, in the Derridean sense: a legibility of the trace. “Just as societies remember differently,” Harriet Flower explains, “so also do they forget differently. Editing and erasure take place within the context of each community’s culture of writing, of archives, of images, and of monuments” (7). Such events, in other words, “take place” in a social “context” and thereby exhibit phenomena of spacing and timing unto themselves. “Memory sanctions,” Flower maintains in her study of artful forgetting in classical Roman political culture, “must be read as political rhetoric, rather than as mere statements of fact; they reflect a claim on the part of the powerful to impose a narrative and to control the past. Such a claim may or may not be valid or even put into practice in a consequent way: sometimes it might be little more than an assertion or expression of hope” (9). Official history and models of civic excellence at Rome were literally written into the material dimensions of the city itself:[iii] political dispute and changes of law, order, or regime were communicated in part by visible removals or mutilations of portraits, inscriptions, symbols, and other public tokens of power—“memory sanctions,” or pronouncements of forgetting. These practices formed the custom of damnatio memoriae. “The visible indications of obliteration, the sense of the absent in the present,” Elizabeth Meyer remarks, “carried the greatest significance” (34-5). The sheer publicity of legal and political forgetting as such can be a vital incitement to public deliberation, not complete and automatic deletion of the past: “Even a clearly attested official disgrace [one form of such forgetting] could and did,” Flower states, “meet with a wide variety of reactions, especially over time” (xxii). Practices of forgetting may be written or spoken, comprising forms of articulation whose traces or dimensions are legible and available for public deliberation as to their validity or applicability. Such is the case not only in the context of Greco-Roman culture but in the very formation of western modernity. Reflections on the role of forgetting as a form of systematic deletion in any ostensible public realm, including those of the digital spaces now thickly embedded throughout it, should weigh the ethical and political question of whether digital erasure as proposed engenders similar occasions for public response, deliberation, and refutation to those inspired by the eventfulness of forgetting, or writing under erasure, to those legible throughout cultures of modernity.

3. Forgetting eventuates indispensable dimensions of modern spacing and timing. Forgetting in this context connotes a rhetorical practice rather than a cognitive process or a repressive instantiation of memorial absence, lack, or oblivion. Modernity here refers neither to an ill-defined historical epoch nor a generic cultural condition but rather to a constellation of political, social, and commercial practices—in sum, legible forms of writing. Forgetting engenders prospects for thought, speech, and action in the timing and spacing of modernity.

4. Forgetting eventuates the ethos of the modern nation-state. The French Revolution inaugurated not merely a collapse of the ancien régime but a new, politically mandated historical consciousness vividly inscribed in the space and time of the emergent nation itself. The French Republican Calendar reset national time for approximately twelve years; place names on Parisian buildings and streets were systematically vandalized in order to redact aristocratic references from urban environs. Nineteenth century French historian Ernst Renan posited that programs of forgetting distinguish modern nation-states—which rapidly integrate disparate ethnic cultures, religious affiliations, and regional governing bodies into ostensibly unified sociopolitical identities—from previous political orders. “Forgetting,” he claims, “is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation . . . Indeed, historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations, even of those whose consequences have been altogether beneficial” (Renan). Modernity arguably bequeathed to late- or hyper-modernity the fraught legacy of attempts to delicately balance institutions of remembrance with those of forgetting amid times of transitional justice and nascent nationalism.[iv] Consider ongoing dilemmas over how to promote nationalism in Afghanistan and Iraq, how to motivate traditionally opposed ethnic and religious groups to embrace a singular national ethos by practicing, whether in speech, writing, or symbolism, amnesty and oblivion concerning massive portions of their respective pasts.

5. Forgetting eventuates the aesthetic experience of disposable or lost historical time characteristic of modernity. From Kierkegaard to Joyce, Proust, and beyond, the ennui of modern letters reflects a putative curtain of oblivion, of memorial forlornness, that permeates the deeply felt loss of abiding connection with an authentic spiritual host or personal history. Avant-garde movements identified such languor as a cause for celebration and innovation. The Futurist Manifesto derided the “eternal and futile worship of the past”; Russian constructivists equated their project with “leaving the past behind as carrion”; Dadaists insisted that “The abolition of memory is dada!” (Gross 104). The modern aesthetic of forgetfulness likewise permeates the spacing and timing of daily capitalist production and exchange. Commodity fetishism, Karl Marx proposed, subsists on the basis of a twofold forgetting: the mystification of past and present human relations that it entails as well as the “constant revolutionizing of production” that perpetual enlargements of capital markets require (sec. 4).

6. Forgetting eventuates the simultaneous production of revolutionary futures and a return to revolutionary struggles past within the present-day spacing and timing of late- or hyper-modernity. Significant portions of current political thought inherit from Marx and his adherents the expectation that capitalism will, in due time, produce its own dialectically transformative future in the form of a heretofore unseen political, social, and economic order, the sum of which would represent a patently new mode of human existence. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's rejection of traditional leftist modes of organization in favor of an improvised pragmatics echoes Nietzsche’s anticipation of a democracy yet to come superior to the democratic spirit of his time.[v] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s detection in Empire of the heraldic seeds of a future Commonwealth is profoundly indebted to both lineages.[vi] In either case, the revolutionary future cannot be gotten except by a seismic upheaval in historical and geographic development. But the virtual (or, the real but not yet actual) production of such revolutionary futures simultaneously commemorates the radical political past. The modern imperative to radically forget recurrently renders legible its own protracted history. Messianic currents in Walter Benjamin’s philosophy and Jacques Derrida’s tracing of Marxian specters in late twentieth-century political organization lend apt cases in point.[vii] For both figures, the future revolutionary rejection of the political, social, and economic past unavoidably calls on those who would effect that rejection to heed the calls of the revolutionary dead, of those who were sacrificed so that the rupturing future might arrive. We do not know how the revolutionary space and time of the future may appear but we bear its inaugural inscriptions ever in mind.

7. Whose future is legible in the deleted void? Promoting programs of deletion as a virtue in digital culture obliges one to consider matters of epistemic, ethical, and political authority intrinsic to longstanding public practices of remembrance and forgetting alike. Flower’s study of “formal commemoration and disgrace” in Roman political culture relates fundamentally to a question inherent in all studies of memory and forgetting: that of “who had the authority to decide about remembering and forgetting at any particular period” (xxii ). The digital era provides us with the image of bureaucratic personae carrying out “the systematic destruction of documents,” in Weinrich’s words, under the sign of public virtue. The archival or institutional desirability of such prospects should be considered in light of the fact that events of forgetting, whether executed through mechanisms of deletion or otherwise, somehow further the spatial and temporal production of a future, as is so evident throughout modernity. The question of which authority inscribes the eventuation of that future with its signature by deleting digital stores of the past poses new and vexing dilemmas about power, publicity, and politics as entailments of memory and forgetting in the digital age. Whether “visible indications of obliteration, the sense of the absent in the present, [will carry] the greatest significance” (Meyer 35) as publicly legible byproducts of such deletion remains to be seen.


i. Previous research on this topic includes Marc Augé, Oblivion, trans. Marjolijn de Jager (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004); Paul Connerton, How Modernity Forgets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) and “Seven Types of Forgetting,” Memory Studies 1 (2008): 59-71; Adrian Forty and Susanne Kuchler, eds. The Art of Forgetting (Oxford: Berg, 1999); Harald Weinrich, Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting, trans. Steven Rendall (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004); Bradford Vivian, Public Forgetting: The Rhetoric and Politics of Beginning Again (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010) and “On the Language of Forgetting,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 95 (2009): 89-104.

ii. See, for example, Cheryl Avery and Mona Holmlund, eds, Better Off Forgetting?: Essays on Archives, Public Policy, and Collective Memory (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2010).

iii. See Kathleen S. Lamp, “‘A City of Brick’: Visual Rhetoric in Roman Rhetorical Theory and Practice,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 44 (2011): 171-93.

iv. See Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

v. See Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All-Too Human, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986a); "The Wanderer and his Shadow," in HumanAll-Too Human, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986b); Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2002); "Twilight of the Idols" in The Anti-Christ, Ecco Homo, Twilight of the Idols, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); "Homer on Competition," in On the Genealogy of Morality, trans.Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Also Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). 

vi. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000); Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004); Commonwealth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009).

vii. See Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968); “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, and Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken, 1978) 277-300; Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (New York: Routledge, 1994).

Works Cited

Flower, Harriet I. The Art of Forgetting: Disgrace and Oblivion in Roman Political
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Print.

Gross, David. Lost Time: Remembering and Forgetting in Late Modern Culture.
University of Massachusetts Press, 2000. Print.

Marx, Karl. “Commodities.” Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. Penguin
1992. Print. 3 vols.

Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor. Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.
Princeton University Press, 2009. Print.

Meyer, Elizabeth A. Legitimacy and Law in the Roman World: Tabulae in Roman Belief
Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Renan, Ernst. “What is a Nation?” Cooper Union. N.p. n.d. Web.

Weinrich, Harald. Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting. Trans. Steven Rendall.

      Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. Print.




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