Media forgetting

Communication technologies and the memory of society

Modern society is a society of forgetting, at least according to Elena Esposito. According to the Luhmann scholar, the modern media are machines that for centuries have particularly increased the ability to erase data. A high point is now said to have been reached by the computer media, which, according to Esposito, do not record content, only decisions. From this follows – once again – the announcement of a media revolution of the Western world view, to which distinctions such as subject and object or this world and the other world are lost, which incidentally explains the booming market for esotericism.

That there is a connection between the communication media of a society and its ability to remember things was already suspected by Plato in the Phaidros-Dialogue. The invention of letters would instill oblivion – in the souls of learners – because, trusting in the memory capacity of writing, they could neglect their own memory capacity. The Italian sociologist Elena Esposito would probably agree with Plato, even if her new book Social Forgetting is concerned neither with people nor with their souls, but only with communicative structures, in which Esposito finds the memory of society. The modern communication media, she believes, are the "tools of forgetting" – and also the increasingly "increasingly sophisticated forms of information storage are also" "first of all a form of forgetting" represented.

Only apparently do these diagnoses collide with the complaint of information overload, which is part of the inventory of modernity and culminates in the equally despairing and morbid assertion of the American media theorist Neil Postman that the flood of information is a "flood" "cultural aids". In fact, for Esposito, information overload and the rule of forgetting are mutually dependent, and it is precisely the flow of information that makes the rhetoric of memory sound increasingly hollow. The jubilation over ever-increasing storage capacities, which can hold gigantic amounts of information, wrongly pretends to serve memory. The ability to store more and more data would only lead to a faster rewriting of used data and thus effectively to its erasure in communicative use.

History of the social memory and "telematic turn"

Esposito’s real interest, meanwhile, is a historical one, and so she sets out, in a good three hundred and fifty pages, to astutely trace the history of the "social memory" to write. What is remembered is what is communicatively repeated, is the central thesis, and: what is forgotten is what occurs only once in communication. The concept of memory, in turn, includes remembering and forgetting and thus concerns the relationship between repetition and varietat. However, as the sociologist explains, this relationship has changed over the course of more than two millennia. Whereas in archaic societies with limited media resources the emphasis was on the retention of a limited number of communicative contributions that had to be repeated constantly with minimal variation, with the advent of the printing press and mass media the emphasis has shifted to forms of memory that distill only a limited number of abstract themes in a repetitive manner, past which a multitude of constantly varying contributions flow with increasing speed.

This change has been taken to an extreme since the telematic turn proclaimed by Esposito "telematic turn", the triumph of electronic computer media. Here, the thesis goes, forgetting is increased to the limit of the conceivable compared to remembering. In the public consciousness the "memory" of the electronic network though still described with terms from the book culture. Particularly hard-nosed is the assertion that the electronic network is a crude "Archive", which contains a number of contributions that can be found with the help of a catalog. However, Esposito claims that this view is wrong, because the revolutionary aspect of the Net is precisely that it no longer stores fixed data sets, as is still the case in libraries.

Instead, the telematic media generated the data at disposal anew in each case in their computational procedures. What the computer media create, therefore, is a "memory", which replaces a representational model with an "authentic performative model" .

"The computer does not have static images that are remembered for future purposes, but it constructs its objects one by one."

Each search query is unique and produces results that never existed before in this form. Only decisions and connections are kept, but not contents. Repetition, and thus memory, is reduced to an absolute minimum, almost to the point of invisibility, compared to variety and forgetting.

Telematic media and revolution of the western world view

Esposito uses the increase of forgetting through the telematic media to launch a – one will have to say in the context of media theory: further – announcement of the revolution of the western world view. The uniqueness of each telematic computational operation means a genuine interaction between user and machine, which had not yet taken place in the classical archive, where observers were strangers to the texts. Now observers are sucked into the surface truth of telematic media, which is supposed to result in a collapse of those level distinctions that draw a line between observer and object: Subject and object above all, as well as this world and beyond.

The world becomes one-dimensional according to her. The modern society approaches past cultures as for example that of the antique Greece, which understood the world as animated and residence also of the Gods, cultures thus, which knew no Auben of the one world. Through the telematic computer media, Esposito ames, the western distinctions of this world and beyond, subject and object will soon dissolve in the single reality of the telematic data stream.

She sees evidence of this in the renewed interest in religious and esoteric models, which (admittedly: spiritually charged) a world. One must think here "only the resurgence of occultism since the 1970s, the spread of Buddhism and other Eastern religions in the West, or movements such as New Age". Precisely because the users of telematic media lose an orientation that they themselves set in opposition to something else – the texts, the beyond – a new interest in models is blober "Immanence" determine.

The only thing that seems inconsistent is that the new model of immanence is developed on the example of an archaic past, whose representation, moreover, is extremely conventionalized. Not only the avant-garde of media theory, but also European philosophy has been drawing inspiration from ancient Greece for over two hundred years, probably not always with revolutionary intentions. And already Friedrich Schiller longed for the end of the 18th century. In the early twentieth century, the IS returned to a world in which gods and men coexisted. It is possible, therefore, that the developments predicted by Esposito will be a long time coming, despite digital media.

Elena Esposito: Social Forgetting. Forms and media of social memory. With an epilogue by Jan Assmann. Frankfurt/Main (stw) 2002. Ca. 420 S. Price: 14,00 E.

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