Summer 2011

The Memory Hole Has Teeth

Toward a field guide to shred

D. Graham Burnett and Sal Randolph

Interior of a shredding truck.

The authors outline the prospectus for a global, collaborative, participatory program of collection and collation of information on document destruction—its tools and products. The aim: to create an encyclopedic guide to a significant form of information-age detritus—“shred,” what is left after the hard work of un-archiving has been achieved.

The authors propose that the changing data ecology of our moment, coupled with unsubsiding anxieties about privacy and security, identity and multiplicity, individual freedom and the zombie trap of our digitized superorganismal collective, will make shredding—and its tangible output, those fluffy snowdrifts of everything we have set out to forget—an increasingly significant aspect of the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century. This has, as we attempt to show below, already in some measure begun.

The juxtaposition of paper shredding and our (ever more) electronic media environment demands critical reflection. The authors suggest that the magnetic erasure of magnetic information can only ever be a frictionless forgetting of an etherealized memory—in the “cloud,” as in the mind of God, to “forget” amounts to a figure of speech, a necessary fiction, a conceit at best. By contrast, where paper is concerned, forgetting retains a relentless physicality (a set of practices, devices, industries, connoisseurs, experts) of profound importance in a world wholly renegotiating its relationship to memory, history, materiality, time, and text. Shred is the versicolor confetti saluting the end of the age of the book—and the party is just getting started.

The authors therefore call for attention to this material, which in our watershed condition takes on new aesthetic, forensic, and politico-philosophical significance. At stake in all this? Strategies for living with the proliferating residue of our accelerating efforts to forget our accelerating efforts to remember.

The paradoxes of “information” have been the subject of numerous specialized studies. Information wants to be free. And yet, as has been noted, it would also appear to have an unseemly desire to make itself expensive. Information is, within certain interesting constraints, medium independent. And yet it is definitely not “immaterial.” Rather it seems to take some perverse delight in playing hide-and-seek at the limits of the physical world (and our access thereto). Interestingly, information would seem to possess a number of characteristics generally associated with biological processes (under certain circumstances it reproduces itself, both clonally and “sexually”; it displays statistically robust patterns of senescence not unlike the mortality tables that can be derived from natural populations, etc.). Analogies, in some cases quite impressive, have played out the structure and function of information through juxtapositions with everything from Marxist commodity fetishism to Patristic theories of the Paraclete; from classical thermodynamics to quantum mechanics; from parasitology to hydrology (via Freudian ideas about the unconscious).
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