Digging in the Gates: The Digital Socratic Shift

April 03rd, 2012 | Category: Essays, Reviews, Videos

If bricolage is the major creative form of the twenty-fist century, then the archive is its standing reserves. Socrates famously worried about the stability of our memories as we moved from an oral to a written culture, and his concerns have been echoed in the move to digital archives. The pedigree of this technological Socratic shift is deep. When Thomas Edison first recorded the human voice onto a tin foil roll on December 6, 1877, he externalized and disembodied a piece of humanity. Jonathan Sterne writes that “media are forever setting free little parts of the human body, mind, and soul” (p. 289). By the time Edison patented the phonograph in 1878, the public was familiar and comfortable with the idea of preserved foods. As a cultural practice, “canned music” in John Philip Sousa’s phrase, was ripe for mass consumption. Envisioning a world without such “canned” media is difficult to do now. We preserve everything. The problem is not so much the authenticity of our entertainment and information, but how to parse the sheer expanse of it. Andreas Huyssen (2003) mused, “Could it be that the surfeit of memory in this media-saturated culture creates such an overload that the memory system itself is in constant danger of imploding, thus triggering fear of forgetting?” (p. 17).

Condense fact from the vapor of nuance.
— Juanita Marquez in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash

Alongside library science and other information archiving skills, forensics is a contemporary growth field. If we are to use our media as a sort of technological “Funes the Memorious,” what do we do when technological change outpaces its retrieval compatibility? You likely have (or have had) mass storage containers (e.g., cassettes, VHS tapes, floppy discs, etc.) that lack a device capable of reading them, ghosts of information past trapped in a black box forever. We’re all archivists whether we notice or admit it, but the gates to our archives have expiration dates. A recent trip to UT’s Harry Ransom Center revealed stacks of media unreadable by any technology on-site. William Gibson‘s electronic work Agrippa: Book of the Dead plays on this very trope of archival decay. The piece, set for a one-time reading, consists of a 300-line poem on a 3.5″ disc encased in a box made to look like a hard drive, is set to scroll once through and erase itself forever, a textual spectre set free from the archive after its single haunting episode. The pages of the included book version were treated with photosensitive chemicals which fade with exposure to light.

According to Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (The MIT Press, 2008; now available in paperback), There was one public performance of Agrippa. On December 9, 1992, at the Americas Society in uptown New York City, Penn Jillette read the poem aloud, which was projected on a big screen, exacerbating its scroll into oblivion. The event is fraught with rumor and lie, as the full text of the intentionally ephemeral Agrippa was posted online the next morning. The conditions of its hacking are detailed in full in Kirschenbaum’s book, and a collection of documents surrounding the work is available online. Another interesting artifact sprung from this event: Re:Agrippa, a choppy remix of videotaped footage from the single Agrippa public event, test patterns, and haunting voiceovers kludged together by the NYU students who “hacked” Agrippa‘s text for online consumption [runtime: 5:44]:

Our archive fever needs feeding. With its flickering signifiers and configurable nature, we consider the things on the screen temporary. But, as Kirschenbaum notes, in lieu of hard drives and other external devices (the main concern of his book), the visual display of the computer was originally considered a storage device. Now, crashed drives and outmoded media hide their secrets from everyone except those closest to the machine. Forensic scientists, not unlike those seen on that other screen, are more important than ever to our unstable memories. They can condense fact from the vapor of hidden nuance and open the gates to the archival entrails of dead media.


It should be noted that my conception of the archive and the haunting thereof owes a large debt to the teachings of Josh Gunn. Oh, there’s some unacknowledged Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Dick Hebdige, Bruce Sterling, and Kate Hayles in there as well.


Borges, Jorge Luis. (1964). Funes the Memorious. In Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. New York: New Directions.

Huyssen, Andreas. (2003). Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. (2008). Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Stephenson, Neal. (1993). Snow Crash. New York: Spectra.

Sterne, J. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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