Forgetting, to live



If the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living, is the physical form of the nightmare, the tumour itself, the archive? In The Sirens of Titan Kurt Vonnegut imagines that in a far-distant future, the past has to be housecleaned:

In the year Ten Million, according to Koradubian, there would be a tremendous housecleaning. All records relating to the period between the death of Christ and the year One Million A.D. would be hauled to dumps and burned. This would be done, said Koradubian, because museums and archives would be crowding the living right off the earth.

The million-year period to which the burned junk related would be summed up in history books in one sentence, according to Koradubian: Following the death of Jesus Christ, there was a period of readjustment that lasted for approximately one million years.

As the Copenhagen summit approaches, Brian Kelly suggests that stored data might have a serious carbon footprint, and is encouraging scientists to save polar bears by deleting surplus data. Kelly’s talking about the large datasets that researchers create and back up, but he might equally be talking about ‘cultural’ resources too. The digitisation neurosis of the early twenty-first century, the drive to create endlessly duplicable and available electronic copies of literary and artistic works (many of which, being made from wood pulp, are effective carbon sequestration devices) requires the constant whirring of hard drives, the persistent presence of electrically live bandwidth, and the consequent carbon on-costs. Our burgeoning online archives might not be physically crowding us off the planet as Vonnegut predicted, but their attendant CO2 might be flooding Bangladesh.

So Marx’s psychic nightmare of history becomes a physical threat, our embodied memories a menace to our very existence (actually, the picture is more like one of the world’s poor paying for the paranoia of the ‘developed world’ who must maintain constant evidence of the cultural heritage that links them to Greece, thereby morally justifying their status as Top Nation). Like the timelord who in Castrovalva had to jettison a quarter of the Tardis in order to propel it forward in time again, we have to abandon the stored-up past to even have a chance of reaching the future.

2 responses to “Forgetting, to live

  1. “‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’

    If we delete archives, we make impossible any research which could present an alternative to the existing dominant historical narrative which justifies the existing social order – precisely the social order which is destroying the environment.

    I’ve never heard of Brian Kelly but he sounds like the typical inane academic buffoon who thinks up silly ideas like this because he hasn’t got the guts to take on the real issues like public transport, wind power etc.

    Was he even on the demo today with his blue gloves? I doubt it.

  2. More to the point, how do you integrate photos and links into your post?

    Sorry, was going to comment on the actual content of the post until I read the above comment. Not sure which position to take in relation to the issue now! That said, I did find your analysis pretty convincing and nicely provocative. One of those endlessly contradictory and self-deconstructing arguments I fear…

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