The Logic of Disappearance

I was halfway through Cornelia Vismann’s article “Out of File, Out of Mind” and all I could think of was this scene from the movie Zoolander:

Derek and Hansel are trying to find a file for evidence, but they can’t figure out how they can do that when the files are IN the computer. Eventually, Hansel breaks the computer, thinking it will open up and the files will be there, magically. But it’s not a problem that the computer breaks, because there’s a backup. There’s always a backup.

Vismann brings up a wonderful point in her essay that we delete, cancel, and clear files, history, and documents from our computers not to get rid of those tangible aspects, but to get rid of the memory of them. We don’t just want things gone, we want them forgotten. Vismann says that people “often misunderstand the logic of disappearance”, bringing up a story of a man who tried to get rid of a law by literally ripping a page out of the law book. She also brings up Julius Caesar, and how people did not just want him gone, they wanted him forgotten. We don’t delete files to get rid of the evidence. We delete files wishing they never existed.

Another interesting point Vismann discusses is the idea that “A political secret was no longer what was kept in the files, locked away in chanceries or hidden in obscure archives; a secret was exactly that which was off the record.” This shift happened around 1900 and it drastically changed the legal ideas of what could be used and what could not be used for evidence. I’m not sure what I think about the idea of “off the record”, except that if something is said out loud, shouldn’t it be fair game anywhere? Maybe? What do you guys think about “off the record” rules?

I was also very interested in the progression of deletion of files. First, there were the wastepaper dealers who, as Vismann says, perform their work of destruction neither truly in the imaginary realm nor truly in the symbolic.” Another very interesting thing that she says is that “One does simply not find any how-to instructions for the destruction of files”….which is what made me think of Zoolander. Do ya’ll have any thoughts on the idea of being told how to get rid of files, or what it might mean to not have the instructions to delete files?
After the wastepaper dealers came the paper shredder, or the Reiflwolfe, literally meaning “tearing wolves”. I love that. Wolves are ripping apart my papers. Brings up an amazing mental image.
Deleting paper files, tangible files, is “dirty work” according to Vismann, or at least dirtier compared to deleting electronic data.

My dad once told me (ok, more than once, he tells me this all the damn time) that nothing can ever truly be deleted from the internet. So I guess with reading this article and thinking about Zoolander and my dad’s wiseish words, which is better: digital or paper files? The one that can be saved forever or the one that can be erased forever?

9 thoughts on “The Logic of Disappearance

  1. Cornelia Vismann’s essay and Sarah’s dad’s comment have me thinking about deletion on social media.

    Last class, while thinking about Facebook, a few people brought up the idea of deleting old photos. I delete embarrassing old photos and posts from when I was fourteen, as I am sure everyone else does. But are they really gone? Vismann describes the problem (or benefit) of deleting electronic media: “…the cancelled information can be made readable again with some technical effort…” (103).

    In response to Sarah’s question, paper or electronic, I have no idea. It seems like we are in a strange limbo between paper and electronic information. We constantly use computers to retrieve facts, write notes, and publish things about ourselves, but we still use books for research, write handwritten notes, and sign hard-copy documents. At the same time, most information that is in paper form has now been reproduced onto the internet. So is anything delete-able in today’s world? That is a scary thought!

  2. Reading Rachel’s comment made me think of Snapchat. These images are supposed to only be visible for a specific amount of predetermined seconds, then delete themselves. It seems impossible however that they are truly deleted, they obviously exist in some server. They also exist in the minds of the receivers and can be screen shotted. Thus can anything ever really disappear? As long as it remains in collective memory, it continues to exist.

    I think the idea of “off the record” is unnecessary. If something is said, it has already made its impact. This thought, idea, concept etc. has been introduced into the world, thus it might as well be utilized.I can understand why something might not be considered substantial evidence, but everything should be under consideration. To make something “off the record” is, in a way, censoring information.

    I think digital files are better. With paper files data and information can literally be destroyed, but I think that gives us too much power. Things that shouldn’t be destroyed will be destroyed and of course some things that should not exist will continue to. I believe there simply need to be restrictions in the way that media can be accessed and manipulated. The one lawyer from the media talk a couple weeks ago spoke about the decapitation image that kept popping up in the family members’ lives. In this case, it would be great if information could be deleted, to end their harassment. But maybe if the regulations, norms, and rhetoric around media were different, this situation would not have come to exist.

  3. When reading Vismann’s “Out of File, Out of Mind”, I was struck most by the idea of the need to record everything possible. Though she mostly talks about the Prussian State and the over-filing of the government at that time, I kept thinking of current technology. We are quick to take record of all that’s happening around us. It’s so easy to take a picture or video, almost as if our entire lives are being documented, stashed away to filed. In this sense, I almost feel as if paper data is better than digital, since to me the idea of so much of my life being on file is disturbing. At any point in time someone can be recording you, or taking pictures of you, and it could be argued that privacy is a thing of the past. When Baudrillard discusses the Louds he quotes, “The Louds: simply a family who agreed to deliver themselves into the hands of television, and to die by it (28).” Aren’t we in some ways allowing ourselves to die by the constant digital record keeping today? If we are always at the constant risk of being recorded and we are aware of this, how much does it change the way we act and think?

    I also agree with Natalie when she brings up her point about there too much being in the ability to permanently delete files. It’s wrong for the government to be able to destroy records of possibly incriminating things, but is it wrong for an individual to want to delete something from their past? I don’t necessarily think so. I guess it’s just one of those situations where what’s ideal in some cases, does’t work well in others.

  4. Vismann’s “Out of File, Out of Mine” circles around the notions of textuality that Katharine Hayles brings up in her text on translating media. A document’s meaning is preserved past the point of its literal destruction. A digital document is infinitely reproducible, and because of this reason, its meaning is already altered: its invincibility reinforces the efficacy of the document, and can render the document dangerous and harming under certain circumstances.

    “Out of File, Out of Mind” also leads me to think of the notion of simulation via the map and the territory theory. Documents function as a sort of map of of the experiences that take place within the bureaucratic walls. The documents attain a level of relevancy nearly beyond the importance of what they even contain precisely because they are the containers for the data therein contained. The document is an information vessel, and, in a small way, monumentalizes that data. The notion of document-as-vessel is undermined by digital reproduction. The notion of information “floating in air” destroys the vessel, and gives the information itself its own agency.

  5. In terms of which I prefer between a paper file and a computer file, I think it would honestly depend on the purpose. If I wanted to remember something about a person, I would rather have a handwritten letter than a picture of that handwritten letter stored on a file on my desktop. Although it may be easier to organize the file on my computer, I think some things could get lost in the transferring of a piece of paper to the computer. Although like Vismann points out, if you have no hint of what is missing, how could you know what isn’t there? I think this connects to the whole idea of something being off the record as well. I agree with Becca and Natalie in that something being “off the record” seems to be contradictory by nature, but is it ever possible to know the extent of knowledge or information we are missing? Or if we are missing something does that mean it has to exist or at one point existed?


  6. For me at least, when deleting history or files on my computer, it isn’t solely about erasing it from my memory, but more about keeping everything neat and tidy. While some may attribute this to OCD or some other cause, I feel as though it has to do with the perception of what technology is. Always sleek, clean, and new. The ideal state of the computer is brand new. Nothing tainting the perfection of the lines and curves which make up its delicate form. I feel as though this deletion of files is a constant attempt to get back to the original perfection that the computer once was. I can say from personal experience that casually deleting my history has caused a great deal of annoyance because of the inability to relocate a page I previously thought unworthy of my attention. Were I content with the haphazard, imperfect layout of my browser, I would have saved myself a lot of time and stress.

  7. I was particularly intrigued by the way Vismann integrated Weber’s conception of bureaucracy into her analysis of file deletion. As Vismann mentions, one of the core requirements of a bureaucracy is that it functions under anonymity. Not only must the bureaucracy function anonymously; the actions of the political institutions functioning within the bureaucracy must remain non-disclosed as well. As Weber explains, when the public becomes aware of the doings of political figures and institutions, said figures and institutions become ineffective, thus hindering the capabilities of bureaucracy. I found this particularly interesting with regard to Vismann’s argument. In today’s world, the public is constantly being informed of the doings of current political figures and institutions—doings that would have easily remained private, “out of file”, and “out of mind” before the digital revolution. What I find particularly interesting is that the U.S. government under the Obama administration is functioning at a historically ineffective level. Whether there is a tie between this particular administration’s ineffectiveness and the public’s awareness of unsavory administrative acts remains unclear, however, given Vismann and Weber’s accounts on the subject, it does appear that in this case, correlation very likely means causation. Secrecy is certainly a political tool, and when nothing can be deleted, how can anything remain a secret?

    1. What I found interesting was the relationship Vismann examined, throughout, of storage and cancellation. It seems that when she touches on the the history of the stilus as the main ancient and medieval method of archival, she is getting at something bigger. The basic function of the stilus was, as she described, the act of elimination or destruction as a means of writing upon a surface. This presents us with an interesting lens with which to view the whole history of archival. In the same vain of textuality that Lucas mentions with regards to Hayles, the ubiquitous demand for archival itself has succeeded, to some extent, in preserving all the useless information that we want to live forever. Vismann phrases it in the context of German officials who while trying to erase incriminating files conspicuously “mistook the materiality of files for their content, (98)” and later goes on to say “So if someone does not want an action in the real to become significant, it should certainly not be recorded. (99)” Throughout history we see the presence of erasure as being integral, or perhaps just a meaningless result of the politics of information. But still cancellation and storage are codependent due to the constant anxiety over the safety of stored information which fosters an ongoing effort to remember. Therefore this relationship is what preserves information in our collective memories, not necessarily the preservation of files, physical or digital.

  8. While reading Vismann’s piece, I found it interesting to consider how exactly computers usually “delete” files on a technical level. Vismann states: “A retrieval system for files such as index cards or a registration of some kind serves as a reference between the two universes. So even if files are destroyed, the signifier of the destruction still exists and reveals the loss—unless it is destroyed itself” (103). This is true on the level of *human* awareness of missing information, but when you look at how digital data is “removed” from a computer it’s essentially the opposite. Typically, when someone deletes a file on a computer, the data itself is not removed at all. Rather, the only thing that *is* removed is that signifier itself, the file’s “registration” in the computer’s system. The thing that is deleted is the reference to that file and where it can be found in storage. After a file is “deleted” and that reference removed, the physical address where it the data stored is marked as free space. That area can then be overwritten by new data—hence why a more effective form of deletion overwrites the data itself with a bunch of junk after removing the reference (similar to erasure by writing over some wax tablet with a stilus, I’d say). From the point of view of a computer, “out of file, out of mind” really becomes “out of reference, out of mind.”

    It turns out that the best way to actually delete digital data is to destroy the physical media on which it is stored, which means that in that respect there isn’t as big of a difference between the destruction of paper files and digital files as there first appears. However, the internet seriously complicates this—one file can be stored on millions of physical disks.

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