Is There Something Like Structural Forgetting?

„So really the notion of forgetting on a societal scale is to suggest two things: first, that the collective representations held knowledge about the matter in general for all competent participants; and second, that the knowledge was progressively lost.“[1]

Paul Connerton: How Modernity Forgets, p. 47

Is there something like ‚Structural Forgetting‘? And if there is: what’s it like? People forget; you all know the feeling. But do societies forget?

The question if a community can be affected by the same phenomenon as an individual is first of all one of language. The metaphor is engaging and easily applied; but is it apt? If it is taken to indicate, albeit implicitly, a biologist similarity between communities and individuals and to construct communities as meta-organisms, it would be misleading.[2]  The only way to make the association functional is to bring it to a functional level. Structural forgetting will only provide a useful analytical term if a functional analogy between individual human beings and communities in regard to storing information and providing for its disposability is proposed. Such a “prosthetic memory”[3] is long established and intuitively plausible. Communities do have mechanisms to store information that is not needed at the moment and to retrieve it again if needed. If such information becomes inaccessible, the process is analogous to individual forgetting.  

But this is not yet a very distinct concept. How to craft this into an analytically useful tool?

Information circulation: any piece of information X circulates by being referenced

As individuals, we know that we have forgotten something when we become aware that there once was something we knew which is not accessible to us at the moment, wherever it may be. I know I once learned my Latin vocabulary, but more often than not I have to look up the words now. And as I do, I remember again. If I however would be charged with using them frequently – having a large stack of Latin sources on my desk to go through – they would stick again after a while. From a functional point of view, the heart of the matter seems to be the frequency with which information is recalled, or circulated. For each piece of information X such a frequency could, in theory, be established – if I cared to count me looking up a Latin phrase, for example.

Continuous referencing to any piece of information X: X is remembered

And this is no different from the situation communities are presented with. Information that is often recalled, which means that it is in circulation through media by being referenced, is present, is easily accessible – or, is structurally ‘remembered’. Elena Esposito has proposed a similar reading of Niklas Luhmann when she argued that remembrance equals a recursiveness of operations which holds pieces of information present through repetition. Repetition produces redundancy, and redundant information is what is remembered by the system.[4] Without going into systems theory now, let’s move on to the practical problems.

If remembering is a function of information frequency, forgetting can be rephrased as a function of information frequency, too – one that indicates X to be so infrequently referenced that its status changes from ‘present’ to ‘absent’ information. “Forgetting” is more adequately phrased as a kind of threshold then: If the frequency with which X is referenced is lower than Z, X is forgotten.[5] Oliver Dimbath has advanced the concept of “information half-life” in this context: Once the frequency of X being referenced drops to half of peak level, it is forgotten.[6] For any historiographical inquiry, this will be impossible to establish if not framed very carefully to certain regions, time spans, media, and groups – and even then be fraught with the imponderabilities of source loss.

Information circulation is complex: how to frame it?

Intermittant referencing pattern: X is forgotten

I would thus like to propose another criterion for labelling X as forgotten: X is (structurally) forgotten if the pattern of references to X becomes intermittent. That is, if we see a pattern of alternating phases of no references to X and X being referenced (no matter how the frequency within such phases is), X is only occasionally recalled and not readily present.

While this solves the problem of quantifying frequencies, it admittedly does not do away with the framing problem. How any piece of information X is referred to is dependent on the context in which this happens, and circulation of information is only a meaningful term if we can establish a circuit in which this happens. Steven Shapin already brought this up more than twenty years ago:

“Society – including the specialist societies of scientists – might properly be regarded as a distribution of knowledge, just as the very idea of knowledge depended upon the social relations of knowers.”[7]

So framing needs to be the next step. After having discussed about structural forgetting, of course!


[1] Connerton, Paul (2013): How modernity forgets. 3rd printing. Cambridge (UK), New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 47.

[2] Cf. Assmann, Aleida (2004): Vergessene Texte: Zur Einführung. In: Aleida Assmann und Michael C. Frank (Hg.): Vergessene Texte. Konstanz: Universitätsverlag Konstanz (Texte zur Weltliteratur, 5), pp. 9 22; p. 15.

[3] Olick, Jeffrey K. (1999): Collective Memory: The Two Cultures. In: Sociological Theory 17 (3), pp. 333–348; p. 342.

[4] Esposito, Elena (2002): Soziales Vergessen. Formen und Medien des Gedächtnisses der Gesellschaft. Aus dem Italienischen von Alessandra Corti. Mit einem Nachwort von Jan Assmann. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, p. 24; similiar observations in Berger, Peter L.; Luckmann, Thomas (2010): Die gesellschaftliche Konstruktion der Wirklichkeit. Eine Theorie der Wissenssoziologie. 23rd printing. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, p. 166.

[5] Cf. Werber, Niels (2004): Vergessen / Erinnern. Die andere Seite der Gedächtniskunst. In: Günter Butzer und Manuela Günter (ed.): Kulturelles Vergessen–Medien, Rituale, Orte. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (Formen der Erinnerung, vol. 21), pp. 81–98; p. 84; and Groebner, Valentin (2014): Wissenschaftssprache digital. Die Zukunft von gestern. Paderborn: Konstanz University Press (Essay [KUP]), p. 103.

[6] Dimbath, Oliver (2014): Oblivionismus. Vergessen und Vergesslichkeit in der modernen Wissenschaft. Konstanz: UVK (Soziologie), p. 252.

[7] Shapin, Steven (1995): Here and Everywhere. Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. In: Annual Review of Sociology 21, pp. 289–321; p. 302.


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