Tag Archives: 17th century

Institutions vs. Forgetting

Friday No. 12, January 4th, 2019 (a real Friday post once again)


So far I have mostly tried to frame structural forgetting in terms of individual persons, of their acts or omissions. This corresponds with my deeply held conviction that individual persons are at the core of history, and tracing them therefore the first task set to any historical inquiry. But, unfortunately, individuals do not only act as individuals but have a tendency to coalesce into groups or collectives. Institutions might be thought of as structured collectives of individuals following that line of thought, as social (sub)systems might also. I always found Norbert Elias’s concept of figurations very helpful to come to terms with such supra-individual entities.[1]

…and Institutions

Now both institutions and social (sub)systems provide me with frames within which I conduct my research on structural forgetting, whether I like it or not – it is about forgetting scholars in the Humanities. Large parts of 18th to 20th century Western and Central European academia with all its peculiar institutions thus come into view and have to be accounted for, because they formed the environment the individuals I look at lived and acted in.

Social (sub)systems are characterized by specific memory practices.[2] One might even argue that they are constituted by memory practices, as they make stabilizing fleeting figurations of individuals into structured supra-individual entities possible over longer spaces of time. The same holds for institutions, on a smaller scale maybe. So both should be quite antithetical to forgetting as it might damage their very foundations. Which then prompts the question:

“If you are part of an institution, does this prevent you from being structurally forgotten?”

There are two possible ways to approach this question, the theoretical and the empirical. Let me give both a short try here (for the answers in both ways are much in the open still, at least for me).

1 – Theoretically…

The most basic observation regarding institutional memory practices is simply that they can never be exhaustive: No institution can structurally remember everything about itself. Memory practices therefore always include elements of forgetting by sorting out and discarding what is no longer relevant to the upkeep of the institution in question. An institution’s memory practices normally do not only entail information circulation but also storage and retrieval. What is deemed relevant is circulated; what is not (at the moment) deemed relevant is stored away where it can (probably) be retrieved again if need be, is no longer circulated, and, in consequence, is structurally forgotten. The larger and older an institution is, the more likely it is for any individual that took part in it to be sorted out and to be removed from circulation by being stored away. But the larger an institution is, the more capacities it may have to circulate those kinds of information it still sees as somehow relevant. The theoretical way to answer the question thus seems to be a definitive yes and no: Yes, you may be structurally forgotten even as a former part of an institution; and: No, if referring back to you is of importance to the institution, you might not be forgotten so easily. That said, structural forgetting and/or remembrance may even serve as an indicator of an individual’s importance to a given institution. But there is a hen-and-egg-problem coming along with this as well: Is an individual of importance because it was (and is) remembered, or was (and is) it remembered because it was important? And vice versa for forgetting. Seems like a typical example of scientific “Well, it’s not that easy to generalize…”

2 – Empirically…

Now do my four cases provide any illumination if sorted into this framework, as an empirical take on the question?

For Adrien Reland and Johannes Braun the answer seems to be deceptively simple. Both were professors at universities – Reland at Harderwijk and Utrecht, and Braun at Groningen. Harderwijk University does not exist anymore, which leaves Utrecht and Groningen to look at. At Utrecht there has some effort been made to keep Reland in the memory of the institution, but this is a development of the 19th century and subject to ups and downs (at the moment, it’s more on the upside). At Groningen Braun is mentioned but rates a poor second, not even a likeness of him survives. Both might be held to be, at least for most periods up until now, structurally forgotten by the institutions they once belonged to. This is nothing extraordinary, as most professors are. The typical university has had just way too many of them and remembers only some chosen few. The really intriguing questions now are: Why and how came these patterns observable today into being? What was the hen, and what the egg? 

So what about institutions with fewer members – which at least statistically raises the chances for any given individual to be remembered rather than forgotten – and individuals who once played key roles in these institutions?

This brings Eusèbe Renaudot and Thomas Gale into focus. Both served rather prestigious scientific institutions in important positions. Renaudot was a member of the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres, founded in 1663, and was instrumental in the restructuring of the Academie early in the 18th century. Gale in turn was one of the early members of the English Royal Society, founded in 1660, and served as its secretary from 1679 to 1681 and from 1685 to 1693.

Now both institutions still exist – although one might argue that the Academie des Inscriptions has undergone more transformations during its history than the Royal Society – and both acknowledge their former members, Renaudot and Gale, publicly, yet not very prominently.  From the point of view of both institutions I would label both Gale and Renaudot structurally forgotten: The information is there, but it is out of circulation, stored away, and not easily retrieved.

At the moment I can’t say when these patterns emerged, much less how and why – this needs further enquiry. But what I can say is that in all four cases the institutions did not shield my protagonists from being structurally forgotten in the end. What remains to be studied is whether they had serious impacts on the processes of becoming structurally forgotten at all, and if, how and why. Still a bit of work to do, but the year is young.


[1] Elias, Norbert (2009): Was ist Soziologie?, 11th ed., Weinheim/Munich 2009, pp. 10–11.

[2] Sebald, Gerd; Weyand, Jan (2011): Zur Formierung sozialer Gedächtnisse. On the Formation of Social Memory. In: Zeitschrift für Soziologie 40 (3), pp. 174–189; see pp. 179–181.