Tag Archives: Theory

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.

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.

Due Praise, Due Forgetting?

“IT is therefore the Privilege of Posterity to adjust the Characters of Illustrious Persons, and to set matters right beween those Antagonists who by their Rivalry for Greatness divided a whole Age into Factions. We can now allow Caesar to be a great Man, without derogating from Pompey; and celebrate the Virtues of Cato, without detracting from those of Caesar. Every one that has been long dead has a due Proportion of Praise allotted him, in which whilst he lived his Friends were too profuse and his Enemies too sparing.”[1]

Nicely said. And placing a huge responsibility on those who judge, by the way. But is it really true in the end? And have those who have not been thus handed down to us as illustrious just been weighed and found wanting (as the quote seems to suggest)? Which are the factors at work in this presumed grand arbitration? And does it not only hold for politics but also for learning itself – who judges the judges? How does the academic world select who is remembered, and how, and who is not? In short, what about forgotten scholars?

A large bundle of questions which I will explore a bit further on this blog. Each friday from now on, so don’t forget to drop by!

More about the project: See About!

[1] The Spectator, 2, 1713, No. 101 (26 June 1713), p. 104.