Thinking About the Objects We Preserve More Than the Objects We Use to Do It

“If the phonograph could hear itself, it would learn to recognize the difference between the voice which came from the outside and forced itself onto it and the voice which it itself is broadcasting and which is a simple echo of the first, following an already grooved way.”

Jean-Marie Guyau, Memory and Phonograph (1880)

It’s worth remembering that Edison’s phonograph was a device not only for the reproduction but also the recording of sound impressions. Still, while I’d agree with Guyau that “discoveries frequently start with metaphors,” there’s something lacking in the analogy he draws between the human brain and an “infinitely perfected phonograph—a conscious phonograph.” Perhaps that’s because the human brain as computer metaphor has only recently dried up.

Guyau treats a memory as an informational object. His self-conscious phonograph recognizes that the information is the same even if it’s not the original voice it hears. The informational is one of the three preservation frameworks Trevor Owens identifies in his book. The other two are the artifactual and the folkloric. The actual cylinder recording that Guyau might have listened to on his phonograph would be informationally identical to another recording of the same sonic event, just as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is still the same book whether it’s a first edition or a bargain paperback or an e-book. The words are in the same order. The spelling is the same.

But, that first edition would also have artifactual qualities. Any edition might, really. I’m sure James Whale’s copy would fetch a considerable sum at auction. Preserving a historic building—Trevor uses the example of Mount Vernon—is a more clear-cut example of the artifactual framework. Preserving a picture of Mount Vernon or a house that looks like Mount Vernon in Orlando, isn’t preserving Mount Vernon.

Finally, folkloric preservation traditions seek to document the ways that traditions and customs are passed on. This necessarily involves documenting particular instances or retellings but they are not intended as the final expression of the content of the tradition. Folkloric preservation doesn’t seek the best copy to digitize. The variability is the object.

Furthermore, the affordances of our media can condition our preservation techniques and expectations. Trevor cites the proceedings of the first National Colloquium on Oral History in 1966 where it was suggested that the “tape recorder [was] important enough to oral history to constitute almost a part of the definition [of oral history].” On the surface, that doesn’t sound terrifically controversial, but it is a choice. To my mind, that’s one major takeaway from the Dance Heritage Coalition’s Documenting Dance: A Practical Guide. Regardless of how we choose to document, we have to be aware of the limitations, i.e., dangers, of our approach. Can we reconstruct a dance from even the best HD video representation?

Guyau gives us a model of the human brain that relies on a medium (the phonograph) that would, within a generation, be surpassed. His analogy sounds impoverished today because the problem is always older than the technology and still manages to outlive it. Preservationists might not make the same mistake if they see their work as a continuation of the work of their forbears and not a task for which they are uniquely historically positioned to complete; if they believe that nothing’s preserved, it’s only being preserved.

4 Replies to “Thinking About the Objects We Preserve More Than the Objects We Use to Do It”

  1. I like how you connect the folkloric preservation tradition back to the complexities inherent in digital objects. I think I tend to equate digital preservation with the information tradition (i.e. it doesn’t matter what word processing software you use to render this document as long as the content remains the same). Yet, I think the folkloric tradition, aiming to capture the variability as you put it, better represents something like a digital event. I was thinking earlier about how one might document an internet phenomenon like twitter trends, which can sometimes be pinned down to a single source but relies on the variety and sheer mass of its content to make itself notable. The informational value can morph as people share different experiences related to one topic so its debatable whether there really can be a best form to preserve or if the original form is really what is most important to save in order to truly document the event. In this case, a folkloric lens would, I think, be most appropriate as it recognizes that the variety within the digital event is what gives it its value.

  2. This part of digital preservation really fascinates me. When you were talking about the Frankenstein (italicize that) and Mount Vernon’s different iterations and the preservation of dances, I was reminded of our conversation about preserving video games. Can you really preserve the accompanying experience with one, modern iteration of a game, similar to the experience of watching a performance live versus on tape? Take for example the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Mario Brothers. The original console took a cartridge. That cartridge was the MOST finicky of technologies and you constantly had to reset the console or blow in a specific direction into the cartridge for the game to work. If you got it to work, there was the crappy image on a CRT TV, any glitches that formed, the special tone of the music. Now look at the digital version that you can use playing an emulator. You may get a crappy image and the same music, and maybe even the same glitches, but you don’t have to worry about resetting the console or blowing into the cartridge. Last, consider the newest iteration, the NES Classic: a small box, about 4 in. x 4 in. with Super Mario Brothers, plus 29 other NES games, the option to have the classic crappy image (4:3 Mode), CRT filter, or a “pixel perfect” view, a controller with a 2ft long cord, and the look of an original console (just smaller and with HDMI). Can one say that it is enough to preserve the NES Classic as it would preserve the look of the console, the games one could play on the console, and even the ‘image and sounds’ of the original console? Or do we need to preserve all three iterations because it is also important to preserve the experiences that go with them? My answer would be to preserve all three because it would exercise the informational, artificial, and folkloric preservation traditions Owens’ refers to. Just like a dance, it’s important to not only preserve a digital copy of the dance, but also preserve the dance itself by performing it.

    1. Jen, Your description of video game cartridges takes me back. I would agree that preserving the iterations would help preserve the experience and the three identities of the object (artifactual, informational, folkloric). This relates back to Emily’s question of when you accept that something cannot be faithfully preserved. As a general rule, I’d say the answer to that question is when you decide to preserve it, but how close to faithful you get will depend on the user and the importance one places on these identities.

      It makes me wonder if there might ever be a time when the public feels nostalgic for a PDF. That would seem to be the most neutral, uncomplicated, “easy-to-preserve-faithfully” object.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.