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Issue 17. The Digital Archive

Digitising Cultural Heritage

The Role of Interpretation in Cultural Preservation

Author: Jan Baetens and Jan Van Looy
Published: April 2007

Abstract (E): This article attempts at analyzing the impact of the digital revolution on the archive from the viewpoint of Youri Lotman’s cultural semiotics. Relying upon the discussion of some basic concepts (such as “medium”), it aims at discussing the social effects of digitisation, most of all in the field of the relationships between the private and the public and in that of the interaction between the work and the medium.

Abstract (F): Cet article est une tentative d’analyser l’impact de la numérisation sur l’archive du point de vue de la sémiotique culturelle de Youri Lotman. Tout en revenant sur quelques concepts de base (comme par exemple « média »), il s’efforce avant tout de cerner les effets sociaux de la numérisation, notamment dans le domaine des rapports entre public et privé et dans celui de l’interaction entre œuvre et média.

keywords: Lotman, cultural semiotics, medium, mediology


The aim of this paper is to inquire into the relations between a practice : digitisation, and a concept or, if you wish, an object, a corpus: cultural heritage. Questions concerning the practice on the one hand and the concept on the other are inextricably linked. It is for example far from obvious, despite the clarity of its technical definition, what we mean by 'digitisation'. Digitisation is not a fixed method; it is not homogeneous; rather it changes meaning according to the field and objects to which it is applied. As to the conceptual question, here also we are dealing with a dynamic phenomenon, a practice, a development: cultural heritage is at the same time cause and effect of an act of transmission within a culture, within a social group and from one generation to the next. Cultural heritage is never just a given, a clearly delineated body of material; it exists only through the effort to make it exist, whether it is to preserve it in its original shape or change it more radically: heritage is never consensual, it is never unanimous.

Before tackling the main topic of this paper, it is useful to underline what could be the purpose of basing our discussion on semiotic theory. There are in fact several other disciplines which deal with similar questions and which are often more familiar: history, of course, but also communication theory and media studies, sociology and its study of collective memory or memory as a social construction, biology and its neurological description of memory, computer science and its analysis of memory as computer hard- and software, political science and its study of the decision-making process regarding what is to be considered heritage and what is not, or economics and its view of media as constituents in a service economy. In this paper we will contend that the contribution of semiotics to the cultural heritage discussion is at the same time highly specific and indispensable as semiotics insists more strongly than other disciplines upon the relation between culture and memory on the one hand and culture and media on the other.

Following Youri Lotman and Boris Uspensky's cultural semiotics, the semiosphere , the collection of signs which define and shape the life of man, presents itself as a collection of codes which structure a culture both internally and externally. These codes organise a culture from the interior, where they invoke, amongst others, a distinction between a centre and a periphery . Apart from that, they also take part in dividing, of course always dynamically and preliminarily, the three domains of culture: accepted, anti- and non-culture. When it is thus defined, culture functions as a form of "non-hereditary memory" (Lotman & Uspensky 1978) as opposed to hereditary memory, which is situated at the centre of sociobiological speculations considering culture. Moreover, the definition of the soviet semioticians is explicitly based on the notion of transmission, which is an all but ethereal or passive notion. First of all, transmission is never something abstract; it is an action which is inseparable from the material characteristics of its medium. Furthermore, it is never just solidification, conservation, perpetuation, that is to say a form of fighting the 'natural' erosion of memory caused by continuous events that are also seeking a place in the space of memory; it is first and foremost a form of intervention in the content and shape of that which is to be transmitted. Finally, transmission is only possible at the expense of change: without permanent adaptation, the incompatibility between legacy and present evolution would be too large. This cultural intervention in transmission takes various shapes: one has to sort, fix, (re)inscribe in a context, in short, one has to permit the objects in question to function as signs , 'living' element susceptible to activation by new interpreters and users. Insofar that semiotics aims to analyse culture in terms of memory and transmission and that it seeks to evaluate the techniques and strategies employed for guaranteeing the persistence of the semantic character of cultural heritage, this discipline inevitably develops into a 'mediology' in the most general sense of the term (the inventor of the term 'mediology', Régis Debray, underlines the differences between his discipline and semiotics, but this distinction is only possible when we start from a rather caricatural idea of semiotics, see also Debray (2000: 74-75)). In this way, semiotics manages to combine that which other disciplines tend to 'atomise'; it brings together that which is separate, broken into pieces, seen as external by other disciplines, offering a privileged point of view on the debate concerning the digitisation of cultural heritage. In this respect, its role is not so different from that of cultural studies, which we will consider, as does for example Jonathan Culler, as a pursuit, albeit with different means and different ambitions, of the great structuralist project (Culler 1999).



The Status of Media in the Digital Age


By many, most notably Lev Manovich, the digitisation of culture, that is to say, the conversion of a growing body of signs into a universal binary code, followed by their reassembling on various interfaces such as a computer screen, is seen as a radical departure from the past. Whether we want it or not, the absolute novelty of the phenomenon has become a truism. Thereby it is often forgotten that the alignment of the triad culture/memory/media is all but new. In fact, the three notions are and have always been mutually dependent. One could even say that media as carriers are often confused with the anthropological fact of culture itself. Anyhow, it is useful to take into account the hypothesis, although it can be nuanced or rejected afterwards, that we are witnessing a radical cultural change which reminds us in terms of importance of the other three great cultural revolutions in the west, which are the invention of print, the invention of photography/cinema and the invention of the phonograph, but which at the same time creates a unique situation in that it resembles neither quantitatively nor qualitatively the spheres of image, sound or text.

For the first time, we have the impression that new media are capable of simulating all other media. Before the advent of digital media, the arrival of a new medium was often thought in terms of either improvement of the performance of an older medium addressing the same register or domain (cinema for example presented itself to its first users as superior photography being 'lively'), or in terms of expansion (the most important reference here is McLuhan (1964)). of the possibilities of a medium into a new domain or register (television for example was seen as an extension of radio in the beginning). With the advent of digital technology, improvement and expansion present themselves as having no bounds: the signs of any older medium can find their place

The technical quality of the operation has also moved beyond suspicion, notably because it is supposed to be 'reversible': digital code does not reproduce the signs themselves of the older media, but it presents itself as a programme which is able to copy without loss, without 'noise', that which is apparently without mediation, the signs in question.

Apart from the idea of a medium which 'absorbs all other media and signs', we are also witnessing the return of the dream of a type of medium or reproduction which will eventually become entirely invisible, transparent, immaterial, capable of self-dissolving as a medium in a perfect exchange between reality and virtuality, that is to say, between referent and sign.

Prudence is called for however. One thing that announces the advent of a new medium, especially a disruptive one like the digital, is a change in the discourse that envelops it and another one is its usage which often does not correspond at all to made claims. Before going deeper into these discrepancies, a few additional observations are in order.

The deployment of digital culture has produced paradoxical effects or, more precisely, dialectical ones: the digital movement generates contrary reactions in various fields and it is still impossible to predict the eventual synthetical movement.

In quantitative terms, the idea of an absolute archive, that is to say, of a perfect memory and cultural transmission without any loss has not only shown itself to be utopian (when we make abstraction, temporarily, of all which concerns the diffusion and actual access to the digital: whether we live in Bruxelles or in Kinshasa, whether we have a paid job for example, most profoundly changes the meaning of the all-digital); it has also and above all produced inverse and unexpected tendencies which show the illusory and perverse character of such an idea. In fact, the theoretical possibility of conserving everything may destroy the object of conservation itself, i.e. the past: the theoretically infinite possibilities of modern archiving techniques are not automatically accompanied by a similar growth of experience of the past. When we are able to conserve everything, the idea of historical consciousness itself implodes, erases, destroys itself in a sense, as we are incapable of dealing with the explosion of available information. A functional memory needs to be selective, otherwise it will sink into chaos. In other words, without forgetting, no remembering.

This is even more so due to the fact that digital culture has an ephemeral basis which ignores the notion of an original on the one hand and which appears to be victim to a permanent technological decay on the other. This makes the computer a problematic memorization device. Since digital culture does not reproduce any originals, but rather presents itself as a system for processing information, its primary function is not that of conservation (of inscriptions, archiving, possibly reproducing and diffusing), but one of transformation (of computer data and representation, mixed media) (Verschraegen, unpublished; the author is referring to Hörisch (2001)). Moreover, digital culture today has not yet found a stable or permanent technological format. Therefore its data are condemned to rapid obsolescence. Hence digital media are a bad choice for large cultural heritage projects for which, according to many, they offer a magical solution. Or as an open forum in Le Monde asked itself "The Internet, does it have a memory?" (Hoog 2002).

Consequently, the success of the digital has also pointed toward the capacity of older media to resist, and, in a more general sense, of 'real' artifacts which were destined to be swallowed by the all-digital.

Basically, it is imperative to realize that the notion of cultural heritage itself has not been invented by accident. There is a growing concern toward all that is threatened to disappear as a consequence of the acceleration of history produced by the digitisation of culture, which proportionally increases the feeling of acceleration imposed by what is usually referred to as 'modernity'.

On the level of the artifact , respecting the humble remnants of the past systematises a society which has adopted on the whole an extremely 'sixties' taste of furniture and objects of the time, a hysterical and involuntarily parodical reaction of the social class which was most severely touched by post-war modernity, the 'petite-bourgeoisie'.

But it is especially on the level of the media themselves that the feedback effects are most visible. Apart from retro-kitsch nostalgia, which is no more than a side phenomenon of this resistance against digital modernity, we can observe a number of elements undermining the utopia of an all-digital world of which the most spectacular aspect is the metamorphosis of digital art into live performance. As observed by Peter Lunenfeld (2001), digital art has been adopted by various new forms of representation functioning in the field of performance, that is to say, of the corporal, the ephemeral, the non-conservable, etc. In fact, for there to be digital art, it is necessary that the piece of art 'functions', and that the exposition of the artistic object moves slowly toward the demonstration of its technological basis. This aesthetics of 'demo or die', as Lunenfeld calls it, inverts precisely the way in which virtual reality is usually thought. In this sense, corporeal performance was believed to be integrating into a digital context, a virtual world. In the 'demo or die' culture, however, the digital machine is again no more than an accessory and, perhaps, the pretext for a live performance, which itself escapes all digitisation while at the same time enabling the technology to function at all: the human body of the performer is there to make the machine work.

On the level of usage , finally, a number of dreams and illusions have also been debunked. Interactivity, for example, which has often been cited as the most important element in the move to a digital world has left the spotlight, just like notions such as 'collective thought', 'creativity', 'democracy', to repeat a few terms familiar to readers of Pierre Lévy or George Landow. It can be observed that, in fact, the digital reader does not want to be interactive in the way that it was expected. Similarly, we can also observe that interactive reading does not automatically imply a very active reading. Hence one should ask oneself whether interactive reading is really superior to traditional reading. This is a relatively novel question since the consensus as to the superiority of interactive reading has for a long time been general. But as Jacques Fontanille notes: "We observe with astonishment how quick children acquaint themselves with the operation and content of hypermedia and quickly relinquish interest, whereas they dedicate themselves longer and more patiently to their books. Could it be that a text is more complex than a hypertext? That reading a paper book requires more sophistication than reading an electronic one?" (Fontanille 1999: VIII, authors' translation).



The Role of Media


When describing interaction between a user and a medium, it is important to underline the 'active' or even 'dominant' role of the latter: mediation is always a process of translation and all mediations are operations which induce effects of which the user is not directly aware. Or also: digitisation is a language and it is through this language that media speak to us.

The example of the academic discipline of 'literary history', which has undergone a number of profound changes in recent years, presents a nice illustration of this. [1] We will now briefly sketch a number of evolutions involved and derive a number of preliminary conclusions from them.

A first observation deals with the fantasy of the Internet as a universal library, a receptacle of all past, present and future texts. Technically, this project appears realizable. In practice, however, we note that those texts which are in the spotlight are often simplified texts. It is not uncommon in fact that these texts are even censored, reduced to a sort of reader's digest or otherwise mutilated, for example by being available only in English while they were originally written in a different language. Moreover, what poses an even greater problem is the separation of the 'character' from the text and from its different forms of publication from the past: publishing a text on the Internet often comes down to amputating it from its perigraphical or paratextual apparatus on the one hand, and of its original typographical form on the other. [2] What is lost in this way is the historicity of the text which survives only as a dematerialised sign. Even more specifically, what happens is a separation of the text as a 'collection of words', which allows for example for indexing and searching by search engines, and the text as 'reading object', that is to say, for interpreting, the text as a hermeneutic object.

This loss of the literariness of a text is accompanied by a phenomenon which at first sight restores that which the first operation erases in the historical and hermeneutic sense, but of which the impact on the perception of its literary value is in fact not less. We are speaking of the tendency, authorised and encouraged by the computer, to place the text in the sequence of documents which have led to its final printed form: previous editions and earlier manuscripts. This 'staged' presentation of the text, which does not fully resemble its literary genesis, is a sort of 'rephilologisation' of the text, which can be considered as anti-literary and hence anti-hermeneutic. Just like in the philological era, textual positivism demolished every attempt to describe a test hermeneutically, today it is believed that everything can be said about a text by presenting it in a multimedia environment: the great ambition of these new philologists is to revive in virtual reality the writing of the text itself. However, the more that is shown, the less that is said since, here again, the text as a 'collection of words' and the text as a 'literary object' are disassociated.

Hence literary history becomes the history of the text as a philological object and ceases to be that of the text as a hermeneutical object. Philologists believe they are explaining, but what they do is describing. The influence of new media are very strong here, as they induce precisely the displacement of the hermeneutic, which implies the exact opposite of a Universal Library that everyone can consult at wish. More generally, this implicit rejection of hermeneutics is related to the pressure exerted by the 'gamma' sciences on the 'alpha' ones: as the traditional humanities only know how to compete with the 'beta' sciences, they appear to be only capable of surviving at on an acceptably scientific level by associating themselves with the social sciences which aim to transcend the conflict between humanistic and natural science. The digital transformation of culture seems to reinforce this pressure even more.



The Public and the Private


The choice or the intervention of this or that medium has a considerable impact on a culture. The more radical version of this type of thinking inevitably becomes a form of technological determinism, often associated, in the field of media studies, with Marshall McLuhan and his French followers Pierre Lévy and Régis Debray. The 'mediological' approach, which we are defending here and which is derived from cultural studies , regards media as cultural practices, as fields of multipolar influences, as intersections of several domains (social, economic, technological, psychological, artistic, etc.). This conception of media can never be reduced to their definition of 'device for representation', that is to say a tool used in the symbolical war for dominance in representation. In the cultural studies of media, one of the essential questions that remains is who has the power to impose a certain representation and interpretation, and who has to submit to it, or, more concretely, who owns the media and who has the power to make use of them.

When looking at the digitisation of cultural heritage, these questions can play an important guiding role. Digital culture may very well enable individual usage of mass-media (here, again, we are referring to Verschraegen (unpublished), who in turn refers to Manovich (2001)), but the cultural heritage debate heavily emphasises non-private usage, i.e. public and collective. By allowing for multiple ways of individual, private usage, digital media principally oppose themselves to the consolidation of a canon, a centre, a node, in short, to a culture which is not only a microculture. Hence we observe that more and more people are requesting concerted, centralised action, i.e. initiated by a central instance, preferably public, in the European discourse on this matter at least. But such a move is perfectly contradictory to that which is believed to be the essence of digital media, which are supposed to work against centralisation, against public control, against all directives...

Here again, it is useful to look at what is actually happening in the field of digitisation of cultural heritage. In this context, two developments can be distinguished.

The first change is the attempt to control the Internet and make it serve private interests, with censorship as one of its consequences: this is for example so in the tragic case of Corbis, a company for the larger part owned by Bill Gates, which controls a large collection of images which have been taken out of the public sphere and which can now only be accessed digitally through a paying service. The semiotic interest in such an evolution is to reflect upon the censorship that is always implied by digitisation. What is obvious in the case of Corbis, is less overt in other cases and may even happen involuntarily. When an archive is digitised aiming to 'save' its images which are slowly degrading with the passage of time, it is always in some way a form of censorship of the materiality and historicity of these images. On the one hand, they are translated digitally as if it were an operation without any loss. On the other, the material degradation of the image is automatically seen as not being part of its 'essence'. One or both of these theses are, if not defective, at least ideological.

The second evolution is the growing influence of governmental power in the debate, which appears to profit from the broad digital wave so as to reclaim a dominant position which it has been denied in the recent past. The question of cultural heritage is an inherently ideological one, and we know at which point these public powers, i.e. these 'nations', have managed the construction of a heritage in order to impose a certain idea of national culture (for the example of "Britishness', see Birmingham (2002) and Helsinger (2002)). Nationalism has become a more than suspicious frame of thought. The construction of an identity by manipulating an image from the past has been the subject of severe criticism, most notably by proponents of cultural studies . Today, however, it appears as if digitisation has allowed the government to strike back in force: the cost of digitisation is so high that, due to the fear of a cultural heritage monopolised by private enterprises, public power is seen as the only institution that is able to succeed in a digital conversion of our past. In this way, what governments do today shows a symbolical violence similar to that which they have used in the past, but which they have no longer been able to exert recently. The example of neo-philology permits once more to clarify this point. In Flanders , for example, the literary heritage which is to be saved from forgetfulness at great cost, is an extremely singular heritage: very marked and very selective. The ideological recuperation, clearly nationalist, is obvious. The Flemish government, responsible for culture, invests in these types of projects in the name of a 'national' identity which is never open to debate and which, at the same time, obstructs the emergence of different kinds of projects, which do not obey the same nationalist logic. The effects of digitisation are clearly visible here: by promoting a 'rephilologisation' and by effecting censorship on the hermeneutical, it becomes possible for nationalism to hide behind technology whilst claiming a territory which was deemed definitively lost. Digitisation, which tends to 'gammify' the humanities, on the one hand, and which is expensive and hence needs to address public power on the other, allows the government to impose its value judgements without much criticism.



To Conclude


Semiotics or the scientific study of signs rejects all definitive conclusions. The reception of the sign is not something static and ultimately controllable, but a dynamic and open process of infinite interpretation, which can have its effects upon the sign itself, and hence upon the referent which is located no less infinitely behind it. The relation between words and objects is complex and ambivalent, reversible in a sense, as is also the relation between 'monument' and 'document' or, to return to the subject of this article, between 'history' and 'cultural heritage'. It is always important to consider the dynamics, the contradiction, the paradox between the poles of sign and referent: that is the great task of cultural semiotics in the field of digitisation.



Works Cited


Baboulet, L. [2001]: "Du document au monument", Communications , n° 71 ("Le parti pris du document").

Bolter, J.D. & Grusin, R. [1999]: Remediations. Understanding New Media , Cambridge , Mass. , MIT.

Birmingham, A. [(1994) 2002] : "System, order, and Abstraction: The Politics of English Landscape Drawing around 1795", in WJT Mitchell, Landscape and Power , Chicago, Chicago UP, 77-102.

Culler, J. [1999] : "What is cultural studies?", dans Mieke Bal (ed.), The practice of Cultural analysis. Exposing interdisciplinary interpretation , Stanford, Stanford UP, 335-347.

Debray, R. [(1990) 2000] : Cours de médiologie générale , Paris, Gallimard, coll. Folio essais, 2000.

Fontanille, J. [1999] : "Préface," p. VIII, dans Alain Vuillemin & Michel Lenoble, Littérature. Informatique. Lecture , Limoges, PULIM.

Helsinger, E. [(1994) 2002] : "Turner and the Represnetation of England", dans WJT Mitchell, Landscape and Power , Chicago, Chicago UP, 103-126.

Hoog, E. [2002] : "Internet a-t-il une mémoire?", Le Monde , 16 août 2002

Hörisch, J. [2001] : Der Sinn und die Sinne , Francfort: Eichborn.

Lotman, Y. & Uspensky, B. [1978] : "On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture", New Literary History , 211-232 .

Lovink, G. [1999] : "The Memesis Network Discussion", dans T. Druckrey (ed.), Ars Electronica. Facing the Future , Cambridge , Mass. , MIT.

Lunenfeld, P. [2001] : Snap to Grid. A user's guide to digital arts, media, and cultures , Cambridge ( Mass. ), MIT.

Manovich, L. [2001] : The Language of New Media , Cambridge , Mass. , MIT.

McLuhan, M. [1964] : Understanding Media , Toronto UP.

Verschraegen, G. [unpublished] "De digitalisering van de cultuur".





[1] The literary text in itself seems less affected by the digital revolution than the image: online publication does not threaten traditional print editions. The electronic book has only briefly stood in the spotlight and even when it comes to Internet legislation, this has not had much effect... (Of course, appearances may deceive.) Let us underline, however, that we are talking about literature here and not about general reading and writing where the computer and increasingly also the mobile telephone are fundamentally changing the way in which we deal with text.

[2] See also the debate "On primary records", MLA: (follow "Reports & Documents").



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