Monday, March 2, 2009

Luhmann on Memory

Luhmann famously described his Zettelkasten as his "secondary memory" or "Zweitgedächtnis." (See Luhmann's Zettelkasten). It would be tempting to view it as a kind of artificial storage system. This would, however, contradict Luhmann's own understanding of "memory." For him, Gedächtnis it is an "operation" or "function," not a storage system. It does not mean a return to the past. It means "always just the present operation, which tests all the occurring operations with a view to their consistency with reality, as construed by the system" (immer nur gegenwärtig benutzte Funktion, die alle anlaufenden Operationen testet im Hinblick auf Konsistenz mit dem, was das System als Realität konstruiert“—whatever that may mean precisely.[1] Therefore, his Zettelkasten as "secondary memory" should also be understood as being defined by the testing of "present operations," not by its static contents.

We know already that the non-hierarchical structure is one of the essential features of the memory of the Zettelkasten. In this regard, it is no different from memory in general. In fact, Luhmann claims that no powerful memory can work hierarchically.[2] Nor will it come as a surprise that memory is closely bound up with texts, and that the "Gedächtnisfunktion von Texten" (419) is central in his understanding of this phenomenon.

What might surprise some, however, is that Luhmann thought memory should be compared with a labyrinth, and that just as a labyrinth it had few places that allowed one to get in or out of it. In any case, this shows (again) that an index or key words played a rather secondary role for his partner in communication: "A labyrinth with very few places of entrance and exit makes possible a maximum of internal possibilities of contact, which can be actualized in sequences that are unpredictable in principle. This leads to a multiplicity of outcomes that are not dependent on the quality of the signals that form the input. In other words, the quality of the signals does not determine the output."[3]

Hope springs eternal. I sometimes believe that my own partner in communication works according to these principles, and that the quality of what I put in does not determine what it puts out. But in saner moments I doubt this very much, for I cannot believe that the principle "garbage in ... garbage out" can (or should) be violated by Zettelkästen or personal wikis either.

1. Niklas Luhmann, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp. pp. 578f.

2. "Kein leistungsstarkes Gedächtnis kann hierarchisch geordnet sein; es muss über eine Vielzahl von Generalisierungen von unterschiedlicher Mächtigkeit und unterschiedlicher Häufigkeit/Seltenheit des Aufrufens verfügen, deren Aktualisietung nicht im Voraus festgeschrieben ist, sondern davon abhängt, wie die Gelegenheiten sich bieten." (Niklas Luhmann, Organisation und Entscheidung. Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag 2000, p. 420; 2nd, ed, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenshaft, 2006)

3. "Ein Labyrinth ermöglicht bei ganz wenigen Eingangs- und Ausgangsstellen ein Maximum interner Knontaktmöglichkeiten bereitzustellen, die in principiell unvorhersehbaren Sequenzen aktualisiert werden. Man erreicht damit eine nicht von der Qualität der Eingangssignale abhängige (nicht durch sie determinierte) Vielzahl von Auswertungen" (420).

No comments: