Erasing traces

The discovery of the concept of ‘error’ was immediately followed by the invention of ‘correction’. The history of error-correction started in Alexandria in the 3rd century BC when the concern for accurate authoritative texts went viral among scholars and people of letters.

This was a particularly acute problem in a culture where texts were copied by fallible hands led by failing eyes(ight). This was a book culture where the desire for philological standards far outstripped the standards themselves.

When accuracy became a warcry among scholars, ideas about how to correct, amend, edit texts were enthusiastically generated.

Correcting a faulty written text was done with a knife and a pen. Erasing text on papyrus or vellum or even paper was easily done by directly interfering with the material support.

We’ve outgrown these predigital tools and we now photoshop, retouch, process or deepfake our texts, images and videos.

One important difference between digital and pre-digital ways of amending material is that of traces. Erasing text in manuscript leaves an indelible trace of its former existence. The erasure is there for all to see.

Animal skin absorbs ink deep within its structure and (e)razing it with a knife doesn’t make it completely disappear. Multispectral imaging is often restorative – which is a way of saying that nothing hidden remains truly hidden.

Palimpsests preserve a record of the deleted past. Acid ink sinks deep within memory. There’s no ‘undo’ button, no deep overwrite.

With digital technology, restoration becomes more challenging. Voices can be deepfaked to say something completely different. Images are altered beyond recognition. Textual differences changed beyond recovery. We live in the age of the ‘undo’, which is a form of amnesia. When Pilate was asked to amend the writing on Jesus’ cross, he refused saying: ‘What I have written I have written’.

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