Information and Myth-making

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Joseph Goebbels, Reichsminister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945

It has been said that the ability to perpetuate myths is one of the most powerful cultural catalysts: newspapers, cable T.V, and now the internet all play a crucial role but the most influential factor maybe society’s distant chords of memory, with emphasis on the memory (or in some cases, the lack of). Information and the mediums that support its delivery comprise the pedagogical tools that enable people to acquire and produce new ideas or revamp old ones. But what happens when information is disinformation or misinformation? When that occurs, what becomes of some of our previous premises that arose from such information? Do they continue as dominating cultural beliefs or are they eventually dismissed?

In the 1960’s, under the cauldron of the Cold War the United States and Soviet Union waged relentless asymmetrical warfare. The use of propaganda and disinformation took on paramount importance in this fight. Within the Central Intelligence Agency one source of “unplanned” disinformation was the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS)1. The purpose of the FBIS was to monitor radio broadcasting (including CIA fabricated information) around the world from more than a dozen listening posts located in such varied places as Hong Kong, Panama, Nigeria, Cyprus and San Francisco. The FBIS also determined whether pro-western clandestine transmissions were reaching their intended targets. Many of the programs monitored by the FBIS were disseminated within the U.S. government, media, and academia.

The FBIS did not differentiate between sources when it forwarded its reports to subscribers (government agencies, universities, corporations, and the media were the major subscribers to this service), so no one knew if they were getting accurate information or simply disinformation. Even though the editors of the FBIS were members of the CIA’s Intelligence Directorate, the operators in the clandestine services refused to reveal their covert operations (which included the above mentioned covert radio transmissions) to the FBIS, therefore a certain amount of information was simply disinformation (unbeknownst to the FBIS). The CIA’s Clandestine Services department seemed untroubled by this development, showing little if no regard for misleading the media, academia and other CIA analysts, State, and Defense department colleagues as well.

So can we differentiate between “good” information and disinformation, if that’s at all possible? I believe only by systematically studying the sources, context, and provenance of the information can we arrive at an approximate objectivity. In the case of the FBIS, a topological and functional analysis would needed to have been done before the information could have been evaluated for its degree of objectivity. The analysis could have asked the following questions: what function (role) does the FBIS have; how does this function relate and affect other departments within their parent organization; what are the records or information that are created as a result of that internal and external functionality; and what is the temporal and spatial influence of the information (who is using it and for how long)?  In addition to a functional analysis, a documentary analysis could also have been done, (if there were documents to study, see: previous blog post on, How to Study Documents), which could have yielded further positive results.2 By answering or attempting to answer these questions, a higher degree of scrutiny and possibly better understanding of the information could have been acquired.3

So, do we know the extent of damage done by the creation of disinformation by both Cold War protagonists? No and I would venture to guess that most people do not care. This should not be dismissed simply as a cynical remark but one based on the fact that our society is deluged with a constant flow of information. Some good and some not so good but when faced with an abundance of data, people will generally fall back on preconceived notions and myths (such as the popular urban legends of the CIA assassinating JFK or selling drugs in South Central Los Angeles).

“History is the enemy of memory,” cautioned historian Richard White, after researching the archival sources and discovering many of his mother’s stories (which consisted of her childhood memories in Ireland) to be false.4 However, did Richard White prefer the truth or were the stories told to him of greater importance even though they had a layer of hyperbole and myth-making (we could further discuss the ambiguity of truth5 and the influence of story telling in shaping societal constructs)? It is the responsibility of document curators, archivists, librarians and researchers to make sure myths and memories do not replace empirical truth (or at the very least we need to create a level playing field) but we must not lose sight of this dichotomy: people generally prefer a good story, even an embellished one, regardless of its veracity. While “the truth maybe stranger than fiction,” many times it is not as riveting. I began this blog with a quote from Joseph Goebbels and his views on the “truth,” and I will end it with my own observation.  “People may believe a lie if repeated long enough but people tend to get bored with the truth much sooner.”

(Click here to read more on the question of information permanence).

  1. Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks, The CIA and The Cult of Intelligence (New York: Doubleday, 1980).
  2. To read more about documentary analysis, see: Luciana Duranti, Diplomatics: new uses for an old science (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998).
  3. To read more about functional analysis, see: Helen Willa Samuels, Varsity letters: documenting modern colleges and universities (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998).
  4. Randall C. Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (Society of American Archivists, 2009).
  5. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (New York: Meridian, 1955).

How to Study Documents

If there is a scientific aspect to archives, the study of Diplomatics would be that area. Its function is the same as anatomy is to a doctor, and grammar to a linguist. Its indispensable for having an understanding of the meaning and function of the constituent parts of a document. Luciana Duranti in Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science (London, 1998. The Scarecrow Press, Inc), elaborates on this well know analytical tool (used by Europeans for many years but only within the last 10 years has it been given any attention among American archivists).

Over the last several centuries the primary focus for diplomatics has been the document and all of the elements that it embodies. Diplomatists have used the document to analyze the relationships between it and persons, procedures, functions, acts, and the overall system that creates them. In essence the study of diplomatics is akin to using the inductive method of philosophy to analyze a specific subject or area without any previous notions or ideas (a-priori), such as what a botanist or biologist might do. So, instead of imposing some sort of meta-theory on to a body of documents or records (such as the macro-functional approach does) the archivist uses only what is available to them (for further reading on the meta-theory and empirical debate, see my previous post on this subject, Postmodernism and Logical Positivism in Archival Thought).

Duranti divides her work into six sections: first explaining the origin and nature of diplomatics; secondly, describing the relationship between fact, act, and the function of documents; thirdly, discussing the public and private nature of documents; fourthly, elaborating on the procedures of document creation; concluding with, how to actually analyze a document and elaborating on further uses of these tools.

Throughout her book, Duranti creates an argument for the superiority of her method (as opposed to macro appraisal) based upon the empirical study of documents. “It is by studying the form of documents objectively, that we come to know and understand the administrative actions and functions generating them without prejudice.” All documents have extrinsic and intrinsic elements that help an archivist not only appraise the document itself but draw conclusions about the contextuality of how, where, and why those documents were created.

While this method has been accused of being radically empirical (and its followers of being logical positivists, running very much against the predominanting postmodernist philosophy), this form of analysis does give the archivist “objective” tools, enhancing his ability to not only analyze documents but to understand the context in which those documents were created. However, these tools like everything else, is limited by the person wieldying them. No amount of mechanisms can eliminate the subjective form from any analysis.

Postmodernism and Logical Positivism in Archival Thought

The term postmodernism first came into existence in a 1939 article, “Our own Post-Modern Age has been inaugurated by the General war of 1914-1918.” by famed British Historian Arnold J. Toynbee to describe the post WWI era. Philosophically postmodernism would be put on center stage in 1966 when Jacques Derrida a French Algerian born philosopher delivered a lecture at John Hopkins University challenging the underlying premises of structuralism (unofficially ushering in the era of postructuralism). While the effects of postmodernism have been felt in all of the arts and sciences, archival science has been slow to embrace it. Part of the problem lies in archival sciences attachment to logical positivism and empiricism (part of the reason for this, is archivists deal with physical documentary evidence within the confines of a laboratory like setting, not unlike some physical sciences). There can be no doubt that postmodernism has created epistemological dilemmas that have shaken the foundation of the sciences, archives being no exception.  In this blog I will contrast two prominent archival thinkers: Terry Cook and Luciana Duranti. Terry Cook explores the dynamics of postmodernism, while Luciana Duranti delves into its antithesis-Diplomatics. Both explore how their respective theories influence archival epistemology and methodology. Terry Cook lays out a strong case for using postmodernism and having it replace (or override) aspects of archival empiricism (informational and evidential analysis); I differ in that I see it as another tool to be incorporated into the archivists skill set.

The two articles (authored by Cook) titled: Archival Science and Postmodernism: New Formulations for Old Concepts and Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives presents several archival paradigm shifts revolving around postmodernist modification of society and culture. While postmodernism has been around for several decades, it has not affected archival thought until at least the last 10 years (I would argue that many archivists are still oblivious to its effects). One new role espoused by this philosophy is to view records now as dynamic objects as opposed to static (they never were static but that is for another blog), another is how postmodernist’s rebellion against the notions of universal truth and objective knowledge, has affected archives and their function in society. This blog will focus on the latter.

Before we continue, I will digress to explain a little of postmodern thinking. As mentioned before, postmodernists distrust any belief in obtaining “truth.” The postmodernist trusts nothing at face value and questions all societal constructs as unnatural and in need of being deconstructed or analyzed to reveal their true meaning. It becomes more important to analyze power group’s, then actual facts or acts.

Postmodernism in archives addresses the point that all documents or artifacts are not neutral evidence but formed by societal context and the creator’s prejudices. But more then this, the document is not objective because it represents society’s power over memory and over the future. It is the state’s (or any entities) power, as contended by postmodernists, who control how the future will be told. Therefore it is more important to study macro- contexts then the content itself. Macro-appraisal theorists are representative of this form of thinking.

[Critics of postmodernist thought label postmodernist historians as “theory-mongers” who pass off a-priori theories for rational thinking. The subjective interpretation of the past becomes more important then the places, persons, and events. (One of the best critical accounts of postmodernism is Alan Sokal’s, Fashionable Nonsense.)]

On the other end of the spectrum lies the logical positivist school (The basic affirmations of Positivism are (1) that all knowledge regarding matters of fact is based on the “positive” data of experience, and (2) that beyond the realm of fact is that of pure logic and pure mathematics.). Luciana Duranti, Professor of Archival Science at the University of British Columbia, best personifies this philosophy within the archival framework (known as Diplomatics). Luciana Duranti bases her beliefs on the ability to use principles of documentary analysis, to derive truth from documents, that are universally valid and objective regardless of place. (See: Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science, to read more about this theory.)

The criticism of this theory is that it does not take into account the political and cultural contexts. Its basis in universally valid principles does away with historical and sociology circumstances. Instead it concentrates on the legal doctrine and juridical context of the creator, and the documents it analyzes.

These two ways of thought provide a dichotomy that is false and has really no reason to exist. Both theories have merit and neither can stand on its own (I contend that many of the analytical features of postmodernism have been used by archivists already but remain difficult to completely implement do to the physical, fiduciary,  time, and labor constraints).  Postmodernist thought in archives deems to have archivists rely on functionality and the contextualization of records creation (and societal contexts). While diplomatics provides content analysis tools devoid of any “prejudices,” and which lead to certain truths. When I examine these theories, I see two very different forms of methodology but both seeking the same objective, truth within a certain parameter.

Both of these forms of investigation can be reduced to deductive (beginning with a general concept or rule and working down to specific conclusions) and inductive methods (is a process of using observations to develop general principles about a specific subject or theory). Postmodernist’s represent what I believe is the deductive school. By starting out with general a-priori theories, regardless of the actual empirical data found in records, then move to decide what records are valid for permanent historical reasons. The inductive method personified by the logical positivist archival school clearly uses the available records (observations) and derives general acquisition and appraisal policies from such.

As mentioned before neither method can stand on their own. Understanding contextuality of both society and organizations that create records is highly needed, especially when the size of the documentary region is daunting. When trying to make acquisition and appraisal decisions for large series and record groups this theory proves to be a powerful tool in the archivist’s arsenal (also useful in relating records to other series and record groups in the description process).  However, knowing and analyzing content at the record level (diplomatics) is also very useful when seeking form, legal and historical authenticity of records. More importantly it also gives archivists tools for reappraising collections and making future deaccessioning decisions. (This is a very limited analysis of both within an archival framework, the uses of both have yet to reach their limits.)

Theories are very useful and both of these are no exception but archivists must always move beyond theory to applicability. The archive is the great historical laboratory where all theories and their results are played out. The question that should always be asked and one that I feel carries with it an aspect of objectivity that can guide us when decisions must be made with one eye on the budgetary bottom line (along with time, labor, and space) is, what records had and have the greatest effect upon society or geographical region (or describe events, places, and ideas better within the same societal and geographical context)? And how can these theories aid in answering that question? In the end, immediate physical realities play a much greater role then any theory.

[Another area of criticism by postmodernists is the lack of historical representation of all disenfranchised groups within archival holdings. While valuing all histories is admirable and should be archived if possible, to actually accomplish what postmodernists advocate is NOT feasible. If we are to believe that a collection of documents that describe for example: ethnic gardening methods, (regardless of how good their resultant creation may be) have the same value as the records of Standard Oil…. to even contemplate the thought… is ludicrous.]