Chapter 5 Conclusion: Oblivion and Oblivion Society

In: Oblivionism
Oliver Dimbath
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Mirko Wittwar
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After all, what is to be understood by oblivionism in science? Now, in some concluding considerations, we will decide how far social oblivion and oblivionism are fruitful concepts for sociology. As the term has appeared in the context of diagnosing current science and appears to be particularly problematic there, we have had a particular focus on this action field. However, the presented study did not only claim to assess the suspicion of oblivionism when it comes to science. The goal was to make the phenomenon of social oblivion, with the help of an example, fruitful for social theory and the theory of society or sociology of knowledge. The concept was supposed, and this is the research-guiding assumption, to be transferable to other fields of society. Neither the genesis and perpetuation of socially constituted knowledge nor the wide field of not-knowing are in the fore but the problem of losing knowledge. This opens up an entirely new research perspective, also coming along with methodological consequences. Before taking up and judging the eponymous problem of scientific oblivionism here, the basic theoretical lines of this newly worked out research perspective will be briefly sketched, and prospects for other fields of application have to be mentioned. Finally, it must be assessed in how far stating oblivionism may be understood as a diagnosis of our time or the present if the question about oblivion society is raised.

Memory and particularly social memories have not been understood to be chronological or spatial stores. They are aspects of the ongoing production of knowledge orders resulting from each current reference to the traces of past events. Thus, they are the crucial selection mechanism for a presentist construction of the reality of a social entity. Memory and particularly social memories determine what is relevant for any social entity in a given situation. Selectivity and relevance need not spread via communication – for this, the category of declarative-reflective knowledge or memory has been introduced. They may also exist in incorporated-practical form and may not be accessible to any reflection by subjects or groups. This is not meant to altogether reject the common understanding of memory as a store or archive. Then it is only the explicit and intentional storing and organising of a possible reaching back to traces for communicative purposes. Thus, store or archive refers only to a small segment of a much more comprehensive phenomenon of the social reference to past events.

Remembering has been understood as the exclusively intentional and interpreting reference to the traces of past events, happening in the mode of declarative-reflective and thus communicable as well as current construing. Thus, remembering is meaningful and determines meaning. In the case of memory and remembering, the connection to the concept of knowledge is that knowledge consists of the behavioural repertoire collected in past events that have left traces. Selectively, memory provides for behaviour based on a comparison of the current situation with past events. Remembering is reflecting and hence conscience-mediating reaching back. Thus, a social entity may know more than it believes to know due to its past events.

By forgetting, we have understood a loss of knowledge. This loss results from old impressions being lastingly eclipsed by new ones, which is crucially co-determined by the selectivity of memory. As all behaviour can only connect to certain events of the past, its effect on the world is contingent. In other words, behaviour rules out any alternative behaviour that might have been connective within the frame of certain probabilities in view of the past experienced by a social entity. Both unconscious and reflected selectivity perpetuate structural patterns of behavioural orientation; if this happens once, twice or thrice, untrodden paths will fall into oblivion over time. One kind of oblivion happening because of ongoing adjustment in serving knowledge structures has been described as oblivion (II) or forgetfulness. This is the quality of any social entity to reorient behaviour according to its own having become, thus giving up on a good deal of its available knowledge. Whereas forgetfulness as quality is the same as any “natural” decay of knowledge, there is the possibility to influence such processes actively. The intentional orientation at one’s forgetfulness and the forgetfulness of others have been called forgetting on the broader sense, oblivion (I) or wanting-to-forget and making-forget. Giving up on as well as the withdrawing of knowledge limits the choice of possible actions. If such action happens unnoticed, it is possible to make oblivion as a loss of knowledge a lasting thing. On the other hand, initiated oblivion becomes known, which may be interpreted as a loss of trust and result in refractory behaviour and conflict.

A cause for wanting-to-forget can be the insight into being overtaxed by too much information connected to being hurt in the past. Making-forget is a tool for the organisation of social relations. An oblivion calculus may help suppress conflicts among couples; it may attract social groups’ attention to those things that are considered relevant, and it may influence the development of collective identities towards the desired direction. Forgetfulness and attempts to influence it, control and steering are found with all social relations and action contexts.

Harald Weinrich’s polemic diagnosis of oblivion with the sciences attests a particular affinity for knowledge loss to science in the late modern age. Due to the exponential growth of stocks of knowledge and that kind of knowledge production which is considered scientific, the actors of the scientific system come to the limits of their capacity and consequently try to adjust the selection mechanisms. This happens by readjusting the relevancies for dealing with archived knowledge to a faster turnover and main and side streams. Thus, we may state that by oblivionism, we must understand a societal increase of the tendency to forget.

The carried out analysis of social oblivion is far more comprehensive. Here, oblivionism appears as a phenomenon of intentionally preparing societal forgetfulness in the context of wanting-to-forget and making-forget. Science research provides a lot of starting points that make Weinrich’s analysis of our time look plausible. However, such an analysis is not sufficient for analysing social forgetfulness in science as a whole. Furthermore, before claiming an increase of oblivion, the latter’s potentials and limits when it comes to each respective social or societal realm must be sounded out. In other words: oblivion may be seriously stated only if the conditions for knowledge loss and its growth can be comprehended. In view of the archiving of scientific knowledge, oblivion in the scientific realm seems to be hardly comprehensible. For example, not only the storing capacities for scientific information have grown immensely but also the possibilities of organising it systematically in the form of catalogue systems. Yet, when it comes to decisions about the reception, the diagnosis seems to be highly correct. Oblivionism happens in the context of a – not least power-induced – decision about what is supposed to be remembered and what may be forgotten; thus, it seems to be one aspect of a “history of the victorious”. This is not at all anything new but just one more case of discursive hegemony in the course of which more than just a few field-specific and system-specific institutional selection mechanisms may be bypassed by hep of power and influence. Niklas Luhmann described such a development within the scientific system when the prevailing code and programme are readjusted in certain societal action fields. Oblivionism would thus be a call for oblivion concerning the differentiation and diversity of the scientific production of knowledge – such as a de-differentiation facilitated by guiding disciplines which, however, does no longer exclusively operate according to the distinction between true/untrue but according to renowned/not renowned or important/unimportant.

If we understand societies to be fundamentally constituted by knowledge, it is obvious to transfer the question about the principles and variants of knowledge loss also to other fields of action. Everywhere where acceleration is diagnosed and connected to power-interests, we may thus state oblivion. However, as it must be assumed that selection mechanisms and relevancies are different for each individual realm, we should assume different kinds of social memories where also the loss of knowledge happens in different ways. Thus, oblivion (I) and oblivion (II) in the economy will be different from those in politics, in law or in education, just like in social institutions such as family, security, mourning or organising. Organisational oblivionism would then have to be described as refocusing, as an enacted forgetting of essential goals of an organisation, such as by way of state-decreed requirements for documentation or by a changed tax policy.

A sociological analysis dealing with fundamental issues of theory and claiming to work out new perspectives is well advised to register its subject as a new principle that considerably determines the social order. By introducing an entirely new perspective, problems may be supposed to appear, which will be the task of future research. Also, the analysis of social oblivion may claim to do so. However, it concludes with a rather careful prospect which emphasizes that a thorough analysis of the social structuring of the loss of knowledge promises new insights concerning the social use of knowledge. Nevertheless, against this background, it seems to be both outmoded and exaggerated to proclaim the thesis of an oblivion society. Such a thesis would be outmoded insofar as already more than 100 years ago, modern society was described as a society of oblivion. Processes of social modernisation did not come with any one-sided growth of oblivion but rather with a change in selecting. Thus, the theoretical-conceptual pervasion of the phenomenon of social oblivion, its empirical description, and exploring its consequences remains both a new and urgent research issue. Without any reliable empirical findings, any claim that social oblivion is spreading and is becoming a feature of modern societies or a driving force of social change seems to be premature for the time being. Thus, as a conclusion, it must be stated that the research of social oblivion is insightful for the analysis of social knowledge, even if one does not come up with slogans such as oblivion society, demented society, or social dementia.

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Forgetting and Forgetfulness in Modern Science