In Praise of Paper

Amid all the preoccupation with Big Data over the last few years, one might be forgiven for missing the telltale signs of a  low-key aesthetic return to (fixation with?) paper. It was there metaphorically, through apps that attempted to digitally capture the sensory aspects of paper-based media. But paper itself maintains its hold on the imagination, in part because of the kinds of communication and practices that it represents.

The Clinton Presidential library, for example, recently released tens of thousands of pages of previously withheld documents. A boon to historians, it recalls an era, according to former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol, in which officials working in litigious Washington were dissuaded from keeping records, schedules, diaries and the like, lest those records become forensic grist.

That concern – not producing the petards of one’s own (or one’s colleague’s) potential future hoisting  – still exists. But “in their wonky way,” Shesol writes, the Clinton papers “demonstrate the basic human compulsion to write things down—to work out and test ideas on paper, to engage in debates and occasional snits, to record and transcribe and (in my own case) doodle, and, to a surprising degree, to let down one’s guard.”

There are worlds of fact and flavor contained in such materials. Their survival represents a form of historical transparency and accountability that is inherently valuable, not least because it seizes and preserves the essence of, in Shisol’s terms, “government at work”.

I think it’s fair to say that insofar as “paper” and “writing it down” can be understood euphemistically, they evoke an aesthetic and practical compunction that is fundamentally archival. They refer to the accumulation of historically valuable  document collections and preserving them for a variety of purposes.

In this case, “paper” and “writing” might equally be understood through a variety of framing lenses: as metaphor  – one thing understood in terms of another; or as metanym – the whole understood through reference to its parts.

It almost goes without saying that not all records are on paper, and that a good number of datum generated these days begin and end their lives as electrons. But it is interesting that with Big Data comes a sort of Paper Blindness – that if it is not available electronically, then it either doesn’t exist at all or isn’t worth the bother of finding.

That a significant volume of paper-based information never gets seen by ordinary human beings isn’t remarkable. There is simply too much for any one person to consume, or tranches of it are too contentious to touch, or are tainted by their provenance,  or are classified, and so on.

If there’s a concern in this, it’s that enhanced or amplified accessibility in some areas also closes down the space for it in others. One day our expectations of  vast troves of historically relevant material may be confronted with…. a void.

Some of that is accepted and acceptable practice. Some of it isn’t.

Physical documents are regularly winnowed from archival collections, lost to water, fire and termites, abandoned in mouldering heaps, forgotten in attics, set aflame in wartime, or – in the lived vernacular of government at work – too secret, sensitive, or scandalous to ever see the light of day.

This has always been true, and it is as true in places like Quetta or Kandahar as it has been in Washington and Whitehall.


Framing Forensics

For the last few months, I’ve been thinking about how  “forensics”, “forensic research” or “forensic practice” are commonly understood. The interest is driven in part by long familiarity with the uses of historical methods and research to support very contemporary preoccupations, and the somewhat unusual conjoining of “forensic” and “history” as a single discipline. I write “unusual” here only in the sense that “forensic” and “forensics” are usually associated with lab coats, applied science and crime scenes, and much less so with the stereotypical image of historians rifling through boxes of records in musty archives. These are popular images of very specific and limited elements of disciplinary practice, of course. They hardly do justice, so to speak, to the substance that each of those representations draws from.

The association between historical practice and “forensics” is much less unusual  – in the sense that it should resonate quite strongly and intuitively – among postgraduate students and historians indoctrinated into the arcane mysteries of the profession. In their readings on philosophies and approaches to history, they learn that its early development (in the West) was grounded in a legalistic pursuit of evidence and scholarly rigor. It is also much less unusual, in the same sense, for anyone familiar with “public history”, a more recent though now well-established type of professionalisation within the field. So historians have a robust professional understanding of such issues by virtue of their training, and at least in some cases they will sense an affinity between what historians do and the requirements of a more general (or specific) forensic practice. 

Resonance is a tricky beast, however. Different things resonate in different ways with different people. In frame theory, one way of making sense of resonance is to understand the “cognitive script” or “schema of interpretation” (the raw collection of data and details that makes up  our subconscious) from which we draw various conceptual apparatus (analogies, metaphors, and other devices that function as a kind of shorthand for the complex reality that surrounds us). One of the challenges associated with framing  – particularly for anyone using it to understand human communication – is frame alignment (and by extension, misalignment) between “source” (the cognitive script) and “target” (the thing being framed). Get the alignment right when framing an idea or a policy, and the idea or policy will resonate with an audience, thereby increasing the chance that the idea or policy will be accepted. Get the alignment wrong, misalign the frame, and any hope that it will resonate with its intended audience becomes a much more tenuous proposition.

This is a gross over-simplification of a fairly sophisticated field, but I wanted to push through the essentials quickly in order to get to the idea of “original meaning”. Remember that framing uses devices like metaphors and analogies as conceptual shorthand. The range of framing devices is actually quite broad, but metaphors and analogies are among the most powerful. In order for the putative analyst to map instances and frequency of metaphorical discourse (whether that discourse is purely textual or a more holistic collection of actions, texts, and the like), its component parts have to be identified and understood. This requires knowledge of the “original meaning” of metaphorical terms, and differentiation between original meaning and later meanings that have accrued to those same terms over time. That differentiation allows us to pinpoint when a term is actually being used metaphorically, and when it is being used in its original form.

In some cases, an analogical or metaphorical cascade can be observed, wherein multiple layers of metaphorical meaning accrue to the same term in successive stages over time. The result is a word or an expression or a turn of phrase that carries multiple possible meanings, some of which may be obvious and easily discernible, while others only reveal themselves under certain circumstances, in certain contexts, or through more esoteric and prolonged forms of inquiry. Which brings me back to the idea of “forensic” research, and forensic historical research in particular. The term “forensic” is from the latin forensis, which refers to early Roman legal practice in which victim and accused presented their respective cases to an audience in a forum. In this original meaning, “forensic” meant something that was both “public” and “legal” in its orientation. Over time, it came to denote something more narrowly of a legal nature, acted out in a specifically legal setting like a courtroom or before a judge. More recently, it narrowed again, “forensic” and “forensics” becoming descriptors for the collection and processing of evidence in criminal policing, typically using hard science tools and processes that are highly amenable to fine-grained identification of relevant physical minutiae.

The point I’m trying to make with this dime-store genealogy is that “forensic” has a number of meanings, all of them connected in interesting and relevant ways. That some of those meanings are anchored in historical context makes them even more rather than less relevant to current issues. In a sense, I’m advocating a cross-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary recovery of the term. No research discipline is more or less inherently “forensic”; research is not inherently “forensic” because it relies on genetic testing or applied chemistry; hard sciences are not more inherently “forensic” than social sciences, and social sciences are not more inherently “forensic” than, say, historical research (or vice versa). Rather, research is inherently “forensic” when it is being conducted for legal purposes, to support legal arguments and processes, to build a criminal case; research is “forensic”,  in the classic sense, when its findings are discussed, presented, or argued openly or publicly.

Research might even be considered “forensic”, in a metaphorical sense, simply for paying attention to the little things, for being “highly amenable to fine-grained identification of relevant minutiae.” Words and phrases can be appropriated and twisted to suit just about any purpose, of course. That’s not what I’m suggesting. What I am arguing for is a sensible return to basics, and a sensible application of those basics to contemporary interests, issues, and sensibilities. I am arguing for an understanding of research as a “forensic” undertaking when it is conducted or presented for purposes that lie somewhere along a continuum of the public and legal elements of its original meaning; when it is the work of public intellectuals engaging policy-relevant issues, for example, or when it is policy-relevant research conducted at the behest of public bodies such as government ministries and the like. 

This is a rough draft of first thoughts on a wide variety of interconnected issues. It is informed in part by my own experiences as an institutionally-embedded analyst, professional research consultant, and academic. It is inspired in part by recent discussion of public intellectuals and alleged academic disengagement from the issues that matter to mainstream life.  It is articulated largely in ignorance of both public history and forensic science, and of what these two important fields have to say on the matter of forensic research. And it is offered here with the promise of more thoughtful and better supported inquiry to follow.

Syria’s Heritage at Risk

One of the recurring headlines of the war in Syria details the destruction of its precious cultural artefacts. It has become a truism of sorts that when locations are struck by artillery and mortar fire, it isn’t just human bodies and communities being destroyed but human heritage, as well. Ancient architecture is being stress-tested in ways that its designers and builders are unlikely to have foreseen. Only two weeks ago UNESCO head Irina Bokova decried damage done to the Crac des Chevaliers and the Qal’at Salah El-Din, both “outstanding examples” of the “region’s fortified architecture”. The sites were among six being placed on a UN List of World Heritage in Danger, alongside “The Ancient City of Damascus”; “Site of Palmyra”; “Ancient City of Bosra”; “Ancient City of Aleppo”; and “Ancient Villages of northern Syria”.

That Syria’s architectural and archeological treasures were at extreme risk of war damage is certainly newsworthy, but it is not new. Stories of similar abuses and losses have been filtering out of the region since the fighting began two years ago. One of the most striking of these emerged only days ago, recounting the organised looting of historic sites including that of an ancient Hellenic city, Apamea, located about 55km northwest of Hama and thought to have been founded around 300 B.C. A Bloomberg headline read “Syrian Looters In Bulldozers Seek Treasure Amid Chaos.” An excellent  research project at the University of Glasgow entitled “Trafficking Culture” ( provides incredible satellite images of the Apamea site at the beginning of the conflict – flat, unspoiled, uncratered – and later images showing a wildly perforated vista – a “moonscape blighted by hundreds  upon hundreds of holes” – where, one assumes, not a single artefact of value has been left behind.

If the litany of cultural destruction seems wanton, extreme, and depressing, consider that Syria is only the most recent example of it. Early this year, reports from Mali were that Al Qaeda and affiliated extremists who had occupied parts of the country were destroying rare, priceless manuscripts and other artefacts in Timbuktu and Bamako. Extremists fleeing the former in the face of advancing French  troops made sure to set alight a library before leaving. Such scenes recall previous instances of at-risk heritage suffering the vicissitudes of war and instability. In 2003, during the US invasion of Iraq, looters had their way with the country’s National Museum in Baghdad. In 2001 the Taliban dynamited two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. In 1992, during the siege of Sarajevo, Serbian artillery gunners shelled the city’s Ottoman-era national library into oblivion.

Sometimes, recovering these treasures is simply impossible. In Sarajevo, the flames that engulfed the library ate over 1.5 million volumes and 150,000 rare books and manuscripts, most of them unique and irreplaceable. The Buddhas of Bamiyan are gone forever; rubble, tourist photographs and the empty spaces they once occupied the only evidence that they even existed at all. In Mali, reports of burning libraries and destroyed manuscripts are matched by encouraging tales of rescue and preservation, of efforts taken to dupe the extremists and hide the country’s priceless legacy. Conditions in Syria seem  less hopeful, the damage of such a scale and so pervasive that it is difficult to imagine what postconflict recovery might look like. But we can hope, and we can imagine, and we can go even further than that: we can observe, and record, and plan, and eventually rebuild.

Originally published in Current Intelligence 5:3 (Summer 2013), p. 34.


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