On Obsolescence and the Law

Every constitution must begin with the right to memory and storytelling. Rights are secondary. Once the storyteller exists the human survives. This, each constitution, each fragment of law must understand. Memory is the only trusteeship against obsolescence, says SHIV VISVANATHAN.


The word obsolescence is a strange one.

People hardly use it in ordinary conversation. They are almost coy about it. There is an air of inevitability, fatalism, of extinction to it. It goes beyond death to death-in-life and is in search of flatter words.

You can use synonym like disappearing, extinction, out of date, displaced, old fashioned but none of them have the value-neutral grimness of obsolescence.


If history as a record of progress is touted as hopeful drama, with exemplars, obsolescence is seen as empty backstage. The only tribute you can give it is to forget it. Modernity has no place for the defeated or the obsolescent.

Obsolescence is also unclassified as a process. It does not fit the current frameworks of ethical theory, the classificatory triads of sin, crime and illness. It does not quite summon the storyteller because the storyteller has disappeared before the story is over, leaving an aborted narrative. There is no sense of mourning, of loss as in death. There is no ritual of mourning for the obsolescent. They seem inevitable to modernity but outside the framework of meaning.

Even waste commands a more poignant poetics. You can recycle waste, but obsolescence offers no myth of the eternal return. It evokes indifference and erasure. It suggests non-being. How does one write about such a concept? Genocide summons body counts, the rituals of demography or census, and obsolescence evokes silence. Yet many of the major forms of violence modernity flaunts from triage, extinction, to museumisation, to displacement smell of the dreams of obsolescence.

Obsolescence is a strange word that invokes the terminal and demands immediate closure. There is no sense of mourning or memory.

Even revolutions in their victory, give defeat a dignity. You belong to the dustbin of history.

Obsolescence claims neither resting place, refuge, or history. It operates on the logic of indifference and even philosophers of time have been economical about it.

I remember asking a friend of mine who claimed to study words why he found the word obsolescence so alienating. “It is a word,” he claimed “that had no sense of being or dwelling. It was empty of life or meaning. It does not summon scale or quote excess. It was not surreal, nor did it require pataphysics of the monstrous. It was not even pathological. It was not like waste or decay which still had a claim to life.


Most concepts evoked time, body, or metaphor. Obsolescence eluded all this. It does not even have the incomplete horror of science fiction. It is banally empty. Even banality which Arendt described does not come close to it.

Obsolescence frightens me and it haunts modernity. One needs to exorcise it. If Orwell created a department of fear, that is the first word he would put on the notice: Obsolescence goes beyond the anxieties of 1984.”

A colleague of his, a storyteller intervened, “try creating an Arabian night of stories around the world. It has no romance, it desiccates narrative. How do you begin with ‘once there was’, evoking a sense of the magical and mystical? Obsolescence erodes memory, provokes indifference. The farthest I could go was not literature but science fiction, weak science fiction at that. If I had a totalitarian regime, I would have only two departments. A department of banality where violence would be banal but lethal and a department of obsolescence, where society would have no memory. How does indifference create the world of the social? You do not need science fiction today. Science fiction reminded you of the horrors of science. Here everydayness is so frightening one does not have to exaggerate it, distort it, caricature it.  Obsolescence is anti-utopian. It is an everydayness that was primitive. It is already there and you cannot exorcise it.”

My friend continued, “look at the way we write history. It is full of victories. But obsolescence created a category beyond the defeated. With defeat, some life was possible, with obsolescence, one faced erasure, disappearances, violence that lacked narrative. Take today, languages disappear, tribes evaporate, crafts are lost. We have no narrative for them. Obsolescence imposes death and the denial of storytelling. Extinctions are occasional. They can be evolutionary. Obsolescence erases the everyday and everydayness.  Obsolescence denies you the right of being.


Imagine modernity were to look at itself in the mirror. Imagine the mirror was the conscience of history and one asked why it was the most violent word of all. It destroys memory. It denies you history. The obsolescent have no rights. Remember junk and waste carry stigma but still have possibilities. An obsolescent world is inert. It cannot have human rights because you push life beyond the human. Obsolescence destroys belonging. It is the one word that law has nothing to say about. You can think of one constitution that guarantees you rights against obsolescence. Obsolescence provokes extinction, erasure, displacement, genocide. It adds an impersonality to each which is difficult to grasp. Think of the paradox. An information society creates obsolescence. Mechanical storage and loss of memory go together. This is what Luddites and poets like Blake fought. An erasure that denies you memory, that eliminates storytelling.

Every constitution must begin with the right to memory and storytelling. Rights are secondary. Once the storyteller exists the human survives. This, each constitution, each fragment of law must understand. Memory is the only trusteeship against obsolescence.

(Shiv Visvanathan is an Indian academic best known for his contributions to developing the field of science and technology studies, and for the concept of cognitive justice- a term he coined. He is currently a Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonepat. The views expressed are personal.)

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