The Pale King

Arrangement defeating bulk. William H. Smock, Buckaroos in Paradise, via LoC American Memory

When we grow a retention schedule, either by defining new classes of records to be retained, or by stretching their retention period, is research intentionally suffocated, or just accidentally drowned?

In 2011, a guy looking for protection under 2302 came to Sen. Charles Grassley with testimony that the SEC had been destroying records of investigations into securities fraud. These quasi-investigations were called matters-under-inquiry.

Matters-under-inquiry are to investigative case files as sour mash is to bourbon. MUI records are created by low-level SEC staffers based on reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. If you believe this source, MUIs are barely anything more than a flag in an SEC database designed to assign tasks to staff. The whole point of MUI is to determine which allegations, substantiated by evidence, can move forward to full investigation, with subpoena power behind it. MUI records are therefore on retention because our legal system enshrines presumption of innocence: the MUI which doesn’t merit an investigation is a record of no evidentiary value. Valueless records of hearsay, rumor and fiction have of course been collected over the years, by people like this, but it’s not something democracies should be doing.

Apart from being Stasi-like, is permanent retention of materials gathered in an informal, preliminary or half-assed inquiry bad for some other reason? MUIs are of the unique category of records of things which didn’t happen. And that’s philosophically pretty interesting, but the argument beneath the umbrage — Matt Taibbi’s sputtering rage, totally innocent of how records management works or what it’s for, with a fourteen-year-old’s “discovery” of Orwell undergirding the spiel, is exemplary — was that the records document the decision-making capacity of the SEC, namely, that the MUIs show what the SEC pursues by showing what it declines to pursue. It’s history drawn in negative space.

More legitimately, you could argue that MUI records should be kept because we in the present don’t get final cut on history. Who knows whether the Hay, Nicolay or Bliss text, or some other stack of napkins and newsprint was what Lincoln read from? Good thing we have all these variants, history is complex and heteroglossic, we have no idea what researchers will actually use in the future so be humble about appraisal, and err on appraising everything in.

Ultimately, as people with hermeneutic power and right over institutional collections, the broad populism of our favorite strategies conceals an unacknowledged wish: that bulk might stunt the inquirer’s attention, that transparent yet boring proceedings are per se opaque, that raw bureaucratic production might dull the blade of the “necessary and sufficient”-standard.

And as more of our records become less physical, the lure of deep and broad acquisition beckons. But that wasn’t the case in 1981, when MUIs as a document class first came into being. These were papers which, to keep due process afloat, are better off dead than alive. There are some things that are ephemeral by their nature, and some whose ephemerality we have to enforce to avoid turning archives any further into surveillance mechanisms.

Finally, the more we bring in, and the finer-toothed our description of it, the narrower the difference between history and the lived present. Our representations of historical sources dissolve to become replicas. The paradox of cataloging, that our broken speech reveals the inner nature of what’s described more than a literal transcription ever could, is completely annihilated, and we swim or drown in a sea of trivialities, chattel of the pale king.

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