The Refresh: Digital Destruction and Mystic Writing

Matthew Schilleman

Visiting Assistant Professor, Clemson University

[Keywords: digital, new media, archive, unconscious, Freud, Derrida, mystic writing pad, memex, forgetting, memory]

In “A Note Upon the Mystic Writing-Pad,” Freud presents a technological prosthesis that might replicate the functioning of the psychic apparatus. Consisting of a wax slab covered by wax paper and a protective sheet, the mystic pad models a mnemic system of permanent recording and perpetual renewal. Most inscriptive technologies, as Freud states in the essay, manage to do either one or the other. A notepad, for instance, will retain what is written on it, but it will fill up over time. A chalk board, by contrast, can be cleared of writing, but loses its record as a consequence. With the mystic pad, both functions occur in a single apparatus. One writes on the pad by pressing a stylus down upon the covering sheets. Visible traces are made wherever paper and slab make contact. To refresh the surface and clear it of the traces, the covering sheets need only be lifted from the wax base. As Freud observes, what is truly remarkable about the pad is that the traces are not entirely lost with this erasure, but remain present in the wax component. [1] Thus the pad achieves the psyche’s hard-to-explain dual function of retention and renewal in one apparatus composed of interrelated systems. [2] The only shortcoming of the pad as a model for the psyche, according to Freud, is its inability to reproduce these traces from “within.” “It would be a mystic pad indeed,” comments Freud, “if it, like our memory, could do that.” [3]

Evernote, “Remember Everything” logo, used as per Evernote permissions

Evernote, “Remember Everything” logo, used as per Evernote permissions

Cloud-based note saving service Evernote’s slogan, “Remember Everything,” suggests how this prosthetic dream might be becoming a reality in the digital present. Not only does Evernote offer to store all your web articles, notes, and photos in its memory, it promises to reproduce these traces from within, wherever the user might be. [4] Though the relative accessibility of the web service certainly indicates a key difference with the unconscious, it nonetheless points to an apparatic condition in which nothing is ever “past or forgotten.” [5] The choice of an elephant as the company’s mascot emphasizes this idea. For like the unconscious, the elephant ‘never forgets.’ [6] Evernote is one of many services on the web today offering this version of the future. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and digital archival projects such as Google Books and the Wayback Machine, give rise to the same fantasy of a memory beyond erasure.

What does it mean that such devices exist in the world today? On the one hand, it might be said that we have entered an epoch of the unconscious becoming conscious, as Gregory Ulmer has argued. [7] We are now able to uncover the vast trove of buried traces in our history, including those of childhood, through a medium that makes all the images, sounds, and ideas of past accessible through web search. As more and more of our lives are lived out on social media the comprehensiveness of this memory becomes ever more absolute. The potential consequences of this development are both liberatory and oppressive. We may be able to gain insight into the constitution of our subjectivities to a degree only available to the most diligent of researchers through the availability of our media past. [8] On the other hand, the constant registration and mediatization of our lives threatens to commodify and fragment the subject to an equally unprecedented degree, enabling new, hyper-targeted forms of marketing to dominate communication. [9]

Current criticism, however, does not consider how operations of forgetting, deletion, or erasure might be remediated today, as the focus has rather been on their supersession. As a matter of fact, we are currently some ways off from a perfect digital memory. Web pages go missing and blogs get deleted everyday as part of the ebb and flow of new media platforms. When Myspace was bought out, no preparations were made to preserve the data of its users. And while archival projects such as the Wayback Machine backup massive amounts of what is on the Internet through automated bots, these programs don’t catch everything and, moreover, ignore any webpage with a robot.txt command built into it. [10] My opening comparison to the mystic pad is meant to bring this neglected issue concerning loss, erasure, and deletion online into focus by connecting it to alternative modes of forgetting theorized by Freud. If the unconscious forgets nothing, there is still a kind of forgetting at work within the psyche which generally can be categorized as repression, but can also be elaborated in terms of specific mechanisms of disconnection and renewability built into the psychic apparatus. These kinds of forgetting are a necessary part of the psyche’s functionality. So, if we are to take the parallel between psyche and its technological simulacrum, we would also have to account for this forgetting in the digital.

What I will argue is that the function of disconnection between the layers of the mystic pad is indicative of a destructive drive that runs through the digital, articulated around the idea of refreshing. Beginning with the forbearer of the internet age, Vannevar Bush’s memex, I will draw on what Freud says about the psychic apparatus and Derrida’s writings on the archive to theorize this relationship. What I will show is that the infinite promise of the digital archive necessarily depends upon the repression of its own destructive actions inherent to its archival operation, a feature that is perhaps a defining characteristic of new media.


Vannevar Bush’s seminal text, “As We May Think,” is frequently cited as an important precursor to the digital age. In it, prototypes of hypertext, database searching, and electronic screen technology are combined to create a new memory organ for the human, which Bush names the “memex.” [11] The inspiration for the machine is much like that of the mystic writing-pad essay: how to store an unlimited number of memory traces in a system capable of continually refreshing itself. Much like Freud, Bush conceives this “regenerative memory” as a layered system of processes. [12] On one layer, documents are fed into the machine and stored permanently as microfilm. On another layer, these documents can be retrieved by the operator through a system that projects them onto screens. An interface consisting of forward and backward commands allows the user to switch between the parts of the microfilm projected on the screens. By selecting the forward command, the film advances, while choosing the backward command takes the user to a previous page.

Memex Animation

The memex’s greatest achievement, however, comes from its ability to trace new connections between documents into memory. As Bush explains, an operator may be interested in researching the bow and arrow. His memex will contain dozens of articles on this subject. He may first consult an encyclopedic entry. Leaving it projected, he can pull up another pertinent article, and if he wants, ‘link’ these articles together for future reference. He can do this by entering a command into the memex’s numeric keyboard. Furthermore, the operator can register his own notes and memory ‘trails’ on the documents by drawing on the screen with a special stylus. These trails “do not fade,” so when the operator comes across the encyclopedia entry on the bow and arrow again, the associations and additional notes made previously will be reproduced on the screen. [13]

Following Freud’s mystic pad analogy, we might say Bush’s memex works by dividing memory into Ucs. and Pcpt.-Cs systems. Pcpt.-Cs. would be the transitory information on the screen perceived by the operator and the Ucs. would be the system of traces stored in the machine and projected piecemeal back to the surface. [14] In the mystic pad, the joining and separation of these two layers (paper and wax) serves as a model for the passage of stimuli from one system to the other. Significantly, the joining and separation of layers conforms to a theory of the psyche that Freud had left unmentioned until his essay on the pad, namely, that “cathectic innervations are sent out and withdrawn in rapid periodic impulses from within into the completely pervious system of Pcpt.-Cs.” [15] When this system is charged, it both receives perceptions (which are passed into the unconscious) and gives rise to consciousness. When the connection is broken, not only does perception and reception cease, but consciousness itself is extinguished. This final development of the mystic pad analogy proves revealing for the nature of the memex. For when the memex moves between documents, the projection is also interrupted, causing the screen to clear momentarily. This erasure of the surface is necessary to its unlimited receptivity. By clearing its screen periodically, it provides an ever-renewed surface for writing. Without it, the memex’s memory would fill up and cease to be able to receive new impressions. Disconnection, periodic interruption, is thus as essential to the memex as it is to the operation of the psyche.

How we might draw out the significance of this structure is manifold, but one point for certain is that it shows destruction to be something inherent to the memex’s capacity for memory, just as it is for pad and psyche. Indeed, erasure and storage are bound to the same gesture, the registering of the trails made by the user happening at the moment those trails disappear from the surface of projection. It is just as Freud asks us to imagine the mystic pad, with “one hand writing upon the surface of the Mystic Writing-Pad while another periodically raises its covering sheet from the wax slab.” [16]

Auto-destruction is part of any archive, according to Derrida. As he writes, “the archive […] will never be either memory or anamnesis as spontaneous, alive and internal experience. On the contrary: the archive takes place at the place of originary and structural breakdown of the said memory.” He states:

There is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside. Let us never forget this Greek distinction between mnēmē or anamnēsis on the one hand, and hypomnēma on the other. The archive is hypomnesic. And let us note in passing a decisive paradox to which we will not have time to return, but which undoubtedly conditions the whole of these remarks: if there is no archive without consignation in an external place which assures the possibility of memorization, of repetition, of reproduction, or of reimpression, then we must also remember that repetition itself, the logic of repetition, indeed the repetition compulsion, remains, according to Freud, indissociable from the death drive. And thus from destruction. Consequence: right on that which permits and conditions archivization, we will never find anything other than that which exposes to destruction, and in truth menaces with destruction, introducing, a priori, forgetfulness and the archiviolithic into the heart of the monument. Into the “by heart” itself. The archive always works, and a priori, against itself. [17]

The existence of a drive to destruction at the core of the memex is troubling, not only because it is built upon the idea of never forgetting a scrap of information ever again, but because it is the prototype for so many digital technologies to come. Destruction, loss, erasure, and forgetting are greatly at odds with digital media’s ‘always thereness.’ In contrast to the memorylessness of television, memory is the digital’s sine qua non that has been at the root of its definition from its inception. [18]


Within the context of modern day digital technologies, we thus might ask how this archivic drive to destruction is manifested. Taking the standard networked computer as an example, the setup is similar in many ways to the one imagined by Bush in 1945. The operator interacts with the networked computer through a screen that projects different pages from its archive. This archive is bound together by hyperlinks that function much like the memex’s trails, providing unique and modifiable pathways through the system’s memory. Most important for this discussion of destruction in the digital archive, the networked computer also entails the same underlying erasing operation of the memex. With each new document summoned, the screen wipes itself and clears what was formerly projected on it from perception.

This activity of perceptual erasure derives from what is known as screen refreshing. Screen refreshing is an essential part of the digital archive. To provide the textual, animated, and video data that it does, the digital archive must have a monitor that can constantly update itself and recreate the image projected on its screen. What this means concretely is that the typical computer monitor is designed to refresh its screen sixty times every second. It does this through a vertical swipe, from top to bottom, it which pixels are adjusted line by line. On the older CRT screens, this process would actually show up noticeably when filmed, and is commonly seen in 80s and 90s tech demonstrations. Present-day LCD screens have reduced this effect and the related phenomenon of ‘screen flicker’ common to CRT users. But the basic principle of screen refresh remains the same in either case. [19]

CRT Flicker Captured on Film

This repetition of the refresh invariably has a destructive effect not only for what is on the screen, but also for the user’s relationship with the archive. Consider, for example, the way refreshing becomes part of the user’s basic interaction with the machine in an email client, forum, or wiki. Staring at a screen with an open email client, the screen will periodically update itself, checking for new deliveries. The user will provoke this refreshing action every so often as well by clicking a button. Each cycle brings about a nearly imperceptible destruction of what is represented on the screen in order to allow the system to continue to receive new impressions. For the most part, this destruction goes undetected by the user. Only when the representation changes into a new document (for instance, when a set of new emails arrives in the inbox), is any alteration noticed. Yet this repeated unmaking and remaking of the image on the screen is a ceaseless activity carried on beneath the perception of consciousness at the speed of milliseconds. [20]

The omnipresent ideology of the update found in the digital archive depends upon the erasing function of the refresh as well. On sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the act of updating one’s status takes on an imperative form. As a consequence, messages and images of friends appear and disappear at a pace that only grows as one’s friends list expands through hyperlinks and associative trails. The total effect of this is a state of perpetual refreshing that brings destruction not merely to the page, but one’s social network as well. Intimacies and connections between ourselves and our Facebook friends become ever more dispersed across a sea of reposts that refresh the page. With the same gesture that Facebook pathologically attempts to record every book that we read, every picture that we like, and every stray thought that comes across our minds, it erases those traces, not by rubbing them out of existence, but by bringing them into its archive, by striving to preserve them. To watch one’s Facebook page on the screen is to witness the simultaneous preservation and annihilation of one’s social life according to the archival drive to destruction at the heart of mnemic repetition.

Facebook Time Lapse

Practically everything we do online could be said to be influenced by this idea of refreshing. Our OS, our drivers, our applications, email, all must be perpetually made anew. Each instance of this is an act of destruction that undoes what was in order to keep it for the future (and in the case of driver updates, this destruction reveals itself sometimes in form of system errors that result from the erasure of old code). It is in this way that how we think and remember in the digital gets wedded to its archival antithesis.

It is important to distinguish the destruction entailed in the digital archive from other medial threats to anamnesis or internal memory. For Plato, writing would displace the writing “in the soul” that symbolized true understanding. [21] Much later, Virilio has emphasized the speed of electronic media as effectively collapsing the interval between subject and representation, making reflection upon events practically impossible. [22] The former threatens to weaken the inside by supplementing it from the outside. The latter, by contrast, sees the inner world impoverished by its losing the external supports of memory. Both are conditions of forgetting, failures of remembering stemming from the effects of technological media that impinge upon the subject’s critical independence.

One could argue that, by contrast, memory in the digital archive is rooted in a strategy of disavowal that denies loss by hiding it. It is well-known what Freud says about this in the context of psychoanalysis. [23] In translating this idea to the digital archive, we might again consider the mystic writing-pad. The pad both preserves and erases memory at the same time. This double-action is the essence of its unlimited capacity for storage. But it also shows how this kind of preservation entails the erasure of erasure itself. Crucially, Freud points out that clearing the surface of the pad is achieved through the “periodic nonexcitability of the perceptual system,” i.e., the disconnection between the screen and the memory system beneath it. [24] Erasure is achieved through the interval of non-perception that inheres within the structure of renewal. To clear the surface means to shut down perception, and shutting down perception means that the act of erasure is hidden in the interval that escapes perception entirely.

The digital archive, in its mission to offer unlimited receptivity, produces the same erasure of erasure. The machine refreshes its surface like the pad clears itself, through a period of non-excitability in which consciousness is cut-off without the individual knowing it. It is in this manner that the digital archive consigns traces to itself – by repeating an act of destruction that is twofold. The surface of the system is cleared, wiped, abnegated, and the user’s conscious perception shut off in such a way that the first destruction is always covered over and translated into its opposite, i.e., presence. Loss is supplanted by the lossless format, trash with the recycle bin. The very ground of forgetting begins to recede in this way, as the gaps in history that would normally manifest are covered over by the profusion of more data. Forgetting is elided by a memory so full that it blights out the mere thought of its other. This is perhaps another way to think of the ‘newness’ of new media. To be ever new is to be always refreshed, to be destroyed and made again.


  1. Sigmund Freud, General Psychological Theory: Papers on Metapsychology, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 207-11.
  2. Freud had been working on this problem since The Interpretation of Dreams. See Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), 571.
  3. Freud, General Psychological Theory, 211.
  4. Evernote’s official website, accessed January 2, 2015,
  5. Freud, Interpretation of Dreams, 617.
  6. James Ritchie, “Fact or Fiction?: Elephants Never Forget,” Scientific American, January 12, 2009, accessed February 2, 2015,
  7. Gregory L. Ulmer, Electronic Monuments (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), xxix.
  8. Bernard Stiegler, “Hypomnesis and Anamnesis,” Ars Industrialis, accessed November 17, 2014,
  9. Alison Hearn, “Meat, Mask, Burden: Probing the Contours of the Branded Self,” Journal of Consumer Culture 8, no. 2 (2008): 197-217.
  10. Jill Lapore, “The Cobweb: Can the Internet Be Archived?” The New Yorker, January 26, 2015, accessed February 14, 2015,
  11. See Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s introduction to Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The New Media Reader, eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2003), 35.
  12. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future is a Memory,” Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn 2008): 154.
  13. Bush, “As We May Think,” The New Media Reader, 46.
  14. Freud, General Psychological Theory, 210-11.
  15. Freud, General Psychological Theory, 211-12.
  16. Freud, General Psychological Theory, 212.
  17. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 11-12.
  18. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral,” 154
  19. Tim Moynihan, “WTF Just Happened: My Computer Monitor Looks Awful on Camera” Wired, August 14, 2014, accessed January 9, 2015,
  20. Though LCD screens do not shut down and go black as CRT screens do, they nonetheless pulse the backlights on and off rapidly. See Tim Moynihan, “WTF Just Happened.”
  21. Plato, The Dialogues of PlatoVol. 1, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1892), 485.
  22. Paul Virilio, “The Visual Crash,” in CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, eds. Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne, and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 108-13.
  23. Sigmund Freud, “On Fetishism,” in Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1974), 214-19.
  24. Freud, General Psychological Theory, 212.


Matthew Schilleman is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Clemson University. He is currently completing his first book, Typewriter Psyche: Office Media and the Techno-Inscriptive Origins of Modernism, which examines the psycho-social effects of mechanized inscription in the early twentieth-century office. He is also working on two new projects: one on the evolution of a digital unconscious and another on the relationship between insects and media in twentieth-century literature.