Secrets of the archive

October 18, 2014 § 1 Comment

Humanity is starting to recognize itself as only an age, as something that will die out. If not superseded, certainly suicided. In imagining an end, we’re also becoming preoccupied with the preservation of artifacts as the only other imaginable means of continuing. We think of the 1977 mixtape sent out with Voyager 1 meant to represent our species & similar projects that appear frequently in proposal if not always in outer space. The archive belongs beside art, science, & religion as a response to the fear of death. Today, existence has assumed a property against which it once defined itself: ethereality. Only on account of this can we explain the current interest in the archive. One work stands out in the academic field, if not for its scholarly contribution to archive sciences at least for its influence, Derrida’s Archive Fever of 1995. The plethora of publications from widespread disciplines almost without fail reference this strange, meandering essay. Here I will focus on contributions of the last decade as well as on Archive Fever itself.

The physical archival space has shaped the common imagination of Memory. Its linguistic & spatial roots represent “initially a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded” (Derrida 9). Why did they command? Because they had sole access to the archived treasure — protected alike from enemies & countryfolk — which ensured that they could be the sole interpreters of the information. We hit the familiar formation of knowledge as power. For Derrida, this is the beginning of the State, patriarchy, & Legal Systems sheltering to protect their authority.

A counterforce only appears during the French Revolution, where free distribution of information, access to libraries & records played an essential part; the Americas & many other regions followed suit. It is still a contested point & the degrees of information accessibility & restriction are in constant debate [particularly the policies of China & Russia, or as dramatized by the case of Edward Snowden]. The information age has decided on its most important question: what are the ethics of archival practice? Since the critical interest in “the moment” & the advent of cyberspaces that faultlessly fossilize [usually within an hour] any detritus, there have been serious attempts at keeping a comprehensive & trustworthy documentation. This would be the archive in its ideal form. However, neither the individual articles nor their sum as an archive can claim authority, authenticity, or completeness any more than do ruins. As well as being curated, the contents of an archive are incidental — collections of surviving samples or randomly fossilized objects. “[T]he archive as detritus turns around the presumptions of neutral detachment, objectivity, fidelity, consistency, & authenticity — instead claiming partiality, fluidity, randomness, & memory” (Reason 89). Although the starting point of analysis, an archive is still a medium, neither a primary source, nor history.

We must treat the misbalance seriously as it represents everything that remains once the ethereal disappears, “it is what has been made available, what has been thus presented to us, a kind of gift, which is to say also — for future constituencies, future publics — a kind of debt” (Osborne 11). The archive is a responsibility. The conditions of its creation should not inflict its interpretation. If one of the conditions of an archive is that no specific end tempers its compilation [which is where it is most distinct from research], it does not mean we should assume this end was achieved; the archivist must hang on to this ideal in order to retain professional integrity, whereas the researcher’s integrity relies on constantly putting in doubt an archive’s value as “pre-interpretation”.

All of this pertains to a spiritual problematic, namely What is the relationship between an object & its ideal form? Unlike in certain epistemological fields where the ideality of co-dependence will not be given up [such as in religious & mathematical discourse], there is general consensus that the archive is not in fact an all-powerful knowledge machine. That is to say, truth does not reside in the archive. What it comes to represent instead is something much more frightening: an external depository of memory & though-processes. “The archive does not aid memory, but replaces it” (Reason 85). What we had previously called cultural inheritances — the passing on of legends, habitual customs, ritual practices, even genetics — & had always belonged to the metaphysical imagination, at most recorded on the side of a vase or repeated word for word in oral culture, has now secured an external presence not limited by the fallibility of the mind. Indeed, the amount of information that could be stored suddenly seemed to be infinite. As such, there seems to be a new aesthetic of non-selection, where everything is archived [as is online activity, for instance]. This presumably makes the archive more credible for not sourcing only particular kinds of information, but it also obscures the information by its mass & opens potential for brain-games of the variety only paranoiacs & dystopic novelists dare imagine.

Assessments of intelligence have redirected from being able to recount information to knowing how to retrieve it from external memory [the cloud & the archive] for its “superior[ity] to actual memory in terms of its accessibility, its durability, its scope, & its promise of objectivity & stability” (Reason 86). But, of course, “the methods of transmitting information shape the nature of the knowledge that can be produced” (Manoff 12); we are stunted in depth-thinking as breadth thinking takes over. Perhaps it was too early in 1995 for Derrida to come to this realization about information, although he gets close in connecting the repetition of an archive — its reproducibility, reaccessibility, recollection — to Freud’s death drive, “introducing, a priori, forgetfulness & the archiviolithic into the heart of the monument. Into the ‘by heart’ itself. The archive always works, & a priori, against itself” (14).

I fear this whole essay is tainted by the very parameters of intelligence it would like to challenge: so much has been glossed over, many articles have been referenced, many more allusions made. & of course, there’s much I didn’t get to say [that, even forgetting the intricacy of DNA, the body is an archive unto itself with its scars, circumcisions, dross under fingernails, &c.; or that News Media too, appearing in the 17th century, are indebted to this same archive instinct or drive]. That’s the regret of modern intelligence. & the nature of blogging. Sometimes, a blog feels like a list [an archive] of all the things I might have known better if I only had the luxury of fewer materials.

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