Pad.ma — 10 Theses on the Archive

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From our friends at pad.ma
10 Theses on the Archive
April 2010, Beirut.
1. Don’t Wait for the Archive
To not wait for the archive is often a practical response to the absence of archives or organized collections in many parts of the world. It also suggests that to wait for the state archive, or to otherwise wait to be archived, may not be a healthy option.
This need not imply that every collection or assembly be named an archive, or that all of art’s mnemonic practices be, once again, cast into an archival mould. It suggests instead that the archive can be deployed: as a set of shared curiosities, a local politics, or epistemological adventure. Where the archival impulse could be recast, for example, as the possibility of creating alliances: between text and image, between major and minor institutions, between filmmakers, photographers, writers and computers, between online and offline practices, between the remnant and what lies in reserve, between time and the untimely. These are alliances against dissipation and loss, but also against the enclosure, privatization and thematisation of archives, which are issues of global, and immediate, concern.
The archive that results may not have common terms of measurement or value. It will include and reveal conflicts, and it will exacerbate the crises around property and authorship. It will remain radically incomplete, both in content and form. But it is nevertheless something that an interested observer will be able to traverse: riding on the linking ability of the sentence, the disruptive leaps of images, and the distributive capacity that is native to technology.
To not wait for the archive is to enter the river of time sideways, unannounced, just as the digital itself did, not so long ago.
2. Archives are not reducible to the particular Forms that they take
Archival initiatives are often a response to the monopolization of public memory by the state, and the political effects that flow from such mnemonic power. But attempts at creating an archive are not necessarily supplementing the memory machine of the state. The state archive is only one instance of the archive, they are not the definition of archives, but merely a form. As a particular form, state archives do not exhaust the concept of the archive. The task of creating an archive is neither to replicate nor to mimic state archives but to creatively produce a concept of the archive.
An archive actively creates new ways of thinking about how we access our individual and collective experiences. An archive does not just supplement what is missing in state archives, it also renders what is present unstable.
Nietzsche defined happiness as the capacity or power to live one’s life actively – affirming the particularity or specificity of one’s moment in time. In doing so he refused to subsume the conceptual possibility of what it means to be happy under a general form of happiness.
When we subsume the concept of archives to its known form we are exhausted by it and suffer from archive fevers and archive fatigue. Contemporary archival impulses attempt to realize the potential of the archive as virtuality, and it challenges us to think through the productive capacities of an archive beyond the blackmail of memory and amnesia.
The production of a concept is a provocation, a refusal to answer to the call of the known, and an opportunity to intensify our experiences. The archive is therefore not representational, it is creative, and the naming of something as an archive is not the end, but the beginning of a debate.
3. The Direction of Archiving will be Outward, not Inward
We tend to think of archiving as the inward movement of collecting things: finding bits and pieces, bringing them together, guarding them in a safe and stable place. The model of this type of archiving is the fortress, or the burning library. This model already provides a clear sense of the limits, or ends, of the archive: fire, flooding, data loss.
Can we think of the archive differently? When Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française, stated that “the best way to preserve film is to project it”, he hinted at the very opposite philosophy of archiving: to actually use and consume things, to keep them in, or bring them into, circulation, and to literally throw them forth (Latin: proicere), into a shared and distributed process that operates based on diffusion, not consolidation, through imagination, not memory, and towards creation, not conservation.
Most of today’s digital archives seem to still adhere to the model of the fortress, even though, by definition, they no longer preserve precious and unique originals, but provide cheap and reproducible copies. These copies can be “thrown forth” on a much larger scale, and with much greater efficiency, than Henri Langlois — or Walter Benjamin, theorist of analog reproduction, advocate of its technological potential and critic of its practical political use — would have ever imagined. To archive, and to be archived, can become massively popular.
The astonishingly resilient archiving practices around Napster or the Pirate Bay, and the even more virulent promise of actual or imaginary archives far beneath or beyond them — if, for one moment, we could step outside the age of copyright we all inhabit, and fully embrace the means of digital reproduction most of us have at our disposal — not just directly follow the trajectory traced by Benjamin and Langlois, but extend it to a point in the not-so-distant future where we will think of archiving primarily as the outward movement of distributing things: to create ad-hoc networks with mobile cores and dense peripheries, to trade our master copies for a myriad of offsite backups, and to practically abandon the technically obsolete dichotomy of providers and consumers.
The model of this type of archive, its philosophical concept, would be the virus, or the parasite. And again, this model also allows us to make a tentative assessment of the risks and dangers of outward archiving: failure to infect (attention deficit), slowdown of mutation (institutionalization), spread of antibiotics (rights management), death of the host (collapse of capitalism).
4. The Archive is not a Scene of Redemption
Important as the political impulse of archives is, it is important to acknowledge that archives cannot be tied to a politics of redemption.
A large part of what may be thought of as progressive impulses in historiography is informed by a desire to redeem history through a logic of emancipation. The resurrection of the subaltern subject of history, the pitting of oral against written history and the hope that an engagement with the residual of the archive will lead to a transformative politics.
Benjamin’s theses on the philosophy of history has served as an important intellectual reference point for such initiatives. Benjamin says that
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency,
Benjamin does not hide the redemptive messianic thrust in his thesis: According to him ‘Our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption’. Hope, in this formulation is primarily messianic, ‘For every second of time is the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.’ Elsewhere Derrida writes that “Aspectral messianicity is at work in the concept of the archive and ties it, like religion,like history, like science itself, to a very singular experience of the promise”.
Archival initiatives have unconsciously continued this theological impulse. Their desire to document that which is absent, missing or forgotten stages a domain of politics which often privileges the experience of violence and trauma in a manner in which the experience of violence is that which destroys the realm of the ordinary and the everyday.
Thus if you examine the way that histories of the oppressed are written about, it were as if life is always subsumed under the threat of death, and living is forever condemned to a shadowy existence under the idea of a ‘bare life’. The subsumption of life into a condition of bareness is as illusory as aesthetic practices which attempt to redeem experience from the clutches of time and history.
If the archival imagination is to rescue itself from this politics of redemption, it will have to allow for a radical contingency of the ordinary. It will have to engage with ‘forms of life’ which exceed the totalizing gaze of the state as well its redemptive other. Radical contingency recognizes the possibilities of surprise in the archive and in the possibility that a descent into the ordinary suspends the urgent claims of emergencies.
5. The Archive deals not only with the Remnant but also with the Reserve
Capitalistic production proceeds by isolating the extract from raw materials, producing the remnant, that which is left behind. And the archive, resisting obsolescence, is constituted through these remnants. This is one common view. But there is another place in the contemporary where the role and responsibility of the archive may lie. That is, in addressing the reserve, that which is not yet deployed. And that which, like residue, is cast in shadow.
In surveillance systems for example, we are forced to rethink the idea of “waste”. Those millions of hours a day of CCTV images, are not just the leftovers of the surveillance machine, they are its constitutive accumulation. They are the mass which waits for the event, and it is this mass that produces the threat.
Michel Serres describes this mass as having “abuse value”, something that precedes use-value or exchange value. Ofcourse, abuse-value and exchange-value can change hands. The line between residue and reserve can be unstable. Suddenly, the nuclear arsenal is rendered waste, and is sold as junk. Our accumulated ideas expire. But to look to the reserve has a strategic value for the archive. It is a way of addressing capital not only as the production of profit from labour and commodities, but as the accumulation that can be used for speculation, and to extract rent.
The archive in this sense is sympathetic to those practices which sabotage capitalistic accumulation, and those which have an interest in the future, and in the “unrealised”.
6. Historians have merely interpreted the Archive. The Point however is to Feel it.
Archives have traditionally been the dwelling places of historians, and the epistemic conceit of history has always been housed in the dust of the archives. But in the last decade we have also seen an explosion of interest in archives from software engineers, artists, philosophers, media practitioners, filmmakers and performers.
Historians have responded by resorting to a disciplinary defensiveness that relies on a language of ‘the authority of knowledge’ and ‘rigor’ while artists retreat to a zone of blissful aesthetic transcendence. There is something incredibly comfortable about this zone where history continues to produce ‘social facts’ and art produces ‘affect’. Claims of incommensurability provide a ‘euphoric security’ and to think of the affective potential of the archive is to disturb the ‘euphoric security’ which denies conditions of knowing and possibilities of acting beyond that which is already known.
Rather than collapsing into a reinforcement of disciplinary fortresses that preclude outsiders and jealously guard the authenticity of knowledge and experience by historians, or resorting to a language of hostile takings by activists and artists, how do we think of the encroachments into the archives as an expansion of our sensibilities and the sensibilities of the archive. Archives are not threats, they are invitations.
Lakhmi Chand, a writer based in the media lab of the Cybermohalla in New Delhi asks “Kya kshamta ke distribution ko disturb karta hai Media?” Does media disturb the distribution of ‘capacity’ or ‘potential’.
The invitation to think of the ability to disturb the kshamta of the archive seems to be marked by a different relation to time. The idea of Capacity marks a time: This time is neither in the past nor in the future though they may be related, it is a marker of the present- or exactly where you are.
Anna Akhmatova writes in the Requiem
In the dreadful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad. One day someone ‘identified’ me. Then a woman standing behind me, blue with cold, who of course had never heard my name, woke from that trance characteristic of us all and asked in my ear (there, everyone spoke in whispers):
– Ah, can you describe this?
And I said:
– I can.
Then something like a tormented smile passed over what had once been her face.
1st April 1957
The question ‘Can you describe this’ was not a question about the possession of a skill, or even the possibility of language to speak of certain things under certain conditions . It is about a moment or a context that arises in which anyone can be faced with the question of Can you. And they must either answer “I can” or “I Cant”
How do we think through the ways that archives challenge us to think about the experience of potentiality. To dwell in the affective potential of the archive is to think of how archives can animate intensities
Brian Massumi argues affect is critically related to intensity. We are always aware of the our potential to affect or to be affected, but this potential also seems just out of our reach. Perhaps because it isn’t there actually- only virtually. Massumi suggest that
Maybe if we can take little, practical, experimental, strategic measures to expand our emotional register, or limber up our thinking, we can access more of our potential at each step, have more of it actually available. Having more potentials available intensifies our life. We’re not enslaved by our situations. Our degree of freedom at any one time corresponds to how much of our experiential ‘depth’ we can access towards a next step – how intensely we are living and moving.
How do we imagine archival practices as the little practical, experimental and strategic measures that we pursue to expand our sensibilities. The affective potential of archives is a therefore both a political as well as an aesthetic question in its ability to activate ones capacity to act, and it is on the very faculty of imagination and possibility that this conflict is located.
7. The Image is not just the Visible, the Text is not just the Sayable
Serge Daney makes a famous distinction between the image and the visual. The image is what still holds out against an experience of vision and the visual. The visual is just the optical verification of what we may know already, or which may be read, or deciphered through reflexes of reading. The image, on the other hand, is alterity.
Ranciere, in the Future of the Image, will develop this by saying that images are not restricted to the visible. He will reject the subordination of the image to the text, of material to history, and of affect to meaning. He suggests that the commonest regime of images is one that presents a relationship between the sayable and the visible, (between image and text, between presence and inscription) a relationship that plays on both the analogy AND dissemblance between them. But, ofcourse, “this relationship by no means requires the two terms to be materially present. The visible can be arranged in meaningful tropes, words deploy a visibility that can be blinding.”
Ranciere thus invents the Sentence-Image. The sentence-image is a form that could appear in a novel, equally as it could appear in a cinematic montage. In it, the sentence-function provides continuity against chaos, while the image-function disrupts consensus.
The sentence-image provides a way to think across the modernist incommensurability of painting, literary works, and films, i.e. their autonomy. It allows us to acknowledge their appropriations, invasions and seductions of each other. The archive assembles another site where we can conceive, differently or similarly, of the connections and the distance between the functions of writing and of images. It suggests the possibility of art, if art is the alteration of resemblances between the two. With the introduction of software, we have yet another possibility for the disjunct: a third heterogeneity, another possible element of surprise. And perhaps to extend our thesis then: the software is not just the searchable, or the database.
8. The Past of the Exhibition Threatens the Future of the Archive
What is the relation between memory and its display? Between the archive, “the system that governs the appearances of statements” and a culture of appearances? In a 2002 essay for the journal October, Hal Foster develops three useful stages of the museum as the site of memory, in modern art.
In the first stage, in the mid-1800’s, Baudelaire writes that “Art is the mnemotechny of the beautiful”. Which with Manet for example, has become the art of outright citation. Here art is the art of memory, and the museum is its architecture.
The second moment occurs with Adorno’s essay, the Valery Proust Museum, which marks a point of suspicion of the museum, as the “mausoleum” of art. The museum is where art goes to die. But, it is also the site for a redemptive project of“reanimation”.
The third moment occurs when this reanimation is possible through other means, i.e. through Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction. The key difference here is between Benjamin’s reproduction, which threatens the museum, and Malraux’s, which expands it infinitely. For Malraux, it is precisely the destruction of the aura which becomes a basis for the imagination of the museum without end.
But there are various “problems of translation”, between Malraux’s Musee Imaginaire, its english name the Museum without Walls, and the concept of a Museum without End. Which on the one hand, have fed many a modernist architect’s fantasy of endless circulation, and views through the glass, while on the other, continue to offer the promise that art’s institutional structures can have a relationship with the world. Foster’s account of modern western art’s archive ends with a split in art itself, between its display function that appears in spectacular form in the exhibition, and its memory function, which retreats into the archive.
The challenge for the archive, which today threatens the exhibition with its own sensual ability to relink and rearticulate these two functions, is how not to to end up as a spiral ramp, or as flea market. In other words, how to avoid the tyranny of the two historical “freedoms”: one, the (modernist) formal strategies of audience participation in the spectacle, and two, the (postmodernist) eclecticism in which anything, included and curated, could be accorded “exhibition-value”. Or we could put it this way: how does the archive avoid the confusion, that persists in the exhibition (as Irit Rogoff notes about the Tate), between accessibility as entertainment and marketing strategy, and access as something deeper, as something that is “closer to the question”.
9. Archives are governed by the Laws of Intellectual Propriety as opposed to Property
As the monetary value of the global information economy gains more importance, the abstract value of images get articulated within the language of property and rights. The language of intellectual property normativizes our relationship to knowledge and culture by naturalizing and universalizing narrow ideas of authorship, ownership and property. This language has extended from the world of software databases to traditional archives where copyright serves as Kafka’s gatekeeper and the use of the archive becomes a question of rights management.
Beyond the status of the archive as property lies the properties of the archive which can destabilize and complicate received notions of rights.
They establish their own code of conduct, frame their own rules of access, and develop an ethics of the archive which are beyond the scope of legal imagination. If the archive is a scene of invention then what norms do they develop for themselves which do not take for granted a pre determined language of rights. How do practices of archiving destabilize ideas of property while at the same time remaining stubbornly insistent on questions of ‘propriety’.
Intellectual propriety does not establish any universal rule of how archives collect and make available their artifacts. It recognizes that the archivist play a dual role: They act as the trustees of the memories of other people, and as the transmitters of public knowledge. This schizophrenic impulse prevents any easy settling into a single norm.
Propriety does not name a set of legislated principles of proper etiquette, instead it builds on the care and responsibility that archivists display in their preservation of cultural and historical objects. The digital archive translates this ethic of care into an understanding of the ecology of knowledge, and the modes through which such an ecology is sustained through a logic of distribution, rather than mere accumulation.
It remembers the history of archivists being described as pirates, and scans its own records, files and database to produce an account of itself. In declaring its autonomy, archives seek to produce norms beyond normativity, and ethical claims beyond the law.
10. Time is not Outside of the Archive: It is in it
In his history of the book and print cultures, historian Adrian Johns argues against what has traditionally been seen as the ‘typographical fixity’ which was established by the print revolution. Earlier scholars had argued that scribal cultures were marked by all kinds of mistakes of the hand, and the book was therefore not a stable object of knowledge until the emergence of print technology.
Adrian Johns demonstrates the fallacy of this assumption by looking at the various conflicts that erupted with print technology, and far from ensuring fixity or authority, the early history of Printing was marked by uncertainty. For Johns, the the authority of knowledge is not an inherent quality, but a transitive one. It is a question that cannot be divorced technologies that alter our senses, our perception and our experience of knowledge.
Rather than speaking about Authority as something that is intrinsic to either a particular mode of production of Knowledge or to any technological form, John’s work demonstrates how it would be more useful to consider the range of knowledge apparatuses which come into play to establish authority.
The preconditions of knowledge cannot easily be made the object of knowledge. It is a matter of making evident or making known the structures of knowledge itself, which emerge in ways that provide definitive proof of the imperfectability of knowledge.
Archives are also apparatuses which engage our experience and perception of time. This is particularly true for archives of images, since photography and cinema are also apparatuses that alter our sense of time. The traditional understanding of an archive as a space that collects lost time sees the experience of time as somehow being external to the archive itself. It loses sight of the fact that the archive is also where objects acquire their historical value as a result of being placed within an apparatus of time. The imagination of a video archive then plays with multiple senses of the unfolding of time.
In her reflections on the relationship between photography, cinema and the archive, Mary Anne Doane states that photography and film have a fundamental archival instinct embedded in them. And yet this archival nature is also ridden with paradox, because of the relationship of the moving image to the contingent. The presence of the contingent, the ephemeral, and the unintended are all aspects of cinematic time, and the challenge of the moving image as archive is the recovery of lost time, but within the cinematic.
The recovery of the lost time of cinema and the contingent can be captured through an experience of cinephilia, for what cinephilia names is the moment when the contingent takes on meaning- perhaps a private and idiosyncratic meaning, but one in which the love for the image expresses itself through a grappling with the ephemeral.
The archive is therefore an apparatus of time, but its relation to time is not guaranteed or inherent, it is transitive and has to be grafted. The archive of the moving image grasps this problem in an erotic and sensuous fashion, grafting the experience of time as an act of love.
Negri speaks in Insurgencies about the love of time: These two registers, of love- of time, and of cinema allows us to think about the cinematic and archival apparatus of time, and the way they shape our relation to our time and the time of the image.