A MELANCHOLY EPIC, IN MEDIA RES
1> Much has been written about archives. Scholarship from the discipline of archival science often describes the methodology of arrangement and classification of materials, the management of collections through conservation and preservation, notions of what constitutes access to collections, which items should or can be collected, and how archival materials may be used in the classroom or in other forms of institutional outreach, amongst other administrative concerns. For extended discussions of these topics, read the Society of American Archivists' many book and article publications.1 John Ridener’s book From Polders to Postmodernism: A Concise History of Archival Theory2 offers additional thoughts on the relationship of the methodologies of archival science to those of historiography and cultural theory.
2> Many cultural theorists have taken ‘the archive’ as the subject of critique. Where postmodernist thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze pyschoanalyze the archive and break it apart;3 Michel Foucault’s new historicist critique of the archive situates it as an administrative power within a hierarchical, institutional structure.4
3> Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard both discuss the changes to cultural production through the rise of technological methods like photography and new media forms.5 Though Benjamin is writing in the first half of the twentieth century and Baudrillard the latter half, both express concerns about the unreliability of these forms and their effects on social and cultural experience.
4> Known largely as a novelist, Georges Perec worked as a science librarian and archivist, where he evaluated the organization and ease of searching large quantities of scientific information. As a creator of a several personal classification systems for his own books and materials, Perec’s essays often ruminate on the principles of organization and point to the difficulty and pleasure of attempting to define a world that is necessarily and forever mutable.6
5> These twentieth-century thinkers have continued to influence writing on archives. Some scholars discuss their subjective experience of archival visits and research, like: Arlette Farge’s The Allure of the Archives and Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, while Jarrett M. Drake, both a scholar and university archivist, discusses the systematic, institutional problems of archives, namely, surveillance, erasure, and power.7 Additionally, there is growing effort to create and support anti-institutional, community archives, like Rebuild Foundation in Chicago8 or the LGBTQ National History Archives in New York City.9
6> Others scholars discuss the relationship of archival materials to methods of historiography and cultural production outside of strict adherence to archival science. In Simone Osthoff’s Performing the Archive,10 Shawn Michelle Smith’s American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture,11 the collected essays published by MIT in Fantasies of the Library12 and many of Ernst Van Alphen’s works, importantly, Staging the Archive: Art and Photography in the Age of New Media,13 analyze how highly-curated and exhibited, archival materials can shape and perform memory and history in complicated, nuanced, and often unreliable ways.
7> Artists and writers also contemplate ‘the archive’ and generalized methods of archiving in their creative works. A few examples of the many artists working with these concepts include: Dieter Roth’s Flat Waste,14 Mark Dion’s Universal Collection,15 and Ben Denzer’s Catalog Press;16 whereas a few examples of the many writers working with the archive as an inherent or ancillary concept include: Anne Waldman’s Gossamurmur,17 Susan Howe’s Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives,18 and W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.19
8> As archival institutions and libraries have tried to keep up with the pace of digital technologies and web-connected interfaces in order to provide the public with access to downloadable, digital reproductions of items in their collections, the landscape of scholarship and critique that regard these institutions and their materials, has expanded to meet these changes.
9> Wolfgang Ernst’s Stirrings in the Archives approaches the archive with a “cold gaze” meant to separate humanistic concerns from that of the technological processes of material.20 Works like Lisa Gitelman’s Paper Knowledge,21 and the edited collection published by the MLA: Teaching Early Modern English Literature from the Archives,22 specifically address the changes that early paper-based materials undergo when they are reproduced digitally and are shared virtually: some form of tactile understanding is lost, while the archivist’s ability to collect, preserve, and document these materials is severely undermined. Other scholars address these changes more specifically by focusing on the impacts on reading, writing, and thinking, like Naomi S. Baron’s Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World,23 Sonja Neef’s Imprint and Trace: Handwriting in the Age of Technology24 and Johanna Drucker’s Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production.25 Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper,26 falls within these areas of scholarship, while providing important insights about the practice of reproduction and its inherent relationship to mediation and obsolescence.
10> Many other works from the disciplines of book history, information studies, archaeology, and so on, can find connection to issues addressed here, but are too numerous to accurately or responsibly name. The questions and concerns raised in these areas about the archive has made it a truly interdisciplinary subject.
11> Yet, alongside these generative (and sometimes destructive) critiques, many archives and libraries are facing large budget cuts, reductions in staffing, and partial or complete closures.27
12> The seeming incoherence between vigorous interest in ‘the archive’ as a concept and the material realities of these cultural institutions, points to changes in how we conceptualize what an archive is and what it is meant to do. Rather than evolving, culturally, the archive has been splintered into ‘old’ (documents, photographs, artifacts) and ‘new’ (.pdfs, .wavs, and .jpegs)28—each archive somehow unable to completely cohere with the other.
13> All the while, businesses, advertisers, and computer scientists continue to adopt terminology directly related to archives and libraries to describe their organizational culture, the products they sell, and the software they design.29 These changing definitions of archive hint at the commoditization, fetishization, and linguistic compression of ‘the archive’.
14> Environmental changes—both climatic and political—promote the degradation and destruction of materials; cultural shifts have made both hand reading and hand writing almost unnecessary, while the advised migration of material objects to technologies that are cyclically old and new and old, again, are lost across very short periods of time. The little that remains is highly mediated and often owned by private companies.
15> Together, these merging trends, here conceptualized as losses, create a simplified version of ‘the archive’ quickly transforming it into a metaphor: the word ‘archive’ lives on in language as a referent to itself, while actual archival spaces regularly lack the resources they need to exist, expand, and preserve materials, which limits both their physical holdings and the needs of their users.
16> The transition to metaphor directly impacts the ways in which we, as a human community, are able to continue various and diverse scholarly pursuits, to respond to, and to challenge our historical narratives about material culture, environment, and society.
17> This essay uses non-traditional literary evidence—like rumor, oral history, personal meditations, news stories, and poetry—alongside the interpretation of scholarly works by literary theorist Robert Harrison and textual critic G. Thomas Tanselle, and others, in order to offer expanded notions of the environment and of culture. References to the epic form are intentional and attempt to respond to the long, ever-changing lineage of ἀρχεῖον / archives.
18> In their correspondence, this evidence is meant to help us to expand our view of the function of archives and to understand how the loss of these spaces and material directly impact human memory, knowledge, and culture.
19> Whether loss is achieved by cold gazes, political reforms, environmental disasters, the normal pace of time, robbery, advertisements, language, passivity, changes to reading and writing, the desire for immediacy and youth, the inability to be collective, inability to be human, they signal larger closures to collective experience and human culture.
20> Though challenging, we are meant to be dropped in the middle of things; to be at our lowest point and to encounter new methods to assuage the bleakness and losses of our times.
Ode to the Muse
Goddess of Poetry and History, O’ Golden Kleio,
O’ Flowering Kleio,
Giver of Sweetness,
Queen of Song,
“Begin thou, unforgetting Clio, for all the ages are in thy keeping, and all the storied annals of the past.”30
In Media Res: Does an Archive Need to be Accessible to be Real?
21> Take for consideration, the eighteenth-century Jesuit and bard, Johann Nepomuk Cosmas Michael Denis. Shortly after settling into the position of Assistant Librarian at the once New Favorita Castle in Austria, Denis found himself in the middle of a religious war, one where The Society of Jesus was ultimately suppressed. Despite the closure of the Theresianum and Garellian Library due to this suppression, Denis maintained the collections for an eleven-year period, from 1773-1784. During this tenure, Denis was quite prolific, producing library catalogs, works on new bibliographic methods, and many bardic songs.31
22> One wonders what may have compelled Denis, despite the very real persecution of his religious beliefs. Did Denis walk through empty hallways, observing unmoved cultural objects? Watch spiders build homes in the corners of bookcases and across the top of vellum and rag? Are those scholarly activities he engaged in a mere passive occurrence? Did Denis slowly come to embody the library because of the impossibility of its use by others?
23> It may be true that the Bibliotheca Garellia did not receive any physical damage as the result of closure and suppression, however, this library did incur temporary erasure. The whole of that human material; the intellectual life and diversity of thought contained within; the grip of historical and material continuity, were all lost, leaving in their wake an unused and an unactivated, metaphorical space.
24> Denis became the sole arbiter of these collections and in doing so became responsible for maintaining ties to human cultural production through his own memory and through his labor. Denis’ continued scholarship stands as an example of what to do in times of suppression when public access to material, memory, and culture becomes lost.
Closures: Loss, Collective Memory, and the Archive
25> Though we may be able to see clearly what constitutes loss in a situation of extreme suppression like that of Denis and the Bibliotheca Garellia, one wonders about the nature of loss as implicit losses effect collections like those in libraries or archives: what is really lost and when does loss take place?
26> Nicole Loraux discusses the nature of forgetting as a form of loss in her book about Ancient Athens.32 When examining the voting assembly she references the archive: “It is pointless to entertain the illusion that we have immediate access to the reality of this open debate or to the modalities of conflict. [...] Without archives, without any plausible representation of a vote, whether textual or visual, [the historian] must rely on discourse. Discourse is the historiographical narrative that makes a permanent selection from reality.”33 In discussing the limitations on historical research due to the lack of artifactual documents, Loraux points to the larger implications of loss and how it is imparted on knowledge production and memory.
27> Discourse on its own limits our field of knowledge. Archival documents support the labor of scholarship: mutable, multiple, varied, interpretations of the past, written and published for interpretation by other scholars and the rest of the human community. Discourse as a historiographical narrative is an act of erasure.
28> Svetlana Boym, in taking an archaeological view of memory, reiterates the instability of cultural materials, reminding us that: “There is no ideal ensemble of the past buried underneath the contemporary city, only infinite fragments.”34 Boym’s view further supports the notion that the relationship between cultural material and memory is interconnected and complex, suggesting that there is no perfect form and no single, dominant narrative of the past.
29> Boym’s notion of memory is also a social and collective one: “The notion of shared social frameworks of memory is rooted in an understanding of human consciousness, which is dialogical with other human beings and with cultural discourses.”35 Boym goes on to describe the interrelated space in which these elements are conducted or occur, “Psychic space should not be imagined as solitary confinement. [...] Cultural experience [...] begins with creative living first manifested in play.”36 To include archival materials as products of both memory and culture, and scholarship as a product of play between human inquiry and material culture, we see the importance of the variability of human thought and perception on lived experience and the stories we tell across generations. The loss of both archival material and the spaces where scholarship is conducted would constitute the loss of this ‘psychic space’ — that which holds together human consciousness, perception, and material culture; that which produces the expressions of social and collective experiences through memory and narrative.
30> Hammad Nasar, in Fantasies of the Library, reminds us that archival losses effect the future as much as they effect the past: “[...] the archive must be made. Where are your roots? Where are you anchored? Where can you extend? If you have no connection to history, there is no way you can extend to the future.”37 Nasar emphasizes that human involvement in the creation of the archive is necessary.
31> While Loraux discusses what happens when there is nothing to memorialize, Boym discusses how memory functions in a collective, dialogic setting, and Nasar relates human productive forces as a necessary element in the longevity of archives. These theorists show that loss is created through the heading off of possibility, through erasures created by our own actions, and through the closures of spaces that were once open to inquiry.
32> In the case of the Johann Nepomuk Cosmas Michael Denis, the suppression was successful: the library did not exist nor did it extend into the future; the psychic space of potentiality was severed and it became a metaphor. Though Denis did produce scholarship during this closure, it did not reside in the realm of collective experience. Only when the Bibliotheca Garellia reopened years later did this work enter the dialogic, public realm.
Loss is closure; closure is loss.
A Quick Musing on Metaphor
33> Jean Baudrillard points to the end of culture: “When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is [...] a resurrection of the figurative where the object and substance have disappeared. And there is a panic-stricken production of the real and the referential, above and parallel to the panic of material production [...].”38 This summation helps to contextualize and define metaphor for our purposes—adding to Baudrillard’s words: when the archive is no longer what it used to be; when its object and substance no longer appear, what remains is a figurative, nostalgic reference to the real.
34> When archive becomes a metaphor, it exists in name only. The closures listed throughout this essay are attempts to point to both direct and implicit metaphorization of the archive, to point to the interdisciplinarity and immediacy of the loss of culture through these forms. And to questions about the processes of metaphorization as it relates to the archive and whether a metaphor may go far beyond its linguistic intentions by negating meaning and, however, implicitly, destroying culture.
Closure 1: The Cold Gaze
35> Wolfgang Ernst strongly opposes the humanistic elements of the archive when he summarizes: “Archival space is based on hardware, not a metaphorical body of memories. Its operating system is administrative; upon its stored data narratives (history, ideology and other kinds of discursive software) are being applied only from outside [...]. But having become a universal metaphor for all kinds of storage and memory in the meantime, the ‘archive’ is defaced [...].”39 Though Ernst problematizes the use of the term archive as a metaphor as it relates to memory, Ernst also utilizes it to employ a rhetorical, ahistorical position of disparate, hierarchical spaces of ‘the inside’ and ‘the outside’ and of the human interpretation of objects in opposition to the mathematical stuff of the ‘the machine’. To add a Deluzian refrain to Ernst’s diagrammatic techno utopia: which machine does the machine plug into? A biological one; a human one. Memory and narrative cannot be wholly external to data or material, because interaction with and perception of objects is what constitutes them in human experience.
36> To Ernst, the archive is essentially a storage facility for data, conceptualized largely as a mechanical device, like a computer hard drive or a cloud storage server, cut off from the exegesis human narrative. Why would the ‘mechanics of storage media’ matter without human input, ergonomics, human interest and human memory? What is the purpose of storage without memory and memory without humans? A storage facility does not take scholarship or preservation as its goal.
37> Ernst’s writing on archives attempts to provide new methodologies for working with technological processes, yet, they instead showcase postmodernist viewpoints, those that seek the erasure of the human elements of material production, perception and critical inquiry. To Ernst, there is no archive, there is only a metaphor of storage.
When I read Wolfgang Ernst, I was reminded of a talk I went to.
38> Bethany Nowviskie40 asked the audience: with mass extinction looming, how can archivists, librarians, and scholars help create a better future for artificial intelligence and robots, so they may read the material of human civilization?41 This question, like Hammad Nasar, is future- oriented, and considers how contemporary, human choices prepare the future archive to respond to questions of memory and history. Still, Nowviskie, like Ernst, attempts to erase the humanistic elements from the cultural material that humans produce and engage with.
39> Nowviskie showcased several artificial intelligence projects that dealt with capturing data about humans and then choosing machines and software to run the data through. For example, one application analyzed human facial structures from an array of photographs and then predicted a set of possible human faces. The assumption that this project and those like it may be valuable to robots leaves us with many questions, like: How and why would these technologies survive mass extinction? What would artificial intelligence care of our human experience? Why are these preparatory responsibilities the duty of archivists to fulfill?
40> Nowviskie’s nostalgic desire to ‘reconstitute the world’ acts as a misnomer when calling for the erasure of humanity in a very literal sense. Nowviskie still uses the term archive metaphorically as a stand in for ‘history’ and to inscribe importance to artificial intelligence projects. The conglomeration of faces of potential humans may have meaning for us, because we perceive them as human faces, but they lack that meaning when removed from human memory.
41> Nowviskie’s attempt to connect the human world to that of artificial intelligence through the use of the metaphor of archive relies on a disparate, hierarchical relationship that necessitates the closure of archives and the erasure of humanity for its use. Perhaps the future artificial intelligence that Nowviskie imagines are humans without memory, without roots.
42> Both Ernst and Nowviskie put forth ideas about the archive that are limited to a few functions of contemporary archival work—like storage or data analysis. By counterposing humanity with technology, these ideas rupture instead of cohere. They wear away culture by suggesting that the connections between human consciousness, material production and artifacts, are not necessary for memory, inquiry and history; not necessary for humanity or civilization.
So, what is an archive?
43> G. Thomas Tanselle provides us with a simple, but expansive illustration of the archive: “the inanimate world around us consists of two great archives: one is made up of artifacts, the surviving products of human (and other animals’) actions; the other is composed of what are usually called natural objects, the remaining evidence of geophysical forces.”42 Tanselle’s definition provides an important theoretical step beyond postmodernist thinking. Instead of breaking down, separating, and alienating aspects of the archive, all aspects become mutually inclusive. This definition expands the notion and possibilities of that which archives and archival materials can contribute to scholarship beyond institutional and hierarchical systems and structures.
44> The coherence of materials, whether analog, digital, or projects of artificial intelligence, are the products of human actions. By recognizing this relationship, we become inheritors of our own actions and instead of the erasure and disappearance of archives through metaphor we can make the archive reappear.
and a mere inscripted postcard is Archive
when we return to our speech
and start our own country
take this as directive:
memory of an animal is also yours”43
Closure 2: Ecological Catastrophes
Should archivists be worried about mass extinction? About climate change?
45> Tanselle goes on to describe other kinds of destruction that could befall archival material and spaces: “Chance causes some things to be annihilated by fires, floods, and other catastrophes; and people intentionally destroy evidence for many reasons, such as the belief that certain items are too unimportant to justify the space they occupy, or the desire to control the conclusions that will be drawn by persons who later examine a particular archive. And of course, archives suffer not only depletion but also inflation, when documents are created after the fact either in a misguided attempt to be helpful or in an effort to rewrite history.”44 Whether through natural environmental damages or human acts and accidents, archival collections risk losses on multiple fronts. While we understand from Boym that there is no perfect rendering of material and memory, still, many of these ecological disasters are the outcomes of intentional decisions made by humans.
46> Robert Harrison adds that there is more to be lost from these kinds of ecological catastrophes than we typically assume: “just as forests were once everywhere in the geographical sense, so too where they everywhere in the fossil record of cultural memory.”45 The context in which humans produce culture is necessarily attached to the environment, and therefore the archive. When the forests that we make photographs of, or write letters about, disappear, so do our collective, cultural memories of these references.
Closure 2a: Ecological Catastrophes - Intention and Political Reforms
47> In 2016, Brewster Khale, founder of the Internet Archive, the large digital library, noted the company’s new endeavor.46 Khale intended to safeguard the Internet Archive against loss by sending copies of their servers to Canada for safe-keeping. This project came about due to perceived potential risks caused by the surfacing of certain contemporary political agendas. After already negotiating loss due to a building fire a few years prior, Khale references environmental disasters and political agendas interchangeably: “The history of libraries is one of loss. The Library of Alexandria is best known for its disappearance. Libraries like ours are susceptible to different fault lines: Earthquakes, Legal Regimes, Institutional Failure.”47 This sentiment echos Tanselle’s comments about human attempts to control narrative through acts of addition and subtraction in archives.
48> In a similar vein, the government-funded Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) in Hungary made a decision to relocate the Lukács Archívum, the archive and personal library of the well- known Marxist Georg Lukács. The archive is housed in the last apartment in which Lukács lived and functions as a museum and research institute. The MTA said that, “relocating the manuscripts would allow them to digitize the collection, thus allowing more scholars to access the material.”48 This line of reasoning is very commonly used in archives when legitimizing the need for digitization projects. Despite the promise of access, scholars in the region note that49 linking these administrative decisions to a political and institutional agenda has been problematic. After much international uproar, petitions were signed and the MTA rescinded its decision to move the archive. However, it steadily decreased staff hours and “in 2016 the [MTA] declared the intention to dissolve the archive.”50 The archive remains closed today.
49> Both the Internet Archive and the Lukács Archívum have been subject to political agendas of the period. The Internet Archive was able to safeguard its materials before any risk of closure, while the Lukács Archívum, like the Bibliotheca Garellia, is suffering a closure due to suppression.
has since been destroyed by fire, was unable
to give me any information concerning the
Norfolk & Norwich Hospital
Browne’s skull. It was not
until I made contact with
Anthony Batty Shaw, through Janine,
that I obtained the information I was after.”51
Closure 2b: Ecological Catastrophes - The Robber Unequivocally
50> In 2018, Gregory Priore, then-archivist of the Oliver Room at the Carnegie Library in Philadelphia turned himself into the police. He claimed to have deaccessioned over 300 rare and valuable books from the collection in order to turn a profit by selling them to a bookseller; that bookseller, in turn, selling them to the book trade or other clients. In an interview, book historian Travis McDade notes, “what makes this crime so upsetting to members of the community. ‘When you steal from libraries, you take things that belong to the people [...] You’re betraying students of rare books, students of history, students of culture. You’re robbing the culture.’”52 When items are removed from public collections not only are they lost to us, they become commoditized objects, outside of the purview of most readers. The library is meant to a democratic space, for the unhindered study of cultural objects.
I am reminded of a panel discussion about archives that I attended recently.
51> During a discussion with several well-known authors and writers, a prominent professor discussed her current research project. She described her visit to an archive to view a manuscript that one of her ancestors had written. She was unable to view the manuscript on her first visit, though did not say what caused the trouble, and on her second visit was able to view the material.
52> Still frustrated by the initial trouble of the first visit, she felt that stealing the manuscript, perhaps honorably, like a well-known book thief, would make it perpetually accessible to her. She justified this argument because, one the one hand, the manuscript was created by her ancestor and, on the other hand, the display case of stolen and recovered books exhibited in the reading room reminded her that stealing materials would act as a kind of anti-authoritarianism—an attempt to criticize the institution.
53> Yet, in this reasoning she failed to advocate for the public or culture. Her solution to her frustration does not critique the institution, it perpetuates the private control of cultural material and makes her the authority which owns it. Like the books that Priore had stolen, the manuscript would only exist in a private collection, removed from communities of readers and scholars and therefore our collective body of knowledge.
54> Tanselle reminds us that the variety of losses due to human action or inaction, whether unintentional or intentional can vastly change the ways in which we know about ourselves and what material remains to aid us in our queries. The impacts of these changes are as great as those impacts due to the inherent, natural degradation of environmental topology and large environmental disasters. Closure of archives due to fire, political and religious agendas, and administrative and authoritative control of items still render the archive inaccessible and the documents of our material and cultural history lost.
55> But what if humans alter geophysical and material landscapes so thoroughly that we can no longer access those ‘products of human action’, or, rather, the artifacts that have helped all scholars in their attempts to tell the many stories of human and natural history?
Closure 2c: Digital Material or Digital Acts: Digital reproductions, Digital preservation, Digital humanities and Digital curation
56> The push for the creation of digitization projects is a popular trend in archival science and has followed suit with the digitization of reading and writing over the course of many years. The methodology behind the push in archives comes from the idea that digital reproductions will provide greater access to a larger number of people. There is more to consider than the perceived value of ‘putting things online’. Digitization does not actually preserve items; digital items are not a better source of material for cultural production; there is a difference between reading on paper and reading on screens, and digitized items should not replace original sources.
57> Nicholson Baker discusses the loss of material culture via the emphasis on discarding physical objects from libraries and archives. Baker notes that the reason that administrators of these institutions have chosen to destroy these important, historically-relevant, physical materials are either due to the unwavering, ‘progressive’ pursuit of technological invention and reproduction or to respond to a demand for more space, where newly emptied shelves are filled later by other collections. To Baker these decisions are dubious and incoherent to the overall goals of preservation inherent to all libraries and archives.53 Despite the exactitude at which Baker provides insight on the pervasive destruction of items due to reproduction, the decisions to digitize and discard important materials are still being made, and excruciatingly, with dubious excuses. Baker reiterates that materials have been lost and archives have closed despite this pursuit of the new.
58> As recently as 2018, thousands of items from the library of public broadcaster, Radio Canada will be digitized and destroyed or handed over to the Toronto Public Library. “An executive with the project said, there will be no room in the new building for storage of the [Radio Canada] library.”54 Though the executive noted that all CDs, vinyl, and music scores would be digitized for future use, they also noted that CDs would be recycled because researching the possible copyright restrictions on sharing them would be too costly.
59> Discarding the non-digital artifacts, irrevocably changes what we can hear by compressing wavelengths to mp3s. Professional archival standards for creating digital preservation copies may at the outset seem like a strong response to this potential risk, yet the notion of re-digitizing, digital material (vinyl to CDs to digital files) expounds the problem.
60> Not only do the methods of digital preservation rely on the use of limited mineral resources, they also protect and support the continued creation of technologies that are manufactured as a part of a larger consumer structure of disposability and planned obsolescence. Our relationship to this material is highly mediated by owners of software and creators of hardware. Having to negotiate these relationships while using archival materials is at odds with those democratic ideals that libraries and archives are known for, and make the space of scholarship a commercial one. The regular use of plastics and minerals in these products make them seem disposable, when the materials used in reality are very limited and rely on oppressive and violent labor practices to gather.
61> Digital preservation essentially destroys archives from the inside out. These digital acts compound and simplify our cultural memory into discourse. The potential losses of those physical materials that make up the archive, do not only constitute a destruction of the materials themselves, but a destruction that continues to degrade our relationship to our world, making language and cultural meaning of the past illegible and the future impossible.
Why do we rely on unstable forms when we know they are unstable?
62> These materials also influence the way we read, write, and experience culture. Evelyn Tribble provides important insights about the differences between books and their digital reproductions: “Computers tempt us to see the simulacrum as the thing itself, as perhaps better than the thing itself. New reading technologies such as the Kindle and the iPad are naturalizing screen-based reading, creating the widespread impression that books are in some essential way unchanged in the journey from print to pixel. But when we read online, we receive surface images only, and these are tailored to our screen. [...] Most crucially, an image does not reveal the social embodiment of knowledge. [...] The book on the desk is a whole; the book on the screen is a part, available one image at a time.”55 Tribble notes that the act of reproduction changes the material of the book. Not only is it simplified into surface images, but the book as image only maintains a nostalgic relationship to figurative language; here the book becomes a metaphor.
63> To Baudrillard, this would signify the end of the cultural life of the book. The technology we use to interact with and produce culture makes the material and our ability to experience it entirely superficial. The notion that observation is an inherent part of the experience of the performance of the digital page comes from the frequency to which we use screens to mediate our lives and the shared cultural insistence on digital reproductions to communicate information.
Closure 3 - Literacy & Material & Culture
64> Robert Harrison considers mid-20th and 21st century American culture, while attempting to uncover the phenomenological disposition of our current human age: “the age as a whole [...] deprives the young of what youth needs most if it hopes to flourish. [...] It deprives them of the ability to form images with their eyes closed, hence to think beyond the sorcery of the [...] screen. It deprives them of an expansive and embodied relation to nature, without which sense of connection to the universe is impossible and life remains essentially meaningless. It deprives them of continuity with the past, whose future they will be soon called on to forge.”56 The obsession with youth and the pursuit of technology, effaces history and life outside of technological virtual realities. The endless reproducibility of these virtual spaces is a distinctive phenomenon of our cultural age, while our insistence that much of life be conducted with the aid of screens, manages to promote disassociations between thinking, creativity and imagination.
I am reminded of small letterpress workshop I attended over the summer.
65> Many of my classmates were MFA students in literature and creative writing. One of the students asked me if I had read Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” or Kafka’s “The Trial”. Yes, I have! What important books! One person told me that they were interested in writing books like those, and that in their own writing they were attempting to cultivate the same kind of aesthetic of the novels above. I inquired as to the aesthetic and the person replied: boredom. I asked the person to explain more about what ‘boredom’ as an aesthetic is and why these novels particularly professed a kind of boredom. The person told me that, on the one hand, “in novels like these nothing happens” and were therefore boring novels and, on the other hand, these novels produced feelings of boredom during the act of reading because, “there are so many words on the page.” The rest of the table nodded in agreement. I nodded in passive agreement.
66> But what did we agree to? One of the propositions of that argument would simply be: if the page of a novel contains many words, it is therefore boring. Boredom as an aesthetic would be the product of an author’s intention while writing because, for example, Gilman or Kafka have each made the decision to put ‘so many’ words on the page. The argument implies that the meaning of the novel can be deciphered completely by one’s gaze—by simply looking at how filled with words the page is. Following this logic, the page lacking all words then would be the most engaging, i.e. least boring, text for the reader.
67> In this estimation, the act of writing novels and the novel itself is a work of art to be judged in a solely visual manner. Whatever it is the words may attempt to communicate—whether patriarchal subjugation or the lack of humanism in fascist regimes—they are illegible; lost instead to the visual, quantifiable, commodity of the page. Though the page may look like a page, it is no longer one. It is an image instead.
68> The issue with the anecdote above is not that there may be a complicated relationship between text and image, nor that a generation of writers may not enjoy reading modernist literature, but rather that this new generation of writers seems to find the act of reading obsolete, while still choosing to put words on a page.
69> Tanselle writes, “When we are looking at a nonliterate culture, we have no choice but to use nonverbal artifacts as our documentary, or archival, evidence.”57 If our reading and writing are experienced through the composition of images, and our archival materials consist of digitized screen images, we are not a literate culture.
70> Negative views of intellectual pursuits, self-study, and scholarship continues to affront our own ability to understand artifacts and read histories. These inabilities go hand in hand with the abandonment of deep reading and critical thinking in schools. The strategic loss of handwriting (and hand reading), as well as, the metaphorization of the archive itself all underpin an unprecedented movement towards archival extinction. These expressions of loss are the result of human actions.
Enumeratio - Enumeration of Rumor/s
I heard that Richard Brautigan’s papers are being held in trash bags, piled up in a garage somewhere awaiting the perfect sale.
I heard that the unpublished manuscripts of Lucia Berlin were set curbside, for the trash collector.
I heard that each time Harry Smith was evicted from his apartment, a collection of Ukrainian Eggs, or early film reels, or historic field recordings, fell into oblivion.
Some things heard when managing archival collections:
Not sure what this is, but I think it should go to the archive.
We don’t want it; we were just going to throw it away. Do you want it for the archive?
Closure 5: Commodity / Advertisements
71> Juniper Books, a company created by Thatcher Wine, describes itself as both a specialty book dealer and design house. As the company’s website notes: “Juniper Books is dedicated to elevating the printed book by enhancing its design quality and aesthetic, deepening the meaning of books in our lives, and facilitating the connection between the stories books tell us and the stories they tell about us. [....]”58 Wine was recently mentioned in the news for acting as a “personal book curator” to pop culture ‘guru’ Gwyneth Paltrow.59
72> The method Wine uses to tell and sell a meaningful story about books and their owners, is a visual one. The company does this by designing dust jackets for curated book sets. Utilizing the 2D surface of the books’ spines, the desired image, a segment of which matches the width of each volume, literally lays across the books.60 The necessity of the display, forces each book to remain unread; the act of removing the book from the shelf and reading it would rupture the image on the books.
73> The designs showcased on the website, utilize clip art, reproductions of Romantic portraits from art history, credit card logos, and questionable, though trendy, typographic treatments. How do these spine images, coupled with unreadable books, share the story of an individual better than the un-enhanced versions? How does creating an image and blanketing a book set somehow ‘[deepen] the meaning’ of books in our lives?
74> Not unlike the images that Juniper Books designs to act as representations of ourselves, we use screen-based platforms to further document and reproduce ourselves. Does this also mean that our illiteracy extends to the notion of ourselves? If, in all cases, the real material objects that make up these rhetorical, metaphorical images are lost, how do we render ourselves?
75> An archive is a collection of things that represent a portion of the material reality of human cultural production. These things are artifacts of human life. They are held and preserved in a physical structure called an archive. An archive is more than a storage space, however. It is a space for the continued pursuit of scholarship; a shared community endeavor. If our language no longer allows for the archive to be a constituted as a meaningful object or space, and we lose our sense that this collected human material is a part of telling the story of human history in all of its trials, errors, omissions, celebrations, intentions and inclusions, then we can no longer learn from the past.
76> Additionally, the notion that the technology of the physical materials that constitute human literature—the book, handwriting and reading—is outmoded performs another loss to archives as well. If we can no longer read or recognize handwriting, what of the archive will remain legible to us? If the text of novels is too boring to be read that we prefer to cover them with images, what of the archive will remain viable to us? If we care not for the reading and writing of books, what of the archive will remain necessary to us? What happens to culture and history when we no longer know what an archive is? Without a twofold notion of literacy, through reading and writing, the archive is illegible; the archive does not exist.
77> The focus on digital mediums, through reproduction, further complements the empty continuous reproduction of the image of the archive, through the rote churning out of heavily-mediated and environmentally-harmful software and hardware technologies. The technology that holds many great works of human culture is intrinsically connected within the planned obsolescence of the structures we use to access them.
78> Do we destroy archives ourselves because we no longer know them? Do we steal from ourselves and steal from life for an artificial one? Do we allow the suppression of our beliefs to allow erasures of and closures to our collections? Does this make us complicit in an extinction we prefer to ignore?
79> In a conversation with Robert Harrison called ‘Political Realism and Apocalypse,’ Alison McQueen, modern political theorist, states: “The apocalyptic world view always sees our current circumstances as radically unprecedented. There is nothing that can ever be learned from our past struggles.”61 This way of thinking erases history and perpetuates destruction and loss: the loss of the ability to read documents and artifacts; the loss of material culture; the loss of the ability to tell stories; the loss of the uses of symbolism and ritual. Will we not flourish?
80> Let us learn the lesson from Milan Kundera’s famous anti-fascist novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “‘The first step in liquidating a people,’ said Hubl, ‘is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.’”62 Let us avoid being apocalyptical in our thinking.
Our loss is the loss of everything.
1 “Publications,” Society of American Archivists, Assessed March 30, 2020, https://www2.archivists.org/node/20534.
2 John Ridener, From Polders to Postmodernism: A Concise History of Archival Theory, (Duluth: Litwin Books, 2008).
3 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) & Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, 1000 Plateaus, (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
4 Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972).
5 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2004) & Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1983).
6 Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, (New York: Penguin Classics, 2008).
7 Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013) & Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002) & Jarrett M. Drake, “Liberatory Archives: Toward Beloging and Being (Part 1),” medium.com, October 22, 2016, https://medium.com/on-archivy/liberatory-archives-towards-belonging-and-believing-part-1-d26aaeb0edd1.
8 “About,” Rebuild Foundation, Accessed March 30, 2020, https://rebuild-foundation.org/.
9 “About the Archive,” LGBTQ National History Archive, Assessed March 30, 2020, https://
10 Simone Osthoff, Performing the archive: The transformation of the archive in Contemporary art from repository of documents to art medium, (New York: Atropos Press, 2009).
11 Shawn Michelle Smith, American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
12 Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin, eds., Fantasies of the Library, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016).
13 Ernst Van Alphen, Staging the Archive: Art and Photography in the Age of New Media, (London: Reaktion Books, 2015).
14 Tom Snow, “Dieter Roth,” Frieze, September 7, 2013, https://frieze.com/article/dieter-roth.
15 Mary-Kay Lombino and Elizabeth Nogrady, eds., Universal Collection: A Mark Dion Project, (Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 2016).
16 “Catalog Press,” Catalog Press, Assessed March 30, 2020, https://catalogpress.org/.
17 Anne Waldman, Gossamurmur, (New York: Penguin, 2013).
18 Susan Howe, Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, (New York: New Directions, 2014).
19 W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, (New York: Random House, 2001).
20 Wolfgang Ernst, Stirrings in the Archives: Order from Disorder, (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).
21 Lisa Gitelman, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).
22 Heidi Brayman Hackel and Ian Frederick Moulton, eds., Teaching Early Modern English Literature from the Archives, (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2015).
23 Naomi S. Baron, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
24 Sonja Neef, Imprint and Trace: Handwriting in the Age of Technology, (London: Reaktion Books, 2011).
25 Johanna Drucker, Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
26 Nicholson Baker, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, (New York: Random House, 2001).
27 Lisa Peet, “Seattle National Archives Threatened with Closure,” Library Journal, March 4, 2020, https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=seattle-national-archives-threatened-with-closure.
28 Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
29 Haley Garrison Phillips, “A Library-Inspired Warby Parker is coming to Bethesda Row,” The Washingtonian, May 2, 2017, https://www.washingtonian.com/2017/05/02/library-inspired-warby-parker-coming-bethesda/.
30 Cut-up poem made from known translations of Odes to Kleio documented here: “Clio (Kleio),” Theoi.com, Accessed March 30, 2020, https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/MousaKleio.html.
31 Arthur F. J. Remy, “Johann Nepomuk Cosmas Michael Denis,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908), http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04721b.htm.
32 Nicole Loraux, The Divided City: On Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens, (New York: Zone Books, 2006), 21.
33 ibid., 21.
34 Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 78.
35 ibid., 52.
36 ibid., 53.
37 Hammad Nasar in conversation with Anna-Sophie Spring and Etienne Turpin, “Intensive Geographies of the Archive,” Fantasies of the Library, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), 36.
38 Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1983), 12-13.
39 Wolfgang Ernst, “The Archive as Metaphor: From Archival Space to Archival Time,” Onlineopen.org, September 30, 2004, https://www.onlineopen.org/download.php?id=366, 4.
40 Bethany Nowviskie, “Reconstitute the World: Machine-reading Archives of Mass Extinction,” Nowviskie (blog), June 12, 2018, http://nowviskie.org/2018/reconstitute-the-world/.
42 Thomas G. Tanselle, “The World as Archive,” Common Knowledge, 8, issue 2 (Spring 2002): 406.
43 Anne Waldman, Gossamurmur, (New York: Penguin, 2013), 67.
44 Thomas G. Tansell, “The World as Archive,” Common Knowledge, 8, issue 2 (Spring 2002): 406.
45 Robert Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 23.
47 Brewster Kahle, “Help Us Keep the Archive Free, Accessible, and Reader Private,” Internet Archive (blog), November 26, 2016, https://blog.archive.org/2016/11/29/help-us-keep-the-archive-free-accessible-and-private/.
48 Nárai, Róbert, “The destruction of history,” The Jacobin Magazine, February 18, 2018, https://jacobinmag.com/2018/02/lukacs-hungary-archives-marxism.
50 “Archive,” Lukács Archive International Foundation, accessed September 30, 2019, https://www.lana.info.hu/en/archive/.
51 W.G. Sebald. The Rings of Saturn, (New York: New Directions, 2016), 10.
52 Karen Yuan, “A Crime Against Culture,” The Atlantic, December 19, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/membership/archive/2018/12/a-crime-against-culture/578623/.
53 Nicholson Baker, Double Fold: libraries and the assault on paper, (New York: Random House, 2001), vii-36.
54 Montgomery, Mark, “Public Broadcaster Music Library Closing, CDs to be digitized, destroyed,” Radio Canada International, updated March 9, 2018, https://www.rcinet.ca/en/2018/02/23/public-broadcaster-music-library-closing-cds-to-be-digitised-destroyed/.
55 Evelyn Tribble, “The Work of the Book in an Age of Digital Reproduction,” in Teaching Early Modern English Literature from the Archives, eds. Heidi Brayman Hackel and Ian Frederick Moulton, (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2015), 41-44.
57 Thomas G. Tanselle, “The World as Archive,” Common Knowledge, 8, issue 2 (Spring 2002): 406.
58 “Our full story,” Juniper Books, accessed September 30, 2019, https://www.juniperbooks.com/pages/our-full-story.
59 Olivia Martin, “Gwyneth Paltrow Hired a Personal Book Curator—Here’s What He Chose For Her Shelves,” Town and Country Magazine, August 20, 2019, https://www.townandcountrymag.com/style/home-decor/a28680227/how-to-organize-books-thatcher-wine-gwyneth-paltrow/.
60 “History,” Juniper Books, accessed September 30, 2019, https://www.juniperbooks.com/collections/history.
61 Robert Harrison and Alison McQueen, “Alison McQueen on Political Realism and Apocalypse,” June 15, 2018, in Entitled Opinions with Robert Harrison, produced by KZSU Stanford, Podcast, MP3 audio, 1:03:10, https://entitledopinions.stanford.edu/alison-mcqueen-political-realism-and-apocalypse.
62 Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 26.
Jaime Groetsema is a bibliothecary who manages special collections and archives materials for small libraries. Groetsema is engaged in bibliographic, paleographic, and literary pursuits surrounding the interdisciplinary work of critical librarianship, book history and material culture.