FROM THE EDITORS
“ON FORGETTING, AND THE ARCHIVE”
At precisely the moment in which media content becomes immaterial, and our access to this content outpaces our ability to process it, the impulse becomes one of archiving. We seek to control, rather than collect. The paradox of infinite storage is that an individual can maintain a massive archive larger than many institutions of the past, and yet we lack the tools to properly extract and analyze this information. In light of this sea change, curation has become an invaluable skill. The archivist is the last refuge for the humanist, one who believes in the “civilizing powers of reading the right books,” as Sloterdijk puts it in his essay “Rules for the Human Park” (2002). But what have we given up in this turn? What sorts of artistic and scholarly approaches and methodologies are being employed to deal with this new relationship to “information”? What do we risk in thinking about the collected cultural production of a civilization in terms of extraction and analysis?
Is the promise of information and communication merely a smoke-screen for greater neo-liberalism reform and increased technologization, or a further example of the corporatization of the university? Does the discourse of immaterial labour further mystify and obscure the exploitative social relations capitalism is based upon, particularly the very material labour that supports our technological networks and devices? The core values seem to remain communication and information; qua Nietzsche, is there a virtue in forgetting? Are there artistic responses that make use of ephemerality or singularity? The articles and art work included in this issue explore the use of and materiality of the archive and the ways in which the act of archiving has the potential to change the meaning of works of art, information, or objects.
We problematize the role of the archivist, thinking through the necessity of this position alongside a critique of Enlightenment humanism. What questions should be asked of the curator? Can we locate the historical moment where this shift in orientation toward the past has taken place? What can be said about the contemporary state of cultural memory? What political responses are available to us? Without a Fascistic burning of the past, how can we think about overcoming the momentum of history in a way that opens up new social imaginaries that still make room for individuality and social justice?
The concept of history looms large in these questions. The west has long been obsessed with imagining its own destruction, and this generation is no different. Perhaps we’re not the millennial generation but a generation of millennialists, awaiting the end of an age. Hannah Arendt reminds us that we cannot know the consequences of our actions in advance, and that we can only truly judge a life once it’s over. She’s not alone in this view. But she also knows we must continue to act. In On the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche describes man as distinct from his fellow animals because man can make promises. What does it mean to be a type of animal that can make promises? Or break them? Forgiveness is the flipside of that coin. Memory and forgetting are interlinked ontologically.
Forgetting is also deeply linked in our cultural imaginary with truth. The mythological River Lethe, one of the five rivers of Hades, was the river of unmindfullness from which any who drank would suffer complete forgetfulness. The Greeks contrasted truth to forgetfulness, as their term for truth, Alethiea, meaning unconcealment (famously explicated at length by Heidegger), contains the word lethe, meaning literally concealment. In Norse mythology, the All-Father Odin’s Ravens Huginn and Muninn, (or Mind and Memory) were always at risk of not returning. Memory is a precarious thing. How do we negotiate the tension between being mindful of the past and being overrun by its momentum? Many turn to collecting, and what is an archive if not a collection? For Walter Benjamin, collecting is a passion and “every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memory.” He describes a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order, the chaos of the library stacks versus the order of its catalogue. Collecting is a process of renewal, “to renew the old world- that is the collector’s deepest desire.” The “mild boredom of order” is by the anticipation of collecting. Baudrillard must surely have been thinking of this piece by Benjamin when he wrote “Systems of Collecting.” Baudrillard also sees collecting as a passion, and passion always has an object. “While the object is a resistant material body, it is also, simultaneously, a mental realm over which I hold sway, a thing whose meaning is governed by myself alone. It is all my own, the object of my passion (7).” Such objects are either utilized or possessed, the latter of which he describes as an “enterprise of abstract mastery whereby the subject seeks to assert himself as an autonomous totality outside the world (8).” Collecting is about control, not about utilitarian function, but displaced desire. When an object becomes a “piece” to a collector, it stops being defined by its function. When we amass gigabytes upon gigabyte of unlistened-to music and unwatched movies, can we deny the truth of these arguments? What can the archive offer that distinguishes it from our obsessive personal hording?
The grand narrative put forth in the work of philosophers of history such as Hegel, combined with the eschatological obsessions of Christian metaphysics, seems to have resulted in an obsession with imagining the demise of our own civilization. Perhaps only then we can pass judgment – one suspects it is not a coincidence that Judgment Day is a common synonym for the Apocalypse. Such an orientation towards death can be productive in so far as it reflects a desire to inject meaning into everyday life, an attempt to interrupt the banality of post-industrial labour. Yet our desire for “The End” is also paralyzing in that it destroys our capacity for imagination, for dreaming and thereby creating a future. Action itself has become stymied by our failure to understand its own indeterminacy. Francis Fukayama famously declared the “End of History” following the collapse of the Soviet Union, arguing that the modern techno-capitalism of Liberal Democracies had emerged as the victor. The decades since have made this argument look quite ridiculous, but as of yet we have not articulated a clear alternative. Franco “Bifo” Berardi sees this as a death of the future, our inability to imagine what comes next. Rather pessimistically, he claims that the only politically valid response is suicide.
We are not willing to give up quite yet. In the late-nineteenth century, in the wave of disappointment following failed rebellions- the revolutions of 1848, the Paris Commune- even if not making a decisive break on formal grounds, still dealt with the themes of loss and overcoming. What can we learn from this time that may help aid us in our own moment of crisis, of intense disappointment? Archiving and Memory contends with the ways in which, in these contemporary times, we continue to grapple with many of the same issues that marked archiving projects of prior centuries. At the same time, the papers in this volume raise questions about the archive and its ability to make a claim on history. As Michelle Shawn Smith reminds us in Photography on the Color Line (2004), “the archive is a vehicle of memory, and as it becomes the trace on which an historical record is founded, it makes some people, places, things, ideas, and events visible, while relegating others, through its signifying absences, to invisibility (8).” In this sense, the creative works and critical essays compiled in this issue serve to consider the ideological function of the archive not only in the moment of its conception but also across space, time, and place. What do we remember, how do we remember it, and in what ways is power embedded the act of remembering?
Joseph, Cheryl and Alan