Archive Fevers

February 9, 2009

Questions posed

Filed under: Uncategorized — gselmer @ 14:29

In the past few years, I have spent a lot of time in the Cambridge University Library.  A visible embodiment of the materiality and temporality of the archive: mile after mile of book stacks, catalogued in the most painstaking detail.  As one of the legal depost libraries in England it has the legal right to acquire and hold a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.  The Cambridge University Library informs us that it seeks to ‘keep one copy of each edition and tries to conserve them forever’.  A bold ambition indeed: the book, as we know, is a fragile object, subject to the ravages of time and use, to wear and tear.  It is such an overwhelmingly vast collection, that it is easy to be seduced into thinking that it contains a copy of everything.

Of course, it doesn’t.  Whilst preparing a paper for a conference on the work of J. Hillis Miller last year, at which I wanted to address Professor Miller’s work on the impact of electronic media in the university, I discovered that this monumental archive doesn’t hold a single copy of South Atlantic Quarterly – much to my annoyance, as it meant I was unable to read an article written by Professor Miller on Derrida and performativity, in which I believe he had some interesting things to say about Wikipedia, and which would therefore have fed nicely into my paper.

More pertinently, of course, the Cambridge University Library – regardless of what it might proclaim – does not want to hold everything within its archive: it is governed, as are all archives, by a set of identifiable ‘archontic principles’, administered largely by its peer review processes and publishing houses (for example).  These archons wield immense power over not necessarily what may be said or written, but over what may be recorded, archived, committed to print and, therefore, over who is able to ‘hear’ or read the message.

Does the electronic media challenge this?  My answer right now would be: yes, to some extent.  But to imagine the internet as some kind of information ‘free-for-all’, as an archive beyond the reach of the archons if you like, is to entertain a utopia.  Censorship is as real on the internet as anywhere off-line, for example, though that’s an analysis for another day.  Certainly it sets up a new archival economy: in some ways it utterly dissolves time and space.

I’ve been really interested in the Digital Wordsworth project, which is being supported by the Wordsworth Trust and Lancaster University.  Simply by accessing an internet connection I am now able, at my leisure, to browse through photographic images of the notebooks in which Wordsworth began to scribble the first lines of The Prelude.  I no longer need to travel to Grasmere to examine this artefact (although I have – and that’s an experience that I shall try and write about soon).  From the comfort of my own desk I can now examine an electronic reproduction of it.  What does this do to the ‘original’ artefact?  On the one hand, it renders it obselete: it is its metaphorical destruction.  On the other hand, by reproducing it, making a copy, it paradoxically conserves it.  It makes the originality of the original appear to be even more so at the same time as it dissolves the original’s original uniqueness.

This is what Derrida argues is the double bind, the ‘archive fever’ that governs every archive, every archiving act: that ‘the archive takes place at the place of originary and structural breakdown of said memory’.  This puts me in mind of lines written by Wordsworth in that very Goslar notebook, in his own archiving moment, when he speaks of the ‘characters of danger and desire’ written on to the surface of the earth by nature.  This is, perhaps, what lies at the heart of the archive – any archive, and maybe even experience in general – the danger of deletion, death and destruction and that contradictory desire for impressing, storing, memorialising, conserving.

In a further touch of irony, there is no wireless internet connection available within the Cambridge University Library (outside of the tea room) – so that whilst I can access these historical manuscripts from my own home, I’m unable to inspect it whilst sitting in the middle of one of the largest archives in England.

And it’s worth remembering that the overwhelming majority (70%) of humans on the face of the earth today have never even heard a dialling tone, let alone have access to the world wide web.  Industrialised countries comprise less than 20% of the world’s population and are home to over 80% of the world’s internet users (for more information on world internet usage, see here).

Further to that, electronic media technology is dependent on the provision on electrical power.  There’s a whole host of economic, scientific and political issues that we need to explore here.  The internet is as temporal and subject to decay or destruction or oblivion as any other archive has ever been.  No trees, no paper.  No electricity, no internet.  (We were reminded of the fragility of internet data only last week by the disaster that hit Ma.gnolia)

It is just as much a ‘shrine so frail’ for human thought as Wordsworth feared the printed word to be.  Hillis Miller reminds us of this in Black Holes when he notes that the electronic archive only exists ‘as a large number of “bits” of information, zeroes or ones inscribed as magnetic differences on a hard disk or on a magnetic tape or as minute scratches on an optical disk or electrical pulses on the wires and wireless transmissions of the internet’.  The ‘virtual’ archive is by no means immaterial.

On the one hand, children of the ‘information age’ do seem to think differently, to organise information differently and to interact with writing, information and text in a different way.  Jason L. Frand provides an interesting discussion on this here.  I can’t remember the last time I undertook a sustained act of writing with a pen and paper and I find my life increasingly ‘wired’.

On the other hand.  We like to highlight the interactivity of the electronic media (for example the weblog, the social networking site, the Wiki, and so on).  H.J. Jackson’s study of Romantic marginalia seems to show that nineteenth century readers were accustomed from an early age to ‘talk back’ to the books they read, thinking of themselves as ‘co-collaborators or contributors to the books they annotated’.  I’ve always scribbled in the margins of my books (much to my wife’s annoyance!).  What is the structural difference between this and, say, commenting on weblogs (which I also do)?  What different economy of the archive is taking place?

Hillis Miller notes that the ease of word processing ‘encourages the adept in computer composition to think of what he or she writes as never being in quite finished form.  Whatever is printed is always just one stage in a potentially endless process of revision, deletion, addition and rearrangement’.  As a compulsive, life-long reviser (even of work that had seen the press) and in spite of the absence of a typewriter or a word-processor and given his profound dislike even of the pen, did Wordsworth see his work any differently?  All that I know of Wordsworth suggest that it is unlikely.

At the same time, a cornerstone of my thinking about the archive and archiving technology is exactly Derrida’s argument that ‘the archivization produces as much as it records the event’: that a different archiving technology and economy will lead to us thinking differently, writing differently, doing differently – that it effects the structure and nature of the event itself.  So, perhaps that might explain why we are able to retrospectively see nineteenth century writers and readers exhibiting these apparent similarities with our own contemporary lot?


February 6, 2009

My archive fever, your archive fever: why archive fever?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gselmer @ 18:22

I’ve been sorely tempted to blog on many occasions in the past and, for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I’ve always held back from doing so. However, this time, I have given into whatever it is that seems to make the idea of blogging so compelling, and here I am (wherever here may be).

One thing that I intend – more than anything else perhaps, above all other things – is for this blog to be a ‘research tool’. I am – and have been for some years now – fascinated by Jacques Derrida’s statement in Archive Fever that ‘the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable contents even as it comes into existence and its relationship to the future’ – that the archive ‘produces, as much as it records, the event’ – or, as J. Hillis Miller has more recently put it, in a neat reappropriation of Marshall McLuhan, ‘the medium is the maker‘. My research has been pursuing this question in a variety ways and I’m curious to see the effect that this blog has on that research – I certainly don’t imagine that it will merely be a passive receptacle or a passing record, but a tool that actively shapes my thought, my writing and my research. Who knows, maybe it will change it irrevocably in ways I can’t predict? I’d like that.

I’m interested in – obsessed with – issues to do with: the future of the book and print media in general, the rise of electronic media technologies and, by direct extension, the future of ‘literature’ itself and of the university, the consignation, configuration and dissemination of knowledge and of the ‘archive’ in general.

My off-the-cuff answer as to why is that the rise of electronic, so-called ‘multi-media’ (I’d argue that paper is perhaps more ‘multi-media’ than we might often think) is a historico-technological change that we are in the process of living through, and I’m interested in trying to understand and narrate that process ‘from the inside’.

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