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?



  1. George, there’s so much fascinating stuff here. Your example of Wordsworth’s notebooks reminds me of Walter Benjamin. It seems to be that post-mechanized art values the aura even more highly than before. Witness the rise of site specific installations and conceptual work that cannot be reproduced (Beuys, Whiteread). How this relates to post-digital work, I’m really not sure. I totally understand your interest in the technology of the archive. With the internet, there has been a kind of collapse, where the act of archivization has also become the event itself, autonomous and self-replicating to infinity. In terms of the unfinished, it’s significant that both Whitman and Baudelaire considered their key works to be endlessly revisable. I think there’s a response here to industrialization and the rationalization of the intellect. something I also think Derrida’s generation of thinkers worked hard to evade. Having said all that, I’ve never successfully negotiated the receding perspective required of deconstruction and always, habitually, fall back into truth claims.

    Comment by paperbackjack — March 6, 2009 @ 14:16

  2. Jason, thanks for the thoughtful comments. I have been thinking of Benjamin, but haven’t gotten round to a serious written response to his work on mechanical reproduction. I hadn’t thought of installation art, but of course, that’s an excellent point (wondering how an artist such as Jenny Holzer might link to this). I’m in the process of trying to think through how all of this relates to post-digital work – and I do think there has been what you call a ‘kind of collapse’ in the act of archivization due to the internet. There’s something happening whereby information is simultaneously preserved and erased (or scattered to the winds). The idea of the archive as place and space, and of a site where the power to interpret is contested becomes perhaps more complex and interesting. I’d be really interested to understand a little more about your comment that it is a ‘response to industrialisation and the rationalisation of the intellect’- and how you thought Derrida’s generation of thinkers evaded that (and which thinkers you mean by that).

    Comment by gselmer — March 6, 2009 @ 16:16

  3. Well, I would preface my comments by asserting that I am strictly a tourist here, as opposed to the deep work you have done on these issues. But I’ve always imagined that Romantic poetry was a deliberately imaginative resistance to the Enlightenment logic which gave rise to the ‘time and motion’ mechanization of the Industrial Revolution. There’s a strain throughout the writing which pits the organic against the machine. To consider an oeuvre unfinished is very much a statement of the organism (flowers and leaves and daffodils).
    Rather than oppose Enlightenment thinking (as the Romantics might replace one clockwork certainty with a transcendental one), Derrida’s tactic is to read it against itself. In terms of Derrida’s generation, I tend to lump him in with the post-structuralist superstars (Barthes, Foucault, Deleuze, the usual suspects) and feel that what they had in common was to playfully resist becoming absorbed by the academy, itself an outgrowth of Enlightenment. My usual, foolish broad sweep of history. As I say, I’m the tourist!
    I wonder if Bataille’s ideas on excessive production might be useful to what you’re talking about? This is mildly relevant too. Jenny Holzer is an interesting one, especially here.
    I do hope you keep up this experiment. I’m very interested to follow what you find.

    Comment by paperbackjack — March 6, 2009 @ 21:47

  4. Thanks again for your comments. Apologies it’s taken me so long to write back to them.

    I think it’s probably true (though perhaps a little cliched) that at some level, at least some of the time, a number of Romantic writers were deliberately resisting elements of Enlightenment logic (though there are undoubtedly other areas of the Englightenment ‘project’ – wary as I am suggesting in any way that there was such a homogeneous body of thought – to which ‘Romanticism’ broadly subscribed). There is indeed a ‘strain’ throughout the writing that pits the organic against the machine (not least of all in Wordsworth, whose work I’ve been paying particularly close attention). However, I’d like to consider that word ‘strain’ in a different sense to perhaps the way that you meant it – assuming you did mean it in the sense of ‘strand’, which is how I’ve read it – and think about it perhaps more as a tension that attempts to create a clear opposition between the organic and the inorganic, the natural and the technological (even, for example, speech and writing) that it ultimately cannot sustain. So, in a sense (I’ve written about this at length elsewhere), whether he likes it or knows it or not, however much he tries to create himself as the figure of a poet, speaking in a natural voice to the natural world and natural man, Wordsworth is a kind of writing machine (as are we all).

    Thanks for the link to the article on the Kindle – it’s both a symptom and a cause of the kind of ‘fever’ that I’m thinking about here.

    Comment by gselmer — March 19, 2009 @ 13:36

  5. Very thoughtful. I forwarded this to an archivist currently tasked with revamping a large institution’s methodologies. I hadn’t known about Miller’s piece, and I appreciate that reference. There does come a point at which we have to step back and realize that knowledge (in its various iterations and forms) simply cannot be captured, that the codex was the embodiment not so much of learning as of an ideal that learning could be completely canvassed, contained, controlled. Preservation is as much a creative act of faith as so many of the new ventures we are now witnessing with natively digital genres. Thanks for adding some substance to the conversation.

    Comment by Gideon Burton — March 23, 2009 @ 04:08

  6. Gideon, thanks for your comments (and for forwarding this on to others) – they are much appreciated.

    Miller has some really interesting things to say in a number of places – notably Black Holes and in a book that’s forthcoming this year called The Medium is the Maker (

    I think you are absolutely right when you talk of the realization that knowledge cannot simply be captured by the archive. I think that something far more complex is going on than ‘common sense’ has suggested. This ‘traditional’ model of the archive stems from a metaphysics that has spent a couple of millennia attempting to create a clear distinction between the ‘ideal’ and the ‘material’ (all the way back to Plato and Aristotle). As a result, we tend to think that knowledge exists prior to the archive – that an ‘idea’ can exist outside of some kind of material manifestation. I would argue that this is not the case at all. So, if this is the case, the codex – for example – wasn’t simply a technology that allowed us to record and preserve certain articles of knowledge, but it was a technology that in its very structure and economy programmed, enabled, shaped, produced, the development of certain types of knowledge, certain concepts, even perhaps the very concept of the concept. Ditto the printing press, the typewriter, the personal computer, the iPhone, the weblog, Twitter (to give just a few other examples) – what we call knowledge does not exist outside of specific archiving technologies/prostheses. In fact, I’d add, ditto speech, ‘memory’ and other tools that we might commonly think of as being non-technological/natural.

    What natively digital genres are doing and may yet do to knowledge remains to be seen. And, ultimately, that’s what I’m really interested in seeing. I’ve been finding your reflections on your own blog really helpful and enlightening in trying to understand that.

    Comment by gselmer — March 24, 2009 @ 18:49

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