Interrogating the archive
December 26, 2020 9:21 AM   Subscribe

Lately I've come into possession of the massive personal audio archive of a deceased underground music figure from decades ago. As I've been making my way through it, it's got me thinking about how and why we archive -- and I'm thinking specifically about folks who are creating a body of work, not just the collecting of unrelated personal effects by your average person over a lifetime. It feels like something that's been discussed a lot in the literary and art worlds, but I just don't have anything to hand. (I should specify that I'm looking for philosophical essays, books, etc., on the subject - writers who have tackled the impulses behind such archives, not just catalogues raisonné or descriptions of the archives themselves. This article is one way into the subject.)
posted by mykescipark to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Derrida's Archive Fever and Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge could be useful, depending on your feelings about Continental philosophers. And Manoff did an overview of some research into the concept a bit more recently, which you can find here.
posted by experiencing a significant gravitas shortfall at 9:50 AM on December 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

I think the doc Kubrick's Boxes might be what you're looking for.
posted by Sterros at 11:53 AM on December 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Derrida and Foucault recommendations. You might also be interested in Jeremy Braddock's book Collecting as Modernist Practice, and some of the essays in Nicholson Baker's The Size of Thoughts. The former is more academic than the latter.
posted by dizziest at 4:28 PM on December 26, 2020

Yeah, Archive Fever is kind of an amazing book. I read it in grad school but I think one could very much read it for pleasure. Archaeology of Knowledge was more of a slog for me, but also useful.

I think there might be a recent translation of The Arcades Project (Walter Benjamin) that might be good for this.

Carlo Ginzburg’s books that draw on the archive of the Inquisition are less meta and more actual work in an archive. But they are an amazing use case: The Cheese and the Worms or The Night Battles.

Try W. G. Sebald novels, especially Austerlitz.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:55 PM on December 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

Here to second the Foucault, Derrida, and Ginzburg recommendations--but especially to recommend anything and everything by Saidiya Hartman. You can start by reading this interview where she talks about how she works with archives.

You might also like Sean Silver's The Mind is a Collection and Crystal B. Lake's Artifacts: How We Think and Write About Found Objects for historical perspectives on collecting/archiving. Both Silver and Lake are interested in the philosophical underpinnings of archival practices. Emily Cockayne's Rummage: A History of the Things We Have Reused, Recycled and Refused to Let Go might also be of interest. Along those lines, the artist Jenny Odell's Bureau of Suspended Objects is an incredible project.
posted by pinkacademic at 7:02 AM on December 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Another good starting-point would be the work of Pierre Nora and the idea of the archive as a 'site of memory'. In his 1989 article 'Between Memory and History' (JSTOR), Nora writes:
Modern memory is, above all, archival. It relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image. What began as writing ends as high fidelity and tape recording. The less memory is experienced from the inside the more it exists only through its exterior scaffolding and outward signs -- hence the obsession with the archive that marks our age, attempting at once the complete conservation of the present as well as the total preservation of the past.
(Which is a strikingly prescient comment when you consider that it predates the rise of the internet.) There's a vast literature on this topic, but a list of key essays would include Sue McKemmish, 'Evidence of Me' (1996; link), Hal Foster, 'An Archival Impulse' (2004; link), and Mike Featherstone, 'Archive' (2006; link). You'll need an academic subscription for these, I'm afraid.

Two classic books reflecting on archival research from the historian's perspective are Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (2001) and Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives (2013). Lisa Fluet's response to Steedman, 'Rethinking Dust' (2018), brings it into conversation with Kubrick's Boxes and recent work in digital humanities.

On the archive and modern art: Charles Merewether, The Archive (2006) is a useful anthology of key readings; Ben Highmore offers some fruitful approaches from a cultural studies perspective, e.g. in Everyday Life and Cultural Theory (2002); and The Archive and the Bathroom (2008) is an interesting exchange between an artist, an art historian and an archivist.
posted by verstegan at 7:48 AM on December 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

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