Simultaneously Necessary and Impossible: the Uneven Archive

Larry Change claims in “Genesis of the Jamaica Gay Freedom Movement Archive” that “Who writes the history determines the agenda” (np), and we find similar claims made elsewhere among this week’s readings— inquiries into the relation between history and the future, and how this present moment can be more than just a passive navigation from past to future, but perhaps even a remaking in which the past is called upon to direct “the agenda.” To paraphrase Glave, the past is always present, and “For any form of actual, truly practicable democracy to succeed, its citizens will be required— demanded— to maintain a constant energetic, interrogating engagement with history” (Whose Caribbean 182). This history also contains not simply successes and failures but also initial attempts and alternative models, and it will only be through the archive (either material, oral, or digital, organized or unorganized) that one might gain access to these models. There seems to be this underlying possibility of discovery among the archive, but I think this possibility is as latently utopic as dystopic. In other words the archive may be used to reconfigure our relation to, and understanding of, our past (and future), a reconfiguration which can have any varied number of effects.

Placed at the center of a history filled with annihilation, slavery, colonialism, servitude, it would seem that remembering (vs. silencing or erasure) would be of major concern for the Caribbean (as is true elsewhere), yet still laws exist in certain places which outlaw homosexuality, forcing into silence a great deal of the population. It would seem too that such histories of annihilation and erasure, motivated by profit and power, may be said to be reflected in the illegalization and ostracization of homosexuality [as is shown by various politicians’ promises, and by Grenada’s government taking a pro-LGBT position for the first time in response to a possible tourism boycott].

Within such various economic and power influences the archive seems an odd contender. It is a cost, rather than a money making venture (Getty Images notwithstanding), and serves as reminder of events (both large and small) which don’t get memorialized in park names, which don’t fit into the official story. The archive is also always going to be marked by its absences, what was lost, due to weather, insects, negligence, lack of space, or literal erasure. Furthermore, once it’s constructed the archive may be a hollow repository (consider so many attics with so many hidden treasures. “A digital archive is useless if no one knows it exists” (King np)). It seems that what energizes an archive, though, is not simply its contemporaneous use(s) of its materials (for instance an archive can remain hidden for a long time, only to be resurrected, as in the example of GFM), but rather something which happens long before any piece enters into a collection. It seems that what energizes an archive is what actually energized the items at the moment of their production (and perhaps their reception). Of course, much is lost to history, but what each archive is trying to present is that which this object represents. It is the archive’s duty to present and juxtapose these pieces in such a way as meaning can be assembled for the current viewer, perhaps in response to the current moment, perhaps not.

As such I think it might be important to consider the constructed boundaries of the archive and the ways in which these constructed boundaries represent the objects themselves. Towards this discussion I’ve spent some time perusing IRN and GFM. Firstly, the GFM archive seems to have gone down between the time I started exploring it and now, only further emphasizing the ephemerality of the digital, an important consideration since the GFM is, as we’ve learned, at the moment of this writing only in a suitcase in someone’s apartment (and presumably on some hard drive disconnected from the internet). The digital makes it accessible but also doesn’t erase all the problems of access. Furthermore the aura of the object doesn’t always translate so well into the digital, though I do find the typewritten pages (and typos) engaging. Furthermore, the archive is focused enough that I constantly know where I am and what I’m looking at. It’s not so difficult to access and interpret the information, the boundaries of the archive channel me towards the material. IRN on the other hand is so massively sprawling, with so many different venues and different sorts of materials, that it can be difficult to discern how all of it operates as an archive, as a curated juxtaposition of information which is supposed to speak to and help reconfigure the moment. With IRN I feel one needs to already be plugged in to one particular venue or another to really get the full benefit.

Both of these examples represent a great deal of work and effort, and as long as they remain present, there remains the possibilities for pieces of the archives to take on new lives, to work towards reconfiguring this present moment and helping to write future agendas. One thing I’d like to point out is that the internet itself is a giant archive (though unstable). As such the same sort of concerns about the constructed boundaries (this website vs. that, who visits where, etc, issues of accessibility and interpretation) remain topics for consideration. For instance, perhaps the infamous “annihilation anthem” of B. B. can be more easily saved to the internet (because of recording technologies) than the pamphlets written and dispersed in response to it. While this emphasizes the importance of digitizing such pamphlets, the uneven access of materials to digital archiving might be important to consider. Furthermore, returning to an earlier point of mine, a resurrection of B.B.’s song may prove dystopic, fueling further hatred. Thus the boundaries of the archive (what goes in or not, what each piece is though to be doing) seem important to keep in mind when talking about archives.

 

2 comments

  1. “I think the mere fact-of-being-on-the-internet matters in a way that’s particularly easy to rationalize if one constructs the entire Internet as an archive.”

    This is an interesting claim because it opens up new possibilities for considering how we want to approach the internet (use of internet akin to use of archive). Does this mitigate temporally immediate interaction (like instant messenger)? And perhaps the perception of the possibility for temporally immediate interaction mitigates our consideration of various parts of the internet as temporally located, and one might argue falsely so. Each page and facebook status was written at a certain time and in a certain environment, much like any letter.

    I think common descriptions of the internet emphasize connecting various people with each other, access to entertainment and news, etc, and I think we often approach the archive with different intentions, for instance with the hope of uncovering a piece of information which will reconfigure our understanding of a certain time or place, or to supplement (or perhaps challenge) what we already know about something. Perhaps one could argue that the internet already does this, but I wonder if we applied some of the claims concerning archives and archive usage to the internet what would come out (I don’t really know).

    Regarding “the tension between the anxious (and all-too-real) concern that ‘everything on the internet is there forever’ and the sheer quantity of information that disappears without ever being recorded or archived in any meaningful way”-

    I think for an interesting confluence of these two facets (forever vs. disappearing) we might look towards the Library of Congress’s push to archive twitter. I remember the announcement 5 years ago (I’ve linked to a FB announcement, April 2010)

    https://www.facebook.com/notes/the-library-of-congress/how-tweet-it-is-library-acquires-entire-twitter-archive/110775778955250

    and assumed that this wouldn’t pose much difficulty. Apparently it has

    http://www.politico.com/story/2015/07/library-of-congress-twitter-archive-119698.html

    The Library of Congress has run up against exactly what you point towards “The archive (print or digital) is only rendered comprehensible by its limits and its organizing principles, right?”

    The internet as archive seems almost like a Borges story, a massive sprawling library lacking organizing principles (“The Library of Babel”), or at least organizing principles which make it easily arrangeable and translatable (the sought for codex).

    Of course due to updates and deletions so much information gets “lost.” Just recently I was looking for a poem of mine published on a poetry website 3 years ago and it’s already gone. Due to the ephemerality of the digital (dead hard drive) and a failure to print it out and put it in my paper archives, the poem is, for all purposes gone (barring some saved version on someone’s hard drive somewhere- I mean the poem was good, but probably not that good). I wonder if this will be true for sites like Facebook, or if future historians will be looking up status updates.

  2. “One thing I’d like to point out is that the internet itself is a giant archive (though unstable). As such the same sort of concerns about the constructed boundaries (this website vs. that, who visits where, etc, issues of accessibility and interpretation) remain topics for consideration.”

    This is a really important consideration, I think, and it serves as one response to the complaints I’m always making, along the lines of:

    “Why does it matter (e.g., why are we reading it as exceptional) that this is on the internet if it’s not “digitally innovative?” (I refuse to use the cringeworthy word “disruptive” here, but perhaps someone of a different mind would — I’m sure there’s an entire paper to be written about the language of the Silicon Valley tech-bro.)

    I think the mere fact-of-being-on-the-internet matters in a way that’s particularly easy to rationalize if one constructs the entire Internet as an archive.

    Finally: today in class we briefly touched on several related issues that I think you might want to weigh in on — most notably the tension between the anxious (and all-too-real) concern that “everything on the internet is there forever” and the sheer quantity of information that disappears without ever being recorded or archived in any meaningful way. The archive (print or digital) is only rendered comprehensible by its limits and its organizing principles, right?

    As you say, about IRN: “[It] is so massively sprawling, with so many different venues and different sorts of materials, that it can be difficult to discern how all of it operates as an archive, as a curated juxtaposition of information which is supposed to speak to and help reconfigure the moment.”

    Do we have language, or a useful theorization of the archive, that allows us in any sense to meaningfully get into this construction of the Internet as One Big Archive, considering its vastness and ephemerality?

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