François Brunet | François Brunet | Friday, 28.02.2014

Archives forever (On History, Two)

Our recent discussions on this blog have set me thinking about the notion of archives in photography. My personal and professional concern is primarily with historical uses of photographic and other archives, but I want to consider these uses from the vantage point of today, i.e. the vocabulary and the concerns of the digital era, which is characterized by perhaps unprecedented “archive fever” (Derrida, as quoted recently by Nils Plath on this blog) or archive fervor, but also by deep ambiguities and problems in the very notion of “archive/s.”

Indeed the word “archive/s” (I will come back to the singular/plural hesitation) has perhaps never been so current as today. In the digital age, virtually everyone uses a vast number of online services that, whether or not they call themselves archives, perform various functions that are loosely called archiving (whether dealing with images or other types of data). Archiving has perhaps been a typical byproduct of the consumer age, but computing has made its use more universal and common. Virtually everyone who photographs (and everyone who digitizes images made in paper or film-based media) has to deal with vast amounts of electronic pictorial files, which typically need to be organized, stored for future access, and, in many cases, shared. We all use or can use, for personal purposes, various web-based facilities, enabling all three of these functions and confronting users with basic issues of archiving. And we all experience various frustrations in these operations, ranging from disorientation to the common mishap of misplacement and loss—temporary or permanent—of electronic files, an occurrence that is common enough to generate specific fears and more or less sophisticated methods and strategies for preventing such loss. There are myriads of “how-to” online tools, for instance for recovering deleted pictures. Professional conservation institutions have, of course, long tackled issues of loss, deterioration, etc., and of the preservation and long-term access of digital files, and I do not intend to go into a technical discussion of archival procedures; what I am noting, as a symptom of the contemporary archive fever, is that such institutions today routinely provide what we might call “archiving tips” for the general public. The Library of Congress has a special page on “digital archiving”. Here is a web page that reproduces a Smithsonian Institution blog entry about “future-proof[ing] your digital photos” (ironically, the original blog entry is no longer available on the Institution’s own website). Newspapers and other cultural channels regularly share this kind of expertise as well, as the New York Times here. In the Google world, it would seem that everyone is bound to be an archivist, just as everyone is prone to be a researcher.

Derrida’s Archive Fever (translated from Mal d’archive: une impression freudienne, 1995), addresses, among other issues, the (archaeological, and foundational in Freudian theory) fear of losing beginnings, the desire to recover them through archives, and the renewed actuality of such fears and desires in the age of electronic communication, though the latter is by no means Derrida’s primary topic (see an excellent discussion of this text from the viewpoint of a practicing archivist). Here I am, logically or inevitably enough, opening a discussion of photography archives with the themes of loss, fear of losing (one’s pictures, one’s memories, one’s beginnings), and “archive fever” as the newest, as well as the oldest, compulsion of (our) civilization trying to counter such loss. That is Derrida’s topic, that is Google’s, Flickr’s, Instagram’s, and other archive-marketing concerns’ topic, and that is also the topic of countless professional and institutional discussions in the digital age. On photo-historians and archivists discussion lists, warnings of archives being lost, destroyed, dispersed, or threatened, are just as common as news of “troves” rediscovered or historic collections digitized. In fact the happy story of rediscovery/digitization/access is often directly coupled with the sad story or prospect of destruction/de-accession/dispersal, as was the case in 2013 with, for instance, the “Barnardo archive” of stray children taken into foster care and photographed in the late 19th century by Dr. Thomas Barnardo in London (as related on Michael Pritchard’s blog; it would appear that since this announcement in July, 2013, a “new home” for the originals will be found). Every day the multiplication of digital or digitized archives lends new credence to the old myth of universal access to universal knowledge of the past, and every day the destruction or reshuffling of archives (including cases of rediscoveries leading to radical modifications of the archival conditions of existence of records) counters this fantasy.

The story of archives is, in a sense, the story of photography itself. As all historians of photography know since at least Walter Benjamin (and through him Georg Simmel and Alois Riegl), the “documentary” (we might call it “archiving”) impulse is the primary motive for so many photographic grands projets, monumental rather than documentary in essence, and often linked to processes of transformation/destruction—from François Arago dreaming in 1839 of a photographic recovery of hieroglyphics destroyed by “greed” and “vandalism” to the French Mission Héliographique, from the US-sponsored surveys of Western territories and populations to Edward S. Curtis (see, on Curtis’s ambiguities, Mathilde Arrivé’s recent research), from the French Revolution’s creation of National Archives and other patrimonial organizations to Charles Marville’s and Eugène Atget’s “archiving” of the changing city of Paris (followed in New York by Berenice Abbott), or from August Sander’s Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts to the FSA’s “archive” of the Great Depression. Photography, we might say if we were willing to allow once again such an essentializing substantive, was made to archive us and our (European, Euro-American, Capitalist, etc.) projects and memories of transforming the world. Digital photography only multiplies this foundational paradox, and highlights the important connection of photographic technology in the sense of the 19th century to digital technologies of the 21st.

I don’t intend to prolong unduly this post, but I do need to complete the previous remarks in two directions. One set of ideas has to do with another fear of the computer age, which is the Orwellian fear of control, and the particular role of the notion of “archive,” in the singular, in the discourse of this fear. Even as users of Flickr or Picasa create and handle sets of pictures they like to think of as their personal “archives,” and even as web surfers also may revel in exploring the online archives of Life magazine and other such photographic or pictorial “troves,” they also live—increasingly it seems—with the fear of a demon called “the archive,” which looms right there in the cloud world where they store their personal pictures. Though the recent revelations of global surveillance of electronic communications are not primarily focused on images, they do address large processes of monitoring where, as in the war by drones, interception of communications and geolocalization of messages result into procedures of visualization and, ultimately, arraignment or destruction. One’s ordinary archiving of photos on this or that facility does not carry such risks, but nonetheless constantly reminds one of them; and in spite of appearances this fear of the all-controlling archive is not new. Long before Edward Snowden, the public debate on surveillance has been fueled by a vast literature discussing visual surveillance and “control” of and by images as crucial mechanisms in modern systems of power, and isolating “the archive” (a word, as Derrida reminds us, etymologically linked to arkhê “beginning” and “authority”, arkhein “originate” and “command”, and arkhôn “ancient” and “commander”) as the central operative tool of such mechanisms. The critique of “the archive,” in the singular, as the underlying productive tool of institutional and/or commercial control of citizens (or consumers) derives not only from George Orwell’s 1984 and other dystopian visions of modernity but also from loose readings of Michel Foucault (especially two of his books from the early 1970s, L’Archéologie du savoir, 1969; and Surveiller et Punir, 1975, which introduced the now unavoidable metaphor of panopticism) and many later texts inspired by French post-structuralism, from Paul Virilio and his La Machine de Vision (1988) to Alan Sekula (especially in his landmark article “The Body and the Archive,” published in October in 1986 and available on JSTOR and Google Drive; see a creative Prezi presentation of this text by Isabel Neal) and John Tagg’s The Burden of Representation (1988), an important study of 19th-century institutional and “disciplinary” uses of photography and photographic archives. The critique of the archive has been an important political and pedagogical thrust in raising civic awareness of the significance of such apparently “necessary” exercises (or “drills”, in Foucault’s term) as police identification photography, medical and anthropological collections of specimens, or even school pictures and other imageries of institutionally or professionally-sanctioned “communities.” It has also, unfortunately, resulted in propagating selective—indeed biased—understandings of not only the actually diverse semantic functions of such institutional procedures of “archiving” but also of the much larger notion of archives, in the plural.

[I am aware that this critique of the archive also has roots and echoes in 20th-century artistic projects that have mimicked the totalizing fantasies of archiving in order to deconstruct them and reconstruct or re-map new (dis-)orders. This line of investigation has been the topic of the French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman’s ongoing investigation of the place of photographs in archives and his defense of the “atlas” form in 20th-century creative and critical thought on images since Aby Warburg’s Atlas Mnemosyne (see especially L’Oeil de l’histoire 3, Atlas ou le Gai Savoir inquiet, and this review). Didi-Huberman’s Benjaminian exploration of the atlas as a dynamic form for undoing and re-doing or “re-mounting” worldviews and accepted lessons of history behind them has been illustrated in the 2011-2012 exhibition ATLAS. How to Carry the World on One's Back? and its sequels (After Atlas and Nouvelles histoires de fantômes). I am, in a sense, only modestly following Didi-Huberman’s lead in voicing here a plea for embracing archives in the plural, and their great promise, as opposed to descrying the power of “the archive.”]

Not all photo archives—far from it—can be described as the products of intentional, directed “archiving” projects understood as purposeful, systematic efforts at “controlling” their subjects, the representations of such “subjects” and the uses of such representations. There exist—because people and institutions amass or simply retain them—countless unclassified, uncontrolled, and unknown archives (collections, piles, groupings of traces, records, documents, and especially photographs, located in family attics, professional warehouses, government agency repositories, and even computers and “cloud” replicas), the majority of which remain at any given time untouched and even unidentified, and which lay as sources for historical research. Such archives often mix photographs and other documents, though various factors may lead to the separation of pictures from texts. Such archives have no original purpose in and of themselves, except to function informally as markers or building blocks of processed, imagined, created identities, as is typically the case of the family album or shoebox of portraits and snapshots. For this reason, archives are, if I may risk an etymological game, rather anarchistic than “archistic” (a made-up antonym meaning, roughly, governmental). The issues relating to the conservation of digital archives are tremendous, and will become more so, and that is a major question for the future of historical research as well as collective identities. That being said, archives in the plural are, as Derrida also recognized, determined not only by their (past) systems of production and preservation—and certainly archival environments such as labeling, grouping, transmission, etc., are an integral part of their significance, which dispersal or digitization can destroy or obscure—but also by their (future) uses, re-uses, and ever-changing meanings. Historical work and historical innovation depend on a diversity of enquirers forever inventing new archives and renewing their questions to the diversity of archives, and not yielding to the dangerous illusions that photographs (especially as found in commercial-institutional “archives”) are in and of themselves expressions of the past and, more particularly, of past powers. Archives—starting with photographic portraits—are places for reconnoitering the evidence of past (and present) resistances, or, more generally, lives.