The Limits of Memory

I found this week’s reading assignments interesting because they highlighted that archiving itself can be a revolutionary act. Expanding upon the notion we have been working with that ‘archiving is memory’, the simple act of documenting and archiving populations and events, especially disenfranchised or ‘non-mainstream’ populations, provides a voice for the voiceless within collective ‘memory’. As Caswell states, “Fundamentally to me, the
act of remembering and forgetting is about creating a future in which resources are more equitably distributed. For me, archival labor should be infused with a social justice ethics.” The ‘act of remembering’ is in itself a powerful tool, and a tool the archivist can use to turn ‘memory’ into something more permanent and tangible.

Looking at topics like the Arab Spring or indigenous peoples can give us a look into the type of populations that in an earlier time would be undocumented or even forgotten. In both the analog and digital ages our ability to archive has been limited; limited by technology, by public or private interests, by political or religious taboo, etc. Referring to the Arab Spring Even Hill states, “One broken link at a time, one of the most heavily documented historical events of the social media era could fade away before our eyes”. Just as our human brain is limited in the quantity and detail we can remember, so is our ability to ‘remember’ in our archives – both in analog and digital environments.

Revolutionary Conceptions


Encountering Zielinski describing the conception of a ‘classic archive’ as, “the externalization of historical consciousness,
thereby documenting a consciousness fundamentally tied to power”, I immediately saw the contrast in Breakell’s conception of the ‘modern’ archive as ‘democratized’. The image of ‘dusty basements’, dismissively so, paints how the general public is often told to visualize ‘classic’ archives. Additionally, our modern understanding that “history is written by the winners” provides us an excuse to keep the basements dusty, coloring any archival work as inherently incomplete, or one-sided. Breakell points out that archivists have been labeled ‘voyeuristic’; shuffling between dusty boxes (the “monotonous gray”, as Mattern points out, appears to us as an “anti-aesthetic”) in darkened underground spaces, this was the image the came to mind from the advent of archiving until the dawn of modern computing.

In a short period of time, the conception of ‘archive’ was completely and radically changed. Breakell herself points out that “archive” had not been used as a verb until the PC-era, and was quick to share her hope that “the original meaning not to be lost in the new”. The new conception of ‘archiving’ seemed a far more active and relatable task: Mattern points out that “a rather small proportion of the population at large has been in an archive”, but nearly everyone has had the experience of archiving data via computer systems. The digital universe seems at once more tangible and omnipresent than the arcane world of the subterranean stacks. The ‘cyberspace’ aesthetic of instantaneous retrieval, and endless digital storage has quickly re-contextualized how we conceive of archives and archiving. Mattern identifies the experience of students physically visiting an archive, “how much of it lives only in material form, and will likely not be digitized any time soon.” If history is written by the victors, does that mean the dusty basements will fall by the wayside to visions of LED-lit server rooms?



Brave Pneumatic World

I have a vivid memory from childhood that has stuck with me: I’m in the back of my mom’s car at the drive-thru bank in our town. As she presses a button, a capsule shoots up a clear tube out of sight. A disembodied, telephonic voice emanates from a speaker, says a few words, and seconds later the capsule glides back down the tube, this time filled with money and a lollipop for me, as if by magic. Perhaps it is the image of Jetson-ian ‘tube-based’ movement, or the unforgettable summation of the internet itself as ‘a series of tubes’ by Senator Ted Stevens; something about housing and moving information, infrastructure, or objects with compressed air via (usually underground or hidden) tube networks just aesthetically strikes us as futuristic.

There is a long history of humans envisioning a faster, ‘non-traditional’ conception of movement; always looking for a shortcut, there had to be some system that could bypass the pitfalls of conventional mobility allowing for a faster, unobstructed journey. The pneumatic tube thus functions as both an example of technology and a piece of infrastructure to facilitate technological or information transfer. Susan Stewart mentions in her piece, ‘Plato likens the pigeon to a bit of knowledge’(1); like ‘pigeonholes’, each opening in a pneumatic tube arrangement not only serves to house ‘knowledge,’ whether it be a physical object or document, but to move that particular piece to a specific and purposeful destination. The idealized vision of pneumatic systems was intended to help move humans faster and with less obstruction, and to help businesses move product between locations — and it brought a futuristic expediency to these otherwise banal and unavoidable tasks.

Further adding to the air of ‘futuristic’ or liminality is the concealment of these tube systems: we typically only see the intake/output aspect of the operation before the tubing network vanishes into a wall, or underground. This obfuscation of the apparatus functions in stark contrast to the purposeful design and arrangement of of shelving, as discussed in the Mattern piece: “we put things on shelves, rather than behind doors or in drawers… when they’re sufficiently attractive for display’(2). While these systems of cascading tubes are fascinating, we tend to bury the infrastructural underpinning within or beneath architecture; we see only the initial setup and final product. Preceding our modern conception of ‘instant’, the ability to stick something into a tube in the wall and have it reach its targeted destination almost instantly has a distinctly science-fiction appeal (unsurprisingly, the use of the pneumatic tube in works of fiction is widespread). Fitting with the sci-fi aesthetic, operators of pneumatic systems even referred to themselves as ‘rocketeers'(3).

Chun describes new media as ‘[racing] simultaneously towards the future and the past, towards what we might call the bleeding edge of obsolescence’(4). The pneumatic tube system falls within the realm of technology once viewed as forward-thinking and potentially revolutionary, only to be rendered outdated by new developments. Once these tube systems lose their utility, a skeletal remainder physically remains. The disused pneumatic system at the Brooklyn Public Library looked worn like other machinery we saw, but somehow also out of place, as if from a totally different era. The demise of pneumatic tube systems was brought about by their high cost (as is often the case), and what was once a tangible tool of ‘the future’ swiftly became a relic of dated thought. The New York Times eulogizes the once state-of-the-art New York pneumatic mail system as such:

For the time, the system was thoroughly modern, even high-tech, a subterranean network for priority and first-class mail fueled by pressurized air. Only a few decades later it was mostly a dinosaur, made obsolete by the motor wagon and then the automobile.(5)

Like the payphone or the railway semaphore, a physical monument to the obsolescence of entire networks remains visible with its intended purpose obfuscated. To those not aware of the history, these structures become simply another topographical marker. Much like actual dinosaurs, we are left with only skeletal remains hinting at the magnitude of something lost to time.

We got to personally see a pneumatic system now relegated to an antique at the Brooklyn Public Library. This is the conundrum of the technology: in present day it is both obsolete and yet still somehow reminiscent of ‘futuristic’ ideals. In her piece, Stewart mentions Cornell’s 1952 work Dovecote, which featured colored balls that could be moved from panel to panel via a series of hidden tracks within the frame of the work: “Dovecote…presents an image of memory in a process of disappearance… Dovecote appears as… a forgotten function, a device no one remembers.”(6)  By design we are only privy to the ‘beginning and ending’ of pneumatic systems, unable to see the obscured infrastructure. In this way at a glance, the obsolete systems visually call to mind notions of immediacy, ‘magic’ transportation, and both the past and the present at once.

Pneumatic tube systems are still in place and functional in certain modern settings: banks, fast food restaurants, and somewhat regularly within hospitals to transport samples or medicine to and from labs. The technology has also been applied to scenarios far beyond urbanized environments: Whooshh Innovations has crafted a pneumatic tube system used to transport migrating fish over dams, ensuring the integrity of natural ecosystems and man-made infrastructure (I thought I was clever in finding this, but as it turns out the Jon Oliver show has already produced a ‘viral clip’ about the novelty of this technology).

Perhaps the most well-known modern adaptation of the pneumatic tube system has been popularized by eccentric and ambien-fueled tech entrepreneur Elon Musk. Hyperloop has proposed the development of an underground human-transport system that would allow for coast-to-coast travel at breakneck (hopefully not literally) speeds. Using a combination of a pneumatic system and mag-lev technology used in ‘bullet trains’, initial designs offer yet another iteration of a ‘futuristic’ re-imagining of how to transport things faster than the current paradigm. Like most of Elon Musk’s ideas, Hyperloop attracted a lot of interest with detractors and proponents attempting to reason how and why this system could work or fail. Vox describes the promise of pneumatic travel as ‘part Victorian, part Jetson’(7) (to me, there is an element of Super Mario as well), and there is something undeniably more idealistically ‘futuristic’ about tube travel than even another one of Musk’s conceptions, the self-driving car, offers. Perhaps the immediacy of ‘instantaneous’ travel at some point stops resembling technology and becomes something more like ‘magic’.

1 page 293


3  @1:10


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Dovecote by Joseph Cornell

Autobiography In Arrangement



When I came across the quote “Every library is autobiographical” in the Manguel piece, something brought me back to our visit to the Brooklyn Public Library. In particular, the mention of “Lindsay Boxes” – the unremarkable, conventional giant box libraries that were built in the late 60’s. How could librarians craft an “autobiographical experience” in these cheap, bland spaces? Our visit saw us experience a vibrant and bustling community space, only to then become privy to the vast underpinning (literally and figuratively) below that facilitated the use of the building beyond just a public hall.

Manguel later compares the experience of librarian and viewer to that of a poet and a reader. The following pieces on the atypical categorization structures of the Warberg and Prelinger libraries offer a possible “solution” to the drab environment offered by Lindsay Box-like structures. I also wonder about non-traditional library structure with regards to novels and other fiction writing, and what messages could be encoded in their arrangement. Perhaps BookOps can see create custom curated arrangements in branch libraries (if only they had the massive amount of time and resources that would take).

The Human Face of Archival Practice

I am struck by the connection many of this week’s readings point out between archives and humans involved in their conception and maintenance. Derrida invokes the history of the term archive, pointing to their original Greek definition as the residences of “superior magistrates”. This involves both a physical location to house legal documents, and the guardianship of “the law” as signified through those documents by a group of privileged people. This initial conception of the term makes the archivist as equally important as the collected documents; the modern and increasingly digital world of the archive cedes more power to the collection than its human arbiters.

In the Jessa Lingel piece and the Peel Archives piece, the world of the archivist comes across as arcane and esoteric, riddled with untruths partially colored by mis-characterizations of archival science and practice. The Peel Archives piece establishes the quandary of the archivist to create a comprehensive collection with the caveat of not being able to keep “everything”. It is fitting that Lingel uses a reference to Matisse’s The Treachery of Images before critiquing the over-abundance of outdated, gendered, analyses of archival work and the lack of distinct separation between library/archive.