Reading Derrida, I was surprised reading such a clearly media theoretical approach. Besides that the picture of Freud sitting at a laptop writing an Email to C.G. Jung made me smile, I think (and MacLuhan would be also in line with that) his observations are right that psychoanalysis would have been something completely different if Freud would have written emails.
And with that the archivization would have been different too. He writes, “the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content” (p. 17). Along these lines it is clear, that if the archives infrastructure is laid out for paper, manuscripts and books, it would have to print all the emails out on paper to be able to store them. But what happens to the message then? I think with this development the archive becomes not only a place where records are stored, as mentioned in one text in the readings for today, but also has to maintain technologies to keep them readable in their original form. It soon will become an archive of technical devices, which incorporates not only archivists but technicians, programmers, and restorers of new media. That made me think of the Museum ZKM in Karlsruhe which is in the same building as my university and their problems in showing media art from the 70s or 80s because it is an immense work to get the technical devices on which they were made and shown working again.
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.
What I find most baffling (to the point of amusement) reading Derrida is what appears to be a complete refusal of epidemiology in favor of metaphor. Thankfully, Carolyn Steedman notes this oversight, calling attention to the missed opportunity in characterizing (or perhaps more appropriate, in diagnosing) “archive fever.” Notwithstanding Derrida’s critical engagement with psychoanalysis, his ontological framing of the archive fails to take into consideration another obvious archive: Freud’s collection of antiquities.* In her book, Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects, Lana Lin demonstrates the efforts in archival practice are very much like the archives themselves: requiring persistent labor and maintenance.** Both Jessica Lingel’s and Region of Peel Archives blogs acknowledge the very human forces behind the objects, places, and processes we often take for granted when walking into a library or museum – or, similarly, when entering the virtual spaces that allow us to access memories of meaning.
*Maybe he does write about the Freudian archive. I should admit that I haven’t read much Derrida. I would rather read him through someone like Patricia Clough.
**Does this brush against your recent work, Shannon?
There is a consensus across all readings that archival collections are not neural historical records, but shaped — both willingly and accidentally — by archivists, technology, infrastructure, culture, and political ideology. This extends beyond what is archived to what is recorded in formats that lend themselves to archiving in the first place.
In the world of machine learning — underwriting its supposed omnipotence — “everything is a vector”, meaning that any information can supposedly be encoded in numerical, tabular form which can be computed with. Work in this field frequently uses, or “mines“ digital archives. Even if everything in those repositories were vectors, they would only point at records, not data itself. The data processing pipeline doesn’t draw from the source, but only connects to the tap. It misses out on the realia, things that hold meaning but were never even archivable in the first place. Data scientists should chat with archivists more.
The archive can be a site of profound knowledge production, leading one through a maze of the past in hopes of configuring a narrative of clarity. But as one falls into this information rabbit hole, one may realize this monument of “historically just knowledge” is built upon reconstructions through perspectives of subjective interpreters. But what constitutes one importance from another? It’s like the old idiom, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and in the case of the archive, archival holdings begin to unravel through this distinction. I’ve seen this subjective organization first hand in the Special Collections Library at AMNH, sifting through decades of interpreter’s perceptions of hierarchical importance’s. But I am yet another interpreter in the course of blurred histories. Will there ever be a light at the end of this tunnel? And is it the archivist’s contemporary responsibility to bring clarity to these histories?
In “The Black Stack,” Bratton writes that “the real nightmare, worse than the one in which the big machine wants to kill you, is the one in which it sees you as irrelevant, or as not even a discreet thing to know” (Bratton, 2014). I found this fear of the rapidly changing digital world to be intriguing because an issue that came up in all of this week’s readings is the question of who knowledge infrastructures serve and who it sees as irrelevant and ignores. The pieces by Star and, Hess and Ostrom address the fact that all infrastructures, material or immaterial, online or offline are “subject to social dilemmas” and therefore those who are marginalised or outside the prescribed norm continue to be so (Hess and Ostrom 3, 2007). When it comes to digital or technological development, there often seems to be a disregard for the social issues already present and the potential consequences of the development (the example I have in mind is Amazon Go). In terms of changing, replacing, or improving infrastructure, I am curious about the question brought up by Star, “When is an infrastructure finished and how do we know that?” (Star 379, 1999).
A couple of years ago I read The Black Stack, and founding compelling his definition of the “inverse panopticon effect”, I toke my phone to add his quote to my records. For that, I used the speech to text feature of the iPhone Notes app, but soon enough I found the task of transferring the text via sound to an interface powered by a machine learning algorithm was almost impossible. Even when the machine heard the words accurately they were changed automatically to what the system understood as more likely to have being said.
These weeks readings provided me another lens to understand the interface: the commons and the infrastructure. The data used to train the interface can be seen as the commons, a shared resource that grows with every user inadvertent contribution and simultaneously affects every user interaction. On the other hand, the infrastructure properties study by Starr can effortlessly be applied to the interface. In my struggle with the iPhone app, the interface bias became visible upon breakdown, upon an interaction that failed to follow the “conventions of practice”.
This week we read three different metaphors of digital information systems: 1) infrastructure; 2) the stack; 3) the commons. Starr, for example, is concerned with the design of information systems through standards, protocols, categories that may be biased but becomes deeply entrenched and embedded in the network once adopted. Bratton wrestles with emerging governmentalities that transcend physical and sovereign boundaries, and its actors include both private corporations as well as states. Bratton proposes the idea of the Black Stack—an “image of a totality” that directly contrasts with Starr’s metaphor of information as infrastructure.
While Starr uses the metaphor of infrastructure to map out potential sites of research into information systems, it’s not clear what action items can be taken from the metaphor of the “Stack,” or even from just the idea of the “Cloud platforms.” The specific referents are companies like Google and Amazon, which provide services that are very much grounded in and powered, literally, by very physical infrastructure and human labor. Their sheer wealth and influence do distort traditional geopolitics, for example see Amazon’s enormous leverage over the city of choice for their new headquarter. But the Stack-like verticality of relationships doesn’t appear to be useful in terms of visualizing its components (so to identify sites of research/potential intervention). As Chris Watterston’s famous sticker says: