Ugh, theory is a club. Ugh, theory requires chops. Foucault’s name-dropping feels like the initiation of a secret handshake I don’t know the response to. While some of the most rewarding knowledge I’ve encountered alienates before it opens itself up, I can’t help but wonder what the academic world would be like if minds like Foucault slowed down. On the other hand, dense, stubborn text can serve the knowledge pool by requiring communal decodings which keep the academic environment alive, perhaps preventing some of the consolidation Foucault appears to examine, label, and account for epistemologically.
Breaking off one small part (and I could have this totally backwards) a priori as it is used in this selection refers to positivity of discourse. These collective positivities have certain characteristics that he stresses, including the tendency for reciprocal influencing with the elements they connect. All of this determines “decisive thresholds”.
Broadly (and a fixity of scope is something I feel Foucault struggles with providing his readers – but then again, theory in general addresses lofty atmospheric ideas over immediately tangible stimuli) It would seem that Foucault is questioning the ways human epistemological activity can rely on the collective concepts it generates in its wake.
Insert a silly reference to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which, since it applies to theory, puts us ALL in a club, one which Foucault cannot rope off in part for VIP bottle service as he subdivides the atomic structure of bodies of knowledge, language – masses that no individual can conceive of in totality.
Insert sci-fi script idea of future super-intelligent A.I. thinking Foucault was the hippest human ever. They resurrect him a la jurassic park. Rather than provide entertainment, he questions their logic. Mayhem. Nobody makes it off of the island in one piece.
In the Professor’s interview, she touches on the unique offerings the medium (or mode) of sound can have in an archival context. She mentions the “medium, material, and volumetric properties of both the recorded sounding subject or object and the space in which that recording occurred”. It is certainly true that analog sound recordings carry a type of metadata about the state of the space, and the world, at the time of recording. Reading the Gammon article, it seems as though the widespread degradation of analog (magnetic) media constitutes a loss of our collective memory of the acoustics (and spacial properties) of all the places at which important sounds have been captured. Even in the digital recording era, there still exists an important relationship between space and sound, although the impacts on audio fidelity seem reduced.
I just had a relevant experience this past weekend with friends who sat around a studio and mastered an album through digital-analog transfer, and back. In the world of music, the degradative properties of analog mediums are often sought out for use as a post-production filter to bring aesthetic merit to sets of digitally edited and recorded songs. The descriptions of the “improvements” heard when running digital songs through tape, and back again, is often described in terms of increased “dimensionality”. This makes me wonder whether culturally we deeply associate analog grit (the behavior of tape) with the acoustic properties of rooms used for recording at the height of the analog age in popular music (the old recording studio room setups – lots of echoes and phase cancellation, textures of wood, things which many engineers consider a no-no, but which also define the sounds of classic records we all love)…
I am drawn to the aura of Tacita Dean’s work, specifically the process, particularly with Girl Stowaway. I am sure there exists, in a vacuous alternate dimension devoid of chaos and serendipity, a boring version of an archival art piece which resurrects a historical Jeinnie, projected in a wall-to-wall carpeted gallery cave where humans on awkward first dates sit squishily on that flat couch while looping fluorescent assaults of the ken burns effect gradually make them realize they learned everything they needed to know from reading the embossed didactic glued to the wall. Deep in the throes of trying to impress one another with pseudo-intellectual endurance for art gazing, each first-dater hopes the other will initiate the gesture to move on. In the real world (in this dimension, or as marvel nerds call it, earth 616), Dean’s work is catchy and vibrant. Why? I cite captured coincidence.
The extroverted making of art (and perhaps, due to its pensive and temporally absorbent nature, archival art) might be the best exercise we have for trapping exotic, wild coincidences for dissection under epistemological and existential microscopes, to be prodded and picked apart by whatever theory pierces the skin, hoping to bottle any organs of intellectual merit.
Unpacking my own experience of exposure to Dean’s work suggests Girl Stowaway as a piece takes many forms across its scope, including the form of journalistic reporting on what feels like lived performance art and true crime investigation and testimony. Where Stowaway ends or begins as art, whether it exists on visual media, or through story, or in interview about either (or all of the above), is not easy to pinpoint. In the middle of a course brimming with examples of well ordered orders and neatly cataloged catalogs, I find that difficulty to be refreshing.
While I understand the broad labeling of this sector of art as archival, I do not understand how fabricating your subject’s history (which she did, and which I am ALL FOR!) does not constitute a disqualification of sorts. We have explored how empirically flexible the archive can be compared to its dusty colloquial stereotype, but I still feel as though, for the sake of its own historicity, archival should be an adjective associated with minimal invention, fabrication, or fill-in-the-gaps creation. Foster describes archival art as art that “not only draws on informal archives, but produces them as well”, and I took informal to mean still possessing a reasonable degree of empirical integrity. I seem to still have this childishdefinition hammered into my head in verb form; to preserve a subject in its congenital truth, or to freeze from all subsequent biases. Susan Breakell explains that archive as a verb did not exist in her dictionary before 1988, and the use of it as such generates lexicological discomfort. That discomfort is the type of sensation, one of casual grieving for the loss of a reliable concept, that archiving should effectively preclude, no?
NO. Of course not.
The fabricated can simultaneously be the most integral part of archival art, and a vehicle for truths. Consider Cheryl Dunye and Zoe Leonard’s piece in which the fictional Fae Richards is invented and brought to life through the presentation of an archive of her life as a lesbian African American actress and singer in golden age hollywood, amalgamating the true experiences of many under one persona. It is a work of art that showcases the ability for its format to double as fiction and fact, discussing very resonant themes for black female artists of that (or perhaps any) era in a manner that may exceed the profundity of an alternative piece based on any single, historical individual.
Order is suggested by Foucault to be related to a threshold, below which is same, and above which is other. The ordering process, in some ways, is an expression of our cultural tendency to distinguish between that binary we seem to create. An aphasiac’s inability to create order in objects they are given to arrange suggests a hardwired connection between the capacity for communication and the synthesis of distinguishing criterion between dynamic stimuli. Musings on the whimsical ordering logics of a Chinese encyclopedia, and the alphabetization of Eusthenes, fuel Foucault’s argument that theory is born somewhere between language and science. Science operates within the fundamental codes of language, and between the two is a middle ground upon which theory has taken root and grown into our modern systems of classification. Language is much more than reproducible alphanumeric vocal or textual patterns of meaning; semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, permeates and defines the identity of many objects that remain excluded from the traditional archive.
Before the modern age, establishing orders taxed language to its limit, and since language often represents the culture that has refined it, order could be thought of as an expression of culture, if not a key recursive factor in its genetics. We likely cannot conceive of a time when language had substantially more authority, while having less fixity. Both global literacy and the definitional fixity of language seem, by the reasoning of Foucault, to be negatively correlated to its subjective, authoritative potency. That bond has seen its inverse peaks creep closer to zero in the past two centuries. When Foucault suggests the actual Grotian birth of man occurred recently, with the retirement of classical thought, he seems to be referring to an idea that humanity finally stumbled upon a more objective means for authoring and managing whatever portion of its cumulative identity is epistemic in nature.
As revolutionaries stood around piles of burning Bastille archives in 1789, I wonder if there was a palpable catharsis felt by individuals on behalf of the species; it would seem that on the archival scale of the item people were merely burning paper, but on the scale of the fonds, however,society was rejecting monarchy. This moment in human history sparked the development of what we know to be a hugely determinate epistemological protocol that, even after its own prime, continues to catalyze changes in what defines collections, knowledge, and collective knowledge. Born from the familiar conundrum of how best to conserve history selectively in the wake of regime change, Respect des Fonds created a relevance for the origin story of all subsequent archival data. Along the line of subsequent additions to archival guidelines, the Dutch Manual christened the concept of Original Order, the restoration of which allowed respect des fonds to govern records within (or below) the fondal unit.
Theories were not without critique; restoration of original order risked damaging the meaning a collection had accrued since creation. While adoption was, and has, been far from universal, the effort of a more detailed classification system has obviously enabled a growth in the efficiency of the knowledge pool. It took nearly two centuries for the Scott and Fenyo series system, which allowed for multiple interrelationships in ordering logic. As the successful deviations in practice across Europe over time suggest, respecting the Fonds wasn’t necessarily an attempt to cryogenically freeze the aura of a particular data with its origin, but rather an effort to tag it with a dart, paint a modest portrait of its genealogy, and re-release onto the shelves of the scholarly sea.
The prospect of finding a contemporary, tactile example of some of these principles is daunting. Meditating on my choices, I wander through my neighborhood, smartphone in hand, browsing through the mobile sites of countless libraries. As the unholy marriage of a search engine and my personal geolocation narrow down which locations lay within the reach of my metrocard, I pass beneath a window display of a local vintage clothing store. I stop dead in my tracks, and double back.
An uplit mannequin dons a shockingly period-accurate mid 50s outfit (jacket, shirt, pants, hat, shoes, briefcase – a complete temporal displacement via the subtle semiotics of textured fabric which reveals, conceals, or frames the hosting body). Here, the language of costume communicates to me a sense of suburban American coziness I have only seen depicted in visual storytelling; my grandfather’s generation and its picturesque postwar prosperity lives on in the soft cuts of its surviving period attire. The design conveys the economic confidence of a global superpower counting its profits after a lucrative world war, while simultaneously trying to swallow the the unsettling reality of the atomic age.
On the surface, the outfit before me, while impressive for seeming complete, was not epistemologically active beyond the meaning it evoked in me, nor was it a relevant example to the assignment at hand. What intrigued me, however, was the principled process through which the different elements of the outfit had been unified after having traveled through time and space among countless other garments of dissimilar style. This shop’s curator had assembled a functional semiotic archive by clustering unique garments together in restoration of a modular conceptual cultural artifact an observer could detect. Such a restoration was governed by a respect for the meaningful origins of that which only retains meaning if its origins are retained along with it. While “knowledge” can only be presented through garment with a high degree of abstraction, the aforementioned methodology of conceptual restoration is akin to an archive’s handling of physical volumes of text and visual media with great respect for the fonds. Both garment and book can be processed as artifact, I suppose.
A New York Times article from this past August resurfaces in my memory, and I recall a description of a Sunday afternoon spent shopping with Helen Uffner, one of the most reliable sources of period clothing for the film industry. Like the curators of countless small vintage clothing depots, Uffner’s work is in some small way made possible by the tectonic shift in archival theory and methodology centuries prior concerning what was of value for knowledge based artifacts. She restores order between found items, turning them into wearable modular artifacts of fashion history.
The nuances of a garment’s life as it relates to its historical identity present many of the same issues which faced archives during the attempts to standardize Respect des Fonds. Uffner’s blog documents a style of dress worn by Joan Crawford in the role of Letty Lynton, who went on to define women’s fashion for a generation. The dress design was copied by department stores however (a frequent occurrence due to patent loopholes), so classifying a found dress presents obstacles for the goal of a linear identity as artifact; the item’s actual history (if a clone) represents an important era of American manufacturing, while its design represents a pivotal moment in pre-code Hollywood. Which origin is the determinate one? What is the setting on the foucaultian threshold machine? A responsible system of preservation would demand all potentially notable characteristics of the artifact be part of its classification. Uffner describes an interesting paradox for the vintage clothing collector: nearly every item was manufactured, making it ubiquitous in origin and creation, but the life it has lived has made it unique without severing its connection to the original, abstracted design. This might offer insight into the archive, where the soul of each weathered volume reminds us, in our pursuit of refurbished meaning, not to confuse guiding order with law.
The library is much more, and can be much more, than whatever associations we have thrown together from life experience. The history of the Morgan library has made me consider the future publification of other private collections – will future generations one day be able to wander through Kanye west’s library of Jetsons memorabilia (he is a superfan)? Will it be the focus of a middle school field trip, boring the students to death but exciting their parents? Will the inclusion of something pop culture related in a wealthy celebrity’s “permanent collection” be momentum enough to elevate its status from “pop art” to “fine art” or “artifact”? Does a library possess such transformative power?
It seems to me that the most inclusive way to define library spaces is just to refer to them as manufacturing, refinement, and distribution facilities for the additive commodity that is knowledge. When it comes to new technologies “changing” the role of the library, I consider that what happens inside the library as not necessarily a part of its core “mission statement” (if you will – and through exploring the history of the library we are able to deduce, in a sieve-like way, what the library stands for among its many parallel purposes and values).
Our historical readings trace how knowledge and the medium of its recording have always provided a multifunctional value to the person or people in charge. Saladin selling a library to pay for the crusades might have been a mistake in the eyes of everyone curious about the content of those documents, but that line of thinking is dangerously arrogant; the library’s evolution has taught humanity about the value of knowledge through reflections on the regret of its misappropriation, incorrect appraisal, destruction. The library has come to represent shared knowledge, the earthly scrapbook of our species, and efforts to keep libraries (and the manner in which these efforts are rolled out) are a way we measure our self-worth… and scrap books can be dark!
As role of the library changes, the professor is certainly correct, I believe, in warning that making new things does not constitute an enlargement of the global knowledge pool.
Manoff’s piece provides a great context for an olympic dive into the informative yet recondite piece by Derrida. For Darth Derrida, archiving is way more sinister than you’d think; linked to the two conflicting forces of the death drive, and the conservation drive (linked to the pleasure principle), the structure and role of the archive in society is perhaps a very telling externalization of individual inner struggle. Ironically, while Freud’s work can at times feel reductively alienating, it seems that Derrida’s inclusion of Freud into the discussion of the archive is an attempt to make it personal, universal, primal, consequential. This is not the first time I’ve come across theory in a collegiate/grad school setting that makes me wish I had a doctoral level handle on psychoanalysis. We should have someone with a psychoanalysis degree in every class, hidden in plain sight, ready to spring into action like an academic air marshall.
This week’s readings sent me into a cognitive tailspin (as most readings do). To understand that extant archives are not necessarily of value to people that will eventually comb through them, proportionately to the degree that parts of life which would be invaluable as data never become mummified as such, injects a degree of randomness to the overall use value of the archive. The Hairpin article helps illuminate the extent to which archives are dedicated to context, which values the valueless because of its comparative contribution to something which does or will have value. Much can be understood about archival science (and black magic) by following the reasoning of an archivist as they attempt to answer questions many of us would likely ask them ourselves.
I became quite interested in the idea of the act of archiving as the elimination of personal biases, almost as though the archive itself is a globally scaled hindsight one can retrofit into the catch phrase “hindsight is 20/20”. Perhaps archiving is not preservation, but filtration, the same way short term memories are cherry picked for long term memories in the human brain. Perhaps archivists impose the same filtration style, on a large scale, upon cultural memories by datafying and preserving content and context (according to some specific criteria) to enable future unbiased minds to retroactively assign meaning or use meaning in a way that serves whatever survived early generations of bias-infancy regarding that information.
Perhaps neurons direct each other, to and fro, like a librarian would a genealogist seeking a specific public record.
It dawned on me that, at some point, essential archives may become absorbed, as a whole or in part, by another entity that supplants them. I wonder if all the material transferred in this scenario will be permanently watermarked as having passed through the curation of the previous archive which amassed it, which had its own principles governing the collection process. This might be particularly interesting should a regime, state or region become rearranged or fall to the point of requiring total restoration by another (perhaps invading) state.
If all the physical and digital materials accessible at the NYPL in the year, let’s say, 2017, were one day featured at a recreated site, it might, from a LaCaprian perspective, be a great (if not the most objective) pathway to understanding the geopolitical reality of the aforementioned year; what constituted knowledge, archives explain, constitute reality and cultural memory. I suspect such a future archive might also resemble a bit of an amusement park. Perhaps a future way to understand capitalism would be to visit a preserved archive first assembled during its heyday, and see for yourself the degree to which the profit motive shapes the preserved knowledge, comparing it then to similar source material at an archive intact across the world. What books are tattered beyond repair? What books are immaculate, with multiple copies? Combing through records of cardholders, what did the average political science student check out? My imaginative ramble of a scenario is really inspired by uncertainty as to whether context defines data or corrupts it.
Hopefully, one could then compare data at this future archive to the “truth” by jumping in a delorean. I’ve always thought this to be an unappreciated perk of the prospect of time travel; the illumination of the impact of human and societal biases on historical event, i.e. we travel through time not to see the past, but to sample it for comparisons that allow us to retroactively understand how much of any given present we subjectively take with us into the future (an issue that I now understand governs much of the minutiae of an archivist’s work).