An Archivist’s Fantasy Gone Mad



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Siân Evans

LIS 651-03: Prof. Irene Lopatovska

April 27, 2010
The Archive in Theory: “An Archivist’s Fantasy Gone Mad”

What is an archive? Is it a thing? Is it a collection of things? When I sought to answer this seemingly simple query I quickly discovered that this wasn’t a “ready reference question,” so to speak. It was, in itself, a philosophical inquiry. The conventional definition of an archive is two-fold: a place in which public records or historical documents are preserved and/or a repository or collection, especially of information (Merriam-Webster Online). There are obviously also slippages between the archive, the museum, and the library. Archives can be both contained by and exterior to these other institutions.

However, this is only part of the answer. As Derrida has pointed out, “nothing is less clear today than the word ‘archive’” (Derrida, 1996, p. 90). This is partially due to the ways in which the term archive has shifted and expanded in contemporary cross-disciplinary discourse on the subject. It is also a product of what Pierre Nora calls the “imperative of our epoch” – that is, “not only to keep everything, to preserve every indicator of memory – even when we are not sure which memory is being indicated – but also to produce archives” (Nora, 1989, p. 14). According to Nora our age is defined by the desire to archive. Theorist Andreas Huyssen further localizes this archival impulse by situating the development of a culture of memory in Western society in the period of new social movements and the development of alternative histories after the 1960s (Huyssen, 2000, p. 22). Archives – both national and individual – are memory factories and, today, memory is big business. But if this elucidates the why it does not describe the what of the contemporary archive. I have not yet even begun to answer my own question.

While archives have been maintained since antiquity, the modern conception of the archive and archival administration was developed in revolutionary France. The National Archives were founded in 1789 and the Archives Department in 1796. Similarly, in England, the Public Record Act of 1838 assembled the management of all public repositories (Ferreira-Buckley, 1999, p. 578). The development, proliferation, and institutionalization of archives are generally associated with nineteenth-century Europe. As such the archive (and especially the national archive) played into a general sense of historical positivism typical to the era. As Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook have argued, both scholars and archivists have had a vested interest in both perceiving and promoting the archive as a neutral historical repository of information (Schwartz & Cook, 2002, p. 6). For contemporary theorists, the archive has become a physical site of this kind of research and a symbol of this philosophy.

In many ways there are two inextricably linked archives: there is the physical site or the repository itself and then there is the “imaginative site” whose boundaries are constantly shifting (Voss & Werner, 1999, p. i). It is in the slippages between the two that I am interested. I am concerned with the ways in which the archive has been recontextualized, redefined, and played with in contemporary theory and art, and how they inform what the archive constitutes in our collective cultural memory. While librarians and archivists have been generally been absent from this discourse, they are increasingly involving themselves in the debate. In this paper, I will briefly trace the role of the archive in its various iterations through postmodern theory. Is this, as Huyssen mischievously suggests, “an archivist’s fantasy gone mad?” In discussing the ways in which the archive has been taken up in recent years, I will also discuss the role library professionals have played in this largely theoretical but nonetheless cross-disciplinary discourse. I conclude with a discussion of the archive in contemporary art practice and the ways in which librarians could and should participate in this type of work.

The Foucauldian Archive: Discourse and History

Michel Foucault was, in many ways, the pioneer of the theoretical archive. Foucault’s archive is almost entirely dissociated from the physical space of the archive and from the conventional definition of an archive. For Foucault, the archive is not merely the sum of all historical documentation produced by a culture, nor is it the institution that allows for the storage of these texts. It is, rather, a theoretical twin to his conception of “discursive formation” (Laermans & Gielen, 2007).

The archive is a thread that runs through much of Foucault’s work, in which he is often preoccupied with the double drive towards institutionalization and classification in modern thought. It is in The Archaeology of Knowledge, published in 1969, that he explicitly deals with the concept. The archive described in this text is obscure. It is not “the library of all libraries” nor is it “that which collects the dust of statements that have become inert once more, and which may make possible the miracle of their resurrection.” It is instead “the first law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events” (Foucault, 2010, p.129). Foucault’s description of the archive as both the “system of utterability” and the “law of what can be said” is, as Laermans and Gielen have noted, related to his notion of “discursive formation.” The archive, then, does not reproduce but actually produces meaning.

This “epistemological twist” in Foucault’s conception of the archive highlights the power relations inherent in archival work (Laermans & Gielen, 2007). In his 1991 exploration of the development of the modern disciplinary society, Foucault highlights the ways in which the meaning-producing archive is inextricably linked to power-relations:

It is no longer a monument for future memory, but a document for possible use. And this new describability is all the more marked in that the disciplinary framework is a strict one: the child, the patient, the madman, the prisoner, were to become, with increasing ease from the eighteenth century and according to a curve which is that of the mechanisms of discipline, the object of individual descriptions and biographical accounts. This turning of real lives into writing is no longer a procedure of heroization; it functions as a procedure of objectification and subjection (Foucault, 1991, p. 191-192).
The archive is itself an instrument of power and a tool of subjugation.
Although Foucault’s archive is almost completely detached from the physical repository itself and the practice of archiving, it is nonetheless fruitful for practicing archivists and library professionals in general. As a center of production of meaning, as the “law of what can be said,” Foucault’s archive reminds us that the storage, organization, and redistribution of information are never passive or innocent; they always inform political and historical discourse.

The Derridean Archive: Freud’s Files

If Foucault removed the archive from its physical space and theoretical framework, Jacques Derrida reformulated it in terms of psychoanalysis. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression was first delivered as a lecture in 1994. In this text, Derrida uses the Freudian tropes of the death drive and the pleasure principle to posit his theory of the archive. For Derrida the archive is a mediation of two conflicting forces, one being the death drive (the primal urge for destruction that is “archive destroying”) and the other being the archive drive or the desire for conservation that is inextricably linked to the pleasure principle (Derrida, 1996, p. 11). He describes his archive fever or mal d’archive in French (which, importantly, also means “in need of archives”) rather poetically: “It is to burn with a passion. It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive, even if there’s too much of it, right where something in it anarchives itself” (Derrida, 1996, p. 91). According to Derrida, we not only need archives, we burn for them.

Derrida also treats the archive on a more practical level. In talking about the “unlimited upheaval underway in archival technology” he approaches the medium in which an archive is constructed and how it informs the archive’s representation and meaning (Derrida, 1996, p. 18). For example, he posits that the field of psychoanalysis is so dependant upon Freud’s files (his hand-written or typed correspondence and personal files) that it would be an entirely different field without them. And in the digital age with our multiplied and differentiated files and storage systems, psychoanalysis would have developed differently with regards to its dependence on Freud’s correspondence (Manoff, 2004, p. 14).

For Derrida, as for Foucault, the process of archivization “produces as much as it records the event” (Derrida, 1996, p. 17). In this idea we again we brush up against what Marlene Manoff has called “the postmodern suspicion of the historical record” (Manoff, 2004, p. 14). For both Foucault and Derrida the archive is not a passive receptacle, it shapes and controls the way history is read, which in turn shapes our political reality. As Derrida so succinctly says in a footnote at the beginning of Archive Fever: “There is no political power without control of the archive, or without memory” (Derrida, 1996, p. 4). Recent Developments: The Exploding Archive

The archive has been dislodged from its halls and annals. It has become symbolic for the ways in which we construct and organize our histories (official, collective, and personal). It has also become a site of contestation, a theoretical space within which we can challenge the notion of historical positivism and the power structures created in archivization; as Marlene Manoff has noted, the term itself is “loosening and exploding” in contemporary discourse (Manoff, 2004, p. 10). The ways in which both Foucault and Derrida have expanded the archive’s theoretical reach have provided fertile ground for writers and thinkers across a variety of disciplines.

Power and memory are two tropes that dominate the discussion surrounding contemporary archives. One instance of this kind of work is that of literary theorist David Greetham, who has looked at the archive in terms of loss/gap/garbage. In his exploration of the “poetics of archival exclusion” he argues that archives do not tell us a truth about ourselves or our histories; they, rather, construct idealized images of our supposed collective history. Where they should reproduce plurality, they in fact reinforce singularity. He notes that, for example, the time capsule sent out in our space probe that was meant to bear “universal signs of our culture,” did not preserve images of Auschwitz, My Lai, and other stains on the face of twentieth century history (Greetham, 1999, p. 9). For Greetham, archives are often covertly politicized under the guise of neutrality.

However, Greetham also notes that it is often the garbage (the things accidentally preserved, ignored, left by the wayside) that is most worthy of preservation. He argues, somewhat cheekily, “In fact, one ironic rule of thumb might very well be that the more culturally valuable or commercially popular an item might appear to be here and now, the less eligible it ought to become for conservation” (Greetham, 1999, p. 9). This kind of politics of exclusion from archival histories has played a large part in both feminist and postcolonial theory. While on the one hand archives exclude many racial and social groups as well as troubling historical phenomena, they have also been used to justify racist and sexist behavior by political regimes. Writers like Gayatri Spivak have, for example, unearthed the patent racism and colonial bias in statistical analyses and public records in colonial India (Manoff, 2004, p. 14). As Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook have noted “archives are then not pristine storehouses of historical documentation that has piled up, but a reflection of and often justification for the society that creates them” (Schwartz & Cook, 2002, p. 12).

Schwartz and Cook are among the few library professionals who have engaged with the debate surrounding the myriad descriptions of archives. They have argued that since the archive can no longer hide behind a guise of neutrality, the power invested in archives and records should be opened to discussion and debate not only amongst theorists but also among archivists (Schwartz & Cook, 2002, p. 10-19). Similarly, Marlene Manoff, head of the humanities library at MIT, has stressed that the field of library and information science has only benefited from interdisciplinary work with fields such as information technology and anthropology. She argues that archival theory offers a rich ground for debate and discussion for librarians and archivists (Manoff, 2004, p. 22).

Many archivists have resisted a perceived overdetermination of the nuts and bolts of their profession. A number of writers have launched attacks against the supposed navel-gazing aspects of the theoretical discourse surrounding the archive and have focused on the practical need for archives in contemporary society (Manoff, 2004, p. 20). This conservative position is blind to the ways in which Foucault and Derrida’s ideas about power and knowledge have already shaped how archives are used and viewed. In recent years, for example, it has become obvious that progressive politics and alternative histories also depend on archives (Ferreira-Buckley, 1999, p. 582). The proliferation of activist-librarians’ websites like Radical Reference (www.radicalreference.info) only further supports the claim that there is a need for information and archivization in previously marginalized fields of discourse. As Schwartz and Cook have argued, there is power in records and this power needs to be mediated by archivists and theorists alike.

Internet reference and online archiving is a field within which librarians have been largely vocal. The elasticity of digital archives has brought up a number of censorship issues: e.g. “Can things simply be removed from the digital record without a trace?” and “Are we okay with this?” In a 2001 essay entitled “The Symbolic Meaning of Libraries in a Digital Age” Marlene Manoff argues that the burgeoning digital age has been accompanied by a preoccupation with and a paranoia regarding the preservation of cultural legacy (Manoff, 2001, p. 371-381). In many ways her arguments parallel those of Andreas Huyssen: “…in this prominence of academic ‘mnemohistory,’ memory and musealization together are enlisted as bulwarks against obsolescence and disappearance, to counter our deep anxiety about the speed of change and the ever shrinking horizons of time and space” (Huyssen, 2000, p. 33). For both Huyssen and Manoff, the rapid development of technology has deepened our obsession with historical records and their immunization to the perceived quickening of time. Manoff, however, locates the arguments more specifically in a number of attacks launched against libraries in the late 1990s. Librarians and archivists (as well as contemporary theorists) have, indeed, countered these claims and explored the ways in which our digital age has shaped and shifted information storage and the moral and theoretical considerations therein.

In a special 2007 issue of Image & Narrative on the digital archive, theorists and archivists alike discussed the various iterations of the archive in the digital age. Jan Baetans and Jan Van Looy, for example, explored the shifting role digitization has played in cultural preservation and the moral and political issues that have come to the fore as a result of technological developments in recent years (Baetans & Van Looy, 2007). Rudi Laermans and Pascal Gielen, on the other hand, subject the digital archive to the kind of rigorous theoretical gymnastics imposed upon the archive: drawing on Wolfgang Ernst, Michel de Certeau, and Michel Foucault, they theorize that the structure of databases (and metadata) is such that it can be understood in Foucauldian terms as “the archive of the digital archive” (Laermans & Gielen, 2007).

Art and the Archive

Archives do not simply reconnect us with what we have lost. Instead they remind us, like Warhol’s boxes, of what we have never possessed in the first place.” – Sven Spieker, 2008.

Contemporary theory is of course not the only discursive space within which the archive has been extensively unpacked, repositioned, and reimagined. Art and art criticism have been marked by a particular preoccupation with archives for over a century now. Fascinated by the machinery of modernity, such diverse artists as Marcel Duchamp, the Surrealists, the Soviet Futurists, and contemporary performance artists like Sophie Calle have used, criticized, and played with the notion of the institutional or bureaucratic archive. Indeed, in his 2008 monograph The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy, Sven Spieker has argued that the archive is overexposed and overdetermined in late twentieth century art and art criticism. Nonetheless, it is still (as Derrida famously claimed) unclear (Spieker, 2008, p. 4-5).

Even before the explosion of contemporary theorization on the subject matter of the archive, artists were already reinvisioning the tools of historical documentation. This loosened archive offers ample space within which artists have been able to launch both political and aesthetic challenges and, as Spieker notes, play. For example, Robert Morris’ Card File: July 11-December 31, 1962 is an industrially produced index file, meticulously arranged. However, all of its individual entries record the process of its own production (Spieker, 2008, p. 12). It is quite literally an archive of itself.

Spieker closes his exploration of the bureaucratic archive in modern and contemporary art with an epilogue on Thomas Demand’s Archive (1995), which is merely an empty archive: shelves filled with empty boxes. All the machinery is there, none of the content: “Demand’s archive denies us the indexicality to which archives and photographs lay claim, presenting us instead with an index of its absence. Not an archive of clues, of footprints, or of fingerprints, only organized clutter. Not the past, only phantoms of empty boxes” (Spieker, 2008, p. 193). This notion of the archive as “not the past” is one I would like to take up in a discussion of the work by the New York-based art collective of Jen Kennedy and Liz Linden.

In February of 2009 I attended a town-hall meeting at the Whitney Museum of American Art entitled BACK TO THE FUTURE…an experimental discussion on contemporary feminist practice…in which Jen Kennedy and Liz Linden proposed a strategic and temporary suspension of the (dated) terminology surrounding feminism. Their goal was to open a non-hierarchical discussion about what feminism means to women today. As Emily Apter has argued, Kennedy and Linden’s conception of feminism as “lived practice” and their characterization of feminist language as being rooted “terms of the past” are both based in ideas about temporality (Apter, 2010, p. 2). In their reinterpretation of feminist language, however, Linden and Kennedy are also invested in challenging semantic hegemony, in repositioning feminist discourse at its most basic level, in reconfiguring the “law of what can be said.”

Although, upon first glance, this project may not seem to have much to do with archives, I argue that it does on two levels. First, if Foucault’s theory of the archive is the chimerical twin of his notion of “discursive formation” then Kennedy and Linden’s project may be described as a challenge to what is broadly construed as “feminist discourse” or the “feminist archive.” Inherent in their proposed language is also an attention to the political weight of words. Their “Dictionary of Temporary Approximations” (distributed prior to the event) included “placeholders” such as “lived practice,” “lived experience,” and “activism” to be used in the place of traditional terms such as “feminism,” “womanhood,” and “protest.” Many of their temporary terms borrow obviously from Marxist discourse and, as such, politics are always at the forefront and subject to challenge. Their feminist archive is indeed one that is “not the past” – it empties the discourse of its accepted terminology and attempts to see what happens when we start fresh.

Second, a later iteration of their on-going project is more specifically related to library science and archival theory. In Book Swap, which took place at Dispatch Gallery in New York between November 4, 2009 and January 5, 2010 (and will take place at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Contemporary art on May 22, 2010 and at the Silverman Gallery in San Francisco in the fall of 2010), Kennedy and Linden play with the notion of the feminist canon. The project is an installation of a feminist lending library in which visitors are encouraged to swap any book in their collection of roughly 130 books for any other tomes they considered feminist. Kennedy and Linden plan to map the circulation of the library as it crosses the nation (interview with Jen Kennedy, April 15, 2001). Again, Kennedy and Linden destabilize Foucault’s archive: their project directly engages the feminist archive, the “law of what can be said” or the “system of utterability.” By indiscriminately allowing others to build their feminist library, they literally destabilize what can be said. Furthermore, this project is a materialization of Schwartz and Cook’s assertion that archives are “neither universal across space nor stable across time” (Schwartz & Cook, 2002, p. 5). As Kennedy and Linden’s library moves across the country it will become a constantly and organically shifting feminist archive, representing a multitude of (anonymous) voices.



At a time when libraries are repositioning themselves, an intervention in public debates and discussions such as those staged by Kennedy and Linden is fundamental. Their project touches on collection development, cataloging, public access to information, and many other issues directly related to the field of library and information science. Similarly, their project could only benefit from the advice and intervention of professionals with a working knowledge of how these systems work and how they can be critiqued and/or recontextualized. In line with Manoff, I argue that librarians can only benefit from cross-disciplinary work with the theoretical archive; and artistic practice offers a rich field for such work.

Works Cited
Baetans, J. & Van Looy, J. Digitising Cultural Heritage: The Role of Interpretation in Cultural Preservation. Image & Narrative: Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative. 17.
Derrida, J. (1996). Archive fever: A Freudian Impression. Religion and Postmodernism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ferreira-Buckley, L. (1999). Archivists with an Attitude - Rescuing the Archives from Foucault. College English. 61 (5), 577.
Foucault, M. (2010). The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. New York: Vintage books.
Foucault, M. (1991). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin Books.
Greetham, D. (1999). “Who’s In, Who’s Out”: The Cultural Poetics of Archival Exclusion. Studies in the Literary Imagination. 32 (1), 1.
Huyssen, A. (2000). Present Pasts: Media, Politics, Amnesia. Public Culture. 12 (1), 21-38.
Laermans, R. & Gielen P. (2007). Image & Narrative: Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative. 17.
Manoff, M. (2004). Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines. Portal: Libraries and the Academy. 4 (1), 9-25.
Manoff, M. (2001). The Symbolic Meaning of Libraries in a Digital Age. Portal: Libraries and the Academy. 1 (4), 371-381.
Merriam-Webster Online. Retrieved at www.merriam-webster.com
Nora, P. (1989). Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire. Representations. (26), 7-24.
Schwartz, J. M., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Archival Science. 2 (1-2), 1-2.
Spieker, S. (2008). The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Voss, P. J. & Werner, M. L. (1999). The Poetics of the Archive. Studies in the Literary Imagination, v. 32, no. 1. Atlanta, Ga: Georgia State University.




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