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Cruel Optimism – their demand to return the total value extracted doesn’t take into account the exploitation required to even exist in this space



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Cruel Optimism – their demand to return the total value extracted doesn’t take into account the exploitation required to even exist in this space

The archive is an institutional imaginary that originates through a trade with death. In the archive the traumatic history of the world is captured via representation and laid to rest, all as grease for the wheels of statecraft. Representational history is always complicit in this quest to anaesthize the past creating violence


Mbembe’02 Achille, Research Professor in History and Politics at Wits University. He is based at the Witwatersrand Institute for Social and Economic Research. He is the author of many books, including On the Postcolony and Critique de la raison negre. His work has been translated into various languages. He is the editor of the online magazine The Johannesburg Salon and the convenor of the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism. “The Power of the Archive and its Limits.”

On a more basic level, the archive imposes a qualitative difference between co-ownership of dead time (the past) and living time, that is, the immediate present. That part of its status falling under the order of the imaginary arises from the fact that it is rooted in death as an architectural event. A death has to occur to give rise to a time characterised by not belonging to a private individual, precisely because this time, from that moment on, founds or institutes something. The power of the archive as an 'instituting imaginary' largely originates in this trade with death. There are three dimensions to this trade. The first involves the struggle against the fragments of life being dispersed. In fact, death is one of the most radical attempts to destroy life and to abolish all debt in relation to it. The act of dying, inasmuch as it entails the dislocation of the physical body, never attacks totally, nor equally successfully, all the properties of the deceased (in either the figurative or the literal sense). There will always remain traces of the deceased, elements that testify that a life did exist, that deeds were enacted, and struggles engaged in or evaded. Archives are born from a desire to reassemble these traces rather than destroy them. The function of the archive is to thwart the dispersion of these traces and the possibility, always there, that left to themselves, they might eventually acquire a life of their own. Fundamentally, the dead should be formally prohibited from stirring up disorder in the present. The best way to ensure that the dead do not stir up disorder is not only to bury them, but also to bury their 'remains', the 'debris'. Archives form a part of these remains and this debris, and that is why they fulfil a religious role in modern societies. But - always remembering the relationship between the document and the architectural design in which it is stored - they also constitute a type of sepulchre where these remains are laid to rest. In this act of burial, and in relation to sepulture, is found the second dimension of the trade between the archive and death. Archiving is a kind of interment, laying something in a coffin, if not to rest, then at least to consign elements of that life which could not be destroyed purely and simply. These elements, removed from time and from life, are assigned to a place and a sepulchre that is perfectly recognisable because it is consecrated: the archives. Assigning them to this place makes it possible to establish an unquestionable authoriry over them and to tame the violence and cruelty of which the 'remains' are capable, especially when these are abandoned to their own devices.

THE ARCHIVE AS A TALISMAN Up to now, we have treated archives on the basis of their power as a relic, and their capacity to function as an instituting imaginary. We have deliberately left aside two aspects: the subjective experience of the archive by individuals, and the relationship between the archive and the state. As far as the first is concerned, it is enough to state that however we define archives, they have no meaning outside the subjective experience of those individuals who, at a given moment, come to use them. It is this subjective experience that places limits on the supposed power of the archives, revealing their uselessness and their residual and superfluous nature. Several factors are involved in this subjective experience of the archives: who owns them; on whose authority they depend; the political context in which they are visited; the conditions under which they are accessed; the distance between what is sought and what is found; the manner in which they are decoded and how what is found there is presented and made public.



The relationship between the archive and the state is just as complex. It rests on a paradox. On the one hand, there is no state without archives - without its archives. On the other hand, the very existence of the archive constitutes a constant threat to the state. The reason is simple. More than on its ability to recall, the power of the state rests on its ability to consume time, that is, to abolish the archive and anaesthetise the past. The act that creates the state is an act of 'chronophagy'. It is a radical act because consuming the past makes it possible to be free from all debt. The constitutive violence of the state rests, in the end, on the possibility, which can never be dismissed, of refusing to recognise (or to settle) one or another debt. This violence is defined in contrast to the very essence of the archive since the denial of the archive is equivalent to, stricto sensu, a denial of debt. This is why, in certain cases, some states have thought that they could do without archives. They have therefore attempted, either to reduce them to silence, or, in an even more radical manner, to destroy them. By doing this, they thought they could defer the archive's abiliry to serve as proof of a suspect fragment of life or piece of time. More interested in the present and the future than in the past, they thought that they could shut down the past for once and for all so that they could write as if everything was starting anew. Because, in the end, such methods affect the materiality of the archive more than its dimension as an instituting imaginary, they have, on occasion, run into trouble. The power of the archive for all that has not been abolished. On the contrary, it has, rather, been displaced. Material destruction has only succeeded in inscribing the memory of the archive and its contents in a double register. On the one hand, in fantasy, inasmuch as destroying or prohibiting the archive has only provided it with additional content. In this case that content is all the more unreal because it has been removed from sight and interred once and for all in the sphere of that which shall remain unknown, therefore allowing space for all manner of imaginary thoughts. On the other hand, the destroyed archive haunts the state in the form of a spectre, an object that has no objective substance, but which, because it is touched by death, is transformed into a demon, the receptacle of all utopian ideals and of all anger, the authority of a future judgement. In contrast, other states have sought to 'civilise' the ways in which the archive might be consumed, not by attempting to destroy its material substance but through the bias of commemoration. In this framework, the ultimate objective of commemoration is less to remember than to forget. For a memory to exist, there first has to be the temptation to repeat an original act. Commemoration, in contrast, is part of the ritual of forgetting: one bids farewell to the desire or the willingness to repeat something. 'Learning' to forget is all the easier if, on the one hand, whatever is to be forgotten passes into folklore (when it is handed over to the people at large), and if, on the other hand, it becomes part of the universe of commodification. Thus we pass from its consumption by a Leviathan seeking to liberate itself of all debt (that is, to acquire the right to exercise absolute violence) to its consumption by the masses - mass consumption. By democratising the act of chronophagy and returning to an order where the consumption of the archive becomes a communal tool of the state and of society, two possibilities arise which repression alone does not allow. On the one hand, the utge that would have meant a desire to repeat, in a different time and with other actors, the original act is attenuated. In those cases where such an act involved murder, an assassin or a massacre, it is not difficult to see the benefit a society might gain from such a severance. On the other hand, by making such a severance a part of the universe of merchandise thanks to mass consumption, the archive is removed from the sphere of 'remains' and 'debris' and transformed into a talisman. A pagan cult then results, at the heart of which can be found numerous other institutions and artefacts (for example, museums). The transformation of the archive into a talisman, however, is also accompanied by removing any subversive factors in the memory. In giving those who carry it (in this case those who consume it) a feeling of being protected or of being co-owner of a time or co-actor in an event, even if in the past, the talisman softens the anger, shame, guilt, or resentment which the archive tends, if not to incite, then at least to maintain, because of its function of recall. Thus the desire for revenge is removed just as the duty of repentance, justice and reparation is withdrawn. The commodification of memory obliterates the distinction between the victim and the executioner, and consequently enables the state to realise what it has always dreamed of: the abolition of debt and the possibility of starting afresh.
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