Random Archive philosopher in residence

Philosophical Reflections on the Random Archive

My Residency at Bury Art Museum and Sculpture Centre (May-August 2017) aimed at developing new ways of thinking about the present and future of archives. Is the Text Art Archive the information or the actual objects it contains? Are these objects just documents, or works of art themselves? How does digital technology impact on our memory of the past, the living experience of the present, our imaginings of the future?

Working on the exhibition Random Archive together with curators Susan Lord and Dr Hannah Allan, Artist-in-Residence Rachel Defay-Liautard, and Research Assistant, Dr Elias Markolefas, I delivered a programme of research, public engagement activities, and training sessions for museum professionals, exploring the ways in which philosophy adds value to our understanding and experience of art and the museum.

These blog posts share some of the outcomes of this research. We would especially like to thank Prof. Dominic Elliott, Dr. Nikolaos Gkogkas, and, of course, the Bury Art Museum staff and public for their warm support and contributions.


(1) The Archive Drive
Dr Panayiota Vassilopoulou & Dr Elias Markolefas

We will never realize quite clearly enough what a shameful thing death is. In the end, we never try to fight it head on; doctors and scientists merely establish a pact with it, they fight on points of detail, they slow it down by a few months, a few years, but it all amounts to nothing. What we need to do is attack the roots of the problem in a big collective effort in which each of us will work towards his own survival and everyone else’s.
That’s why … I decided to harness myself to the project that’s been close to my heart for a long time: preserving oneself whole, keeping a trace of all the moments of our lives, all the objects that have surrounded us, everything we’ve said and what’s been said around us, that’s my goal. The task is vast, and my means are frail. …
But the effort still to be made is great. So many years will be spent searching, studying, classifying, before my life is secured, carefully arranged and labeled in a safe place – secure against theft, fire and nuclear war – from whence it will be possible to take it out and assemble it at any point. Then, being thus assured of never dying, I may finally rest.
Christian Boltanski,
Flyleaf of artist’s book Recherche et présentation de rout ce qui reste de mon enfance 1944-1950 (Paris, May 1969).

Why do we archive? We cannot contain our life entirely within the present: we are always conscious of something that was but is no longer and of something that will be but is not yet; the present does not define a self-subsisting reality, as it immediately flows backwards and forwards. And yet, our powers of memory and anticipation are not strong enough to turn past and future into places we could visit at will; despite religious and metaphysical claims to the contrary, the passage of time cannot be evaded as an illusion, but remains for human beings the most sovereign mark of reality.

This condition shapes the fundamental tensions of our historical existence. On the one hand, there is the weight of the past. For the most part, we exist as effects of (past) historical causes, perpetual epigones of our societies, languages, or environments. On the other hand, we aspire to become historical causes: we think that we can shape our own identity by making a difference to the historical world around us, by initiating new lines of historical events through our desires, choices, promises, and actions. But, of course, as long as we try to claim our place as a new node within historical becoming, a point where certain lines of the past branch out into new lines for the future, we have to face the contingency of the historical flux, the fact that nothing in history is immune to change and everything is subject to alteration through factors beyond our control. Nevertheless, to use Nietzsche’s 1887 formulation (Will to Power, 617), our constant effort is “to impose upon becoming the character of being”, to save our identities and creations from the flux of historical becoming, claiming effectively that some things are so valuable or self-sufficient that could and should withstand the onslaught of time. But if nothing can live outside becoming, the stamp of being is in fact a sentence to death. In other words, it seems that the primary concern of historical beings is to transcend the very conditions that make historical life possible in the first place.

Is this then an impossible, futile task? In the long run, it may be so. But, as Nietzsche has noted in his Untimely Meditation “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life”, the project of a historical life is possible as a specific configuration of memory and forgetting. Every form of historical life—be it individual or collective—is defined by a specific mixture of an active capacity (or a passive inability) to remember and a corresponding capacity (or inability) to forget. Hence, for as long we are alive, we try to find the optimum balance between remembering and forgetting, keeping hold of certain things and letting go of others in a way that will facilitate and give meaning to the transformation of the present into past and future. And this is the fundamental challenge of historical existence, re-enacted every time an archive is being created, developed, and preserved.
The archive is effectively a specific configuration of remembering and forgetting: whether by choice or by accident, what is preserved allows us to trace a relation with the past, to remember the past in a certain way, while the rest is left to be forgotten after the immediate memory dies out. What is preserved, what becomes a record in the archive, has, in a paradoxical way, to ‘die’, to be taken out of the flux of time and the context of the activity in which it was created, precisely in order to be protected against change, decay, destruction. At the same time, since the record is not an inert object, but rather a trace that will allow us to gain access to past configurations of activity and signification, the chosen object is granted a second ‘life’, one that seems to transcend the particular historical circumstances of its embodiment. This is the mystery of the record as a trace: an object, to be preserved like a corpse or fossil, but to also be consulted like a spiritual medium granting us access to the ghosts of the past. It is a mystery that embodies concretely the paradox we encountered before: in order to secure life “against theft, fire and nuclear war”, to store it “in a safe place”, you first have to turn it lifeless.

Archives may be considered necessary because of our finite power of remembrance, the limits of individual or collective memory: individuals or societies that could remember everything they would consider worth remembering, would have no need for external, material aids of memory, and hence no need for archives. However, archives are not mere reminders. As King Thamus noted when Theuth presented to him the invention of writing in Plato’s Phaedrus (274B-275E), an archive, as much as it can be “a recipe … for reminder”, it can also “implant forgetfulness” (275A), since people who have access to archives do not have to constantly exercise their memory. In this sense, an archive is an entirely new pattern of remembering and forgetting, it makes possible a relation with the past that is qualitatively different in all registers (cognitive, practical, affective) from the connection established through living memory. The mediation of the archive establishes a certain distance from the past (in effect it makes the past ‘external’ to us, since it no longer resides exclusively within our memory) that allows us to approach it in novel ways. The idea of an ‘objective’ reconstruction of the past, for example, or the project of a new ‘critical’ interpretation of it, or even the realization that historical processes may have no overarching purposes or stable essences, would be impossible if our grasp of the past were solely secured through living memory.

So, why archive? It may be that every archive, as in Boltanski’s Borgesian project, is a monument of our antipathy towards the passage of time and all that it implies, a specific way to simultaneously remember and forget not only “what a shameful thing death is”, but also what a shameful thing life is, when so intimately conditioned by death. Beyond the desire to preserve the present for posterity, the existence of archives testifies also to the value we ascribe to the past, as a source of information, knowledge, authority, power, value, or even as an object of fascination. However, as Nietzsche has shown in his Untimely Meditation, our concern for the past is always for the sake of the present, which indicates, among other things, that, despite the effort to remove the records of an archive from history and time, the institution of the archive itself is a historical entity, subject to all kinds of historical exigencies, changes, transformations, or appropriations with regard to its purpose and function. Nietzsche in his essay identified a number of ways in which history may be in the service of life, and these ways can be easily applied to the use of an archive: an archive can be a source of inspiration from the past (its records being monumental achievements revealing possibilities that can be taken up again); it can be a source of knowledge about the past that will affirm and enrich the present and help us predict and control the future by tracing meaningful continuities (as in the ordinary sense of genealogy); or, it can be a source of knowledge about the past that will be useful in a critique of the present and the change of the future through the identification of the contingency or injustice of the historical process (as in Nietzsche’s sense of genealogy).

Suggestions for further Reading

Derrida, J., Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (The University of Chicago Press, 1998).
Farge, A., The Allure of the Archives (Yale University Press, 2013).
Foucault, M., “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (Cornell University Press, 1977).
LaCapra, D., “Trauma, History, Memory, Identity: What Remains?”, History and Theory 55 (2016), pp. 375-400.
Le Goff, J., History and Memory (Columbia University Press, 1992).
Lowenthal, D., The Past is a Foreign Country – Revisited (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
Nietzsche, F., On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (Hackett, 1980).
Nietzsche, F., On the Genealogy of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Nora, P., “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”, Representations 26 (1989), pp. 7-24.
Plato, Phaedrus (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
Pogačar, M., Media Archaeologies, Micro-Archives and Storytelling: Re-presencing the Past (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
Ricoeur, P., Memory, History, Forgetting (The University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Ricoeur, P., Time and Narrative, Volume 3 (The University Of Chicago Press, 1990).
Steedman, C., “The space of memory: in an archive”, History of the Human Sciences 11(4) (1998), pp. 65-83.