Random Archive philosopher in residence


(2) The Limit of the Archive

Dr Panayiota Vassilopoulou & Dr Elias Markolefas


If there was no limitation, then you would have to challenge yourself: why are we collecting, what are we collecting, what are people getting out of the collection? … Working with archives everyday, I relish the opportunity to throw things out. I can’t bear the thought of things.

Curator, workshop participant



Is there a limit to what we archive? Given the spatial, physical, financial, and other practical constrains, we obviously cannot archive everything. But how do we decide what to archive and what not, what to preserve and what to throw away? Who makes this decision and on what criteria? Considering Random Archive in view of two stories, two examples—the first is of a separate yet not altogether different exhibition, the other comes from literature—may provide some interesting insights into these questions and the ways in which this exhibition challenges our understanding and experience of archives more generally.

                 ‘The man who never threw anything away’, the character behind Ilya Kabakov’s installation of the same title, was a plumber, who lived in an apartment in Moscow. According to Kabakov, the world surrounding us consists of huge piles of garbage. There are two piles: one to be found at the site where the garbage is generated and another at the site where it is preserved. If one cannot easily tell the difference between the separate piles, it is because the continuous transfer of garbage from one to the other has littered the space in between them so much, that the entire place seems like a huge unified dump. The two sites are distinguished merely by the direction of this continuous process of transfer: “the place from which garbage must be taken, and the place to which it must be taken”; their merging, in an ironic reference to the dialectic taught in Soviet schools, is conceived as an instance of the ‘unity of oppositions’. We may think of the first pile as life (or the present) and the second as the archive (or the past).

On February 14th 1887, the narrator of Borges’ story “Funes, His Memory” visited Ireneo Funes at his home and they talked about the latter’s memory. What distinguished Funes’ memory was its prodigious capacity and fidelity, supplemented by an equally amazing ability for intuitive perception. Funes, for example, “knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Rio Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho”. Funes’ power of remembering was so great that “two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day; he had never once erred or faltered, but each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day”. Just before the dawn of the 15th, Funes concluded the discussion by admitting to the narrator: “My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap”. However, if Funes’ memory is a perfect mirror of his experience, a mirror in which every detail, however minuscule or fleeting, is inscribed and preserved, there are two garbage heaps in Borge’s story: the garbage heap of Funes’ experience and the garbage heap of his memory. Given the ease with which Funes can move between his present experience and the recollection of his past experience, it may again be difficult for him to tell the two heaps apart.

The two stories seem to make a similar point in a complementary fashion. Kabakov’s story establishes a certain connection between the present and the past in ‘objective’ terms, i.e., it conceives of the historical process as the continuous piling up of things that serve no other purpose than to be turned into garbage and be preserved as such. History, in this vision, is nothing but “a dump” that “devours everything, preserving it forever”. Even if, “one might say that [this dump] also continually generates something”, being the site “where some kinds of shoots come from new projects, ideas, a certain enthusiasm arises, hopes for the rebirth of something”, the fact remains that eventually “all of this will be covered with new layers of garbage”. Borges’s version captures a similar connection between the past and the present ‘subjectively’, in terms of the nexus of the lived experience and memory of a single individual. Funes’ memory is also a dump that devours his entire experience by preserving it forever, as if the sole purpose of anything occurring within this experience is to be remembered. It is not surprising, then, that both ‘the man who never threw anything away’ and Funes share the same inability for any active or practical engagement or interaction with the reality around them: the former, although living presumably in his apartment for many years was never actually seen by any of the other tenants of the building; the latter earned his prodigious memory through an accident that left him crippled and immobilized.

We can approach these stories as cautionary philosophical tales. In this perspective, the vision of The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away seems like an odd combination of the two apparent antipodes of classical German philosophy, namely Schopenhauer and Hegel, bringing together the former’s insight that history is a senseless chain of mostly contemptible events that merely occlude the fact that any substantial change in the human condition is metaphysically impossible, with the latter’s claim that universal history is the site in which reality unfolds through stages that transform and preserve the old into the new (this, by the way, is very close to the position against which Nietzsche had to struggle in articulating his thought). In a similar manner, Borges’s story seems like a reflection on the most radical and undiluted form of empiricism, one in which the mind is not merely an ordinary passive tabula with a limited capacity, but a device capable of retaining every sense impression in all its density without the need of any kind of further active mental processing. In both cases, the need for separate archives as we know them disappears: Funes does not need an external aid for his perfect memory, while in the world of ‘the man who never threw anything away’ historical reality is itself its own archive.

But, setting aside philosophical speculations, we may ask: What makes the memory of “the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882” a piece of garbage? And what about the memory of one’s parents, one’s own origin? Is this also a piece of garbage to be preserved in the heap of one’s memory? Is there not some difference between, say, a used bus ticket and a book by Pushkin, if we assume that these are two of the objects meticulously catalogued and preserved in the archive of ‘the man who never threw anything away’?

One could, of course, suggest that memory or archives, like arguments or computers, operate under the principle of ‘garbage in, garbage out’: in the same way a flawed input or a false premise will generate a flawed output or a false conclusion, an insignificant object or event will become an insignificant record or recollection. From this starting point, the task of anyone who wants to conserve the present as it recedes into the past would be to decide what objects or events are significant enough to warrant preservation and commit them to an archive or to memory. The guiding claim would be something like this: ‘Since it is impossible to preserve everything, our task is to choose what is worth preserving’.

This is the way things appear to anyone who faces the practical task of creating, organizing, or maintaining an archive, either a private archive, say, of one’s correspondence, or a public archive associated with the workings of an institution. Do we have enough storage or financial resources to preserve all these items? This is undoubtedly an ever-present challenge for archivists, curators, and museum professionals more generally. It seems that decisions about what to collect and how much of it, that is, questions about the limit of the archive, are made because of limitations like these, and we tend to think that because these constraints often motivate or inform our decisions, that the decisions themselves are justified solely on these pragmatic grounds. But this may not always be true. Consider, for example, the case of specific dilemmas where decisions could have gone either way; doesn’t the understanding of the mission or identity of an institution (or of our own self) inform, consciously or unconsciously, that decision? And more often than not, since these understandings change over time, isn’t the individual or individuals—with their different personal, cultural, political, intellectual motivations and interests—that directly or indirectly influence the decision?  Evidently, the question whether to choose to archive this document, object, artwork, instead of that one, is not just of question of “could this be preserved?” but also “should it?”

If we could imagine a situation where all practical limitations were magically removed, what would we left with? Should the archive nevertheless have a limit? The two stories mentioned above do not change the practical aspects of any given choice, but force us to recognize the condition that makes possible the task of having to make a choice: ‘If it were possible to preserve everything, nothing would be worth preserving’. Or, to paraphrase the ‘all in, garbage out’ principle: an archive that preserves everything would be necessarily a heap of garbage because the significance or the value of every item can only be established and measured against the value and amount of other items it excludes. An archive, for example, that would include each and every object associated with the Nazi Party would be (at least, initially) a heap of garbage for a historian wishing to answer any specific questions about, say, the causes of WWII. A fragment from an ancient vase, a letter from a correspondence, a specific drawing, are ultimately all valuable or meaningful, precisely because not all fragments, letters or drawings are equally valuable or meaningful. If we archived all of them, if we never threw anything away, nothing would be of value or meaning. Being aware of this condition does not, of course, resolve the concrete task facing anyone who creates or manages an archive; however, knowing that there exists an unavoidable tension between completeness and significance as constitutive norms of an archive may ease the conscience of an archivist, collector, institution manager and each one of us. But, most importantly, it also foregrounds the toughest question concerning the value of any given ‘object’: What are you wiling to discard in order to preserve it, how much are you willing to forget in order to remember it? Discarding or forgetting is generally much more affordable than preserving or remembering, although not necessarily easier, as Elvis Presley reminds us in an early song: one can always forget to remember to forget. The responsibility for our choices is always ours; it is a matter of our freedom, our passions, our habits, and not our limitations.



All extracts from Kabakov and Borges come from:

Ilya Kabakov, ‘The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away’ in C. Merewether (ed.), The Archive (The MIT Press, 2006), 32-37.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Funes, His Memory’ in Collected Fictions (Penguin Books, 1999), 131-37.



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.