26 October 2009

The Digital as Anti-Archive: A Book History-ish Response

[Cross-posted at HASTAC.]

Diana Taylor gave a very interesting talk at Duke this evening, part of the 2009 Provost's Lecture Series, "The Future of the Past, the Future of the Present: The Historical Record in the Digital Age." It was provocatively titled "The Digital as Anti-Archive?"

Gerry has already helpfully liveblogged the talk, so I won't rehash Taylor's finer points. Her main questions boiled down to: Why has the archive become a site of contestation in the digital age? (Why, in other words, are so many people suddenly working on "archives," broadly construed and defined in wildly different ways?) And what is gained or lost by using the word "archive" to describe the collecting practices of various cybercultures?

If we see the archive as a convergence of space, place and practice, Taylor begins, it becomes clear how the web problematizes the notion of an archive. The "here" of the web is "immediate and unlocatable," enacting an "invisible politics of place"; the "thing" of the web remains ephermal and dislocatable; while practices are multiple, diverse, and deeply intertwined with the perceived "thingness" and location of the digital object. Thus whereas the archive of yesteryear was a physical, authorized place with a known (or at least knowable) set of institutional practices (i.e., "we will deposit this cultural object because it has some historical value"), the digital archive explodes its content across various platforms, placing it in variable contexts that subvert the known "thingness" of, for instance, the book deposited in a university library. In short, the logics of the archive have and are changing, to the point that Taylor wants to claim "most online archives are not really archives at all."

She exemplies this through a close reading of the Time Magazine cover from 2006, the one which declared "You" Person of the Year. The printed magazine had a shiny bit of foil in the center, so that the reader holding the magazine, the embodied "You," could see herself reflected in it. However, the version archived online by Time presents instead a series of photos (supposed to be submitted by users, but clearly staged), which show various "You"s, digitally empowered. As Taylor points out, these depict "You as a product, not a producer, for consumption in the information age." The embodied subject has become the perceived object. What kind of "archive" erases and radically reconstitutes, rather than retains, its former incarnations?

I appreciate Taylor's intervention. The word archive is so tricky, so sticky, I always pause a bit before using it. I wonder, though, if she isn't overestimating the stability of the non-electronic archive. For instance, in Taylor's talk, the physical Time Magazine represented an infinitely reproducible "original" (she used this word several times during the discussion) that can be deposited in a library, to be studied by historians three hundred years from now. This is at the root of its difference from the digital anti-archive -- it is a stable bit of cultural production. What if we turn the equation around, though? What if instead of using the digital anti-archive as a means of division, of delimiting it from the non-digital, we use it as a mechanism for prying open the assumptions of the physical archive?

For most of history, "the Book" has not been as infinitely reproducible and homogenous as we perceive our Time magazine to be; in fact, anyone who has spent even a small amount of time in rare book rooms has no doubt come across many, many examples of printer's errors, pages out of order, upside-down illustrations and misplaced text, not to mention marginalia, owner's signatures, underlining, dirty thumbmarks -- all deposits that make any individual book a unique (not homogenous, not infinitely reproducible) bit of cultural production, situated historically. Bindings alone, done book-by-book for a large chunk of the history of print, can tell much about a text and its owner(s).

Perhaps instead of homogenizing the past in service of better understanding the present, we should use the logics of the present to help us step outside the frameworks we've used to enclose the past. Which is simply to say: perhaps all archives are anti-archives, upon closer inspection.


Nick said...

The kind of wariness you feel about the word "archive," I tend to feel about the word "digital." Maybe it's because in working on automatic musical instruments I come across varieties of "digital" that seem to be excluded from common usage. (To the point where intelligent scholars can have confusion about whether the on/off holes in a piano roll are "really" digital. What?)

I've been casually using "macro-digital" and "micro-digital" to distinguish between these two (without making some distinction that would imply that the modern digital is non-physical). I haven't really looked around to see who, if anyone, has dealt with this question of scale, but it seems like we are more willing to attribute special properties to phenomena that happen at an invisible size. I figure you may have encountered more extended treatments of this kind of idea?

Whitney said...

Yes, "digital" is troubling, in part because it so often (and most certainly in Taylor's talk) was used to stand in for "THE WEB." (How did the web get synonymous with digital, anyway?! And conflated with the internet?)

What do you gain by distinguishing scale?

Definitely check out Mechanisms, by Matthew Kirschenbaum -- he does a "grammatology of the hard drive," points out some of the problems of the invisibility of digital inscription (to human eyes -- MFM imaging can "bring out" your hard drive's "inscriptions"), and brings up the oft-forgotten point that most computer systems operate by constantly translating between analog and digital signals.

Also, I've been reading a lot of later Wittgenstein (post on that forthcoming) and am, as a result, worrying less about words like "digital." We get what it means when it's used in the contexts we see it, more or less. It could, like most media terms, use some problematizing (as Kirschenbaum, yourself and others are doing) -- but that doesn't mean it's incomprehensible to us in every circumstance. Same goes for "archive."

Nick said...

re: distinguishing based on scale, I'm not sure what you get. It just seems to me that when the digital is so small (or electric, I guess) as to be invisible, it is difficult to distinguish from the analog. Take as an example CDs vs magnetic tapes. When the distinction between digital and analog is not readily perceptible, people tend to move towards ontologizing explanations—"CDs and tape may both produce sound, but fundamentally they are actually different."
These explanations seem lacking to me because they treat the digital/analog distinction as the most fundamental level of analysis. Like Kirschenbaum is pointing out, "digital" is not the most basic distinction to be made, and it is certainly not a pure distinction in any case.
With macro-digital things like piano rolls, it is easier to see all the analog interventions; with CDs or THE WEB, people seem more inclined to imagine some kind of pure digital fantasy, and I think that might be a result of the interventions happening in invisible or invisibly small ways.

Nick said...

oh lol i love emo backgrounds ^_^

(also, finally got Mechanisms and it is really wonderful so far)