Sunday, 15 March 2009

These are fragile papers, that are now ground to dust...

On the 3rd of March an archive in Cologne, Germany collapsed, killing two people. The collapse may also have destroyed vast amounts of archive documents that were stored there, one of the largest collections in Europe.

Documents up to a thousand years old may have been lost, including the municipal archives of Cologne itself, archives of the Hanseatic league, five hundred thousand photographs, one hundred thousand architectural drawings, and original manuscripts by Heinrich Böll, Marx and Engels, Jacques Offenbach and Albertus Magnus.

One of the reasons that this is such a terrible event is that not many of the collections have been properly copied. Apparently a rather poor quality microfilm exists of much of the pre-1945 collection, but a huge amount of the material has not been ‘backed up’ at all, destroying a large amount of human knowledge forever.

This raises a few questions, however. There is an accelerating process of the digitisation of archives, storing and protecting material precisely for this eventuality. If the fragile material has been duplicated and entered into the immaterial digital realm, then although not in an absolute sense, the knowledge contained within the material has at least become as safe as it can possibly be; it has the potential to be endlessly circulated.

The fact that many of these documents had not been safely dematerialised means that it the loss is not just a question of the fetish value of the documents as objects. Access to information has been historically tied to the physical object and its scarcity. Slowly, our archiving practices are tending towards the immaterial; once an object has been accurately digitised it becomes divorced from its capacity to hold human knowledge. The archive object enters into a strange new role – its only value is in its capacity for destruction.

What would have happened if one of the British Library’s archives of ‘zero use’ material was destroyed? Every year their shelves grow by twelve and a half kilometres, leading them to have to build vast warehouses to hold the collections of books that nobody will ever read, but that we as a culture find impossible to throw away. We are addicted to archiving.

In fact, it can even be said that archiving is one of the things that most makes us human. As we learn more about the capabilities of our animal relatives to communicate, think abstractly and experience emotion, we are left with little that actually makes us unique as a species. Haunted by our uncontrollable tendency to forget, we developed ways of storing knowledge in non-corporeal ways. This desire-for-archiving is an exponential process, giving us the (theoretical) potential to know anything that has ever been documented by anybody, and this changes the relationship between our intelligence and the minds which constitute it.

This world of language proliferated and constituted a symbolic field, dependent upon our minds to exist but not reducible to them. The exponential process of archiving is surely as much a part of the coming to be of this Symbolic as the proliferation of meanings as spoken language deepened and thickened over time. To be a subject is to inherit a position within the Symbolic, a position characterised by what the later Derrida would call the ‘spectral’; not only immaterial, but also origin-less, out-of-joint, never whole. Archives represent an attempt to regulate the Symbolic, inasmuch as they materialise knowledge and ‘freeze’ speech. They attempt to impose orders onto knowledge, artificial and ideological orders, and to regulate the relationship that any one subject can have with knowledge. Yet the archive also has the tendency to proliferate the conditions for speech, an ever –growing background of knowledge. Archives both regulate and proliferate the Symbolic.

It looks as if we are on the edge of a new condition for the archive. We can imagine achieving, although not without struggle, a (near) total archive, freely available across the world, and totally immaterial. This would obviously mean a new level of freedom for the intellect, but also the potential for new methods of controlling access to this information. Is it healthy to banish forgetfulness? Is it inevitable, for that matter? Will the architectural presence of an archive become nothing but ruin, a building that serves to remind us of nothing more than that objects have the capacity to be destroyed, monuments to what Freud called ‘Transience Value’?

UPDATE - see this also, a bit less theoretical; ebb of memory (scroll down), as seen at things.

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