Sorting the Archive

by Rick Prelinger

[originally delivered 2016-11-19 at Other Cinema, revised 2017-2]


We collected more
We collected in new ways
Now it is time to say why we collect

[slide: what triggers an archival impulse #3]

[slide: what triggers an archival impulse #3]

You should all have copies of Brecht’s essay “Telling the Truth: 5 Difficulties.” I wanted to connect this talk with that piece because it reads as pretty urgent right now. But rather than sync them together point by point, I’d suggest you think of this talk as strategy and that essay as tactics. [URL to Brecht essay]

I’ve been speaking publicly about archives for about ten years, and one of my most sobering take-homes has been that most people (especially those who use archives) don’t think very imaginatively about them. They think of archives as somewhat glorified warehouses or as service organizations, rather than as incubation points for culture, works of art, histories and social change. We ask more from theories of knowledge than from the institutions where knowledge resides, and while we fetishize books and libraries, we all too often take for granted archives and the raw records they hold.

Our recently retired Librarian of Congress, James Billington, liked to say: “Stories unite people, theories divide them.” It’s funny — I always wanted it to be the other way round.

Because I’d like to find deeper ways to think about working with moving images, and this means trying to come to terms not only with archives and what they could be, but with archival theory. Could all of us who work in media and in media archival work find ways to think harder about the purposes and goals of our work? Could we try to draw connections between academic, artistic and archival labor? Could we daylight both archival theory and practice, construct and workplace? And could we try to reconcile the conceptual umbrella we call “the archive” with the more quotidian work of “the archives”? This would require greater engagement with archives as working entities, and a commitment not only to rendering archival labor visible, but seeing it as decisive. We might listen harder to the people who perform archival labor and begin to think of it as cultural work or research rather than simply wage labor. Too few have considered the politics of archival workflow. Archives are indeed microcosms of the world whose records they contain, and organs through which power is expressed, but power and the labor maintaining it exist in co-valent bondage. Just as we cannot think of domesticity without domestic labor, and we cannot imagine the university without workers supporting other workers who are paid to produce knowledge, we cannot conceive of or critique archives without taking into account the core labor of those who maintain them.

Though our workplaces may seem quiet and our workflows seem to appear apolitical, archives overflow with contention. To collect is to commit to the survival of certain records over others; to arrange and describe is often to enclose; to preserve is to resist power, violence and constraint; to enable access is to invite misunderstanding and aggression. And yet “archives” yearn for praxis; even menial archival labor is practice in search of theory. The alternative to thinking all of this through is not to think at all, and that leaves us with pretty much only one rationale for moving image archival work that remains the same even as the world changes around us.

That rationale is cinephilia. Yes, we’re all cinephiles in our own ways. I love home movies, so I am not here to bury cinephilia. But cinephilia isn’t enough. We need to articulate reasons for our practice, not simply accept it on an unspoken level. We need to look outward beyond our walls, and understand that even if we work in a private institution or deep within a government department, we are effectively working for everyone and for those of us not yet born. Films are powerful, but they lack the power to preserve themselves. And the reasons to preserve them are not always apparent.


[slide: cinephilia #9]

I like to think of moving images and sound as privileged evidence, but observed closely, moving images and sounds often appear as suggestive, enigmatic anecdotes, rarely adaptable to single interpretations. I sometimes worry that the institutionalization of archives has limited the imagination with which archivists approach their holdings. Consciously or not, custodians gravitate towards imagining uses that they approve of, or uses that fit into familiar frameworks. And use restrictions are likely the greatest factor that limits archivists (and archival users’) ability to imagine new uses. (Lockdowns also contribute to deterioration.)

In his novel BLUE MARS, the utopian-minded speculative fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson defines what he calls the Accelerando. It is a speeding-up of development in all realms: exploration, invention, science and philosophy. But it also comes with insecurity. “And yet still, with all the blossoming of human effort and confidence of the accelerando, there was a sense of tension in the air, of danger…A stressed renaissance, then, living fast, on the edge, a manic golden age: the Accelerando. And no one could say what would happen next.”
He’s talking about the 2200s, but this is also a good description of the present.

No one can say what will happen next in the archival world. But I think it may not be quite what we’re being led to expect. A few thoughts.

For some twenty years we have been hearing about how the digital turn changes everything. But neither nostalgia for the physical nor celebration of digital conquest make much sense. To transcode a formulation from artist and writer Jen Bervin, it’s becoming clear that physical and digital materials each have different jobs to do. And I think those of us who haven’t tried to put analog and digital into opposition are on the right track, unless you’re talking about obvious attributes like weight, physical bulk, and dependence upon electron flow, or unless you need conflict for yet another pedestrian news story. Every day in our library I realize that analog-digital hybridity is not a transitional state, and I hope it remains a permanent one.

In fact, the turn to digital re-validates the analog. I make digital films that play before audiences who talk while the film runs. I thought this was radical, until I realized I was actually channeling the Elizabethan theater whose front pit was filled with loud and boisterous groundlings. The affordances of digital media — its properties that make certain actions possible — are giving us a new understanding about how physical media forms actually work. E-books have taught us much about physical books, and weavers take inspiration from screens. As Alex Horvath pointed out, the renaissance of Baroque-era musical instruments like Gustav Leonhardt and the ensemble are playing here is actually a relatively recent phenomenon.

But while digitality may re-validate analog, it’s rapidly devaluing it. Physical objects are being disposed of and destroyed at an accelerated rate. Librarians and archivists: do physical objects still have the right to exist? For some media, like newspapers, journals and videotape, this has already been settled in the negative. Shelves are emptier and stacks gone in many libraries.

This is funny, because some emerging histories of images and sound (like media archaeology) privilege apparatus and container over content. The story of countless dead or comatose media platforms exists less in the surviving images and sounds than in or on the containers, labels, reels, caddies, leaders, labels and postmarks. The history of the educational film distribution system is as much recorded on the cans and shipping containers that protected the reels as in the catalogs and trade journals. (Re-canning isn’t always a good idea!) This brings to mind pioneer electronic publishing executive Bill Dunn’s assertion that the importance of metadata exceeds the value of data it describes.

The crisis ecosystem of evidence-bearing physical objects has become really fascinating. The displacement and expulsion of physical materials in favor of digital surrogates is akin to urban gentrification, and as archivists, scholars and citizens we will one day have to answer for it. Because the attributes that distinguish the physical are exactly what we should be preserving, and they are a pain. Physical objects, no matter how many we discard, are incredibly persistent. And their persistence is inconvenient. They’re the table scraps, the leftovers of digitization, and there aren’t enough dogs around the table to gobble them down. We are basing entire new phenomenological, philosophical and scholarly agendas on one recent technological turn, and for some reason we find ourselves staging a battle against physical materials in order to make room for apparent digital abundance.

This is what historians call presentism. We are present-ist when we apply current modes of thinking to the past and future. Right now it is tempting to eternalize the present and imagine a future based on disturbing trends that have not been with us for very long. It is short-term thinking to regard the apparent end of film and the collapse of the photochemical manufacturing chain as the definitive threat to film culture. It is presentism to regard digitality as the negation of film culture, or, for that matter, to think of digitality as the negation of analog culture. Deeply-held feelings of cinephilia drive us to read current history in apocalyptic terms, and deep cultural anxieties heighten our most appropriate concerns about digital longevity.

Despite its apparent victory over physical media, digitality is fragile. It requires a compliant social order, the accommodation of governments, and the steady availability of energy. It is not a monolith; the Chinese digital world works differently than the North American. And its corporate structures and business models are experimental. We shouldn’t overreact today to a force that will behave differently tomorrow.

But nostalgia is no answer. The air of romantic obsolescence that surrounds a lot of historical media and communications technology today is quite striking and entertaining, and we might actually enlist it to help build a bridge between media archaeologists, their complex assertions, and the public, but we need to push it hard to really learn something. It’s fun to touch and revive obsolete or failed tech, but what exactly does it tell us? While the landscapes of our many de-industrialized cities are rich texts crossed by threads of evidence that implicate many players, most visitors see only ruin porn.

Glitch is the new ruin porn. Why do we love glitch so much? It’s becoming a real 21st-century fetish. But it’s nothing new. It’s proudly and joyously traditional: people have stepped on snapshots, cried over letters whose ink smeared, wondered what’s on the pages missing from library books, felt the thrill of film burning and blossoming in the gate. Here in San Francisco, glitch is perhaps the most-used mode of appropriation.


[slide: glitch #35]

In fact, glitches aren’t only challenges to preservation — preservation itself is a glitch. The normative lifecycle of digital media is ephemeral. As Howard Besser stated in 2001, the default condition of electronic objects is to disappear. It’s a bit like filmmaking, where it takes an aggressive producer to make movies — to push back against resistance, to deploy and coordinate money, properties, people — because the default condition of movies is not to be made unless they are forced to be made. Each completed film is a flaunting of the odds. Preservation is the realest of glitches, especially in our age of massive media abundance. The archivists’ job is to hack media so that it can be preserved against its will.

From time to time I’ve felt part of a digital vanguard: making CD-ROMs with the Voyager Company in the early and mid-1990s. Putting archival films online. Scanning books from our little library. Feeling one step ahead of those on the other side of what was then a digital Grand Canyon. But that’s changed. Digitality and privilege have been inverted. Getting the personal attention of a bureaucrat, collecting and touching artisanal objects, writing with a nice pen, these are privileged encounters. The rest of the world wrestles with touch-tone menus, disrespectful algorithms and poorly designed websites. But if you have privilege, there are no stray bits in your slow food. And slow media is coming back. Some friends are building an intentional community in Mendocino County, on the northern California coast. They’re installing fiber on their farm, but it moves bits slowly, and their Internet service is only up between 8 am to 5 pm. Voluntary inconvenience.

Inconvenience may be our best friend. Archival enclosure is a systemic problem and a bad inconvenience. But there are also formative inconveniences, which I like to think of as good affordances. Wrangling with inconvenience is like choosing to write by hand instead of typing or dictating. You learn more about the words you are processing. And you learn about film by touching its physical constituents. Inconvenience enables de-familiarization, which is what makes all art possible.

Inconvenience will help us imagine archival futures. As in the histories of media,  lessons arise out of breaks in continuity, imperfect narratives and interruptions in order.

And we’ll need to interrupt archival theory itself, whose pretensions to permanence read quixotically in an age of mass extinction. There are communities of archivists and thinkers generating a wealth of new thinking about what archives are and what they could be — notably feminist-focused archivists, queer theorists, activists, people who work around traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expression. I was privileged to join a meeting at the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago earlier this year at which the question of whether there was a “Black style of archiving” was discussed. We need to be talking about these issues in the moving image and sound space. In a similar way, I have come to suspect that the history of the formative years of the AV archives movement is very much LGBTQ history, and if I’m not mistaken this history mostly remains to be written.

Which brings me to our unsettled moment. Crisis, presentism, fragility, accommodation, anxiety. And now resistance.

Archives have always been potential sites of resistance. They resist amnesia. They are the medium in which memory awaits revival and the waysides media temporarily reposes before it is reborn. They keep history alive while the media and its controllers try to hide or destroy it. While archives are actually producers of media and culture (something few people recognize), they work on a different schedule than the media does. Their ideal timescale is forever. Slow food in the midst of a Roman banquet of media production. (They attempt to stop time either by stabilizing the record in some kind of permanent form, or by constantly migrating it [like sourdough] but the success of fixation nor refreshing cannot be guaranteed. Even digital bits survive through physical fixation, and nothing physical lasts forever.)

They preserve evidence even as the narratives people make out of evidence shift direction and change. The archival record of any period, if it’s preserved, is open for interpretation and reinterpretation no matter whose flag flies over the palace. If the record is preserved, if the archives is open and accessible, every generation and every community can reinterpret the record in their own way. They are at once anchorages and launch pads and spaces for retrospect and rehearsal. In short archives resist presentism, the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.

And archives are repositories of both trails followed and roads not taken. We can look to archives for evidence that helps us rethink the way our world has turned out, and we can find intimations of alternate worlds. Archives resist triumphalist visions of progress and support us when we question whether what we now experience is inevitable, and question whether the future has to be what we are told it will be. At their best archives can be forces helping us struggle in utopian directions.

In plain terms, archives can enable resistance to power. If opened, their records reveal the secrets of the rulers and the veiled work of bureaucracies sheltered from view. Records reveal who merits praise and who deserves blame. Records (and sometimes the conspicuous absence of records) tell us of communities shut out from power, communities that experienced repression, communities that found ways to survive against odds. We need to learn how to think of archival absences in equal terms with archival presences. What’s missing, uncollected or uncollectable, often speaks more forcefully than what was saved.

And recently archives have become much more than repositories. They’ve become sites where theory and ideas are made and discussed, where traditional ideas move from vernacular, from conversational mode, into theory. Archivists questioning archival objectivity and neutrality have spent time looking into the forces that govern what is saved and how we save it. This led them to a discussion of power. And now archivists don’t just read books and articles about power and resistance, they write them. They’ve turned archives into incubators for such discourses as gender theory and critical race theory. These are discourses that stem from an urgent need to update our sense of the world and augment our toolbox for dealing with power differences. We saw them emerge around Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, and we’ve seen them in recent discussions about rape culture. At a moment when deeper discussion of, let’s say, critical race and gender issues has started to leak into the mass media, we’ve seen how this discussion makes many people angry. It threatens their hold on the levers of power. It is not intuitive to those who have enjoyed a degree of privilege. It may cause thoughtful people to defy the borders of obedience. There’s a lot to say about this, but what I want to say is that it’s changing archives from being mirrors of outside ideas to projectors of new discourses. When theory and history is denied or attacked in the world, it is being preserved and reborn in archives.

There are times when evidence is suppressed (or classified) and history is impossible to tell. We may be heading in that direction. But it can take refuge in archives. It can live as stealthy record. It can live as evidence if not allowed to live as narrative. It can be like a sponge between soakings. Archives are good places to hide things. We know how to lose them. Especially if it is backed up and distributed, the record is hard to destroy. Inconvenient truths and smoking guns may be hidden in piles of irrelevancies. They already are.

If archives are to ride the rising waves, it won’t be as arks fully caulked to repel leaks, but as permeable wetlands capable of assimilating ebbs and flows — venues where past, present and future interchange and transform one another. Then we have more choice. That’s why fixing archival enclosure and opening cultural and historical repositories is critical — that way we build new routes for ideas to travel between storage and people.  In this lies their greatest purpose and occasion for excitement.

If we lose control over the day-to-day media, we must take care not to lose control over archives. We could lose the ability to use archives to re-inject ideas that problematize, information that reveals, records of power abuses. The channels between archives and people do not  always have to be public. Like literature, history has a way of coding things inside nuts that need to be cracked, layers that need to be unwrapped. Archives encode the lessons of history in unwieldy bundles of evidence that require processing and close reading.

To paraphrase Carl Becker, everyone her own historian. And now everyone their own archivist. What can you do? And what would you do if you had to?

This is the moment to inventory your capabilities and pre-authorize your commitments. What do you need to put in place to make yourself ready to do? How far would you go to defend the historical and cultural record?

We need to think of archives as players in an environment that is all about transmission and reception, flow and re-flow. And the archival projects of the moment — thinking beyond superficial differences between analog and digital, superseding a heritage of enclosure with a culture of hospitable transaction, and preserving the raw material of resistance — resonate with important concerns in broader cultures. So we are like scientists working in laboratories devoted to hacking on major projects. And we should therefore look up from our rewinds and our screens and take responsibility for the future.


The Prelinger Library

1 comment for “Sorting the Archive

  1. Sophie
    February 21, 2017 at 9:03 pm

    This article covers so much ground for it’s relative brevity. The idea of the archive as creative, progressive, is key. As the weight of historical authority seems to slip away, how do we redefine the purpose of the archive to deal with this? One thing I am sure of, the next four years of Trump will challenge our definitions in this regard. Props to Prelinger, this is a great place to start. Thanks for this :)

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