Blog Post

Liveblog: Diana Taylor, Duke University Provost Lecture, "The Digital as Anti-Archive?" (10/26)

Hello! I'll be liveblogging Diana Taylor's address at Duke today, "The Digital as Anti-Archive?", part of the 2009 Provost Lecture series "The Future of the Past, the Future of the Present: The Historical Record in the Digital Age." Taylor is a professor in Spanish and Performance Studies at NYU. She's being introduced right now. Stay tuned.


5:10 PM Taylor has now taken the stage. Her paper begins with the question of temporal dislocation -- she relates the current situation to the situation c. 1500 with the emergence of the Gutenberg press, another moment in which history itself seemed to have taken a sudden left turn. But the shift from oral culture to print culture gives us a context in which to think our current period of transition -- in some sense at least we've done this before.


5:13 PM Emphasis now on the fragility of the digital, its ephemerality. Taylor draws a distinction between the repertoire and the archive and says her talk will explore how the digital overlaps but is distinguished from both categories. The digital, she says, is not an era of memory, but something different. On the screen now: a advertisement for Kodak, which Taylor notes is a key player in socializing people to accept and desire a new level of archiving in their everyday lives.


5:15 PM An archive is both a place where things are collected AND a practice that deems certain things (but not others) "archiveable." The archive therefore is a kind of power knowledge -- it is imbued with an authority. It does not matter if a thing was meant to be saved; the mere act of saving it makes it an archive. Quoting Foucault, Taylor demonstrates how the archive becomes necessarily a place, with practices of legitimation that mark some uses of the archive as legitimate and bans others. This extends into the digital, as well, she notes; hence the ubiquity of passwords.


5::20 PM Cites TIME's infamous "You" Person of the Year cover in context of a (now-realized?) Marxist promise of democritized, local control. She cites, too, the usefulness of social networking technologies  in movements of resistance. But she wants to trouble the notion that this is a true break; instead, it is much more complicated.


5:25 PM Claim: most online sites we refer to as "archives" are not archives. It's a commitment issue -- the owners (usually corporate owners, as with YouTube) do not commitment to permanent preservation. Nor do they establish the barriers of entry and legitimation typicial (necessary, Taylor, following Foucault, seems to believe) of archives.


5:30 PM The widespread analogy between human memory and digital memory gives us the false impression that these are in some sense the same thing. But this obscures the essential placelessness of the Web, its location everywhere and nowhere. Two examples elaborate on this. First, the Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library, which will preserve its videos of performance work in the Americas for 500 years. Taylor (who is one of the architects of HIDVL) elaborates on the various modes of archiving at work in HIDVL, which includes not only video transfer but also "new originals" and work that exists only in the context of HIDVL's own digital archiving practices.


5:31 PM Key point: open access to the HIDVL archives. Anyone can view them, which made the project's financiers nervous. They didn't want to preserve documents to which HIDVL didn't claim ownership.


5:35 PM: This question of free content translates to the little-understood conflict between music provides and music hardware distributors. There is a struggle here; the less music costs, the more valuable your iPod is. Likewise, Amazon is incentized to make books widely distributable to increase the value of Kindles. But, of course, your music is more valuable still if it's in a format only iPods can read. This corporate structure undermines archiving practice; our information online can become trapped behinds firewalls or in obsolete formats we can no longer access.


5:37 PM Close reading of the TIME magazine issue, especially the ads that appear before the Table of Contents asserting a different "you" who is the Person of the Year: the driver of Ford trucks.


5:40 PM I can't type fast enough to get down all the insights about "you" here, but it's very good stuff. The "I" who is a reader, Taylor argues, is positions as a spectator to *other* YOUs who are the product of a particular set of corporate ideologies. (James Poniewozik's parody, now projected on screen, therefore suggests the real person of the year is "Them" -- the coporate entities who control Information in the digital age.) Notably, Time wildly fails the archive test; a year later, the spread and all the photos were gone, redirected to links about Vladmir Putin.


5:50 PM Another insightful take to conclude the talk: Our anxieties about the digital are reflected in our obsession with constant preservation in myraid formats. The rush to archive, she suggests, is a kind of "epistemic last stand," trying to preserve ourselves in the face of digital technologies that threaten to obliterate us.




5:52 PM There's no mic for the questioners, so it's a little hard to understand what is being asked in this first question. But Taylor's answer suggests that the questioner felt that she was anti-digital, which Taylor strongly denies. It's not that one is better or worse -- it's just that we need to recognize that digital "archives" -- for instance, the Time Magazine archives -- are not real archives. What is preserved online at the Time Magazine web site is not what was in the magazine; there are major gaps, and the archive is not permanent.

End of the question suggests a strong generation gap between professors and their students, much less current graduate students and the people they will teach, which she attribtues to different modalities and uses of the digital of these different cohorts.


5:55 PM The second question again seems to want to save the digital from attacks Taylor isn't really making. She tries again to make her limited point that the digital, whatever else might be said about it, just isn't an archive.


6:07 PM It's much harder to liveblog the sponatenous back and forth of questions and answers, so I think I'll leave off here. But I wanted to note what Taylor just said: her idea that it is the university, and perhaps the university along, that can create a true "digital archive." We will be like monks, she says, saving those digital documents that we need for our project, with the hope that over the whole system something like a full archive of the culture will be maintained.


6:17 PM Okay, one more entry: There was just a nice suggestion from Kate Hayles (echoing other scholars) that contrary to digital optimism we could in fact be entering something like the next Dark Ages, a period in history about which future scholars will have no information because it will all be long since decayed or obsolete, in file and storage formats they can make no sense of. With Geocities closing today, it's definitely something to think about.


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