Blog Post

Diana Taylor, "The Digital as Anti-Archive"?: A Response

[Cross-posted at my own blog.]

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.


1 comment

Thanks for this post, pretty engaging. I was particularly interested when you say how the Time cover reveals "you as a product, not a producer, for consumption in the information age." When looking at that cover, I can't help to think how manufactured the whole "Person of the Year: You" feels in the first place. I first thought of Photoshop Disasters which is a blog that posts commercial images that are very obviously altered. The only submission requirement is that the images are always commercial and awful, which usually comes through in the content. I feel like the archive is a nice place to start to think about these disasters. In other words, I am interested in when the archive is digital how it can be manipulated, thus subverting the "feel" of a traditional archive. Within a book, the paper and a pen would be the input technology and the book/ libraries become the permanent storage devices. 

It seems like Taylor is arguing that the archive somehow has become less permanent in one way or another. Maybe this is due to the whole "you" aspect of user generated content, or maybe Taylor is trying to ask how/why/where does a new archive work?