geert-jan van bussel the theoretical framework for the 'archive-as-is'
an organization oriented view on archives - part i
2. The Archival Renaissance
2.1. Foucault and Derrida
Since the early 1990s, in the wake of a new edition of Michel Foucault's (1992)
LArchéologie du savoir, archives have become the conceptual domain of a range
of disciplines, most notably literary and cultural studies, philosophy, and
anthropology. Foucault was, in essence, the pioneer of 'the theoretical archive'
that is entirely dissociated from its conventional definition(s) and practices.
The Foucauldian archive does not reproduce but produces meaning; it is not a
monument for future memory, but a 'document' for possible use (Foucault, 1975,
p. 193). Jacques Derrida, who reformulated the notion of an archive in terms of
psychoanalysis, has pointed out in his highly complex 'Mal d'Archive' (1995a,
p. 141) that 'rien n'est moins sur, rien n'est moins clair aujourd'hui que le mot
d'archive' ('nothing is less reliable, nothing is less clear today than the word
'archive'': Derrida, 1995b, p. 57). For Derrida (1995a, p. 34) the process of
archivization (a term which meaning is not always clear) 'produit autant qu'elle
enregistre l'événement' ('produces as much as it records the event': Derrida
1995b, p. 17).2
We are confronted with what Marlene Manoff (2004, p. 14) has called 'the
postmodern suspicion of the historical record'.3 For archives are not passive
receptacles: they shape and control the way the past is read. As Derrida (1995a,
p. 15-16 (note 1); 1995b, p. 10-11 (note 1)) says, there is no power without control
of 'the archive'. But, at the same time, 'postmodernists' are ambivalent about
archives. They doubt the dominance of historical narratives (and that is not without
reason). They view archives as 'traces of missing or destroyed universes of records
and activity' and as 'trick mirrors distorting facts and past realities in favour of the
narrative purpose' of authors and audiences (Cook, 2001, p. 9). Nevertheless, they
resort to history and historical analyses. Foucault's historical studies on
criminology and sexuality are exemplary examples (Foucault, 1975, 1976, 1984).
2.2. An inflation of terms
Archives are 'loosening and exploding' (Manoff, 2004. p. 10). In the resulting
inflation of the term, archives have become 'loose signifiers for a disparate set of
concepts' (Manoff, 2004, p. 10), such as: the 'social archive' (Greetham, 1999),
the 'raw archive' (Galin and Latchaw, 2001), the 'postcolonial archive' (Shetty and
Bellamy, 2000), 'the popular archive' (Lynch, 1999), 'the ethnographic archive'
(Marcus, 1998), 'the geographical archive' (Withers, 2002), and 'the liberal
archive' (Joyce, 1999). It leads Marta Voss and Paul Werner (1999) to dwell on
'the poetics of the archive'. It has been suggested that the changes in information
technology are responsible for this inflation. The technological revolution, after all,
has altered 'our relationship to the archive' (Voss and Werner, 1999, p. ii), it
changed 'the archive' into 'a metaphor for what we are not yet able to grasp about
the nature of digital collections' (Manoff, 2004, p. 10), and it resulted in such an
addiction to live connections to cyberspace that to lose them is 'to die', that is 'to
be disconnected from access to the archives, not jacked-in or not in real time'
(Mackenzie 1997, p. 66). Andreas Huyssen (2000, p. 33) and Marlene Manoff
(2001, p. 371-372) argue that the development of information technology has led to
anxiety about the preservation of cultural heritage, to fears about the loss of
historical awareness resulting from a loss of roots in time and space, and to cultural
and historical amnesia because of information technology defects. Both argue that
technological changes have bolstered an obsession with historical information.
That is possible, just as it is undeniable that information technology changes affect
information growth and influence the way organizations create, use, and store
information (Van Bussel, 2012a). But it is, in my opinion, doubtful if they
caused the inflation of the term 'archive'. The continuous use of that term in
multidisciplinary contexts for very different types and collections of information
objects and records seems a more probable cause for that inflation.
2.3. The 'Archival Turn'
The terms 'archive' and 'archives' seem to be used as keywords for questions of,
among others, memory, evidence, taxonomy, governance, and justice. This
preoccupation with 'the archive' is characterized as the 'archival turn', which can be
seen as a follow-up (or a part) of the 'historical turn' (McDonald, 1996). The term
signifies the repositioning of 'the archive' as a subject of investigation, more than as
a mere site for research or a collection of records for research use. As Ann Stoler
(2002, p. 87) states, using poststructuralist arguments: the 'archival turn' means
looking to archives more as epistemological experiments of the past than as
historical sources, as cross-sections of contested knowledge, as transparencies
inscribed with power relations, and technologies of rule. The 'archival turn'
positions 'the archive' as, as Jacques Derrida (1995a, p. 60) states, 'n'est pas la
question d'un concept dont nous disposerions ou ne disposerions pas déja au sujet
du passéC'est une question d'avenir' ('[not] the question of a concept dealing
with the past which already might be at our disposal or not at our disposal, ...[but
rather] a question of the future': Derrida 1995a, p. 27). It is an intriguing concept
that opened doors for exhilarating research. This 'turn' has stimulated scientists to
research the role of 'the archive' in social conditions and in postcolonial, post-
trauma, and post-conflict societies. Seen as 'the decolonisation of the archive',
it is situated in discourses on postcolonialism and postcoloniality (Stoler, 2002).
It is studied as a political space, as a societal concept for the promotion of power,
nationalism, surveillance, and for the silencing of alternative narratives (Burton,
2005; Chakrabarty, 2000; Faulkhead, 2009; Ketelaar, 2002; Stoler, 2009;
McKemmish et al, 2011). 'The archive' is used as a concept in themes as race and
archives in liquid times
2 I will not elaborate here on the poststructuralist view of the archive, as expressed by Foucault and Derrida.
For introductory reading: G. Bennington, 'Derrida's Archive', Theory, Culture Society, Vol. 3 (2014),
No. 7/8, pp. 111-119; B. Brothman, 'Declining Derrida: integrity, tensegrity, and the preservation of archives
from deconstruction', Archivaria, Vol. 48 (1999), Fall, pp. 64-89; K.O. Eliasson, 'The Archives of Michel
Foucault', E. Rossaak (ed.), The Archive in Motion: New Conceptions of the Archive in Contemporary Thought
and New Media Practices, Oslo, Novus Press, 2010, pp. 29-51; S. Lubar, 'Information culture and the archival
record', The American Archivist, Vol. 62 (1999), Spring, pp. 10-22; M. Morris, 'Archiving Derrida',
Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 3 5 (2003), No. 3, pp. 297-312; and R. Vosloo, 'Archiving otherwise.
Some remarks on memory and historical responsibility', Studia HistoriaeEcclestiasticae, Vol. 31 (2005),
No. 2, pp. 379-399.
3 Postmodernism is used as a rather loose label to identify a number of theoretical approaches developed
since the 1960s. Poststructuralism, as a much more precise but less inclusive term, is used to refer to the
French theorists Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and Roland Barthes.
They demonstrate the dependence of structures on what they try to eliminate from their systems. They
diverge from one another in many ways, but they have in common the attempt to uncover the unquestioned
dependencies and methaphors that uphold social and cultural norms. Postmodernism also includes
theorists that are influenced by but are not within poststructuralism: Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari,
Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard. Many theorists (like Gatyatri Spivak, Judith Butler, and
Donna Haraway) are critical of postmodern theory but find elements of it very useful. Postmodernists and
poststructuralists do not constitute a single school and there is as much disagreement among them as
between them and other types of theory.