Transgressive Archiving, with Ernst van Alphen

Databases, Archives, and Art

Date: March 8, 2012
Place and time: Oude Manhuispoort 4-6. Room E2.12.
10.00 – 13.00 o’clock

The value of archives is usually explained in terms of meaning; specifically, in terms of historical meaning. The meaning of recorded items can be recovered by exploring archives. In contrast, the value of what is stored in immaterial archives, in digital databases, is usually situated in the way it can be used in the present: its “operationality” rather than meaning. In the words of Brouwer and Mulder: “We reuse and recombine our past to create the world as we know it. Memory is a process that functions in the present and is continually updated through that mode of functioning.” Furthermore, the immaterial archive of digital databases functions on the basis of different principles: flexibility and instability. Material archives, on the contrary, pursue control and stability. Instead of exerting control over past meaning in the service of memory and recollection, the immaterial archive is effective and usable because of its flexibility.

Does this mean that material archives can now be archived as an institution of the past? That remains to be seen. Although the material forms of this type of organization of recollection perhaps now look outdated, this does not imply that the principles that have governed those forms also belong to the past. The pursuit of control of meaning and the past has not imploded with the explosive growth of the importance of the digital database. Indeed, digital databases can be used for practices that embody the principles that are now associated with material archives. I wish to argue that the qualities that are commonly attributed to material archives and digital databases are not inherent to them. Those qualities rather depend on the concrete practices which make use of databases or archives. This implies that material archives should not be seen as outdated simply because they are associated with principles like control and stability (of meaning), which have become suspect and are considered less attractive then the labyrinthine qualities that are attributed to digital archival practices.

In this Masterclass, we will explore the transgressive potential of variegated archival practices, not only in the use of digital databases, but also of material archives.

Ernst van Alphen is Professor of Literary Studies at Leiden University. His main publications include: Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self, Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature, and Theory, and Art in Mind: The Contribution of Contemporary Images to Thought.