Sunday, November 18, 2007

giving thanks for an archive



At the Postmoot Literary Festival at Miami of Ohio in April 2006, one of the conversations focused on libraries and the idea of the archive. Many people felt disturbed that even libraries significantly invested in archiving contemporary literature often didn’t have the resources to preserve significant texts, especially in their original material form as books, pamphlets, distinct art objects. Questions were raised about the implications of turning some or even much of this material into digital material and sacrificing the original object.

As both Borges and Eco have suggested in their fiction, the concept of the absolute archive in which all material can be stored is not only a fantasy but one that has usually been used in the name of controlling information and those who wish access to it.

It’s obvious to say both that material will be lost and that, therefore, it doesn’t do much good to bemoan that loss in any generalized way. The issue becomes more interesting when we imagine that we have some control over what gets saved and what gets lost, or that we’ll have key choices to make in some instances. If it is inevitable that material will be lost, what should be saved? And since even if we could decide what material should be saved, some of that will not be saved, what then?

Unlike in earlier eras of history, it’s now possible to imagine that some things will never get lost.

Which depends, of course, on the time period that we imagine the word “never” can actually span.

Yet it would be easy to be smug about the inevitability of loss. Just last week, a synchronization glitch in my computer system erased these notes from my computer. Furious and disturbed, I drove hurriedly to my office. Luckily this file and several others were backed up on the university computer H drive, and I lost no work. The relief I felt when I realized that the work had been saved! It was the relief that I had gotten back, in my work, to where I already had been. The relief of knowing there was an archive where I could find my own work.

To get back to where you’ve already been seems to me at least as much the promise of the archive as it is to see some essential objects you’ve never yet seen. To see again what you’ve already seen, and perhaps to see it again in a new way. I have seen the James Joyce collection at the University of Buffalo library and if I go back there, the collection will still be there and I can see it. Again.

Unless of course it isn’t there or someone prevents me from seeing it. One can only have so much trust in an archive and those who guard it.

6 comments:

brian salchert said...

Thank you for this post as it addresses a topic I have been thinking on for some while, and what you say here tells me I need to think on it for some while longer. Thank you also for the 11.16.07, 11.11.07, and 11.04.07 posts. I did read Tom Orange's considered response. I agree with you that "divisive rhetoric is an outmoded form of discourse" but I fear it is nigh impossible to closet it. Discoursing to understand is a better approach. Just because I don't get someone else's creation/ doesn't mean it isn't worth getting. Tom has indirectly been helping me to begin to grasp and appreciate Clark Coolidge's creations. Even if the human race is passing through the days (daze) of its demise, and nothing can be done about it, artistic provincialism only serves to hasten that demise. Can we not be unique without being belligerent?
Thankfully, I feel, most of us can and are.

Have a pleasant holiday.

cathye said...

I'm a little confused. Where are these archives that are sacrificing the original object for a digital version of it? I don't think I know of any ... digitizing stuff is generally way more expensive than storing the original, even in an environmentally controlled space. Or maybe I'm misreading this? Usually an archive will have a huge backlog of the physical materials that they can't even afford to process (i.e. organize and label and put in acid-free folders and boxes, etc.) let alone do that then digitize them and create metadata yadda yadda, so the archive ends up applying for grants to do the digitization--or not. Was it an archivist saying this at postmoot? I'm curious because maybe I've been missing a major issue in libraries and archives ...

mark wallace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mark wallace said...

Hi Cathy:

What you're saying is very interesting. It's hard to reconstruct the conversation a year and a half later, but it did involve archivists and poets and poet-archivists, Michael Basinksi among them, and the general tenor was worry that physical objects were being lost or in danger of being lost. It might also have been related to the problem of how many such literary objects there are; the fragility of many small press artifacts. And the question was whether digitization was a solution to that problem, since the physical object itself would still be lost but a digitized version would remain.

Brian, I appreciate your comments (partially to another post, I know) also. I think one of the issues in question is what things get lost if vigorous debate and disagreement become seen as something that we need to avoid. And I would be concerned that a lot would get lost, since the pressure to agree, or perhaps even to find common ground, is on some level (though hardly absolutely) a pressure to conform. The idea that poets, and our culture more broadly, should shy away from disagreements is really pretty scary relative to issues like free speech. Poets in particular have long shown a capacity for disagreement, one which I think of as an essential element of the value of poetry. "Belligerence" is different from "disagreement," of course, but they're not entirely different, as indicated by the fact that people confuse them all the time. How to allow disagreement to thrive while overcoming belligerent attempts either to disagree or force conformity is a tricky issue that probably only free speech can solve.

brian salchert said...

Yes, you are right; and free speech
is important to me. This
morning I went to Silliman's Blog,
and he has decided to change how he
deals with comments. If you have
not been there yet, read what he
says. Is there a rant blog where
poets and other creators (makers)
can have linguistic boxing matches?
Silliman feels sniping and the like
should be kept on one's own blog.

mark wallace said...

Hi Brian:

I think Ron has faced some of the problems of disagreement vs. belligerence very pointedly on his blog. Belligerence is often an attempt to force others into silence, and it does indeed work. Call somebody an asshole long enough and it turns out that they don't want to talk to you anymore. No big surprise there. Ron seems to want his blog to feature a more informed conversation, and we have no right to tell him that he can't.

Free speech, of course, also contains the right to walk away from a conversation you don't feel like having; nothing about the concept of free speech implies required listening. Listening is as free as speech; I have the right to say something any way I want, and you have the right to walk away if you don't feel like hearing it.

Personally speaking, I see no major connection between the idea of a moderated blog and free speech. I think it's a conflation of two different issues. Free speech means I can't arrest you for anything you're saying, or physically force you into silence, and a moderated blog can't arrest anybody or force anything. A moderated blog is usually more like a moderated classroom discussion, or a moderated panel. No moderated blog stops anyone from saying anything--at most it just says "I don't feel like listening to that here, so please go say it elsewhere."

I'm in favor of free listening as well as free speech.