Ironic Impulse: How Archiving Defeats Its Own Purpose

Archiving is a way for humans to try and cheat their own nature.  Derrida references Freud’s “destruction drive”, or the human brain’s loss of information linked to the progression of time, as justification for preservation of experiences.  In Derrida’s words, the drive incites “forgetfulness, amnesia, [and] the annihilation of memory.”  It brings to mind, for me, the Second Law of Thermodynamics: that nature is constantly working towards entropy, or chaos, much like the human mind.  A shed left abandoned in the woods will degenerate the longer it is left unattended, and will become overgrown with ivy and wild plants native to the area.  Eventually the frame will give out and the structure will crumble.  Much is the same with human memory.  The longer we spend away from a certain event or emotion or revelation, the less we can recall about it.  The archive is our gardener.  The gardener travels out to the shed in the woods and fixes it up as it ages.  He cuts back the wild plants and tears away the ivy.  He repaints the outside and replaces wooden slats when they become rotted.  He displays unfamiliar, but attractive flowers along the side.  However, by keeping the shed standing, the gardener has changed the shed itself.  It is no longer an accurate reflection of what it was in the moment that the gardener found it.

Similarly, our memories are altered by archives.  The archive keeps the imprint of whatever we are able to describe onto whatever medium is available to us, yet it is impossible to have an exact replication of the physical and mental circumstances of a particular moment.  That is the “nomological” side to archiving—the archiver acts as a god, strictly controlling what gets remembered for even years to come.  Some may believe that the action of archiving gives too much power to the archiver, that the potential altering of mementos may in turn alter what society accepts as history and as fact.  The question is which is worse—risking having mass belief in inaccurate or incomplete history, or relying on no methods of archiving at all and just letting nature run its course?  That’s not to say that the archive is 100% a bad thing; thanks to the gardener, the shed will be useful to whoever needs to use it. As Derrida states, “Perhaps the question of the archive is not […] a question of the past.” We use archives to help us determine our decisions in the future.  The risk is whether or not those decisions were based on misinformation.

Originally, formal archiving was dependent on text.  As time has gone on and technology has diversified, the opportunity for archiving has expanded, as well as more permanent methods of retaining information.  Derrida talks of what is “worth” being archived, a concept that Freud measured by the “laborious investment in the archive”—which, to him, was most likely paper and print.  However, today’s videos and pictures, restrictions on social media post lengths, and other forms of fast-paced technology only offer snapshots into reality, and less of a combination of internal and external forces that came together to have the documented event occur.

However, text allows for more opportunity to add context to an archived event rather than a single picture being expected to capture the event in it’s entirety.  For instance, if Keasler’s picture had been taken and shared without an accurate explanation of the events leading up to the picture, the message would be skewed—the father would have gotten what he wanted as people retweeted it on Twitter, calling for better living conditions in the town she was visiting.   However, with the textual archive that Keasler provided in the “Photographs Not Taken” series, a different message is construed instead.  It raises the question of the intrusiveness of the photographer, the risks that are taken in a human’s impulsive need to archive.  Having knowledge of one’s actions being archived immediately takes away the truth of the action—the father wasn’t acting out of circumstances independent of the archiver.  He was directly influenced by her presence, and thus her attempts at capturing any genuine, average experience of the environment, in which she was meant to be a sort of omnipresent observer, was lost.   Technology brings an obviousness and awareness of archiving that directly alters the way events transpire.

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