Ashes to Knowledge, Dust to Revelation

In Season 2, episode 10 “The Library” of Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, the main characters travel to Wan Shi Tong’s ancient archive—a library that held the history of the world, guarded by spirits of knowledge.  The gang traveled there in the hopes of finding information that would allow them to defeat the Fire Nation, ultimately the “bad guys” of the series.  After searching for hours in the massive underground building, they come across the section of the library that was supposed to contain all information regarding the Fire Nation and firebending in general.  However, all of the information has been burned.  A past Fire Nation militant, General Zhao, had used the library to gather information to defeat the Water Tribe in years past, and had destroyed all information on the Fire Nation as it was invaluable to their enemies.

The factor that raises most questions about the merit and purpose of an archive is the one definite thing it needs in order to be created and maintained—human input.  As Manoff states in her piece, “the writing of history always requires the intervention of a human interpreter.  […] ‘the archive is never ‘raw’ or ‘primary’ “because it was always assembled so as to lead later investigators in a particular direction.”  Not only is there human input in the upkeep of a particular record, but in the original translation of an event into terms that would serve useful to the future population.  There is human interaction at every step of the way, from the original witness, to the encoding of the account, to the storage of the record.  And, as human influence increases in a record, the size of the record increases.  It no longer only maps the events described on paper, but the alterations or use of the archive change its meaning over time.  It is no longer separate from the history it records—it begins to maps a history of its own.

Even though General Zhao destroyed information regarding the Fire Nation in the Library, he left behind an arguably equaling damning piece of information than if someone had been able to find what he had originally incinerated.  The fact that he put in the effort to get rid of information on firebenders told his enemies for sure something that they had previously only speculated about—that there was a way to defeat the Fire Nation, to render them powerless.  So, General Zhao put into motion a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy—his manipulation of the archive led to the creation of another archive, a notion that eventually spurs his enemies to push harder for the information they are now sure is out there.  It’s this convincing discovery of the burned records that causes the main characters to push harder for information, and what eventually leads them to a piece of evidence missed by Zhao in his initial sweep.   It is this information that the gang ends up “transmuting […] into […] the real” as Wood described.  What was information lying in an abandoned library in the middle of the desert would be used to defeat the most powerful nation in their world.  And therefore, across centuries since it had been first documented, the information became a crucial part of reality.

As digital media makers, we must go farther in our understanding of our part in archiving than even Larsen did in her “Photograph Not Taken”.  She talks of her mission to archive events resulting in the actual synthesis of a new event to illustrate the power of the archiver, but the stretch of the archiver’s responsibilities last as long as the survival of the archive.  If what we know is based off of what we have recorded, then the manipulation of such reserves of information would change the knowledge of potentially an entire society.  As digital media makers we must be completely conscious of not only the initial creation of content, but of its upkeep.   A change to an archive, whether it be hundreds of documents burnt to a crisp or just a bit of Photoshop, can change the meaning of the record itself.  Archives continue to alter human knowledge long after the archivers are gone.


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