Object of the Archive, Part III: What is an Archive?

Jake Cowan

Digital Archiving

a gif of Heidegger dancing

Heideggers gonna Heidegger

In my last couple of posts, I interrogated what might be meant by common words like “object” and “thing” in a digital context. Utilizing distinctions made by Martin Heidegger, I suggested that we experience the world around us in terms of objects when we look only for what is present, what is scientifically verifiable, what is calculable, in a manner the philosopher calls Vorhandenheit, or present-at-hand. Alternatively, Heidegger offers us the notion of a thing, which gathers its surrounding context together in its use, which becomes real for us when we put the thing to some end, underscoring what is not (yet) there; Heidegger calls our relationship to such things Zuhandenheit, or ready-to-hand.

With these definitions in mind, we can now begin to consider what makes up an archive, because an archive is made up of objects and things.

On one level, archives preserve objects in their presence, for systematic study by scholars and scientists with the means to study the archive in person. Often this is the magical appeal of archives: The ability to see a particular object—an author’s first drafts; the assorted accoutrements of her writing practice—up close and personal, perchance to hold it, to feel the specifics of its objective materiality, to discover the aura of its presence. Moved by relationships of Vorhandenheit, the practice of an archive is to collect, to store, and to scrupulously register catalog metadata.

Yet on another ontological level entirely, an archive functions as a promise, preserving the things it does in hopes of their developed interest, the hope that these things will say something to and in the future. In this way, an archive brings the past into conversation with the future, and makes future possibilities determinative of what is saved of the past; use and end overlap in an archive of things. As Jacques Derrida put it in Archive Fever:

You find nothing in the Archive but stories caught halfway through: the middle of things; discontinuities.

In this way, an archive is a thing: It gathers and discloses a world, actualizing the invisible networks of being overlooked when we are only interested in the calculable, the objective, the present. A digital archive, then, does not merely maintain artifacts of code, algorithms frozen in function and time, but should help the wider world of the world wide web emerge.

The final scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

Raiders of the Lost Archive

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *