[-empyre-] Culturally specific archives

Jon Ippolito jon.ippolito at gmail.com
Fri Oct 8 02:08:13 EST 2010

Hi Mona,

On Oct 6, 2010, at 9:59 AM, Mona Jimenez wrote:
> While I am really interested in all the theory and problematizing and questioning -- and especially of course the archives themselves, I'm glad there are those out there who  devote themselves to accessibility.

Thanks for this update on conditions on the ground in Ghana. I'll leave the practical question of making archives accessible where there's no Internet to other folks who've been working on this problem (like Craig).

In the meantime, here's an excerpt from a forthcoming book Richard Rinehart and I are writing that speaks more to the politics of oral versus fixed archives. It happens to be set in the (pre-)history of South America, but also I believe it speaks to Yann's provocative claim that "we are the archive."

Comments appreciated!



Euro-ethnic preservationists fool themselves into thinking that stone tablets and figurines in museums are the oldest artifacts on record. But the oldest cultural knowledge survives not in durable formats, but in social ones. Witness the Megatherium, a beast that died out tens of thousands of years ago but survives in the stories of Indians of the Brazilian rainforest.

Twenty feet tall, as strong as a dozen gorillas, covered with matted hair covering a bony carapace--the giant ground sloth made such an impression on the tribes of the Amazon that nearly every one has a word for this creature, which most call the mapinquary. Repeated storytelling has kept alive stories of human encounters with this prehistoric animal. Indigenous storytellers "remember" features of the mapinguary that paleontologists cannot read from the bones, like how the Megatherium smelled: the name mapinquary means fetid beast. When an Amazon native matter-of-factly related seeing a mapinguary at the natural history museum in Lima, a researcher was able to corroborate the mapinguary's prehistoric pedigree: the museum has a diorama with a model of the Megatherium.

Paleontologists have begun to accept other indigenous stories as genuine memories, including a giant, man-eating bird known to science as Haast's eagle, extinct for 500 years but alive in Maori legend.  The performative model of preservation dates back even longer than birds and beasts, however. All life is based on regeneration, as confirmed by a recent study concluding that 98 percent of the atoms in a human body are replaced by other atoms taken in by the body *each year*.  

All of this is hard to understand from the perspective of museums and archives, which depend on the dedication of a staff of experts in a centralized institution to safeguard cultural memory. The proliferation of recorded media in the last century would seem to underscore the necessity of media specialists and climate-controlled warehouses to look after all those silver gelatin prints and reels of celluloid. Even performance theorists such as Peggy Phelan write that "Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representation."

Yet this refusal to accept the preservative power of performance has political costs. As Diana Taylor notes, friars who arrived in the New World in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries claimed that the indigenous peoples had no past because they had no writing. During the Conquest, imperial centers in Spain and Portugal controlled indigenous populations by prohibiting performative practices such as dance and ritual in favor of archival practices such as writing:

'Nonverbal practices--such as dance, ritual, and cooking, to name a few--that long served to preserve a sense of communal identity and memory, were not considered valid forms of knowledge. Many kinds of performance, deemed idolatrous by religious and civil authorities, were prohibited altogether. Claims manifested through performance, whether the tying of robes to signify marriage or performed land  claims, ceased to carry legal weight. Those who had dedicated their lives to mastering cultural practices, such as carving masks or playing music, were not considered "experts," a designation reserved for book-learned scholars....The rift, I submit, does not lie between the written and spoken word, but between the _archive_ of supposedly enduring materials (i.e., texts, documents, buildings, bones) and the so-called ephemeral _repertoire_ of embodied practice/knowledge (i.e., spoken language, dance, sports, ritual).'

Taylor's use of the word "repertoire" is suggestive of the malleability of re-performed culture.  Although she notes that dancers often swear they are performing exactly the same dance as their predecessors, Taylor writes that, "as opposed to the supposedly stable objects in the archive, the actions that are the repertoire do not remain the same. The repertoire both keeps and transforms choreographies of meaning." Taylor also notes that sacred dancing, mask carving, and other indigenous methods of preservation survived the attempts by Conquistadors and the Church to stamp them out. Books can be burned, the many divergent old testaments ramrodded into a single King John edition, but the performative traditions of indigenous people from Oaxaca to Okinawa live on. 

Taylor's repertoire is emphatically embodied rather than written, with explicit contrast to print and implied contrast to scripted media such as radio and television. Yet it is less broadcast media's dependence on *scripts* than its dependence on *hierarchy* that ties it to the conservative view of the archive as regulating adherence to the original. Open software programmers, Wikipedia contributors, and YouTube mashup filmmakers constantly script and re-script the digital repertoire; new media writing escapes the centralized control characteristic of broadcast because it is editable. Furthermore, new media are not exactly disembodied in the way that a pre-recorded show playing on a screen is disembodied. New media may be non-geographic, but they network people into active producers rather than passive consumers, and even when mediated by machines, they execute rather than represent. This means that many of the "bodies" that perform new media--a browser running JavaScript, a Playstation running C++, an Intel CPU running machine language--can be modified and distributed inside emulators and other virtual environments. If anything, the fact that the digital repertoire can propagate by a dispersed populace using DIY tools makes digital media even more uncontrolled than the analog repertoire.

Excerpt from the chapter "Unreliable Archivists," in Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito, New Media and Social Memory (MIT Press, forthcoming)

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