May 4, 2020
I arrived in Paris on February 1, 2020, roughly six weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic led the French government to implement its mandatory quarantine. My trip had originally been made possible by a doctoral fellowship through the Embassy of France in the United States, itself aimed at promoting collaboration between American and French academic institutions. I have always felt slightly maladroit when writing proposals for grants such as these: while much of my dissertation deals with widely available literary and theoretical texts, I’ve been advised to approach such applications as if they necessarily depended on archival materials and work. Failing to do so could ironically make it financially onerous to finish a dissertation that by no means hinges on such analyses. Nevertheless, I’ve found that the process of applying for these grants has had the upshot effect of convincing me of the centrality of the archive for the project, and as such, I was relieved to be given the spring to wander sites perhaps more easily and appropriately navigated by historians.
One of the immediate effects of the lockdown measures in France and elsewhere was the near total closure of the archive. While many “digital” archives have remained “open,” their being so to a certain extent defeats the purpose of archival work undertaken through grants such as mine. This purpose is rooted in the institutional demand that researchers locate and publish on “new” archival documents that are by definition not easily accessible, which in the information age has become synonymous with seeking out the physical archive. As I’ve waited for the end of quarantine in Paris, I’ve often thought about the extent to which the pandemic has foreclosed not only this type of work, but also our ability as would-be scholars of the archive to chart a course from research to publication in hopes of one day standing out in an increasingly grim job market. Further still, the more time I’ve spent pondering these now out-of-reach documents and the institutional pressures that led me to seek them out, the more I’ve realized that the present state of crisis finds a metaphorical analogue in the “archive” itself.
As Jacques Derrida has pointed out, the origins of the word “archive” lie in the Greek arkhē, a term which notably coordinates the principles of commencement and commandment, thus designating both a (physical, historical, or ontological) beginning as well as the place from which authority is exercised. In this way it is an (and often “the”) origin produced and controlled by power, whose designation prefigures its argument for primacy among the always multiple origins competing for dominance. The paradox in this, however, is that the meaning of “archive” (and that of its Greek and Latin predecessors) is founded in the arkheion, that is to say the house, domicile, address, or residence of those who command—the archons. These citizens were both the holders and signifiers of political power, understood by the people as having the right to create and represent the law. Thanks to this publicly recognized right, their place of residence became the site where official documents were to be filed. These first archivists were consequently trusted both to guard and to interpret the archive, itself predicated on closure, on its remaining secret to those finding themselves outside of it.
Thus, “archontic power,” Derrida elsewhere says, consists of the ability to gather the functions of unification, identification, classification, and “consignation” (functions that Bernard Stiegler has analyzed by way of the concept of “grammatization,” or those processes through which the “flows and continuities which weave our existence are discretized”). This power allows its holder to collect, to assign residence, and to shelter, and thus to carry out an archival gathering together that is necessarily an act of both coordination and control. The “science” of the archive must thereby include a component theory of institutionalization that details 1) the law inscribed in its physical site and 2) the right that authorizes that inscription. Here, the archive accordingly marks the material or institutional limits only penetrable by way of the selfsame laws that govern them. To archive is thus to enclose by means of instituting limits on and permissions to thought, a power that Stiegler might consider a technics of tertiary retention (i.e., as falling after the primary retention of perception [by consciousness] and the secondary retention of memory).
This core contradiction of the “archive”—its functioning as both origin and closure—is eerily legible during the current pandemic. On one level, the physical archive has indefinitely closed, denying it the power to signify its primacy as origin, and in turn stripping it of its ability to order, protect, and permit. On another level, one finds the State’s own attempts (and at times devastating inability) to biometrically archive its own citizens (through testing and detection or tracking, for example), itself an instantiation of archontic power that has led many of us to be gathered, quarantined, “sheltered in place,” or archived ourselves, all while that same State strives to classify and in turn to control the virus. Similarly, the fool’s errand of seeking a “patient zero” might be partially explained through this approach to the archive: origins are impossibly multiple, and the struggle for a dominant origin an index of relations of force. For relatedly, what is a vaccine but an ultimate form of control arrived at by way of archontic power—not an elimination of a virus, but a seizing of the ability to permanently define its limits?
Thought back onto the concept of the “archive,” then, the present crisis only accentuates the extent to which grammatization cannot eliminate chaos but must necessarily draw from it. The archive as an institution must accordingly be seen as founded on the impossibility of its own existence, its claim staked on origin as always confronted with a sea of identical claims. For the archive is never the truth that it claims to be; rather, as Guy Debord (quoting Novalis) has insisted, it is the memory of the State.
I recently experienced this impossibility first hand, just weeks before France’s quarantine began. One facet of my current research deals with postwar avant-garde writers and their engagement with the sciences of cybernetics and information theory, which has led to my interest in Debord and the Situationist International’s critique of not only the technocratic vision of the world being promoted by certain cyberneticians, but also their related conflation of information and language. This thread brought a specific document to my attention: “La Tortue dans la vitrine (La dialectique du Robot et du Signal).” On March 17, 1965, Situationists forcibly interrupted a conference dedicated to the work of the French cybernetician Abraham Moles and the artist Nicolas Schöffer, first assailing Moles with tomatoes, then disseminating a pamphlet defaming Moles the “Robot” and Schöffer the “Signal.”
The tract is impossible to find online. If one wishes to read its contents, it is instead necessary to seek out one of the few of copies preserved in specific archives, including La Contemporaine in Nanterre, France. The irony of this should not be lost on those familiar with the Situationists’ activities: much of their revolutionary work was open-source avant la lettre, and—as Debord’s insistence on the complicit nature of the archive in the history-molding project of the State suggests—was positioned against capitalism’s penchant for control by way of institutionalization. (This to say nothing of the even greater irony of Debord’s archive being officially declared a trésor national in 2017.)
After exchanging a number of administrative emails with La Contemporaine, I scheduled a visit in hopes of reading what SI members Édith Frey, Théo Frey, Jean Garnault, and Mustapha Khayati had had to say about cybernetics’ usurping of language. Arriving at the site just before noon in mid-February, I was welcomed by the library’s support staff, who provided me with a reader card and assigned me a seat in a room dedicated to manuscript consultation. After a ten-minute wait, the brown folder in which the pamphlet was archived was delivered to my desk.
I took my time examining each of the documents in the folder, noting the care with which each had been classified, numbered, ordered. But one was absent: the tract that I had travelled almost 4,000 miles to see. At first, I thought that I had made a mistake, but after reviewing the folder’s contents resigned myself to the fact that “La Tortue” had indeed gone missing. Shortly after alerting the front desk to the issue, I was greeted by one of La Contemporaine’s collections directors, who explained to me that the tract was under lock-and-key in a colleague’s office due to security concerns: it would seem that Situationist archives are regularly subject to theft and sabotage. He went on to say that as the colleague in question was out for the day, the document was at present inaccessible. Generously, however, he offered to scan and email it to me the following morning, which I accepted.
Image courtesy of La Contemporaine
The paradoxes of this experience—e.g., needing to attempt to handle a physical object in order to gain access to its digital reproduction, or the political nature of an archive triggering its declassification—have moved me to rethink the status of the archive in the present moment. How might its promised origins double as closures? In what ways might this more general period of closure be reframed as one of opening? With physical archives currently inaccessible and the State’s memory by extension unreadable, I would like to dedicate a series of posts to these questions, to mediations on the archive’s own contradictions, and to its inability to remember what it claims so assuredly to contain. Each post in the series will consider how a particular archive or “the archive” in general can serve as both origin and end, as both limit and map beyond. The series, which in light of my recent experiences I’ve thought to call the “Unarchive,” will give thinkers from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds the chance to open themselves and their own archives to the digital space, thus unarchiving objects and insights that might have otherwise not found institutional expression. At the very least, my wish is that each post will provide some momentary respite from the disorder of the present, all while we look forward to greater (and let us hope responsible) re-openings.
If you would like to contribute to the series, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
 Bernard Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy, trans. Daniel Ross (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2010).
 “La Tortue dans la vitrine . . . (La dialectique du Robot et du Signal),” box “France. Strasbourg. Association générale des étudiants,” F/DELTA/0425, La Contemporaine, Nanterre, France.