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What Is a Modernist Archive?

[N]othing is less clear today than the word “archive.”
–Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever

Those looking for immediately appropriable theoretical concepts, organizational tactics, technological strategies, or technical procedures for managing archives problems will not find [Derrida’s] book helpful.
–Brien Brothman, in Archivaria

[D]emolish museums and libraries…heap up the fire to the shelves of the libraries.
–F. T. Marinetti, “The Futurist Manifesto

The past twenty years, along with the promises and perils of the digital turn, have seen a robust engagement with the modernist archive. One can map nearly point for point the rise of the New Modernist Studies and the Modernist Studies Association with the rise of digital resources that have reenergized the field: the Modernist Journals Project (1997), the Modernist Magazines Project (2006), the Blue Mountain Project (2012), the Modernist Versions Project (2012), ModNets (2013), and the Modernist Archives Publishing Project (2013), among others, have all contributed to the “expansive” forces enlarging the universe of material modernity. These archives have provided portals for new discoveries in modernist scholarly work; beginning with Ann Ardis’s Modernism and Cultural Conflict (2002), modernists have made extensive use of the MJP archive in order to make new cultural criticism. Indeed, Sean Latham and Robert Scholes see the rise of a new modernist archive as transformative to the field:

Wikimedia Foundation Servers. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The rapid expansion of new media technologies over the last two decades…has begun to transform the way we view, handle, and gain access to these [archival] objects. This immediacy, in turn, reveals these objects to us anew, so that we have begun to see them not as resources to be disaggregated into their individual components but as texts requiring new methodologies and new types of collaborative investigation.[1]

Yet the technological innovations that have transformed modernist scholarship have also created the conditions for the loss of decades of information and study. We are now somewhere in the Digital Dark Ages: the planned obsolescence of rapid technical innovation combined with short-sighted copyright law like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) have created crises for memory institutions in which “future generations will have little or no record of the 21st Century.” Marinetti’s call to demolish the libraries and museums is finally being heard, bit by bit, though a lack of public attention and under-resourced models of archival processing.

When the Chaldeans and Medes conquered Nineveh in 612BC and destroyed Assurbanipal’s library (the world’s first great library) they simply “push[ed] in the walls with battering rams,” ignoring the most comprehensive collection of the world’s data at that time, and in doing so, accidentally preserved those records for nearly two thousand years before they were once again unearthed in the modern period. Our generation is mostly unaware of the great information loss that happens on a daily basis, and by no means is this loss limited to a particular discipline. Studies suggest that “as much as 80 percent of the raw scientific data collected by researchers in the early 1990s is gone forever, mostly because no one knows where to find it.”

Tenet 1: Any Study of the Archive Depends on Understanding the Material Support that Makes an Archive Possible

Library of Ashurbanipal, The Flood Tablet. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Paper, that stalwart information-bearing surface that has lasted for over a millennium, only got an upgrade towards the end of the nineteenth century with the mass production of pulp paper, which precipitated a whole new genre of writing (pulp fiction) and communication (pulp newspapers).  But the very acid needed to break down wood cellulose to create the explosion of paper surfaces on which news could be printed also replaced a traditionally stable surface with a volatile medium. That acid still eats away at the fibres of pages in our archives. By the turn of the century, the world was being wrapped in wire for electromagnetic telecommunication. By the mid-twentieth century, Claude Shannon popularized the term “bit” (binary digit) to describe the most basic unit of information within computing systems. In the year 2000, when “the Sloan Digital Sky Survey started work…its telescope…collected more data in its first few weeks than had been amassed in the entire history of astronomy.”

We once measured units of bits in eights (a byte), thousands of bytes (kilobytes), and many of us remember the freedom offered by floppy disks that could store over one megabyte of information; Gigabytes, terabytes, and petabytes have already given way to the zettabyte era (1021 bytes). As I write these words, scientists are adapting DNA to store information in living cells, the smallest units of which may carry the greatest storage potential humanity has yet to harness. Yet, our memory institutions tend to still be funded for the era of paper documents. What does this mean for the future of the archive as well as for the future of the digital resources now being created by modernist scholars?  

In Material Modernism: Politics of the Page George Bornstein called upon scholars to examine the physical embodiment of modernist literary production in order to understand how the first-sites of publication affect meaning and interpretation (David Finkelstein’s “Decent Company: Conrad, Blackwood's, and the Literary Marketplace” is an excellent example of this approach). Today, scholars like Matthew Kirschenbaum are providing theoretical and practical ways of thinking about born-digital and digitized archives in equally fruitful ways. His book Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination is one of the first great studies to examine the hard drive and its role as writing surface in late-twentieth-century literary production. Kirschenbaum is a digital polymath: he’s equally at home in the English department, the archive, DH, and the media archeology lab. In order to secure the twenty-first-century literary heritage, we need to train many more scholars like Kirschenbaum who can ably move among traditionally siloed professions like the humanities, library and archival science, and computer science. 

Tenet 2: Archivists Have an Impossible Task Under Existing Institutional Practices

Corridor of Files at the National Archives (USA). 

Archivists, whose primary job is the selection, arrangement, and description of information, face the daunting task of sifting through terabytes of information. To preserve a document means much more than putting paper in an acid-free box: It means preserving the surface support (the hard drive, the floppy disk, the zip drive, the CD, the DVD), the chip-specific machine with which one can read this support, and more dauntingly, the software which interprets the encoded document on the specific machine on which it was created. More often than not, the software is already defunct, yet the code remains under copyright, and it may be a federal offence under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to copy, store, or adapt that software (and hardware, for that matter) for long-term preservation. In a market economy that priviledges planned obsolescence, the speed at which technology becomes obsolete puts the bit in its obituary. 

To deal with the onslaught of information, archivists have proposed modern policies like More Product Less Process (MPLP) to describe fonds. More practical than traditional practices, MPLP still assumes the ability of a trained professional to work through masses of documents. But in the “era of abundance,” it seems more and more likely that archivists will have to rely on machine learning and algorithms to work through all the data that needs processing. This presents a serious challenge to established professional norms and values within the archival community—a community whose labor already tends to go unnoticed and unsung in normal scholarly communication cycles. For example, many of my archivist colleagues flinch when scholars from other disciplines announce they have  “discovered” a so-called lost work of art in the archive: “this document that had been excavated from the depths of the earth with great physical effort was right where it was supposed to be.” The professional tension that may exist between members of a knowledge community can perhaps be attributed to the fact we do not even speak the same language when we speak of the “archives.”

Tenet 3: That Word Does Not Mean What We Think It Means

There is perhaps no greater misused, misunderstood, exploited, cherished, necessary word than the term “archive.”  In a recent special issue of Textus, “The Archival Turn in Modern Literature,” the editors note: “Although it has never been…uncontroversial…the term ‘archive’ is arguably among the most contested and visible in the contemporary humanities.” Yet, this contestation moves on beyond the humanities (which often tends to think of the archive as its own special laboratory). Perhaps more than any other space in the modern university, “archive” is a term that truly stands as an interdisciplinary, contested space of intent and use.

The modern archivist is NOT trained to provide access to material (like librarians); rather her job is to adhere to the principles of the profession, most notably respect des fonds, as well as to determine the legal and ethical use of the material bound by privacy and copyright laws. While humanists tend to rely on Derrida to describe their relationship to the archive, archivists themselves are more likely to follow the strictures of records management and institutional policies. Rather than being elite archons, they tend to be inundated subjects of institutional policies. Marlene Manoff’s incredibly useful “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines” sums up the interdisciplinary nature of the archive: “literary critics, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, political scientists, and others have wrestled with the meaning of the word ‘archive’…[and] [a]rchival discourse has also become a way to address some of the thorny issues of disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge production and the artificial character of disciplinary boundaries.”

Modernist studies is not immune to the discourses of knowledge and boundaries when it comes to the archive. One of the great recent meditations on the subject, Finn Fordham’s “The Modernist Archive” in the Oxford Handbook of Modernisms, argues that the relationship between archives and modernist scholarship is complicated since we see the “archive” as both a theoretical concept (Derrida, Foucault, etc.) and an actually existing institutional space. This dichotomy raises serious questions around attribution, labor, and theory as we interact with archives in our research.

Archival Labor

Hogarth Press Doorplate used by Modernist Archives Publishing Project.

What does it mean to be a modernist scholar working with not only the lives of research subjects but also the labor of institutional “hidden hands” that made that work possible for us? I have to admit I have been very bad at recognizing the work of my archival colleagues in my own publications, and I have to ask: what is it about institutional policies that might contribute to my erasure of other people’s labor? In a discipline, like English, that privileges the work of the solitary scholar (as well as the output of such a mythical person, the monograph), how have interdisciplinary spaces been research-mined and then forgotten in the scholarly communication cycle? By ignoring that labor, do we devalue the very institutional spaces that make our work possible (and in doing so, do we devalue our own work). Archivists, too, are asking questions about their profession and the role professional practices play in limiting interdisciplinary discourse (see, “I’m Leaving the Archival Profession: It’s Better This Way”). For the most part, scholars who exist within a hiring, tenure and promotion system that favors symbolic capital and cultural production are nourished by solitary discovery tropes that ignore wider community participation. One impulse of this blog is to recognize that the archivist, the scholar, the student, the staff member, the professor, are all part of a complex ecosystem preserving, challenging, questioning, discovering, that complex actual and theoretical space encompassing records management, special collections, digital resources, classrooms, etc.

The (New) New Modernist Studies

A new generation of modernist scholars is rising and changing the face of interdisciplinary collaboration and archival work. I recently returned from a once-in-a-career conference, “After the Digital Revolution,” organized by Lise Jaillant and funded by the British Academy. Jaillant brought librarians, archivists, researchers, and community members together to think about the preservation of born digital records and the production of new knowledge in the academy and to spark interdisciplinary conversations that recognize the collective effort that goes into maintaining and communicating the objects in our archives. As I write, the Modernist Archives Publishing Project has announced a trove of modernist biographies that have been created using top-notch metadata standards so that the archive can be easily linked through authority records to other archives around the world.

Diagram showing connected Linked Open Data datasets as of February 2017. Illustration by Andrejs Abele, John P. McCrae, Paul Buitelaar, Anja Jentzsch and Richard Cyganiak, http://lod-cloud.net/.

In Textus, Margaret Konkol recently published  “Of Sonnets and Archives: Robert Graves, Laura Riding, and the Erasure of Modernist Poetry,” in which she explores how Graves’ and Riding’s “self-archivization practices shaped their reception.” Using two archives on opposite ends of the North American continent, Konkol shows how easily Riding’s contributions to Graves’s work were erased since she did not have the same interest as he in preserving her personal archive. Our pasts shape the future, and our futures will shape our pasts.

Future Pasts

This blog will concern itself with the messy, multidisciplinary spaces of the archives—both real and imagined. My hope is to bring together everyone involved in the creation of archives to discuss how these spaces shape, have shaped, and will shape the study of modernism. The editors of the Textus special issue see their work on “the archive in modern literature…[as] entering this multifaceted debate by seeing archives as ‘opportunities for making meaning.’” Here in “Future Pasts” we will continue this conversation and speak to the histories/texts/imprints that make the archive possible. The blog asks, what is a modernist archive? Can a modernist archive even exist? What were the fragments that continue to shore against our ruins? For Derrida, the archive conceals, à la Freud, and burns. Marinetti called for its destruction. But the archive always returns. It continues to offer a place of renewal, new directions, new fires, and new concealments. Or, in the words of Emily Dickinson, “Hope dwells in the house of possibility.” The archive is still a site of the always possible.


Many thanks to my archivist colleagues, Lara Wilson, Heather Dean, David Young, and Jane Morrison, for always patiently receiving and answering my archives enquiries and ideas. Any errors in describing the archival profession are mine alone.

[1] Sean Latham and Robert Scholes, “The Rise of Periodical Studies,” PMLA 121, no. 2 (March 1, 2006): 518.