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Radically De-Historicising the Archive. Decolonising Archival Memory from the Supremacy of Historical Discourse

Wolfgang Ernst_1

Magnetic core memory, a technological form of dynamic short-­time archiving in early digital electronic computing. Photo: Benjamin Renter. Copyright: Media Archaeological Fundus at Humboldt­ University, Berlin (Media Studies).

Unfolding the layers of the "colonised" archive

In cultural discourse, in the art world and in political activism, the term "archive" has mostly become a generalised metaphor for different kinds of collections of traces from the past. While in public discourse the archive is mostly (mis-)understood as the "content" of the archive (its records, its data banks), in archival sciences the term rather refers to the organising structure. Against intellectual or artistic fantasies of "the anarchival" (Fürlus & Giannetti 2014), the digital archive is still rigorously rooted in its techno-mathematical structure, while the dynarchive lies between the archival and the anarchival spheres.

The administrative archive in the strict sense is a read-only memory. One cannot simply take out archival records because they are politically incorrect, neither can the archival order as such (key term "tectonics") be easily changed according to a new discursive will. Just like in computing, a rewriting of code in the operating system would make the whole function collapse. It is exactly the non-discursive and non-narrative structure of the archive which makes it such a uniquely powerful institution. Therefore, acts such as revealing the genealogy of the institutional archives as grounded in the imperial nation states have to operate on an epistemological level, through non-invasive re-reading, un-covering the ties between archive and narrative history as master discourse of the traditional nation state.

Digital archiving, as Friedrich Kittler has pointed out, could break up the alliance that the institutional archives have maintained with historiography and historicism since 1800. Moreover, the chronological sequence could be replaced by an order of co-presence once their combinatory connections were located (Kittler 1996, p. 75).

The digitisation of vast amounts of archival records brings a creative chance. Applying creative algorithms to experiment with new forms of navigating enormous amounts of archival signals and data (textual or audio-visual) results in new insights by mathematical intelligence like entropy values, stochastic analysis and similarity-based retrieval. Such operations are possible in computational space without destroying the material and symbolic order of the existing archive.

Similar media-archaeological approaches to the digitised archive allow new readings of the archive. Yet the archive – with the new digitised infra-structures linked online to data circulation, storage, processing and surveillance on the Internet – is at the same time colonised in new and unexpected ways by non-human agencies like the NSA (National Security Agency). What look like creative applications of software in big data research by digital humanities are nothing but a side-product of data processing avant-gardes developed by intelligence services.

De-historisation: De-coupling the archive from the nation state

The modern archive is closely related to the territorial nation state. With scholars like Jules Michelet in France and Leopold von Ranke in Germany, the rise of research-based history as an academic discipline co-originated with the new impulse to go (back) to the archives. The rise of the modern nation state required a foundational narrative of its temporal genealogy, resulting in a re-organisation of the archives "in the name of history" as a new discourse – provided by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the case of Prussia, with a proper philosophy of history which gave the state a deep-temporal sense and teleological ("metahistorical" in Hayden White's sense) justification, with the present state as its happy end. Via the historical discourse, the administrative state which is an infra-structural function (and represents the symbolic order of power) could be transformed into an imaginary called "nation".

Archival order as non-narrative alternative to historiography

Beyond the "cultural turn" of the last two or three decades concerned with cultural and collective memory, the critical focus has now shifted to the analysis of techno-cultural temporal dynamics of social, administrative and technological systems. The archive is set in motion (Ernst 2010). Let us therefore address the archive not as a coherent depository for memory supply but instead identify its multiplicity of temporal layers with and within memory technologies. Since the notion of the archive has been extended from the symbolic order (alphabetical texts) to the storage of signals (like physical sound and imagery), a memory has emerged which is capable of addressing human perception in a kind of repeatable hyper-presence. This does not only re-present, but actually enacts different aggregations of the past.

My epistemological intention is to liberate archival memory from its reductive subjection to the discourse of history and re-install it as an agency of multiple temporal poetics in its own right. In the context discussed here, (media-) archaeology is not just an auxiliary discipline to history, but as well a genuinely alternative model of processing data from the material archives of the past. While historical discourse strives for narrative coherence, the archaeological aesthetics deals with discrete, serial strings of information which – in an age of computing – gains new plausibility against literary forms of historical imagination developed in the nineteenth century.

As data bank structures, the archival mode of memory (record management) is a non-narrative alternative to historiography, in the best tradition of early twentieth century avant-garde which "questioned all models of memory (especially narrative ones), favouring openly dynamic, discontinuous forms contiguous with the modern means of technological reproduction – especially photography and film" (Ernst 2010). An archival collection of photographs as accumulation (different from private photo albums) does not yet constitute a meaningful story; on the contrary, it rather deconstructs narrative. Archival logistics of ordering images undercut the iconologic narrative by discrete counting (alphanumeric metadata). Here, the tight coupling of symbolic evidence in forms of oral or literary "history" is being replaced by a loose archival coupling (truly "mediatic" in Fritz Heider's terms), a process that – according to Allan Sekula's analysis – started already in the nineteenth century (Sekula 1986, p. 58).

Monumentality as suspense (epoché) from the temporal economy

Against the background of archives which are increasingly in motion, let us try a counter-analysis which defends archival resistance. The archive might now – as a retroactive effect – re-discover its virtue as institutional monument: to take out values from the ever-accelerating circulation and electronic economy, to arrest, fix and maintain chosen items; thus turning floating records from contextual documents (files) into discrete monuments (as defined in the "Introduction" to Michel Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge), into spatio-temporal "chronotopes" (Mikhail Bakhtin), epoché as sublation, taken out of time.

Contrary to the archives of physical memory media (paper records, celluloid film, magnetic tape) characterised by limitations of access due to the fragile nature of these documents (Prelinger 2009, p. 271), the current liberal, broadened, electronically-biased (thus liberated from spatial and material restrictions) use of the term archive, the online data collections labeled archives could in fact, as Frank Kessler and Mirko Tobias Schäfer proposed, be better characterised as perpetual transmission rather than permanent storage (Kessler & Schäfer, 2009, p. 276). What used to be sacred spaces, secluded from public insight – the arcana of political administration and of their archival memory – is now directly wired to the communication circuit of the present. The archive loses its temporal exclusivity as a space remote from the immediate present.

With increasing mobility and acceleration, should we rather value the immobile archive for its time-resisting virtue? Archival resistance against change is indeed a virtue in the age of networked documents which dissolve into memory-buffered streaming data. The acceleration counter-reactively leads to a wish to arrest movement for longer intervals or at least for moments – a "katechontic" counter-aesthetics usually associated with the archive. But archives of movement, in the age of YouTube and UbuWeb, themselves get in motion (Knörer 2011).

The idea of an archive in motion is a paradox: the archive is traditionally that which arrests time, which stops all motion. For nineteenth century historians, the archive was in its essence an institution that made it possible to access "frozen" sections of past time. But the technological developments in the twentieth century – the introduction of the phonograph and film – have inevitably forced the archive to confront the question of mobility, both practically and conceptually. Later, the transition from an archive of motion to the notion of an archive in motion is associated with the advent of computer technologies and ultimately, the Internet, where constant transfer and updating functions as well as "live" communication and interaction redefine the temporality of the archival document itself.

Eigenzeit: Archival resistance against historical time

Archives have their inherent temporality, their Eigenzeit as memory institution and storage technology. The archive oscillates between "temporalities" and "tempo-realities".

Emphatic storage waiting for (re-)circulation belongs to the logic of late capitalism and thus is part of a memory economy. In a contrary way, a virtue of the traditional archive has been exactly that it was outside (historical) time. This refugium, this temporal exile from history, is in fact a kind of archival resistance against complete mobility which is the signature of modernist discourse. The old institutional archive served as a bedrock against the complete mobilisation of records, as opposed to distributed digital archives and their open access on the Internet today. More and more, archives find themselves both inside and outside the "Web 2.0" or "social Web" economy. A gap opens between the necessity for archival services for the public versus defending archival secrecy (the arcanum).

By becoming electronically-accessible "online", the archive is being deprived of its traditional power. As long as the archive has been distanced from public discourse, archival knowledge has been an internal privilege of governmental agencies. But such traditional archival secrecy is not just an old-fashioned power instrument to be overcome in favour of open access, but actually there is a kind of archival secrecy of a new kind, hidden in technology itself (van Tijen 1994).

Conclusion: Archive in the age of dynamic user culture

While Émile Durkheim suggested a society based on emphatic memory, Niklas Luhmann replaced this sociological perspective for the age of communication media by defining society rather as a form of communication. Applied to memory agencies and especially the "digital archive", this demands a new interpretation of its epistemological and aesthetic dimension as well. Although the traditional archival format (spatial order, classification) will in many ways necessarily persist, the new archive is radically temporalised, "ephemeral" (Chun 2011), multi-sensual, corresponding with a dynamic user culture which is less concerned with records for eternity than with order by fluctuation. As a result, new challenges arise: what if the public will prefer to use Google rather than institutional Internet portals to get access and information on national, academic and cultural memory? In other words, will the World Wide Web, Web 2.0 and the emerging Realtime Net replace the traditional guardians of memory such as archives, libraries and museums, just as Internet radio and IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) are replacing the traditional broadcasting media?


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