Understanding the House: What does ‘Archive’ Mean?

I had intended to stop at three installments – ‘understanding the house’, being the last piece on the ‘Building the Archive’ symposium.  However I felt Professor Golding’s talk had so much information, so many points for further thought, that it left plenty for the reader to mull upon.  It was a fantastic talk in its own right, providing much theoretical context from which to re-think archival spaces.  Consequently, Williams, Power and McKee’s practical expositions will form the last part of this extended post.

Part III: Understanding the House

To introduce the afternoon’s discussion, Johnny Golding attempted to conceptualise the role of ‘the archive’ more broadly.  Golding is the Director of the Centre for Fine Art Research (CFAR) and holds the Chair in Philosophy and Fine Art at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD).   She decided against a conventional lecture format, instead providing pointers for the audience to think about, ways and means of theorising the archival space.  This was originally done with the aim of providing more time for group discussion – allowing a conversation to take place.  The talk overran considerably however, and it was a shame this wasn’t possible.  Having said this, Golding certainly provided much food for thought!

She opened with three initial points:

  1. We are conditioned as ‘modern’ via the enlightenment.  Here, Golding thought it was worth stealing Kant’s dictum – ‘Dare to Know’; a means of categorising that illustrious age.  This era of scientific discovery, philosophical thought and discussion asked:  ‘Suppose it could be otherwise?’  And if it could be otherwise…. What would the ‘otherwise’ look like?
  2. For us, in the modern day, what does this anti-representational question mean?
  3. How should we categorise our own age?

Golding proffered an answer to the third question, namely that this should be the ‘Age of Photography.’  This was because photography itself has become public.  We all have access to it, can understand it – use and read it.  It has become all-encompassing.  In this way, the image, Golding argued, is closer to sound as a motif.  It is without borders (linked to the ‘destruction of the frame’), yet still acts as witness / evidence.  It is how we ‘see’ things.

But, it then follows, if there is no frame – there is no logic of meaning, no context from which to set apart the image, the photograph, from anything else?  It becomes mere ‘viewing’, using our senses as opposed to our rationality.  Here though, Golding felt there was still a narration of sorts – as after all, the photograph is necessarily situated in a ‘culture of framing’.  This refers back to other modes of communication; the speech and language games of which we are all a part.  Here, Wittgenstein is the big influence.  He rejected the idea that concepts need to be clearly defined to be meaningful.  Meanings of words may blend into each other (family resemblance), and saying something in a language is analogous to making a move in a game; words only have meanings dependent on the uses made of them.  Likewise (for our discussion), images are given meaning via the same process.

The original Enlightenment question – ‘Suppose it could be otherwise’ shows awareness of ‘the frame’, and for that matter, life outside the frame.  Here, there is a decisive break with the master of Greek philosophy, Aristotle.  In his metaphysics, Aristotle utilised the notion of ‘final causality’ to assert the precedence of ‘actuality’ over ‘potentiality’.  The final, actual form gives meaning to all prior potentialities.  This may sound confusing (it was left relatively unexplained in Golding’s talk), but in essence, it’s a simple argument:

Things (in existence) move toward an end (telos)—the boy becomes a man, the acorn becomes an oak.  Hereby… ‘the actuality is the end, and it is for the sake of this that the potentiality is acquired… animals do not see in order that they may have sight, but they have sight that they may see… matter exists in a potential state, just because it may come to its form; and when it exists actually, then it is in its form.’ (1049b18–19)

So, how does this relate to the archive?  The enlightenment is asking – ‘how should we exist’ – what is the ‘otherwise’ to the oak tree?

The archive helps us to do this.

The archive is a collection of what would otherwise be left on the rubbish heap; it helps us remember as a site of memory; giving a voice to what would otherwise be mute.

This is very similar to how the artist functions; they gather the ‘otherwise refuse’, cataloguing and collecting, sorting and selecting – not necessarily judiciously, or usefully, or even to give gratification.  Both the artist and the archive play between this ‘muteness’ and ‘language’, providing identity and belonging.

As a side note, and a means to explain Golding’s later construals, the problem of identity has been a basic philosophical issue ever since Parmenides (5th Century BCE).  Parmenides stated it in the form: ‘thought and being are the same.’  This was further elaborated upon by Plotinus (205-270), with the statement: ‘it is in virtue of unity that beings are beings.’  Leibniz developed this concept of unity, as ‘simplicity, individuality and above all, uniqueness’, which he established with the help of the principle of the identity of indiscernibles:

‘If two things have absolutely nothing which distinguishes them from each other, they are identical, they are the same thing.’

There is a fundamental problem with this reasoning though, noted by Heidigger (Identity and Difference).  Identity, even in Leibniz’s principle, necessarily involves mediation and synthesis.

  • Identity:  A = A
  • But this is, of necessity, an assemblage – not a numerical whole.
  • ‘A’ has to ‘=’ ‘A’ for belonging to occur.
  • Therefore, ‘=’ is a sign not of identity, but of belonging.

This was what Golding wanted to stress, that the archive / artist perform this role, the ‘=’ of belonging.  They pull identities, cultural dimensions and understandings together.  This can be an incredibly exciting moment – it is when memory moves out of pure ‘evidence’ and takes on a dance with the present (past and future too for that matter).  It should also be noted that this is not to form one common narrative – the reason archives are such an exciting places, is that they are passionate sites of difference.  They become a living site, not of strict, Cartesian rationality with an inbuilt logic of sense, but actively creating new ground, new teleology, purposes and understandings.   The archive is therefore, a living expression of public memory…

Long may it live!

To come…

WALKING THE CORRIDORS:  WILLIAMS, POWER and McKEE.

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4 thoughts on “Understanding the House: What does ‘Archive’ Mean?

  1. Pingback: Walking the Corridors | ameliacarruthers

  2. Pingback: Building the Archive | ameliacarruthers

  3. Pingback: Rising from the Rubble | ameliacarruthers

  4. Pingback: Collective Individuality | ameliacarruthers

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