Our Monstrous Archives: Memory and the End of Time

Sam Winn
Sam Winn
Jul 13 · 8 min read

Presented at the 2021 Archival Education and Research Initiative virtual conference, 12 July 2021.

Marius Ristea, “Decomposing apple time lapse,” posted Nov 19, 2016.
Transformed into GIF with sepia coloring by Sam Winn, May 14, 2021.

The Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies (JCLIS) published a special issue on “Libraries and Archives in the Anthropocene” in May 2020. Drawing upon multiple disciplines and temporal perspectives, the authors explored cycles of entropy and decay, the interventions and legacies of nonhuman agents in material memory, the archives as a living system, and possible futures (or non-futures) of the archival profession.[1] Together, they sought to trouble, disassemble, and reconstitute the modern archival field in anticipation of accelerated climate change.

In my piece, “Dying Well in the Anthropocene: On the End of Archives,” I argued that the management and materiality of archives will be transformed beyond recognition by advancements in information and communications technology, the rise and decline of neoliberalism, and the acceleration of climate change.[2] I spoke about the affective labor of anticipatory grief and proposed that the profession take a palliative approach to planning its own transubstantiation.

The juxtaposition of dread and acceptance struck a chord in the profession. ProjectARCC (Archivists Responding to Climate Change) featured the article in a series of teach-ins held during the 2019 global climate strike.[3] It also inspired a plenary session at the 2020 Annual Meeting of the Association for Canadian Archivists, inviting the profession to plumb the affective depths of climate dread and articulate what we had feared to admit about the future(s) of our work.[4]

Any time we grapple with symbolic death, acolytes of Freud and Becker argue that we are confronting our own very literal, very inevitable death.[5] Solomon et al. call this awareness of death the “Worm at the Core” of our existence, arguing that humans reminded of their own mortality are predisposed to defend both their self-esteem and the integrity of any groups to which they belong.[6] This integrity is secured through the pursuit of symbolic immortality, through material memorials that testify to and about our lives.[7]

In revisiting the JCLIS special issue, I began to contemplate how archival practice reflects the dynamics of attraction/aversion that scholars theorize at work in our individual psyches.[8] In many ways, archives embody both death and its denial. Dani Stuchel argues that the Anthropocene is, for the archives, “a symptom, a pathologization of materiality, a diagnosis.”[9] Although we rarely integrate this reality into our practice, the fundamental chemical and logistical processes of archival management concede that entropy has the advantage of time.

Preservation work is described as prolonging the “life expectancy of collections,” a tacit admission that the materials would decay beyond recognition without careful chemical and environmental interventions.[10] Technological optimism has lured archivists into an uneasy complacency. Afraid that we might unknowingly destroy something precious to the future, we are tempted to hold onto everything in a kind of purgatory state — just in case. We call this ocean of informational and material detritus “the backlog” and we are all drowning in it.[11] We only have so much time and space to carry out our missive, and every decision we postpone in this working life is inherited by future generations of archivists.[12]

The Anthropocene forces us to confront the irrationalities of neoliberalism with its candy-coated assurances of limitless growth and infinite resources.[13] Even the Society of American Archivist’s Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics admits, in its most recent iteration, that “the cost of long-term preservation and ongoing challenges of accessibility prevent most of the documents and records created in modern society from being kept in perpetuity.”[14] And yet, very little has been written or said in our field about how to carry out the work of letting things go.

We treat death and dying as The End, a moment of transition before and after a life’s conclusion.[15] A trace moment is inscribed just as it ends, evidence of its existence captured in a single, disembodied instant. We call this frozen moment “the record” and we expect it to testify with unwavering authority and authenticity. We are tempted to believe that the record can speak for itself. We presume that life can exist in the archives without the maintaining work of death.

Imagine archives as a mausoleum of memory, a physical monument to the liminal barrier between past and present. Each sepulcher is given a name, a date, and a location against which various assumptions can be tested. We trust these markers to describe something real and true. The container testifies that a body was once there. Archivists painstakingly maintain these tombs in anticipation of future visitors, keeping them tidy and safe from the weather, ensuring inasmuch as possible that these markers are neither moved nor removed from their proper context. So long as they remain legible, the border holds fast between living and dead.

Records are to cultural memory as plastination is to burial: that is to say, one representative moment held in abeyance, whose immortality is subject only to the whims of weather and the limitations of modern chemistry. Certainly, a record might satisfy some scientific curiosity. A record testifies that a moment once existed in the present tense. It provides evidence of an instant observed, without requiring the messy presence of an observer. It can substantiate or undermine a diagnosis or legal claim. In contemporary practice, archivists embalm and maintain these material tracings in case a future Doctor Frankenstein wants to stitch them together and set them on parade.

This artificiality, death prolonged and denied, constitutes the monstrosity of the archives. Conflating the record of a moment with its reality is a grotesque distortion of the human experience.[16] The archives become a battlefield of ideologies where the victor prevails by sheer attrition. Archives are a critical technology of empire, legitimating and cementing campaigns of domination.[17] Exclusion from the archives is an act of symbolic annihilation.[18] The records of domination serve as a kind of memento quod vixit, an assurance that the ideals of the empire can never truly die so long as a record of their existence remains.

By intent and by effect, archives are static representations of dynamic events. When materiality is upheld as the highest form of evidence, any loss of embodiment is akin to death. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that I’ve been haunted throughout my career by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.[19]

Like Shelley’s colossal wreck, our skin and bones and papers and plastics have a finite lifetime. One day, despite our best efforts, they will be worn away by wind and water, gnawed upon and scattered beyond recognition. The death of an archives — even the archives — is inevitable. And yet, the living world reminds us that death is not the end. Decay, when carried out intentionally and in community, harnesses death in the production of new life.[20]

I am recording these sentiments amid a global pandemic that has worn through our steadfast American optimism to exhume the banal cruelties of capitalism, expansionism, and extractionist industry. It has seen so much death — perhaps 13 million excess deaths, by one recent Johns Hopkins study cited in The Economist.[21] It has cast doubt on every institution, on deeply held assumptions of fairness and belonging. It has also drawn into sharp relief my own personal frailties, my own resilient places, and the breadth and depth of my adaptive possibilities. Can these two struggles be separated? I suspect not.

Following Eva Hayward’s practice of “critical enmeshment,”[22] I wrap up this disquisition by acknowledging my bodymind — queer, gender-nonconforming, disabled, and mad, in enduring confrontation with a society that aims to kill off all these parts of me. It is bound up in and transformed by these contemplations. I have begun to embrace death as both a necessary presence and a healing practice in the archives. It provides a foundation for radical acceptance and it reminds us that palliative care, like the construction and care of memory, is the work of community.

A story can always be retold so long as it has a teller. Although material objects may accompany the act of telling, they cannot replace it. The story is sustained through relationships among the storyteller(s), the audience(s), and the place(s) of sharing. Each offers what is needed, and none pretend to be true.

Works Contemplated

[1] Almeida and Hoyer, “The Living Archive in the Anthropocene”; Finn et al., “Troubled Worlds”; Radio, “Documents for the Nonhuman”; Stuchel, “Material Provocations in the Archives.”

[2] Winn, “Dying Well In the Anthropocene.”

[3] ProjectARCC, “Climate Strike Teach-Ins.” See also on Twitter #Archivists4ClimateAction.

[4] Winn et al., “#Archivists4ClimateAction Plenary.” Our unofficial hashtag was #ACAClimateDread.

[5] The “death drive”, coined by Freud in his 1920 essay ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle,’ was gleefully adopted by Derrida in his inescapable treatise on memory work, “Archive Fever.” Ernest Becker’s 1974 book, “The Denial of Death,” is considered both a catalyst in death positivity discourse and an inspiration for Solomon et al, cited below.

[6] Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski, The Worm at the Core, 11.

[7] Solomon et al., 23–25. See also p. 64: “Even the slightest intimation of our mortality prods us to work harder to leave our mark on the world.”

[8] Derrida certainly thought so, as much as it pains me to agree with him on any count.

[9] Stuchel, “Material Provocations in the Archives,” 3.

[10] Northeast Document Conservation Center, “Session 1: Introduction to Preservation.”

[11] See the last 40 years of archival discourse on deaccession, tech debt, and deferred maintenance.

[12] Perhaps fruitlessly, as Walter M. Miller imagined in A Canticle for Leibowitz.

[13] Goldman, “It’s Not Easy Being Green(e): Digital Preservation in the Age of Climate Change”; van Bussel, Smit, and van de Pas, “Digital Archiving, Green IT and Environment” and Russel and Vinsel, “Hail the Maintainers” speak to the long-term costs of preserving cultural assets. Civallero and Plaza, “Libraries, Sustainability and Degrowth” provide a compelling framework for proactively reducing the footprints of libraries and archives.

[14] Society of American Archivists, “SAA Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics.” Emphasis mine.

[15] Both Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski (authors of The Worm at the Core) and the Order of the Good Death identify Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, “The Denial of Death,” as a cultural turning point.

[16] Though subaltern epistemologies have developed innumerable ways to deconstruct, reimagine and freakify the archives, hegemonic assumptions of law and evidence still privilege the written word.

[17] A key assumption of Foucault, “The Archaeology of Knowledge” that is demonstrated in the historic imperialist origins of state archives. See Santoni and DeBevoise, “The French Revolution, Archives, and Mimetic Theory.”

[18] See the application of “symbolic annihilation” in Caswell, “Seeing Yourself in History.”

[19] Shelley, “Ozymandias,” quoted in full. This poem is in the public domain.

[20] Radio, “Documents for the Nonhuman” challenges us to consider the purposes of archival materials in a post-human world. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World invites us to look for life in the footprints of devastation.

[21] “There Have Been 7m-13m Excess Deaths Worldwide during the Pandemic,” The Economist, May 15, 2021.

[22] Eva Hayward, “More Lessons from a Starfish,” p. 65.

On Archivy

Occasional writings about the archive