Published on March 4th, 2013 | by Engin Isin


Why Archives?

Over the last two decades the archive – the way in which any culture or society collects, preserves, collates and presents documents (textual, visual, recordings) about itself – has become a question.

It used to be thought (and perhaps some still might think) that the archive was a benign and neutral depository – a sort of unmediated memory. It was about collecting and preserving whatever material that was available and collating and presenting documents as objectively as possible. It was a collective memory [1]. But from the very practice of collecting to its presentation, to how documents are collated, and who decides what is worth preserving – and hence the content of that collective memory – themselves became questioned. This was parallel to many questions asked about the disciplines of anthropology, archaeology, and history and the question of the archive, or rather, the archive as a question moved to the centre of the identity of these disciplines [2].

This is because the question of the archive is also the question of knowledge, or rather, the will to knowledge. The archive, as Foucault observed, is not ‘… the sum of all texts that a culture’ has accumulated [3: 128]. Nor is it simply the institutions that make it possible to record and preserve documents. For Foucault the archive is the space of the sayable. This space determines enunciative possibilities (speeches, documents, editorials) and what counts as sayable. Foucault suggests that ‘the archive is the first law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events’ [3: 129]. Arguably, what can be said constitutes knowledge: the authority and legitimacy with which something can become sayable. As such the archive can never express all that is sayable exhaustively but its presence is always there as a contested and contestable space – what Derrida would later call ‘archive fever’ [4]. It is this that renders the archive as an effect of the will to knowledge. For this reason Foucault thought that we cannot describe our own archive – the space from which we speak – since it is from within its rules that we speak [3: 130].  But can we not contest it?

The archive possibly becomes a more contestable space with the proliferation of digital technologies not because these technologies make possible the accumulation of vast amounts of statements (which is certainly the case: think about YouTube) but because they proliferate the means of the sayable (think again about YouTube). Who should be responsible for collecting, collating and presenting the traces that people leave behind and how its preservation and representation should be organised? [5]. While the scope of the archive was local and national, it exploded beyond those boundaries while at the same time blurring the boundaries between the public and the private. The internet is not the archive that Foucault and Derrida envisaged but it has aspects that resonate with their thoughts. The archive fever is such that the traces that people leave behind on the internet have become objects of intense commercial and governmental interests [6].

There are no straightforward answers to the question of the archive. There are many people who are grappling with the extraordinary challenges of the archive as the archive itself became a question in the sense already mentioned. Yet, at the same time, digital technologies are enabling subaltern social groups that previously did not have the means to collect, collate and preserve and present their ‘memory’ and to do so in inventive and intriguing ways [7]. Moreover, digital technologies enable the archive not only in the same manner of collating and collecting as before but rather differently challenging the rules of the sayable as we have seen in the emergence of citizen journalism and citizen science.

So far though my focus has been on the question of the archive as the space of the sayable. What about the archive of the doable? Without introducing a questionable difference between speech and action (for speech is also action), we can still argue that much of focus on the archive (including Foucault and Derrida) is on the printed statements rather than performed statements in action. How do we archive such things as acts? This is the question that acts archives project wants to elaborate, sharpen and articulate. As Derrida observed ‘the word “acts” can designate here at once the content of what is to be archived and the archive itself, the archivable and the archiving of the archive: the printed and the printing of the impression’  [4: 16]. The impression here is not only the image that an act leaves us with but it is also the imprint it leaves on our present.

The Acts Archives is both an experiment to collect, collate, preserve, and present those imprints (or deeds if you like) and develop methods to interpret acts by which people change their lives and the lives of others.


[1] L. Daston. (2012). The Sciences of the Archive. Osiris, 27(1), 156-87.

[2] F.X. Blouin, Jr. (2004). History and Memory: The Problem of the Archive. PMLA, 119(2), 296-8.

[3] M. Foucault. (1972). The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon.

[4] J. Derrida. (1998). Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression: Chicago University Press.

[5] A. Flinn, M. Stevens, E. Shepherd. (2009). Whose Memories, Whose Archives? Independent Community Archives, Autonomy and the Mainstream. Archival Science, 9(1-2), 71-86.

[6] É. Méchoulan. (2011). Archiving in the Age of Digital Conversion: Notes for a Politics of “Remains”. SubStance, 40(2), 92-104.

[7] B. Butler. (2009). ‘Othering’ the Archive—from Exile to Inclusion and Heritage Dignity: The Case of Palestinian Archival Memory. Archival Science, 9(1-2), 57-69.




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