Archive - Anthony Purdy
The past two decades have seen both a marked increase in the general visibility of the archive and a shift in the way we perceive it. In the human sciences, for example, the so-called ‘archival turn’ should not be mistaken for a simple return to the archive as a way of grounding historical research, but as a significant recasting of the way we formulate certain questions concerning methodology and epistemology. The archive has become an object of study in its own right rather than simply a place to conduct research. At the same time, as has frequently been noted, society at large has witnessed what has variously been described as a memory boom or a memory crisis, depending on the point of view adopted – either we have too much memory or not enough. Thanks to the rapid spread of new technologies of recording, storage, retrieval and communication, archiving practices have become integral to our professional and personal lives. Their self-conscious use has entered the realm of everyday life, the domain of personal experience, what the artist Christian Boltanski calls ‘small memory,’ while ‘archivization’ has come to denote a widespread cultural perspective that leads us to view almost anything as a potential memory object and therefore as worthy of preservation. Indeed, we have become a society of self-archivists who worry about the potential misuse of the archive by others – whether they be governments, corporations, or criminals. As a site of both affective and political investment, a technology for administering the continued presence of the past as well as a gateway between present and future, the archive inevitably becomes a focus for uncertainty and anxiety. Artists and writers have responded decisively to this more generally construed ‘archival turn’ – as prevalent in everyday life practices as in the world of scholarship – by exploring the archive in their work both as a real place or space and as a metaphorical locus for questions of memory and forgetting, mourning and commemoration, oppression and resistance, identity and its loss.
The primary objective of the course is to initiate a theoretical account of the imaginative response to the archive in contemporary western culture. Because my working hypothesis is that artistic explorations of the archive are not simply projections or representations of a broader social anxiety, but that they also constitute a material and theoretical interrogation of their own media as they relate to the storage and management of memory, it will be necessary to consider a sampling of artistic practices as active interventions that help shape the theoretical debates around the archive. The course will be divided into two parts: the first will be devoted to discussion of a common corpus of theoretical texts and practices; in the second, the focus will shift to a series of case studies to be determined in consultation with the students. Case studies could fall within traditional disciplinary boundaries or develop interdisciplinary perspectives, and will lead to both a major oral presentation and a research paper. Students are encouraged to consult with the instructor as early in the term as possible about the nature and scope of their case study.
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