Shelf Life

Archives and the economics of suspicion

Image from Peter Chelkowski and Hamid Dabashi’s Staging a Revolution, New York University Press, 1999

As a matter of policy, the CIA publishes archival material only several decades après le fait. Thus it was in 1998 that we became witness to Madeleine Albright begging Iran for forgiveness, standing with her pearl necklace and drowsy demeanor, wondering if it was a mistake to topple a democratic government back in 1953, and replace it with an autocratic playboy bubblehead. Instead of calming anyone’s nerve, people reaching for their handkerchiefs to dab a tiny tear of patriotic gratification, the gesture, of course, only served to raise new questions. Why would a superpower even bother with a mea culpa? On whose behest, to what end, and, if they’re admitting to this, darling, imagine what the TRUTH must look like.

In most parts of the world, such knee-jerk suspicions are routine, since archives and institutionalized histories are widely seen as propaganda devices, or a shoddy ersatz for local microhistories that are too ephemeral to narrativize. But it seems that even in those prosperous, provincial environs we call the West, history is becoming a more complex affair than the Eurocentric teleology of “how we ended up the joyous pinnacle of civilization, happy as pigs in shit.” History, along with other officious narratives, is now widely consumed with the same deference as a soap opera or a fashion magazine. Yes, this is indeed a load of silly bolderdash, but I’ll take it with sophistication and irony, not like my next-door neighbor who is a coward and a fool. These days, everyone uses the mythical neighbor, the intellectual buffoon, to set themselves apart from. Which means that the very habit of casting oneself as a disillusioned minority is now mainstream.

This epistemological turn, away from historical factuality and other intellectual superstitions, did not go unmarked by local specificity. Among West Europeans, for example, it is often a case of annoying, happy-go-lucky relativism (“anything goes”), kept in check only by ritualized reminders of Auschwitz and Buchenwald (“history is not to be messed with”). Elsewhere, the disenchantment of historiography is not quite as celebratory, nor as puerile and oedipal in character. And if the lack-of-historical-factuality is a cliché in some places, in many others, the archive is still the object of heated cultural wars that are far from settled.

Etymologically, an archive was a government building, later to become a building housing government documents. So the archive was never some harmless librarian at the service of the volonté générale, but a locus of authority that answers to rules of its own, deciding on the passage from the realm of the profane to that of historical relevance according to criteria that have precious little to do with the outside, random slush of facts and figures.

One might assume that, in order to have an archive, one needs a people that supplies the material to be archived — photographs, rumors, legends, family trees, statistics, folk songs, bloodbaths and such and the more objective the archival processes, the truer the representation. Yet a people as such is not necessary for an archive to come into being, for it’s ultimately the outside that is the representation of the archive, and not vice versa. In point of fact, the standard procedure is to assemble an archive, then look around for a people to conjoin it with,2 the most famous examples being the Aryans and the Proletariat, but one might add the Swiss confederacy, Garveyism, the Middle East, Grecoroman civilization, and so on. Even wars are normally prompted by some willful historiographic misunderstanding or other, with one nation claiming that another pertains to it, “historically,” or actually destroying its archive — like the Israelis blowing up archives in Ramallah and elsewhere, saying, “actually, before we came along, there was nothing here but camel dung.”

Postmodern theories have done their part to dispel hopes of archival representations living up to accurate truth. Moreover, the avalanche of data now puts claims to exhaustive archival procedures to shame, with any issue from Naguib Mahfouz to Nation Building to Scottish kilts to pet psychology to downtown Tehran being subject to dozens — if not thousands — of videos, articles, essays, glossaries, blogs, surveys, cross-references and theoretical speculations per week. Even in terms of method, the multiplication of representational paradigms and theoretical debates has led to an overwhelming set of options to choose from. Which has led to a preoccupation not with objective representation or historical relevance in the usual sense of the term, but with marketing and an appropriate shelf life. As Appadurai puts it: too grand a set of historical questions, and you lose yourself in trivial generalizations — and are unlikely to find funding. Too myopic a framework, and the product sinks into the growing ocean of data.

“Historical research” is still largely a matter of ritualized signs and symbols that are indispensable, no matter how arbitrary they’re proven to be. Why do we agree that, say, Daniel Pipes, for all his intellectualized racism, did “research” on conspiracy theories in the Middle East, while Plato did not do research on tyranny. For one, the latter did not undergo the ritual deference toward the “prior citational world” of the archive. For another, Plato’s research was an openly declared moral project, with his personal and political intentions clearly stated — while Pipes lays claim to nothing other than archival research, tout court.

There are a number of methods aiming at the eradication of all personal ingenuities or political agendas in historical research: verifiability, replicability, falsifiability, transparency, and so on. In theory, these methods are at the disposition of hordes of career-hungry academics just waiting to prove their colleagues wrong. The fact that they’re rarely used only shows the ornamental essence of the scientific edifice, and the self-propelled dynamics of historical discourse.3

The advantage of an archive is the possibility of defining “old” and “new” — albeit according to rules and criteria pertaining to the archive itself. If in the media, the “new” is exoticized to be recognized as such, in an archive, it is that which best incarnates whatever has been overlooked by that archive so far, be it the Proletariat or Pop Culture. As an example for differing conceptions of the “new,” Boris Groys once mentioned Duchamp’s pissoir, which was interesting for art history in that it incarnated the banal and the profane, which was overlooked by the canon thus far. By contrast, in order to represent anything new on TV, the urinal would have to reach out and castrate the user, which is nothing new in the archival sense of the term, for it partakes in a psychoaesthetic folklore of Freudian bent, an old tradition of the extraordinary.

Which is not to say that within the archive, the criteria are sound and scientific. When it comes to the said “incarnation” of the new, it is hard to overestimate the psychosemantic importance of “mana”,4 to use the anthropological term, the surplus of signifieds soaked up by a single signifier, currently to be witnessed in buzzwords such as hybridity, globality, Pop Culture, Middle East and such, with an aura going far beyond their content, or even the immediate connotations of the term.

“New” material is rarely cause for controversy within the archive, even if it contradicts the material collected thus far. Tensions arise when it is the actual medium of comparison and narrativization that is called into question, be it the nature of writing and Grammatology, the issue of oral history, microvs. macro-history, phallocentric patterns of discourse and so on.

In view of the fact that archival material is not a sign of its historical surroundings, but of the rules and criteria that constitute the passage from the exterior into the archive, attention has shifted towards the very organization of the information deluge, the administrators, the curators of history who sift through the onslaught of material, endowing it with hierarchy and meaning. According to Groys, this shift is crucial to the way history is consumed these days, reflecting a move towards the conspiracy as the dominant mode of historical knowledge. If history is no longer some chronological chain of transparent actions, but a result of impenetrable decision processes, then the historical event gains the aura of a sudden “clearing,” a deeper insight into backroom machinations, if only for a second, before a new conspiracy instinct causes the insight to cave in.

That said, in practice, little has changed. Even if we assume history to be a gentleman’s agreement, the museum a “fiction,” progress a “grand narrative,” the nation an “imagined community,” we have to concede that, in practice, this changes very little. 9/11, for instance, showed us the tenacity not only of conspiracy theories and the economics of suspicion, but also of historical explanations that are little more than old-school, cause-and-effect Orientalism (poverty + oppression + Islam = rise of terror). Very few analysts acknowledged the modern history of internationalist terrorism on behalf of overeducated, upper-class brats, from Bakunin to the German Red Army to leftist Iranian guerillas to Al Qaeda, attacking imperialism with a self-important ideological agenda that has little to do with outside realities.5

So commonalities overweigh between postmodern critics of the archive and their conservative counterparts. To state that historical arguments are constructed or contingent does not devalue them, but simply implies that all the counter-arguments are equally arbitrary. If all histories are merely the products of intellectual creature comforts, then so are Palestinian ones, and whoever blows up the Ramallah photo archives can rest assured. In other words, strategically speaking, if one hopes to get anything done, one must take the archive’s bedrock of reality at face value — the “Arab” in Arab Image Foundation, the “Woman” in women’s history. Obviously, this suspension of disbelief can be a strategic one.

If Groysian economics of suspicion run the risk of causing jaded perplexity and tristesse royale, an equally plausible outcome might be a historiography that celebrates — rather than plays down — the coarseness of our visual and discursive possibilities. Once radically biased appropriation and recontextualization is endorsed as a strategy, any boring, insignificant copy of a historical document, any disregarded testimonial can become an auratic ready-made, an “original” imbued with relevance and mana. A historiography of the kind is free to actually spread and encourage suspicion for its own ends. Examples from contemporary art range from the Atlas Group to German 1990s Kontextkunst to “postcolonial” practices (such as Wong Hoy Cheong). Others have construed tentative, speculative historical sourcebooks, contrasting various theories and styles of historiography, a prominent example being Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk, or OMA’s S, M, L, XL, or the SHAHRZAD collective’s History Begins.

A very different option is strategic essentialism, or calculated monoglossia, as in the historiography of Edward Said. I know there is much to bemoan regarding Said’s knight-in-shining-armor allure. But Orientalism has become a milestone no angloamerican study on the Middle East can afford to ignore — and the book needed precisely that chest-beating posture to get there. Said reduced the West to a bestiarium, implying that every European was a prisoner of Orientalist thought, that Orientalism was European in its very essence. He ignored the more subtle orientalists, along with most developments after 1798, German Orientalism as a whole, the entire branch of Orientalist philology and the Middle Eastern informants. Thanks to which his aggressive political agenda became an enormous contribution to a debate that was all too subdued.

This is arguably nothing new; both strategic monoglossia and the aforementioned heteroglottic variations have been pursued, time and again, by various postcontemporary spirits and such. It actually seems as if both strategies are quickly running out of sex appeal. Which is a shame, now that the economics of suspicion are finally gaining the upper hand, and seeing as we still have historical habits spawned over several centuries to soften up and reassess.

1 This essay is largely inspired by art & media theorist Boris Groys’s study Unter Verdacht : Eine Phänomenologie der Medien (Under Suspicion : A Phenomenology of the Media), Carl Hanser, München, 2000
2 Groys, Im Namen des Mediums, Kunst und Politik der Avantgarde , in : Die Topologie der Kunst, Carl Hanser, München & Wien, 2003, p. 223
3 Arjun Appadurai,  Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination, in : Globalization, Duke University Press, 2001, pp. 11–14
4 cf. : Religion spielt hier überhaupt keine Rolle, Interview in Tageszeitung Berlin, 17.10.01