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e-flux conversations

Modernity’s Obsession with Systems of Preservation


Modernity, the mother of many democracies, has given a great deal of attention to developing means of preservation and conservation. It has taught us to care for all that is frail and delicate. Charles Baudelaire, speaking about one of his contemporaries, the photographer Miron, said: “He photographed Paris because it is ephemeral.” Perhaps then it should come as no surprise that such an image, itself made up of only smooth paper and some ink, outlasts the cathedrals of Paris. This is not something we should attribute simply to a photograph’s status as an art object—the lasting quality of an image is not a matter of poetry, but of irrefutable reality.

In other words, as modernity has taken the utmost care in ensuring optimal conditions for preservation, conservation, and safekeeping, it has bound itself to a system that will only continue to grow until our entire universe consists of fragile monuments that cannot survive without daily care. The most noteworthy aspect of this system is how the instruments of preservation are transformed before us into insatiable monsters, forever in search of nourishment, devouring books, paintings, and old manuscripts before moving onto bodies, buildings, and ecosystems. These instruments have developed to such an extent that it is difficult to predict either their future paths or requirements.

What we do know is that the size of the Google archive today is unprecedented, with no apparent limits to the amount of data it can contain, making the books we keep on our shelves seem more and more like artworks according to Michel Hermes’ definition—beautiful, useless objects. Why would we bother to book a plane to Berlin in order to study some old manuscripts held in its museums, when those same documents can be downloaded from numerous sites on the Internet, unless of course we wanted to examine the curves and bends of the calligrapher’s script at close range in order to speculate on the author’s mood.

In L'amour en plus, Élisabeth Badinter advances the notion that parental care, whether maternal or paternal, is not a given factor of human society. In the pre-Enlightenment era, the French aristocracy left the care of their children to wet nurses who, even without this added burden, lived a life of hardship and destitution, attaining only the lowest standards of physical and mental health. Infant mortality rates in France during this era reached disturbing levels, leading philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau to express concern for the future of a French nation that allows its infants to die of hunger and neglect. It was rare for parents who used the services of these women to ask about the health of the children in their care. After many years, when they returned to claim their offspring from the nurse, they could not recognize them nor tell them apart from others. Consequently, many chose the healthiest among them without verifying their lineage.

Read the full article here.