In Defence of (an-)Arkhē
Replicant character Rachael from the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner (1982).
In “Storage Space,” Giuliana Bruno contends that our contemporary mode of existence impels us to reconsider the meaning, relevance and design of archives. The sheer quantity of disparate data our culture chaotically generates—that “ever changing flux of stored information”—proffers an unprecedented opportunity for each of us to encounter and work through increasingly varied assemblages of stuff. Yet if we are to make productive use of this new condition, Bruno suggests we must resist the impulse to organize, catalogue and control, as such responses are born out of a misguided and insidious desire to “[revert] back to the arkhē of archiving.”
But what is “the arkhē of archiving”? As Bruno explains, the Greek word arkhē embodies two principal concepts: inception and mastery.¹ It captures the sense both of a beginning and of an order. Yet what is missing from Bruno’s account is that arkhē also means, within the ancient tradition, a first, unifying principle or element underpinning all of existence; a democratized primordial substance from which all things grow and are composed. For Thales, arkhē was water; for Anaximenes, air; for Anaximander, apeiron. Thus, arkhē also gestures towards notions of ontological unity and equality.²
Despite this ontological etymology, accounts of the archive have tended to focus almost exclusively upon its epistemic significance—particularly its role in the curation and retention of (often collective) memories.³ Yet this myopic mnemo-centrism is a distraction that encourages us to consider only what the archive is for us, thereby condemning it to a thoroughly anthropocentric domain. I would suggest that if we instead frame our inquiry around the question of what the archive is for its contents—what becomes of things in the archive, and how this affects any given artefact’s ontological status—we will better understand the role the archive is able to play in situating and “design[ing] the human condition.”
To highlight the ability of the archive to be more than simply a mnemonic device, it is worth returning to an example Bruno gives, Blade Runner (1982)—a film which undoubtedly acknowledges the role archives play in the development of the (non-)human subject—in order to consider one particular scene.
Having earlier ascertained that Rachael (Dr. Eldon Tyrell’s assistant) is a replicant, Deckard (the eponymous Blade Runner) returns to his apartment. As he exits the elevator he discovers Rachael waiting, eager to understand why he believes her to be nonhuman (“you think I’m a replicant, don’t you?”). In a hopelessly pathetic attempt to disprove Deckard’s conclusions, she presents him with a photograph and a memory (“look, it’s me with my mother”). With almost inhuman callousness, Deckard—who has met Rachael just once before—retorts:
Deckard: Yeah? Remember when you were six? You and your brother snuck into an empty building through a basement window. You were going to play doctor. He showed you his, but when it got to be your turn you chickened and ran; remember that? You ever tell anybody that? Your mother, Tyrell, anybody? You remember the spider that lived in a bush outside your window? Orange body, green legs. Watched her build a web all summer, then one day there’s a big egg in it. The egg hatched…
Rachael: The egg hatched…
Rachael: …and a hundred baby spiders came out… and they ate her.
Deckard: Implants. Those aren’t your memories, they’re somebody else’s.
By declaring his knowledge of just two implanted memories, Deckard categorically proves Rachael’s lack of personhood. Yet this is not because “the replicant does not have a memory.” In fact, the very opposite appears to be the case. It is emphatically because she does have a memory—a memory which is not her own, populated with events that Deckard can articulate in minute detail, which is, ultimately, incapable of being forgotten—that exposes her for what she is. Rachael will never escape the harrowing minutiae of these hard-wired memories; they have been uploaded to her “mind" without knowledge or consent, and (without the intervention of her ostensibly human masters) cannot be deleted. Thus insofar as Blade Runner is concerned, in a world where technology has infiltrated everything, it is forgetting—not remembering—that sets us apart, that makes us human.⁴
Once she computes what Deckard has told her, a tearful Rachael departs, discarding the photograph on her way out—a now useless fragment from a past she never lived. Her new status as a replicant—her objectification—renders the image (a synecdochic archive) obsolete. But why? Why is the archive so unimportant once she has been rendered nonhuman? Is it merely an unthinking emotional response? Is it because she now knows her pre-programmed memories do not require mnemonic provocation in order to be ensured? Or is there something more fundamental at stake?
Following the introduction of the commercial sound film in 1923 and the concomitant death of silent cinema, the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson shrewdly remarked that the “[t]he soundtrack invented silence.” Despite the films of the previous three decades projecting a mute world, it was not until the advent of sound that silence could be isolated, deployed, and made manifest.
Equally, it could be said that what the archive invents, what it makes manifest, is not remembrance at all—but forgetting. Archives give those moments where memory fails us a presence and tangibility. On the one hand, the archive incites (individual) feelings of forgetfulness by showing us artefacts which we have failed to remember. On the other, it confronts us with (collective) abyssal lacunae—with an infinity of absent (forgotten) material implied by that which is present. However, beyond this more obvious binate delineation, there is another type of forgetting which the archive embodies and presents, a single, forgotten truth—namely: that all things, at some fundamental (if apparently latent) level, are ontologically equal.
Thomas Demand, Archive (1995).
Since the rise of Speculative Realism at the end of the last decade, the notion of a “flat ontology” has received much critical attention. In his book The Democracy of Objects, Levi Bryant outlines the two key claims flat ontology makes:
First, humans are not at the center of being, but are among beings. Second, objects are not a pole opposing a subject, but exist in their own right, regardless of whether any other object or human relates to them. Humans, far from constituting a category called “subject” that is opposed to “object,” are themselves one type of object among many.⁵
The arrangement of the archive is such that any artefact it contains is emptied of its ability to claim ontological primacy. Each object—whether inanimate or not—is flattened, given a number, and entered into a catalogue. Everything is thus democratized, establishing a field of “objects among objects.”⁶ Indeed, that is not to say that all objects in an archive contribute equally—some might be looked at or referred to more often than others, for example—but it is to say that all objects equally exist. The archive therefore embodies the ontological thesis that all objects, as Ian Bogost would put it, “equally exist while they do not exist equally.”⁷ Consequently, as Adrian Miles asserts in “12 Statements for Archival Flatness,”
The flat ontology of the archive allows its objects to have innumerable possible contextual relations, whether historical, political, social, cultural, aesthetic or merely contingent. The manifold of relations that this flatness enables allows the “semi-mute” artefacts of the archive to gain new, and different, voices.⁸
If the analysis of the archive remains at an epistemological level, then we are left with a set of objects which merely reinforce our otherness to the world—its mnemonic role exposes that which makes us human: forgetting. Yet, if we dig a little deeper, we discover that the archive serves another—forgotten—purpose. It asserts an ontological position—one which places the human and nonhuman on an equal plane of being.
However, this flat ontology is made possible only through a process of ordering—only via “the arkhē of archiving.” The ordering methodology need not be autocratic (mon-archic); indeed, it may well be collective (an-archic). But without configuration, we are left with “aggregates of disparate […] materials”—an incoherent noise which embodies equality only insofar as it destroys everything. Thomas Demand’s beguiling image Archive captures the ideal: not chaos, but folders on shelves, equally sized, shaped and stacked, betraying no discernible hierarchy, awaiting one another. This is what sets the archive apart from the museum. It is the ontological claim it makes: that nothing (whether human or nonhuman) is superior or prior to anything else it contains.
As a result, I would submit that why Rachael eschews the archive is because it has lost its capacity to teach her something. Her recognition and acceptance of herself as an object (a replicant) negates the didactic purpose the archive would otherwise have served. To wit, if Rachael had been human, the archive would have been a necessary institution to constantly remind her that she is merely one type of object among many, and her being—what constitutes her—different from inanimate matter only in terms of degree, not kind. Now that she knows herself to lack subjecthood, the archive is rendered redundant. She is an object just like everything else and—with or without the archive—she knows it.
Bruno’s proposal thus runs aground when, by imploring us to not revert “back to the arkhē of archiving,” it disregards the archive’s ontological substance and equality. By considering the archive’s significance epistemologically, not ontologically, we overlook its capacity—through a process of ordering—to sublate the human into a democratized field of objects (a radically post-human condition). Consequently, the mnemonic material archive Bruno promulgates still foregrounds the human, despite the technological accoutrements with which the body is now adorned (“the human body has become an aggregate of different corpora and data, with mixed organic and inorganic elements”)—a disappointingly trans-human and thus anthropocentric conclusion which tacitly endorses the “binary logic of opposition between humans and nonhumans.”
Indeed, we are replicants. We always have been. But we need the arkhē of the archive to keep reminding us that that is the case.
¹ Heidegger defined arkhḗ in this way. See Gregory Fried, Heidegger’s Polemos: From Being to Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 119. Derrida echoes Heidegger when he asserts that arkhḗ “names at once the commencement and the commandment” in Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” Diacritics 25, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 9.
² Indeed Pythagoreans used the words arkhḗ and monas (unity) interchangeably. “The beginning of all is unity…” See Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (New York: Oia Press), VIII, 25.
³ Alongside Derrida’s work, see particularly Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Tavistock Publications, 1972) and Giorgio Agamben Remnants of Auschwitz (New York, Zone Books, 1999).
⁴ In Westworld, an HBO TV series which follows—and extends—many of the ideas/themes of Blade Runner, a host (or replicant) named Bernard barters with a human (Dr. Ford—who says earlier in the season that ‘the least we can do is make them forget’) on the basis that he will be allowed to forget certain memories.
⁵ Levi Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (London: Open Humanities Press, 2011), 249.
⁶ Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 97. Kracauer is writing about the ontology of the photographic/filmic image. Indeed, it is interesting to note that both photographs and films have also been characterized as having the same democratizing tendencies that I am proposing the archive has—they flatten being into an ontologically equal image. See, for example, Stanley Cavell, ‘What Becomes of Things on Film?’ Philosophy and Literature 2, no. 2 (Fall 1978), 249–257. This is perhaps why moving images and archives have often been conceptual bedfellows—Bruno herself says elsewhere that “moving images have become the moving archive in this twenty-first century: our own future museum.” See Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 145.
⁷ Ian Bogost, as quoted in Ibid., Bryant, 19.
⁸ Adrian Miles, ‘12 Statements for Archival Flatness’ in Performing Digital: Multiple Perspectives on a Living Archive (Farnham, Ashgate Publishing, 2015), 45. In a lot of respects, this is also a better characterization of the archive even if we limit our analysis to strictly mnemonic terms, as “in our memory everything is equally valuable and significant. All points of our recollections are tied to one another. They form chains and connections in our memory which ultimately comprise the story of life.” Ilya Kabakov, “The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away” (1977), in The Archive, ed. Charles Merewether (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2006), 33.
Matteo Mastrandrea is a designer who teaches at the Royal College of Art in London. His practice and research interrogates the common ground shared between architecture and the moving image. He recently co-founded TAXONYM, an interdisciplinary design practice, and is Programme Director for London’s inaugural Architecture Film Festival, which will take place in the summer of 2017.