From Derrida to Cox: The Evolution of the Archives

Without a doubt, there exists a connecting factor between Derrida’s idea of the archive as a science and Cox’s desire to educate and inform the general population of citizens so that they are instead, elevated from the status of “citizen” to “archivist”. But, to accurately describe such an individual, we have combined the terms to create the phrase “citizen archivist”.

Though Derrida successfully analyzed many interesting points throughout “Archive Fever”, I found his decision to focus primarily on the history and “institutionalization” of archiving as both a philosophical idea for the preservation of history and a physical practice, or science, completely riveting. When I initially read the word “science”, I immediately thought of a craft or artform that can be taught, learned, built upon, etc. Now, this is a direct correlation to Cox and his beliefs, because Cox understands and supports the inevitable. One, that an archival piece or document will eventually transition from being secret to non-secret. Two, that the science of “collecting [archiving] is a basic human instinct.” Despite one’s motivation or rationale, (which will vary from one individual to another), we are bound to do it. Cox embraces this idea, acknowledging the fact that, as new technologies, both traditional and informational, continue to rapidly increase in quantity and improve in terms of functionality, more and more of the population will have access to the tools necessary for archivng. He argues that since you can’t prevent the population from contributing, whether you’d like to or not, you might as well provide them with the proper training and education so that they can complete the task in the best, possible way.

All one must do is take a look at the world around us and the society in which we live. Does the majority of the population of Pitt students not archive each time that they log onto facebook to create a post, updating friends on the happenings of their day or life? How about when they post photographs from their semester abroad? What about the radical individuals who, each day, experience the need or urge to share their personal opinions on current news, or the latest conspiracy theory? Well, thanks to the expansive world of cyberspace, and the growing popularity and familiarity with creating blogs, more and more people are able to do so. Just take a look at sites like Pinterest, “a pinboard style, photo-sharing website that allows users to create and manage theme-based image collections such as events, interests, and hobbies. Users can browse other pinboards for images, ‘re-pin’ images to their own pinboards, or ‘like’ photos.” (If that does not constitute as a prime example of archiving in the digital society of today, then I don’t know what does.)

Finally, I think it is important to thoroughly understand what it means for an archive to transition from being secret to nonsecret. In order to do so, I must again reference Derrida’s “Archive Fever”. On pages two and three he mentions the following:

“The citizens who thus held and signified political power were considered to possess the right to make or represent the law. On account of their publicly recognized authority, it is at their home, in that place which is their house, that official documents are filed.” He continues in the next paragraph with:

“It is thus, in this domiciliation, in this house arrest, that archives take place. The dwelling, this place where they dwell premanently, marks this institutional passage from the private to the public, which does not always mean from the secret to the nonsecret.”

Where Derrida, with valiant effort and words, argues that citizens are already archiving, though they may not transition their archives from ‘secret’ to ‘nonsecret’, Cox respectively agrees, while at the same time exploring the strong possibility and likelihood that that’s exactly what will happen. See, both understand and recognize the perspective that “we are all archivists”. Cox just takes it a step further by adding to the equation the new technologies and forms of communication that are becoming more and more accessible. He takes it yet another step forward by recognizing that, a large portion of citizens will partake in the act of archiving, without knowing what it is that they do.  For example, I doubt that the average colleg student would consider the photo journal that they made on of their Spring Break to Bermuda is archiving. But that’s precisely what it is.

So how does this fit with Derrida’s ideas of institutionalization? Well, one aspect could be this. The transition of archives from secret to nonsecret become apart of everyday life. The new expectation is that everything that was once private (journals, letters, etc, like those that now reside in the national archives and museums around the world), will inevitably become accessible to the public, to the world.

Analyzing the society we now live in, this doesn’t seem to be far-fetched; or, for that matter, too far from the present.



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