Delusion and the archivist

Radar in snow, 1968, via NARA, ARC# 6506387

Radar in snow, 1968, via NARA, ARC# 6506387

Evgeny Morozov led me to Remo Bodei, whose brief notes here bring the clinical definition of delusion to bear on the acts of memory and the practices of history. There’s a lot to chew on here for archivists.

Speaking of the classical delusional subject, Bodei lays out for us some stuff: I’m going to replace “his” here with “the archivist’s”:

[The archivist’s] psychic apparatus does not only raise smoke screens or secrete ink, like cuttlefish, in order to hide from itself: to dazzle and confuse it also uses light.

The style I’d like to call white redaction emerges when we dazzle and confuse with light. It isn’t always a matter of overwhelming potential researchers with an abundance of worthless bulk, the way your lawyer will passive-aggressively respond to a discovery request with photocopies of everything JUST EVERYTHING HAHAHAHAA. It’s more akin to what David Foster Wallace gets at in The Pale King: an iron triangle of information, transparency and apathy. Any system in which our capacity to read records outpaces our capacity to understand them, where access outpaces description, is essentially a regime of redaction.

For the better part of a two decades, archivists with a thing for information technology have been shoehorning narrative content into structured data with the aim of enabling researchers to drill down into a collection to get at the couple parcels they knew they needed, doing for the old print finding aid what the print finding aid did for collections, making sure no one has to read things that they didn’t ask for. MPLP and flipped processing, though in good hands they shouldn’t, similarly enable a style of archives-work that deprecates description. We’re counting on users to know what they’re looking at when they see it, and to know what they’re looking for before they see it.

What if we’re wrong and better known-item search is not better research? The glory of an archival collection is that it’s a collection, a whole tangled bolus of curated passages into historical fact, each reflecting and illuminating every other. Really great known-item search is like digging out individual carbon molecules from an ingeniously cut diamond. Even calling archival known-item search known-item search is oxymoronic: an item in an archival collection can’t be known except as part of a whole. In the name of facilitating access we’ve deployed our technologies to the task of alienating researchers from archives’ contexts. This is our old unacknowledged wish irrupting into daily life, and our compensatory act for indulging the will to opacity is to desperately try to re-embed context into data. And I mean we can BRO DOWN WITH EVGENY LATER about how the response to the ills brought by technophilia is to apply more technophilic solutions, BUT THAT’S FOR LATER. Following Bodei, I can see a world in which EAC-CPF implementation is like stress-eating, or the itch you get when you’re depressed; a technical response to a deep psychic wellspring.

We’re now going to replace “acute schizophrenia” here with “archives”:

Overinclusive thought, frequent in [archives], consists in the inability to choose the pertinent elements of a concept, eliminating the ones that are less relevant or completely unrelated

Delusion, for Bodei, is hyperawareness, “the result of an unsuccessful attempt to interpret coherently the incoming collection of data,” which is the kind of thing so broadly misused as to diagnose all of modern life as schizophrenic, and is this close to being just warmed-over Future Shock, dumbed-down Eros and Civilization, or lobotomized Civilization and its Discontents, but if we confine ourselves to the tiny sphere of archival description and its encodings, and we think about who’s writing new descriptions, and whether those young people are well-read enough to write a good historical note, or to identify events of significance in 20th-century collections, then I think it’s fair to say at many institutions we see unsuccessful attempts to interpret large bodies of information coherently at least after every summer internship if not ALL THE TIME HAVE YOU EVER READ A BOOK and so here’s a fun aside:

Archives comrade: So when are these due? December 7? How will I remember that?
Old Mole: Um, it’s Pearl Harbor Day?
Archives comrade: [baffled, in all seriousness] Oh okay, like that’s gonna help. You’re so obscure.

Now, I might have said “That reference is obscure,” because it’s just my style coz I dunno if people other than Jude can be obscure per se, but ultimately the larger point is SO MUCH FOR LIVING IN INFAMY hahahha I mean, WHO REMEMBERS WHAT ALL THE FUSS WAS ABOUT ANYWAY and as you can see my aside and my main theme dovetail neatly [/brushes shoulder off]:

It’s important that researchers get as broad a view of the historic record, or cultural patrimony, or the sources of art history, or the scope of old business operations and human resources practices, or whatever it is we’re curating as possible. We have to replace immediate if fragmentary access with knowledge born of real work in history; to get people a wide-angle view of a collection, to see peripherally. One of the ways we defeat information-delusion is to deliver to our seekers something like a collection’s gestalt, the undergirding sensation of being situated in space and time.

We can read another path to defeating information-delusion into the phrase “choose the pertinent elements,” and I really think this should be etched in everyone’s mind in screaming capitals: RECORDS MOTHERFUCKING MANAGEMENT. And on and on. There’s a lot more in that little address to pick through for anyone interested in how human beings might behave in the so-called information age: “insecurity exits,” the feverish work of maintaining delusion, delusion as dense interconnection — or why networks don’t always cure cancer or solve economic inequality or make a better grilled cheese sandwich — more than enough for this paper-pusher to handle in one go.

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