The Polyphony of Memory and the Dissonance of the Archive
A seeming reversal has taken place. What was once considered a secure foundation for human knowledge, namely the archive, has been destabilised and undermined. The conditions of modern visual mediation has made things suspect, bringing what was once thought real and considered certain into a state of unreality. The relationship between memory and the archive has always possessed problems. While the former has always been a imaginative evocation of the a-temporal and non-sequential recollection (the past brought into the present), the latter used to feign a 'positivist truth' through the fixed and temporal nature of informational record and storage.[i] However, if memory initially posed the question of what was considered as recollection and reminiscence, that is no longer as clear cut as we once might have imagined. Kierkegaard revealed long ago that the distinction between passive memory as recollection (the act of recall), and repetition in remembering is not clear cut.[ii] Similarly, the notion of the archive (derived from the Greek 'archon' meaning 'to rule' and consequently the publicly stored records of that rule), as a fixed place and stable body of historical record is now fraught with contemporary difficulty.[iii] Firstly, there is the question as to whether the past can ever be fully reconstituted on the basis of an archive (so much is excluded). Secondarily, in the internet age, notions of the archive as a fixed source of knowledge data (a pre-defined place of storage) has been decentred and dissolved. This applies just as readily to conventional documentary records as it does to our understanding of what constitutes the current role and archival/storage functions of artefacts in a museum.[iv] Thus on the one hand relations between memory and the archive has been thrown into disarray seemingly an inhibition but on the other hand thrown open to a completely new freedom and the possibility of forging a substantially changed relationship between the two. In consequence a variable dialectic has begun to emerge as to how ideas of memory and the archive can be reintegrated into new forms of meaning and understanding.
It is within this new framework of understanding that the photographic and text-related art works of Daniel Blaufuks have to be understood, where meaning is fluid between memory and archive. Hence it follows that if the archive is no longer considered to be a place of simple site and ordered certainty, it has become open again to the imagination and provides greater interpretive possibilities. Indeed, the very provisional reality that once created the imaginative conditions of the art of memory are able to be re-examined.[v] Imagination and association are claimed as the first principles of memory, and these take the initial form of images of things (res) or words (verba). A parallel literary key to this is illustrated by Daniel Blaufuks's frequent use of aphorism, the fragments or 'porcupines' that are self-contained statements of meaning that he projects into the world and associates with his source materials. The fragment or part-object is able to retain its own autonomy, "A fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and complete in itself like a porcupine."[vi] Yet memory is both voluntary and involuntary, the conventional associative images of memory as recall that are summoned up, stand alongside and are at the same time challenged by other more abstract sensory and involuntary associations; Proust's now infamous 'madeleine',[vii] or as in my own personal case a sudden dissociated smell of beeswax derived from somewhere in my own childhood yet to be located.
To understand an affective engagement with archive and memory as an aesthetic experience, we must understand what Blaufuks means when he says by analogy "A collection of photographs is not an archive of pictures. A photograph does not need to be part of a series, of a collection or of an archive. It may contain the archive within it; that is, it may be self-sufficient." This is surely true of a developed (and developing) sensory experience also, where the madeleine and beeswax are capable of opening up a complete world of associative memories that are involuntary, and yet still remain sufficient and aesthetically self-contained. To mention Proust is, however, telling (though perhaps a little obvious), not merely because of the many clichés that have been subsequently attached to his use of memory in literature, but rather because he emblematised and was similarly impregnated by the self-contained world thrown up by it.[viii] Henri Bergson the philosopher (Proust's contemporary), also spoke theoretically of the radical distinctions between actual immediate sensations and pure memory, sensations are tied to the immediacy of the body while "pure memory, on the other hand interests no part of the body…..the radical powerlessness of pure memory is just what will enable us to understand how it is preserved in a latent state."[ix] This is why, perhaps, Blaufuks speaks of memory in terms dislocation, and of "the memory of the journey and the journey through memory". The increase in sensational experience is tied to the unfolding processes of voluntary remembering (traditionally called associative, but not of necessity determined by it) and pure memory, the memory-image (the agent that prompts the memory), and the perception in which it embodies itself the nascent perception or evocation that opens up the world beyond the immediate bodily sensation. If this sounds and exercise in complexity the memory-image (image sensation) is the vital point of mediation which may be voluntary as an intended act of recollection, or simply involuntary since both must be drawn from the pure memory-memory image-perception equation.
At the beginnings of mainstream experimental psychology both forms of memory (voluntary and involuntary) were described and observed, though involuntary investigations were cast aside in favour of scientific studies of voluntary and other forms of mnemonic memory.[x] Hence the term involuntary memory (first coined by Proust) largely passed into literature and early psychoanalytical investigations.[xi] The revival of scientific psychological research into involuntary memory the 1980s, marked a turning point that reintroduced it into the mainstream of psychology.[xii] What is the relevance you might ask? It is that the works of Blaufuks, and other contemporary artists and writers in the context of post-modernism, or through their post-narratological researches, have challenged traditional linear forms of narrative, expression and memory, and developed strategies of dissociated juxtaposition. This is to say elements and material contents that are not easily associative are brought together for the purposes of creating open-ended readings, where the artist's choice of his/her materials are left fluid or unresolved to be completed in large measure by the viewer. Whether this is expressed in either visual or textual images, photographic or word images, the outcome extends the potential meaning of the contents which are never fully fixed or determined. It therefore includes in the memory process voluntary and involuntary associations thrown up by the viewer, and which may follow (or not) the expectations that the materials used might have initially intended and supposed. Systems of built in aporia (philosophical puzzles or impasse) follow, and the visual or textual materials are left open while remaining transitional and deliberately undetermined.[xiii]
Often linked to deconstruction and the general trend towards post-structuralism, and rather like image and textual dissidents, the visual materials of Blaufuks provoke a plurality of potential aesthetic outcomes. The unpredictable disclosures of voluntrary-involuntary memory are not unrelated to these precepts, insomuch as the memory-image sensation evokes a perceptual embodiment that is also not clear at the outset but yet flows towards something. Similarly, each component element of the art work remains autonomous as regards its voluntary and involuntary potential. The potential of any number of memory associations are set free. When Jacques Derrida speaks of memory he understood it within such a framework, and not surprisingly along with his thoughts on the role of memory, he similarly turned his attention to a personal deconstructive analysis of memory and archiving.[xiv] Speaking of his doubts about the conventional systems of narrative and storytelling, Derrida states "Who can tell a story? Is narrative possible? Who can claim to know what a narrative entails? Or, before that, the memory it lays claim to? What is memory? If the essence of memory maneuvers between Being and the law, what sense does it make to wonder about being and the law of memory?"[xv] However, rather than read this as the structuralist death of the author following the conventional dialectic of rejecting arguments and counter-arguments posed by the author's life events and attitudes to the world one must be prepared to see this as a form of shared, or better still, regained authorship born of the visual and textual materials that are being presented.[xvi] This it seems to me is precisely the position that Daniel Blaufuks adopts. He presents in his investigations of 'Arquivo' an album of what appear initially as disparate and dislocated materials like pregnant punctum, poignant material prompts of the sensory imagination.[xvii] However, at the same time Blaufuks makes problematic not only 'what is an author?' in terms of the materials referring only to themselves as regards their factual contents (archival fragments of juxtaposition), but also "this means that it is an interplay of signs arranged less according to its signified contents than according to the very nature of the signifier."[xviii] But the generic signifier remains fluid, ideas of journey, history, event, and of memory spring immediately to mind, in relation to the materials that Blaufuks uses. Blaufuks's signifiers point in a certain direction (they are directional), but never bring themselves into the closure of a sign they merely approximate the sign content that their respondent must engage with.
The single and certain element that the archive once possessed, namely that its material contents are always of the past - the photograph, the letter, the text, the cinema or bus ticket, and so on once had no other factual meaning than the reality of that which had 'taken place'. But the 'taken place' has always been difficult to secure as regards memory and remembering, since individual and/or collective engagements with the past as recollection have always been variously interpreted and are without uniformity. Blaufuks apparently random sense of juxtaposition of the contents of 'Arquivo' thus instigates a shared imagination of the artist as originator and the viewer as respondent, and is as much concerned with a future comprehension as with the determinism(s) of the past. The future is always a site of projection and further development and interpretation the Kierkegaardian repetitive engagement with memory and the past that is projected forward. The dialectic of part to whole (the boundary-legibility of the contents) is left open and seeks its resolution in the potential engagement of both parties, and this is where the aesthetic component in an art work is eventually realised. As a fundamental, regardless of the numerous systems that have been argued and applied to aesthetics, the aesthetic experience is first driven by sensory and sensory-emotional values. These undisclosed personal values may exist 'a priori' to any of the system-based aesthetic judgments that are formed and said to flow from collective sensory aesthetic experiences. Hence an archive of a shared imagination is not an ordered and pre-arranged (even though the materials have been chosen) or centred system of knowledge, a space of pre-determined judgments, it is diffuse and rhizome-like and left free to flow across a decentred field.[xix] It is not surprising that the Pre-Socratic 'flux' has again become so significant in our age.[xx] The principle of flowing continuum as journey and memory, though clearly operating as a process, underpins much of Blaufuks work in its material aspects. But it is the paradoxical and discontinuous continuum that the flux supposes, which anchors the artist's work in the contemporary sense of aesthetic experience. Which is to say it is not the continuous linearity of a narrative (storytelling), but the very ruptures and fissures that contest the idea of narrative continuity. Like the interstices in a Beckett play, we are left without any certainty but in a state of pregnant expectation at to what the eventual outcome might be. As Blaufuks makes clear when speaking of his art works "Image and writing. Dislocation and memory. These are the reasons of my work, the bases of my research."
That the archive has been undergoing a theoretical revolution in the last forty years, is not only attested to by the writings of scholars such as Foucault and Derrida, but by a vast diversity of interdisciplinary discourses that have emerged to contest earlier classical and 'positivist' nineteenth century systems of classification and taxonomy.[xxi] The former discursive boundaries and the arbitrary delineations between academic disciplines have all but dissolved. This is just as true of artistic and aesthetic practices as it is of the social sciences. The former 'meaning content' of the archive is now seen as being arbitrary, not merely because of its former systems of knowledge organisation, but because it placed the supposed certainty of documentary fact ahead of any consequential truth. It has come to be seen as an inert and static source of documentation without ever fully comprehending its status as mere selective and documentary storage. Like the dreamed-up fantasies of the eighteenth century encyclopaedia, the archive privileged the simple criteria of accumulation to define and confine. Now that we have entered the wikipedia world of the internet (as random and inaccurate as it frequently is), the archive is challenged and wobbles around the axis of its original intention. The library, museum, the document, the record, form only a sampling of numerous discursive and connotative possibilities we experience in the world today. Foucault understood this well, when he speaks of the implied limitations of the formal archive "to analyze the facts of discourse in the general element of the archive is to consider them, not at all as documents (of a concealed significance or a rule of construction), but as monuments…."[xxii]
The complex affinities between memory and archive are now opened out. Memory as a summoning up, an evocation that is turned into a projection, is both intrinsic and central to the work of Blaufuks. Though the mechanism of memory remains as complex and opaque as it ever was. There are today a whole plethora of models attempting to explain the mechanism of memory within cognitive psychology and neuroscience. However, this is less of a concern to the artist than the processes of directional signification directions that are both factual and fictional in content. Incorporated in his 'Arquivo' album are visual and textual juxtapositions constituted through found materials, discursive engagements with others, estranged photographs, and earlier works by the artist. The fact that each element remains autonomous and yet operative across a decentred field, gives them a sense of their being chosen and personally ordered but without any pre-imposed and certain narrative construction. When the artist Blaufuks speaks of "memory is a chaos that needs a frame," he intends it not so much from the point of view of determinism (it happens consciously or unconsciously) but as something that is liminal. Liminality or the threshold, the state of becoming, is a 'vital' component of the act of remembering. That is to say it is vital when it is 'of, or relating to the characteristics of life', is necessary to the continuation of life, and is life sustaining.[xxiii] Or, is invigorating, while it simultaneously provokes life and animation. It is seemingly the motivation and the reason why Blaufuks states "someone who loses his memory stops being." Hence as the viewer surveys the contents of his 'album' they are confronted not only with the potential of their own interpretive memory associations, but with the opaque and uncertain boundaries between the textual image and the photographic or purely visual image. This is not to deny their contained or singular meaning as an original source material, or the fact that the materials are locatable within the archive of human existence, but that the position of the respondent is free to reframe them in terms of their own understanding. This is not memory as biography as much as it is scenography the making of a mental space that can be transformed and filled out.
That Blaufuks uses the principle of a flux of apparently dissociated materials (though probably not to him), a photograph of a giraffe next to what appears a hard-disk from a computer, concert tickets, packages, and the like, is not an attempt at a literal personal biography (an authorial stance), but rather the potential biography of an everyman at least in terms of its wider meaning as metaphor. It suggests a world view, a particular way or reading the world, through an engagement with memory and the archive. This is the reason why I have refrained from particularising and reading the materials as to what might be called their explicit contents their sources. Many references become apparent in the album, to Theresianstadt, to attended events in his native Lisbon, to personal journeys, to materials found in foreign newspapers, to exile, and to the utopian and dystopian realities of the life the artist has lived. It has not been my intention to impose a meaning on the contents the artist has chosen for his album, so much as revealing how Blaufuks exposes the ways through associative memory and existing archive materials life materials meaning can be generated through the paradoxical use of the part object. It is a libertarian and inclusive approach remaining open by not closing down the art work's source materials and their referential contents.
I began with a title to my essay that speaks of the polyphony of memory, which means quite literally a polyphony that is able to sing many songs (generate many perspectives), and which stands in contrast to the former monocular passivity of the materials found within the traditional function and use of the archive. Modern understandings of memory are dynamic, suggesting it is an emotional space of movement and change, whereas the archive was formerly seen to be static, an inert and fixed place of storage. It was also largely in the hands of an educational elite that were left to determine and interpret the meaning(s) of its contents. The contemporary dissonance of the archive stems from its former position and is currently being conceptually rethought. That the archive retains its idea as being a place of accumulation and storage is not its negation. Its instability resides in the fact that it is 'partial' (a point of view) and no longer a basis for forming secure judgments about the world. We have entered a bicameral (mixed space) interactive world where the location and extent of 'archive' can never be totally confined or determined. In a certain sense we are all archive, living and embodied archives of knowledge. Knowledge is no longer considered vertical but horizontal, and in consequence opens up questions of memory and the archive to a potentially far less circumscribed world.
© Mark Gisbourne
9th January 2008
[i] Speaking of a 'positivist truth' is to suppose that truth can only be established through the use of a purely scientific methodology, whereby 'facts' or data available are considered synonymous with the truth content of the research process. The archive stands in relation to this as a source of purely factual data on which the basis of scientific truth must be established. In this respect Positivism has been argued as the method that replaced the earlier metaphysical methodologies that preceded it.
Soren Kierkegaard 'Recollection is a Discarded Garment', (1843) in Uwe Fleckner/Sarkis, The Treasure Chests of Mnemosyne: Selected texts on memory theory from Plato to Derrida, Dresden, Verlag der Kunst, 1998, "Say what one will, it is sure to play a very important role in modern philosophy; for repetition is a decisive expression for what 'recollection' was for the Greeks. Just as they taught that all knowledge was recollection, so will modern philosophy teach that the whole of life is a repetition….Repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions; for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas repetition properly called so called is recollected forwards, p. 128
[iii] The word 'archive' derives from the ruler or legislative-magistrate called the 'archon' of the Greek-Classical world (mon-arch-y, and hier-arch-y depend the same stem), and was applied to the legislative records derived from the administration.
[iv] Ingrid Schaffer and Matthias Winzen (eds.), Deep Storage:Collecting, Storing and Archiving in Art, ex. cat., Haus der Kunst, Munich, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, Prestel Verlag, 1998.
[v] Frances A.Yates, 'Three Latin Sources for the Classical Art of Memory' The Art of Memory (1966 and all subsequent editions), London, Pimlico Press, 2001 (pp. 17-41) The role and functions of the art of memory stem from classical origins in Cicero's De Oratore, quoting the Simonides of Ceos memory narrative, Quintillian's Institutio oratoria, and the anonymous Ad. C. Herennium Libri IV, and was always tied the conventions and use of rhetoric and verbal or visual persuasion. Hence memory was constituted as a practical system called imagines agentes (image agents that are active and associative), pp. 24-25
[vi] Friedrich Schlegel, 'Athenaeum Fragments' aph. 206, Philosophical Fragments, Eng. trans., Peter Virchow, Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p. 45 Schegel who first coined the word 'Romanticism' represents the counter current to the classical idea of a fragment as something separated from its unified whole.
[vii] "I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin." Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (formerly called R emembrance of Things Past) Volume 1: Swann's Way, Eng Trans., C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (revised edition). London and New York, Vintage, 1996. p 51.
[viii] "And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea." ibid p. 52
[ix] Henri Bergson, 'Of the Survival of Images', Matter and Memory, Chap. III, Eng. trans., Nancy Margaret Paul and W Scott Palmer, New York, Zone Books, 1991 (pp. 133-177), pp. 139, 141
[x] Hermann Ebbinghaus, Memory, a contribution to experimental psychology (1885), Eng. trans., H.A.Ruger and C.E.Bussenius, New York, Dover Books, 1964.
[xi] The exceptions were the 'involuntary memory' scientific researches of Early Soviet Developmental Psychology, and Cultural-Historical Psychology, most famously developed by Lev Seminovich Vygotsky (1896-1934), which were suppressed under Stalinism and only discovered again in the 1960s. See A. Kozulin, Vygotsky's Psychology: A Biography of Ideas, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1990; R. Van der Veer, R., and J. Valsiner, Understanding Vygotsky. A quest for synthesis, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991, and F. Newman and L Holzman, Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary scientist, London, Routledge, 1993.
[xii] R. C. Scrank, Dynamic memory, London and New York, Cambridge University Press, 1982.
[xiii] The philosophical concept of Aporia relates to impasse or puzzlement, and in rhetoric and locution to a useful expression of doubt, something like a doubting figure of speech.
Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Religion & Postmodernism), Eng. trans., Eric Prenowitz, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Jacques Derrida, 'The gift of Mnemosyne', (1984) The Treasure Chests of Mnemosyne: Selected texts on memory theory from Plato to Derrida, p. 306
[xvi] Roland Barthes, 'The Death of the Author' Image-Music-Text, Eng. trans., Stephen Heath, London, Fontana Press, 1977, pp. 142-148 "As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins." p. 142
Barthes is again relevant here, for the punctum is that which provokes the immediate sensation (involuntary memory) in visual photographic and textual materials, as distinct from the studium (voluntary memory or association) the former suggests poignancy and the latter intellectual interest. See, Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, (1982) Eng. trans., Richard Howard, London, 1984. "This second element which will disturb the studium. I shall there call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole and also the cast of the dice. A photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises, is poignant to me)." p. 27
Michel Foucault, 'What is an Author?', Michel Foucault: Aesthetics essential works of Foucault 1954-84, vol. 2, London, Allen Lane and the Penguin Press, 1998 (pp. 205-222) p. 206
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, 'Introduction: Rhizome', A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (Fr. Mille Plateaux, 1980) Eng. trans., Brian Massumi, London, Athlone Press, 1996. "A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences and social struggles. A semiotic chain is like a tuber agglomerating very diverse acts, not only linguistic, but also perceptive, mimetic, gestural and cognitive: there is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs and specialized languages. There is no ideal speaker-listener, and more than there is an homogenous linguistic community."
Traditionally Heraclitus of Ephesus (ca. 535-475BCE) is the Ionian philosopher attributed with the idea of 'flux', and that the notion of change is the only constant reality in the universe.
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, (Fr. Les mots et les choses, 1966), Eng. trans., Anon., London, Tavistock Publications, 1970.
[xxii] Michel Foucault, 'On the Archaeology of the Sciences', Michel Foucault: Aesthetics essential works of Foucault 1954-84, vol. 2, London, Allen Lane and the Penguin Press, 1998 (pp. 297-333) p. 309-10
[xxiii] The use here of the word 'vital' is lexical, and should not be confused with 'vitalism'. That is the metaphysical and philosophical argument that there is a 'vital principle' and that the life organism is directed by a force that shapes our physical-chemical processes, sometimes referred to as the 'vital spark', or the élan vital as formulated by Bergson. in his book 'Creative Evolution' (1907).