What is archive?

What is an Archive?

Written by Kaushal Sapre

Let this piece be self-evidential in establishing the fact that the term ‘Archive’ has become an inescapable part of the contemporary art discourse. This rise of the Archive as a term of importance in the institutional discourse can be looked at as a telling fact in our attempt to answer the question, ‘What is an Archive?’ Some institutions are called archives, and their function seems to be to exclude, to include, to classify and to preserve documents – like the National Archive of a nation-state or a private archive of a corporation or an individual. In turn, it is to be understood that these institutions are sites of knowledge production, are instrumental in shaping our understanding of history, and therefore are regarded as sources of power. This is a bold claim, because operations of power and knowledge occur on an extremely micro level in society. But that the same time, one cannot deny that the institutions that claim to be archives seem very far away from us, at a perceptual level. We do not visit the National Archive on a daily basis, if ever; but we do produce knowledge every day. If that is so, is the Archive operative in this individual process of knowledge production? So what is this Archive, that seems to form the nervous system of all power operations, and how are we its subjects?


Archiving involves collection. It is a process that thrives on collecting documents, images, and objects – material. Collecting involves including, excluding, selecting, discarding. This is something we all do – we collect life. The clothes we wear, the books we read, the ideology we belong to, the food we eat, are all products of an ongoing process of collecting and discarding. The second aspect of the Archive lies in the arrangement of its constituents. The Archive is inherently systematic. It is a set of things that, when combined are capable of producing knowledge. In that sense language seems a lot like the Archive. Indeed, language as a form of communication requires a set of terms that are mutually agreed upon. It also requires is the syntagmatic – or a relational operator that produces meaning out of the discrete constituents in the set. But at the same time, the syntagmatic also comes with an implicit presumption of the subject and the object. In that sense the archive is defined by its structure – by the possibilities of relationships between its individual components. This also makes it a closed system, in the sense that the first thing that is archived is the Archive itself. This leads us to a crucial conclusion – There is no critique of the Archive outside the Archive. Thirdly, the Archive preserves. This in my opinion is the most critical aspect of the Archive. Because the process of preservation implies a process of destruction. To remember something also means to forget something else.

It would be vain to think that we have control over these processes. There seems to be no point in removing the self from this all and looking for a space to place it. Rather, it would be more productive to think that we are this process. That the self is constantly being reinvented through the complex processes of inclusion and exclusion that happen on a deeply personal level. In that sense, we can inscribe an Archival tendency to an individual subject.

Here I would like to borrow from Bergson’s formulation of ‘image’. He says, in Matter and Memory’ 

‘…And by ‘image’ we mean a certain existence which is more than that which the idealist calls a representation, but less than that the realist calls a thing, – an existence placed halfway between the ‘thing’ and the ‘representation’. ‘

This is a convenient formulation, because it rids itself of the dualist enquiry. It forgets about the project of trying to locate the self for a moment, and looks around for the possibility of more. Images then, are what we look at, what we experience, what we remember. They are inscribed upon us with varying degrees of intensity throughout our life, and in that sense, they make us. Secondly, it frees the image from the hierarchy imposed upon it by representation. There is no image and copy. There is an image and there is another image. This formulation also helps us to further investigate the idea of Archival tendency which was mentioned earlier. It becomes a very human tendency then, to collect – to collect objects, to objectify images and to collect images through objects. It is in this way that we are subjects of the Archive.

For Derrida, as for Freud, this Archival tendency is placed in opposition to the Anarchival – a death drive. A drive to destroy, to assert control over something – like standing on the edge of a tall building and knowing that you have the agency to just take one more step and end your life, and the urge to do so that is produced by that knowledge. Or making a drawing on a wall and then whitewashing over it. Looked at in this way, life seems to be a conflict between creation and destruction – between the archival forces that collect, document, preserve, memorize and the death drives that rupture, destroy, whitewash. But it would be wrong to make it so simplistic. Just as there is destruction in creation, there is creation in destruction also. From this point of view, one cannot isolate the death drive from the Archive. In fact, they become one and the same. In that sense, the Archive extends itself to encompass all possibilities of knowledge production – a solidified thought. A painting thus becomes an archive and so does a butcher’s chopping block.