TROLLING THE ARCHIVE

David Archibald of the University of Glasgow recently circulated an abstract for a paper I will be giving in March as part of their seminar series. The full abstract and details for the event can be found here.

Leo Enticknap, a Lecturer at Leeds in Visual and Communication Arts, read the abstract on the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies email list and wrote the following (italicized portions are excerpts from my abstract):

Quote from [Groo’s] abstract (Enticknap’s emphasis):

On July 1st, 2007, a consortium of Dutch archives, including the EYE Film Institute, the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, and the Dutch Nationaal Archieef, launched Images for the Future, a large-scale project funded by the Dutch government and dedicated to the restoration and digitization of more than 700,000 hours of film.

A point of information: only a tiny proportion of the total material involved in the project underwent restoration (according to the generally accepted definition of the term within the archiving profession, i.e. physical intervention to mitigate damage in source elements and/or the reconstruction of an image and/or audio sequence in order to recreate a sequence that is known or believed to have existed in the past).  This was essentially a mass-digitisation project, i.e. access, not preservation.

As I will argue, these archives also demand new film histories and historiographic futures: not the digital annihilation of the celluloid archive (as so many historians fear)

I can assure Dr. Groo that the deaccession and disposal of film and magnetic media elements (not just celluloid, but cellulose acetate and polyester-base film elements and analogue video and audio tapes as well) takes place on a significant scale.  It usually takes the form of private sector collections wanting to pass analogue master elements to public sector archives for long-term preservation after digitisation for access (and, of course, to pass the cost of that along with it), but the problem is significant, even among FIAF and FIAT member institutions.  If Dr. Groo is trying to suggest either that the loss of analogue originals after the creation of digital surrogates, or that the long-term preservation of born digital content is fundamentally not a problem (shameless plug: for the chapter and verse on why it is, see the special issue of The Moving Image I edited on this topic, 8/1, Spring 2008), then the bottom line is that her position contradicts the mainstream view both within in the audiovisual archiving profession and within branches of the IT industry concerned with long-term data preservation.

There have been literally dozens of occasions over the last decade in which I have consulted for the custodians of collections, who were in the position of having money available for digitisation for access projects, but the bodies that had made it available had done so in the belief (perpetuated by a combination of unscrupulous equipment/service vendors and others who have accepted their claims without the knowledge and/or inclination to assess them objectively) that it would remove the ongoing cost of preserving the analogue source elements and had planned for (or at least, assumed that they would be able to plan for) the disposal of those source elements at the conclusion of the project.  Educating these people as to the scientific and engineering reality has been an uphill struggle for ethically motivated professionals in the field who have been trying to address this problem.  This is that digital media represents a wonderful access medium but a lousy, inefficient and expensive preservation medium, and that it’s only if something is born digital in the first place that anyone with any sanity and technical expertise would attempt the long-term preservation of that content in digital form.  Even then, there is a notable minority of archiving professionals who advocate digital-to-film transfers for this purpose, arguing that the technical challenges of digital preservation trump the ethical undesirability of preservation on a non-original format.   The bottom line is that I could build you and then maintain for a given period of time an atmpospherically controlled film vault for roughly a fifth of the cost of storing the equivalent content capacity, digitised to 4K using proven to be reliable methods.

Sorry to be blunt, but when the academy then comes along and claims that there’s nothing to worry about ’cause Derrida said so, it really isn’t helpful.

Leo

Leo Enticknap
Archival Media Consultant and Project Manager
flashscan8.us
Loma Linda, CA, USA

I wrote the following in response:

Dear Leo,

I will keep this brief as I know members of this list already have enough emails to read. A colleague just drew my attention to your response to my abstract. I invite you to contact me off-list if you are interested in discussing my work. I would be happy to send the paper to you and field any questions you might have. And, of course, you are welcome to attend the talk in March. That said, I suspect that you are less interested in moving the discussion forward and more interested in a public performance of outrage in the service of promoting your own work. There is a deep irony in your message. You invite members of the academic community to engage with your research as you uncharitably characterize my own. I welcome difficult questions; however, I ask only that you adhere to the very basic standards of academic discourse and actually allow me to share my ideas before you dismiss them.

I do not doubt that digitization has very real effects for film artifacts and for the profession of preservation. In my research, I am interested in drawing attention to the physicality and materiality of film artifacts. I make the case for a film historiography that attends to the particularities of celluloid, including its inevitable decay and degradation, its rips, tears, texture, etc. In the paper to which you refer, I argue that these physical qualities become more (not less) visible in the digital era.

In my view, the archivist and the academic have different tasks. On this point, I think we disagree. I do not see myself as an advocate for the archive or for any one approach to preservation. I am, instead, committed to understanding the archive, analyzing its artifacts, and reading the discourses that constitute its contemporary formation (including the rhetoric of salvage that extends all the way from the nineteenth century to your email).

Best,

Katherine

I cite this exchange at length here for a couple of reasons. There’s a lot that one might say about this kind of response to a paper that has yet to be published or even publicly delivered. Since sending my response, I have received several emails from grad students and junior scholars who have been treated in a similar way on the list. Shedding light on this kind of behavior might contribute in some way to a more open discussion about the treatment of junior scholars–especially women–within the academy. Enticknap refers to me at several points as “Dr Groo” in his reply, but his lack of collegiality and basic academic etiquette undermines this (performative) gesture of respect.

Setting these issues aside, what struck me most in the hours after I read this response was the throw-away line about Derrida. Derrida is such an easy target. A bit passé in film circles. Never liked by archivists. Whatever reasons one might have for rejecting him, his lack of concern for actual archives shouldn’t be one of them. Derrida was deeply worried about the archive and (not coincidentally) deeply worried about scholars like Enticknap. Put plainly: Derrida worried about what happens to our lived experience–our ideas, our projects, etc.–when we die. What happens to the living present when it becomes past tense? When we can no longer speak for ourselves and present testimony on our own behalf? The archive invites others to speak in our stead, to create historical wholes out of fragments (or academic views out of abstracts). He argued (among other things) that the archive and its historians would necessarily, inevitably get it wrong. Worse, your work might just become a punchline for someone who has never taken the time to read it. In other words, Enticknap’s mischaracterization of Derrida’s view (“there’s nothing to worry about”) proves Derrida’s point. Derrida thought we should worry a whole lot about archives, just not for the reasons that Enticknap thinks we should…

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