The archive as the laboratory of the new

Where remembering and forgetting converge

The concept of the ‘archive’ has had quite a career in recent years. For the longest time, archives had previously led a rather shadowy existence, regarded as publicity shy, dusty, and fusty. Indeed, for most people, archivists were somewhat pale-faced specialists in sleeve protectors. This changed abruptly the instant renowned philosophers and historians such as Derrida and Foucault began to focus on this very concept. Since then, the term has been doing the rounds in many a new guise. It might therefore be a good idea to define more precisely the sense in which we are about to discuss the notion of archives here.

Two forms of archives

I consider archives as places where the acts of remembering and forgetting converge. To enable a more precise description, I like to differentiate between functional archives and storage archives. Functional archives store whatever is needed for action to be taken in the present. Expiry dates are therefore part and parcel of any functional archive. A doctor’s surgery for instance will dispose of the files of deceased patients; the same applies to ring binders when office premises are vacated to make way for a successor. Functional archives are management tools that guide and support action taken in the present. Bureaucrats and politicians alike can ill afford to do without them. But once the powers-that-be have had their day, the utility value of such information expires at a stroke.

Storage archives follow a completely different logic. They come into being when what is no longer of interest or relevance either for the present or the future is set aside, but not instantly discarded. In historical terms, this approach first established itself after the French Revolution when institutions such as the monarchy, the clergy, and the nobility were forcibly abolished. All traces of them were not simply erased in the process: rather, they were safeguarded within new institutions. It was then that a new awareness emerged for that which had gone before and remained of interest, even if normative powers would no longer ensue, namely history.

The founding saint of the storage archive in this new sense was Abbé Grégoire, who in the final years of the 18th century coined the term ‘vandalism’. He wrote that ‘only barbarians and slaves hate the sciences and destroy the monuments of culture. Free men love and conserve them’. A new concept of culture emerged, one that stood apart from the political. And, along with it, new civic values that acquired sanctuaries in new types of museums, archives, and libraries. The French Revolution unleashed and propelled the drive towards modernisation. All that was eliminated from the present at an ever accelerating pace did not simply disappear; rather, it became ‘historical’ and, as ‘culture’, it acquired a whole new meaning. This new approach to the past in Western modernity is the mainstay of important cultural resources, of which I would like to mention only three.

First: acknowledging the otherness of the past

My first point pertains to a new form of selflessness in dealing with the past. It is an approach that shields the past from the grasp and desires of the present. According to a phrase by Arno Borst, historians stand out by virtue of the fact that they ‘recognise the differences of different times’. Only by preserving and securing sources are we able to acknowledge the ‘otherness’ of different times. To spot an anachronism, we need to know the difference between the present and a past era. This cannot be achieved without archives, for they are the prerequisite for this invaluable cognitive achievement and the bedrock of history education. And it is this education that allows us to broaden our knowledge of our own existence out of the past, to think critically beyond the constraints of a one-sided image of ourselves, and likewise to recognise the otherness within us.

For example: when we take a look today at the programme archives of the Wiener Festwochen, we are inevitably struck by this otherness aspect of history. We learn that there was far more to this significant departure into a new future, to this revival of Vienna as a European Capital of Culture: namely, the repression of traumatic upheavals through a long and proud ‘origin story’. A mere ten years after the war, the focus was already on the unshakeable continuity of this ‘genius loci that has shaped the nature and soul of Vienna for a millennium’. The city is seen as a meeting place ‘whose spirit and culture, landscape, and historical buildings speak the language of all nations and are of such harmonious diversity that all manner of good spirits may feel at home here, in earnestness and in cheerfulness’. With our modern-day sensitivities, the particular emphasis on Vienna’s hospitality silently passes over the fact that many Viennese artists, actors, and musicians were persecuted on racial grounds and forced to flee into exile, like Stefan Zweig or the Viennese ‘pop star’ and violin virtuoso of the 1930s, Arnold Rosé and his daughter Alma; it is to her memory that a commemorative ‘plateau’ on the first floor of the Neue Burg has now been dedicated.

Second: coming to terms with a history denied

When the winds of history begin to shift and a change of political system seems imminent, unjust regimes immediately set about destroying their archives. Thus the apartheid regime in South Africa destroyed tons of incriminating material before it left office, and civil rights activists in the German Democratic Republic first had to go on hunger strike to secure the inventory of Stasi files. In such cases, the information value of these files is turned on its head. In a historical archive, documents that previously served the purpose of political persecution become the basis for a reappraisal of history, for convicting the perpetrators, acknowledging and rehabilitating the victims, and enlightening society as a whole.

In this context, securing sources means even more than broadening our historical image of ourselves; it means retrieving into the present not just a forgotten history, but a history concealed and denied, and then establishing it as the foundations of a new present and a new future. Recognising and accepting a history previously denied in this way can help prevent a reoccurrence of the wrongdoing. In considering the history of Black people in the United States, by and large suppressed from the ‘White archive’, the civil and human rights activist James Baldwin had this pithy formulation: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’

Third: the archives of art

In material terms, remembering and forgetting are predicated on different organisational forms within the framework of society, politics, and the arts. Let’s consider musicians by way of an example: until the advent of sound recording technology, their archives consisted exclusively of sheet music, initially handwritten and later reproduced in copperplate engravings. So what did these early collections of sheet music look like? Who had access to them? Who did they manage to reach? Before choral and music societies within the middle classes played a role in music archival history, this task fell upon the patrons among the nobility and aristocracy. Only a select few, relatively speaking, benefited from their archives.

One such example is Freiherr Gottfried van Swieten (1733–1803), a passionate collector of sheet music. In London he was actively involved in the circles that cultivated the music of Handel and, in Berlin, those surrounding Bach’s sons; indeed, he brought his treasures to Vienna, where he was appointed director of the royal court library. He delighted the likes of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven with this private collection of sheet music, prompting significant artistic innovations in the process. Musicians thus became acquainted with Bach’s polyphony, in turn encouraging them to go beyond the galant style popular in Vienna at the time. This music archive also enabled Mozart to work on his arrangements of Handel’s great oratorios. Without the important contribution of the music archives of the nobility, the compositions of older masters would not have been revisited, and without this recourse to previous compositions certain innovations in the creative output of younger masters would not have occurred. Against such a backdrop, it is not difficult to imagine the significance of the vast treasure of collected sheet music in the Weimar library of Duchess Anna Amalia for the contemporary musicians able to draw inspiration from it. Given that most of this treasure went up in flames in 2004, this particular chapter of music history is now forever closed.

Verdi, for one, appreciated the importance of such archives for artistic creativity and innovation: ‘Let us turn to the past: that will be progress.’ The archive is a passive resource that must be safeguarded, nurtured, sorted and, above all, consulted. As with the oracle at Delphi, it is all about the question that is asked in order to trigger the right answer. Such creative exchanges are always set in motion by the topical questions that artists ask, and their searches. Their questions are a wake-up call that again taps into and illuminates information that has remained latent.

The concept of memory always encompasses both: remembering and forgetting. Breaking cultural memory down into the two mainstays of storage and functional memory illustrates the complementary structure of memory, with the acts of remembering and forgetting always in close kinship and interacting at many levels. Indeed, much of what has been forgotten is not lost forever; rather, it has merely become temporarily inaccessible to us. That which, in our own personal memory, has sunk back down to the unsorted seabed of the forgotten can, given the right circumstances, rise up to the surface once more, like the deeply forgotten sensation that Proust’s madeleines suddenly conjured up once again. What we refer to as ‘forgotten’ is usually a latent memory to which we have lost the password; when it is accidentally accessed, a piece of the past once experienced through our senses returns completely unexpectedly. Perhaps we can go so far as to conclude that the archive is to cultural memory what Proust’s mémoire involontaire is to the individual: a pool and a backdrop for latent memories whose time has either passed or still lies ahead.

  • Biography Aleida Assmann

    Aleida Assmann was professor of English studies and general literature studies at the University of Constance from 1993 to 2014. Together with her husband Jan Assmann, she was awarded the 2017 Balzan Prize for her research work on cultural memory and, in 2018, the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, an international peace prize awarded by the German Book Trade Association. Her most recent German publication is entitled Die Wiedererfindung der Nation. Warum wir sie fürchten und warum wir sie brauchen [The Reinvention of the Nation. Why We Fear It and Why We Need It] (2020).

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