Some Notes on the Archive

Glenn Harcourt
Doonesbury © 2011 G. B. Trudeau.

Doonesbury © 2011 G. B. Trudeau. Reprinted with permission of Universal Uclick. All rights reserved.


The Stasi and the Smart Phone

In 1999, on the occasion of their appearance in the Venice Biennale, the Rumanian art collective subREAL (Cãlin Dan and Josef Király) made the trenchant assertion: “The history of the 1990s starts and ends under the sign of the archive. The archives compiled by the secret services of the Communist ‘block’ are one side of this reality. The corporate databases meant for monitoring potential customers are the other.”1

Yet despite the power and elegance of Dan and Király’s image of a decade neatly archived between the political oppression of collapsing state socialism on the one end and the commodity fetishism of resurgent global capital on the other, “the sign of the archive” in fact covers a much broader cultural terrain and is sunk much more deeply into the substrate of our history. Indeed, the archive’s theorization, explication, and invocation have made it a site of radical contest. Ultimately, the archive is implicated in our deepest understanding of modernist and post-modernist struggles, struggles both to instigate and to come to terms with the collapse of Enlightenment rationality and (ultimately) that of Renaissance humanism as well. If the sign of the archive necessarily entails the power to define and discipline our subjectivity, to eclipse our rationality and efface our humanity, it also and just as necessarily entails the potential articulation of knowledge and the possibility of interpretation, as well as the ability of Being to project itself as an oh so tenuous light shining against the darkness of the abyss.

Clearly, if the above characterization is anything close to accurate, any analysis on the scale envisioned here must be provisional and fragmentary at best. Nevertheless, it might be useful to begin by approaching the idea of the archive from a putative point of origination, and to survey the meaning thus exposed in its widest possible application. From there we can proceed to narrow our focus, hopefully in a way that will provide us with an “Ariadne’s thread” capable of guiding us at least some distance through the archive’s labyrinth.

The Mystic Writing Pad

That point of origination encompasses both a man, Sigmund Freud, and a text, his beguilingly metaphorical 1925 “Notiz über den ‘Wunderblock,’” or “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad.’”2 In that short text, which provides a kind of supplement to an argument developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud examines a pair of mnemonic problems that we have undoubtedly all experienced, namely: that our powers of recall are both fallible and impermanent. Likewise those external aids that, as of 1925, might have been deployed to enhance the retention of written information.3 “Thus an unlimited receptive capacity and a retention of permanent traces seem to be mutually exclusive properties in the apparatus which we use as substitutes for our memory: either the receptive surface must be renewed or the note must be destroyed.”4 Unless, of course, we take our notes upon the “miraculous” mystic writing pad, the operation of which Freud employs as a metaphorical and external model for the formation of the memory trace and the interaction between memory and consciousness. It works like this. The mystic writing pad, or “magic slate,” is a children’s toy where one writes with a stylus on a sheet of clear plastic laid over a wax tablet; the text vanishes when the plastic is lifted. Freud was pleased to note, however, that the traces of former mark making remained on the wax tablet, and thus was able to draw a distinction between the temporary inscriptions of perception and “permanent” inscriptions on the psyche.


  1. SubREAL (Catlin Dan and Josif Kiraly), “Politics of Cultural Heritage” (1999), reprinted in Charles Merewether, ed., The Archive: Documents of Contemporary Art (Cambridge, MA: the MIT Press, 2006), 113. The Archive provides a valuable source of primary and secondary material covering a wide range of topics related to its subject.
  2. Sigmund Freud, “A Note upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad,’” in The Archive, 20–24.
  3. Freud sees the archival problem as essentially textual insofar as it is a line of text (a note written to oneself) that provides his primary metaphor for the memory trace. We should bear in mind, however, that much of the broader archival debate is integrally intertwined with the debate surrounding the theorization of photography and photographic practices. The Archive provides a wide selection of texts relevant to this theoretical debate. among the secondary discussions, I might recommend the excerpts from Allan Sekula’s “The Body and the Archive,” in The Archive, 70–75, and (especially) Benjamin H.D. Buchloh’s “Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive,” in The Archive, 85–102, both of which originally appeared in the pages of October.
  4. Freud, “A Note upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad,’” 20.
Further Reading