Regardless of whether or to what extent one might be willing to accept Freud’s little “picture [of] the functioning of the perceptual apparatus of our mind”5 as usefully consonant with its actual functioning, his text sets out the theoretical parameters of what has become the wide-ranging, technologically complex, and ideologically charged discussion that we have described above. The mystic writing pad itself might have been a toy, but Freud’s desire to externalize memory as an unlimited system of permanent traces can easily evoke the wish for a totalizing combination of knowledge and power.

As a matter of convenience or definition, we can refer to such an externalized memory system, at the moment still having only a potential existence, as an “archive.” At least in theory, such an “archive” can contain an unlimited amount of information; and that information can be stored in an infinite variety of formats. Although we probably tend unreflectively to think of archives as comprising a certain class of easily “archivable” material (documents, photographs, film, sound recordings, and the like), the comprehensive Archive of an entire culture, to take an extreme example, would comprise all of that culture’s material artifacts in so far as those artifacts themselves comprised an external and collective cultural memory.6

Memory’s Junkyard

Clearly, however, the above definition is of little practical value. On the one hand, it has the kind of uncompromising perfection that we might attribute to a canvas covered with pure uninflected white pigment—a field carrying an unlimited potential for the articulation of meaning, but without any variation in that field to suggest a starting point or a direction for the unfolding of that articulation. On the other, we might just as easily substitute “black” for “white,” yielding now the image of a field in which all the articulating moves have already been played out, all the potential exhausted.

In point of fact, however, and despite the radical technological innovations to which I will return, the dream of a comprehensive external memory technology remains elusive; and the Archive itself thus appears as a site of fragmentation, erasure, and effacement. Indeed, I would argue that it must present such an image. In simplest form, we might see that image in a single page from the Oyneg Shabes (the “Joy of the Sabbath”), the archive assembled in the Warsaw Ghetto by Emanuel Ringelblum and his co-workers to document the progressive destruction of Eastern European Jewry from the fall of Warsaw in 1939 until the programmatic dissolution of the Ghetto in the apocalypse of the Final Solution.7 Alternatively, it might appear as a vast collection of texts, endlessly dense, sodden and decayed in some mnemonic junkyard or recycling center for dead memories.

The latter is precisely the image enshrined in Miles Coolidge’s monumental Backstop (2011) recently on view in his solo show at ACME. Gallery in Los Angeles.8 Measuring 92 x 181 inches, the picture is initially overwhelming in its juxtaposition of a glossy inkjet surface against the felt presence of a weighty and precariously balanced mass of printed material seen end on and filling virtually the entire frame. If knowledge indeed has an archaeology, then this photograph must surely render visible its geology: dense, sedimentary, deformed by tectonic forces, abraded and eroded by exposure to heat, cold, rain, wind, in constant process of slow, inexorable decomposition. Yet for all that it remains compellingly beautiful, with its strata of raggedy white, its friable vein of blue-shot yellow, and its striking splashes of blood red. What we see then is not just the slick surface of the print, but also the roughened surface of the “backstop” itself, the endlessly complex yet patterned system of superficial variations that suggest the unfolding of a narrative in deep time, a narrative hidden in the memory traces concealed within the sediments of text, yet even here in cross section guaranteed by its visible indices, each one a point of possible entry and a guarantor of potential interpretability. Thus, if one distressed and damaged page from the Oyneg Shabes can stand metonymically for the Archive as a whole, Coolidge’s Backstop can stand to it in a relation rather metaphorical or allegorical.


  1. Freud, “A Note upon the ‘Mystic Writing Pad,’” 24. Although Freud’s discussion remains provocative and is arguably brilliant, at least within its own temporal frame, it hardly reflects a contemporary medical or philosophical understanding of the physiological and psychological processes involved in the operation of memory, and in the relationship between perception, memory, and consciousness. It is also hard to reconcile with my own phenomenology of memory, and this latter fact has definitely influenced the inflection of my own use of Freud’s metaphor.
  2. The situation here is rather like that presented by the famous map in Jorge Luis Borges’s brilliant fictional fragment, “On Exactitude in Science.” See Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions (New York: Penguin, 1998), 325.
  3. For this whole extraordinary story, see Samuel D. Kassow, Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto (New York: Random House, 2007).
  4. Miles Coolidge, New Projects, ACME. Gallery, Los Angeles, May 28–July 2, 2011.
Further Reading