Two points can be drawn from this comparison. First, that the fragmentary or degraded nature of the information presented to us under either of these images (Szlamek’s Chełmno testimony from the Oyneg Shabes or Coolidge’s Backstop) represents a real loss, albeit one that might be remediable at least in part through the reconstructive practices of history. Second, thinking back to our hypothetical canvases in black and white, that this very degradation (as Coolidge’s work in particular suggests through the richness of its apparently abraded surface) stands as a necessary precondition of the archive’s legibility, since it is precisely at those points of fracture or discontinuity that we can identify a site from which to begin our own project of interpretation.
It is perhaps open to question whether the term “archive” is best understood as comprising a structure, a technology, a body of information, or (as seems likely) a concatenation of all three. But insofar as we conceive it to refer to an object or process modeled by memory, it seems impossible that we should not also conceive its degradation or fragmentation as modeled by forgetting. And, since memory is necessarily personal, particular, individual and specific to the one that remembers and no other, what is forgotten is effectively gone, at least momentarily irretrievable, and in its place is now rather a fracture or a discontinuity.
True, only death, disease, and trauma can efface memory completely and forever. It might be argued that we have here reached the limit of the archive’s memory model, the point where the metaphor begins to show its own internal stresses and strains. Alternately, it could be that, even as forgetting, recollection creates in the archive fractures and fault lines that likewise provoke interpretation.
When such a feature is encountered in geology, it immediately begs the question, which, in its most rudimentary form, we might cast simply as: What happened there? likewise with that archival “geology” imaged in Coolidge’s Backstop, where the question “What happened there?” begins a process of interpretation that is rendered possible precisely by the flaw that the answer itself attempts to remediate. Unlike “real” geology, however, where there is in theory an answer to this question that is “objectively” correct (i.e. that corresponds to the actual unfolding of earth’s history), archival geology by its very nature as interpretation is always subject to contest—that is, to revisionist (re)interpretation. Likewise, every point of fracture, every line of discontinuity becomes a point of possible entry into the archive, and thus the staging point for a different interpretive process, the articulation of a different interpretation.
Nevertheless, the question of the “truth value” of particular archives can be a very serious issue, for example, in the case of subReal, those of the East German Stasi or the Rumanian Security Police. Indeed, one of the characteristic “historical” practices that we can associate with modern totalitarian regimes involves the systematic fictionalization of the archival record, which carries the implicit imprimatur of “objective” (and comprehensive) truth. Whether the construction of such an objective and comprehensive archive is a necessarily illusory goal, even as it remains an essential totalitarian fantasy, or whether its inherent and eventual fragmentation and degradation is the result of processes external to itself, is an issue that has been contested in blood, perhaps no more sharply than in the Warsaw Ghetto under Nazi occupation.
Memory and Counter-Memory
The almost unbelievable story of the efforts of the historian Ringelblum and a host of co-workers to document not just life in the newly-constituted Ghetto as it unfolded under the German boot, but also the effacement of Eastern European shtetl culture, and, eventually, the opening moves of the Final Solution and the doomed uprising of April 1943, is brilliantly told by Samuel D. Kassow in his 2007 study of the Oyneg Shabes Archive, Who Will Write Our History?9 As Kassow slowly and meticulously lays out the tale, it becomes increasingly evident that this question—Who will write?—is much more complicated than it appears at first. Among Ringelblum and his closest cohorts, the composition of the corps of archivists (the identity of Kassow’s “who”) was a matter of much dispute. Was their orientation to be secular or religious? Was their language of record to be Yiddish or Hebrew? Was their approach to be rigorously historical, or did journalism and even literature have a place? Exactly whose history was it that was being written? (This was an especially tricky question since the Ghetto itself was an artificial and externally imposed construct, its population heterogeneous in the extreme.) And exactly what events, or what kinds of events, constituted that history? All these questions and more were in play throughout the unfolding of the project, with answers changing both in response to the contingencies of events and continuing negotiation among a changing cast of actors. Yet it is clear from Ringelblum’s reiterated assertions that he expected himself and his fellow archivists to “rise above passion” and “maintain cool objectivity,” “no easy task,” he writes, “in times so tragic.”10