Generative Troubling in Emerging Archival Forms

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. John Seberger

    University of California, Irvine

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Building on the Derrida’s archival theory (1998) through engagement with critical making (Ratto, 2011), reflective design (Sengers, et al., 2005) and empirical investigations into social networking sites (SNS) as emerging archival forms, this paper introduces the FeverBook project (FB). In doing so, it provides evidence of novel distributions of archontic power, or the ordering powers afforded to the actor-network responsible for the construction and maintenance of the archive, in SNS contexts. This paper points to the need for an archival theorization of SNS that extends beyond traditional concepts of the archive.

Broadly operationalized as representative collections of cultural materials appraised and preserved in a standardized way for unspecified future use, traditional archives are central to the production of historical knowledge. For cultural histories, it is archives ‘not compiled with an eye towards history,’ (Farge 2013: 7) but compiled with an eye towards the mundane from which histories of daily life are written. However, massive databases like those found underlying SNSs such as Facebook are recreating what once was stored in traditional archives similar in form and function to the French judicial archives (Farge, 2013). Here the personal digital archive (PDA) (Marshall, 2008) extends the constitution of its actor-network to include myriad users, appraisers, programmers, database managers, graphical user interfaces (GUI), media formats, and external institutions involved in the use of archival materials.

Despite recent shifts of archival theories from the pre-digital realm (Derrida, 1998; Foucault, 1982; Ridener, 2009) into the digital (Ernst & Parikka, 2013; Garde-Hansen, et al., 2009; Manoff, 2004; Manovich, 1999; Mayer-Schönberger, 2009; Sacasas, n.d.), scholars have only begun to consider the applicability of extant archival theories to SNS-platforms. What work has been done (Acker & Brubaker, 2014; Mitchell, 2014; Garde-Hansen, et al., 2009) comprises the beginning of a lengthy discourse about emerging forms of digital archives. As an entry into this discourse, this paper leverages Facebook’s user affordances to explore the applicability of Derrida’s archival theory to SNS-platform-based PDAs (Derrida, 1998).

The exploration of archontic power distribution in SNS-platform-based PDAs was occasioned by critical making, defined as ‘a mode of materially productive engagement that is intended to bridge the gap between creative physical and conceptual exploration,’ (Ratto, 2011, p. 252). Such critical making resulted in the production of the FB exhibit and webpage, which present an empirically grounded fictive SNS profile through which users can explore and rethink core aspects of Derrida’s archival theory (1998) in the context of SNSs.

2. Methods
To generate narrative material for the fictive profile at the center of FB, the FB research and design team[1] conducted two rounds of interviews with a total of twelve informants. Initially, four Facebook users were recruited for pilot participation through convenience sampling, leading to semi-structured interviews lasting 60 to 90 minutes. Eight additional informants were subsequently recruited through similar methods. Analysis of data generated during interviews, including photographic data from participants’ Facebook profiles, took the form of content analysis and occurred concurrently with close readings of Derrida’s Archive Fever (1998).

Following completion of first-round interviews, FB construction began via iterative design (Ishii, Kobayashi, & Arita, 1994). Subsequent to each design meeting, the team engaged in journaling to understand their relationship to proposed interface changes. Journal content then served as a basis for reflection and future design decisions (Sengers, et al., 2005). Upon completion of the initial prototype, the design team then conducted two rounds of user testing.

3. New archival characteristics: Generative troubling
The ‘archontic’ is a key term for Derrida. The etymological origins of the term ‘archive’ (arkheion) are rooted in ancient Greek social hierarchy and the domesticity of those residing at the hierarchy’s pinnacle (Derrida, 1998). The arkheion refers to the domain, literally the residence, of the archons or ‘those who commanded’ (Derrida, 1998, p. 2). Thus, the archontic refers to the ordering powers afforded to what might be called the actor-network responsible for the archive – powers to include and exclude, to align and alienate, to consign or fragment.

Findings from the present research, including the user-practice of what is herein coined ‘generative troubling,’ evidence a direct relationship between the interior and exterior of the archive that exists in stark contrast to the a priori nature of the archive proposed by Derrida (1998). For Derrida, the archive is inherently violent. The mechanism by which an artifact enters the archive is a process of filtering artifacts-in-the-world through the ordering and inscribing function of the archon (e.g., through the act of appraisal). Such filtering yields an archive only theoretically related to the world it is intended to represent, related purely via the filters of archontic power. Moreover, in working with the archival subject – the object of violence – the historian or archival researcher troubles, perturbing the archival body and allowing narrativity to arise from archived artifacts. Troubled in one way, a given archive, a set of artifacts representing but unattached to the world, yields narrative x; troubled in another way, the same archive yields narrative y, where x and y are topologies of the same set. In any troubling event, the traditional archive yields only narratives capable of being constructed from that which has already been archived.

However, the a priori nature of the archive and its limited potential narrativity break down in the SNS-platform-based PDA as a result of its capacity for generative troubling. Such breakage occurs at the level of direct communication within the Facebook user’s timeline – when the archive itself simultaneously constitutes a repository of potential narrative elements and a site of active discourse, the purely a priori is transformed through the addition of a posteriori characteristics. The archive constituting an active site of discourse no longer bears only a theoretical relationship to the world it archives – the communicative act is simultaneously both act-in-the-world and archival artifact. Instead, the SNS archive of Facebook breaks a ‘fourth wall’ between archive and world, necessitating reconsideration of archontic violence. (For further discussion of the fourth wall, see the coverage of Diderot’s grand mur in Bender & Marrinan, 2010). Here the impetus for narrativity doubles as the impetus for the generation of new elements in the archival set, thus expanding the set from which archival narratives may be derived.

The following excerpts from separate interviews with Stephanie and Alexandra (pseudonyms) illustrate the point:

Alexandra: “I went really dark […] because people respond to more personal stuff, I was hoping to get more encouraging words and it, I guess it was dark enough that people didn’t want to respond at all.”

Stephanie: “Which is why I put it up [posted it to my timeline]. Just to see what people come up with. Because you know, a whole bunch of words come in and if one of them happens to … you know … make me feel way better for whatever reason, then great.”

Both Alexandra and Stephanie discuss the communicative function of Facebook’s timeline. In Alexandra’s case, she describes the execution of a communicative act intended to generate new archival content in hopes of alleviating emotional distress. Although Alexandra’s attempt was unsuccessful (which itself warrants further investigation), the successful communicative attempt Stephanie describes is similar: both participants actively generated content and posted to their timelines, archived in the Facebook databases, with the goal of generating situation-specific responses. Through Alexandra and Stephanie’s acts of appraisal (deciding that a generative communication warrants inclusion in their SNS-based PDA), other users are prompted to add related content to the SNS-archive. The act of generative troubling indicates that the relationship between SNS-based PDAs and the world from which the archival set is gathered is no longer strictly a priori. When otherwise worldly, or extra-archival, communication occurs directly in and through the archive, the wall between a priori and a posteriori is dismantled.

Through the ability to leverage Facebook’s timeline for direct communication, the archontic power underlying the construction of SNS-based PDAs is distributed among all users responsible for content generation at the GUI level. As such, the responsibility for appraising material representative of the mundane is no longer solely held by traditionally defined archivists; no longer is the archon a homogenous body of standardized intent distributed among a defined body of archivists. Instead, as Alexandra and Stephanie have illustrated, the ‘user’ in SNS-based PDAs becomes the ‘user-appraiser,’ or both an archival subject and the archivist. Although the archival act of preservation remains in question in the context of SNS-archives, such user-appraiser empowerment fundamentally separates the SNS-platform-based PDA as an archive of the mundane from the traditional form of mundane archive described by Farge (2013). The archive-theoretical differences resulting in such separation will affect the epistemology underlying the future production of cultural historical narratives – a change in the ‘how’ of mundane archival construction implies a change in the ‘how’ of cultural historical knowledge production.

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Sengers, P., Boehner, K, Shay, D., & Kaye, J. (2005). Reflective design. Proceedings of the 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing: Between Sense and Sensibility, p. 49-58.

The FB workgroup is John S. Seberger, Caitlin Lustig, Cory Knobel, and Geoffrey C. Bowker at University of California, Irvine.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

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Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO