Exploring the Affective (After)Lives of Digital Archives

By Alistair Anderson, Current MSc Society and Space Student

The archive is the quintessential arena of historical research, and for the compulsory ‘Experimental Methods’ unit I interrogated the use of digital archives as fields of affective materials. Specifically, my project focussed on the extinct thylacine (Thylacinus cynacephalus) as a theme around which the materials in question could coalesce. The overall aim was to explore the affective potency of an archive held in a digitalised form.

In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida (1995, p18) argued “what is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way.” This statement is somewhat appropriate to the digitalisation of existing archives, as physical materials become content relayed as an array of “measurable visual properties such as color, shape, edges, texture, spatial relations, and other features” (Ching-chih et al 2005, pp278-9). Manoff (2004, p10) posits that the term ‘digital archive’ is “a metaphor for what we are not yet able to grasp about the nature of digital collections.” In using digital archives, Maxwell (2010, p24, 34) claims to adopt the role of a “consumer of digital information,” but suggests that research via digitalised sources “may never be as easy or pleasant as leafing through paper originals.”

At first thought, the digitalised archive may be lacking in many of the potentially sensory dimensions that make ‘the archive’ “site as much a source” (Lorimer 2010, p249). Whilst there are registers of touch and sound at play, they are not those of the object but the interface, and where there is visual presentation it is rather a form of representation through technically narrated colours, shapes, and edges referred through a computer monitor. Additionally, as suggested in the above perspectives on digitalised archives, the journey to a particular source or material is faster than leafing through the stacks of a physical repository. Whilst this experience may have negative consequences for research rigour, in the frame of this project it is the altered effect of the archive upon the researcher that is at stake. Steedman (2001, p1172, 1175) for example points to a medical “Real Archive Fever” caused by dust and anthrax and other unhealthy minutiae that “end up” in the archive. One is unlikely to encounter such minutiae when exploring the digitalised archive, but as I will elaborate this does not render the digital archive an affectively impotent site or source.

The two archives that I explored presented different manners of digitalised archive. First was the online element of the National Archives of Australia (NAA), an online representation of the physical materials held at various locations around Australia. The second archive was the International Thylacine Specimen Database (ITSD) held at the Zoological Society in London, a DVD-based photographic collection of the remaining artefacts of the thylacine’s physical existence.

In the NAA I focused on their collections of export permits, as the archive concentrates heavily on recording government activities and decisions. Whilst the dis-embodied page turning via mouse clicks through the forest of permits collected along the bottom of the screen lent a feeling of sterility to the process of searching, it remained striking that what was being represented on the screen were the voices and back-and-forths over animal movements so lamented in the aftermath of the species’ extinction. Such worries were apparent in one reply to a request, suggesting that it would be advisable not to export further specimens due to their “becoming so rare”. Clicking through the

Alistair Image 1
Figure 1 Export permit referencing the endangered nature of the thylacine. Source: National Archives of Australia

records provided a variety of similar documents with varied characteristics – some were typed (with occasional written correction), some were handwritten (more accurately: scrawled), some on darker paper, some digitised at an angle, whilst some others had frayed edges and tears. This digitalised archive has some distance from the dusty stacks of the ‘archive proper’ but still retained the comingled presences of animals and humans, whilst the presence of the technicities (such as the feel of typewriter paper) of the archival materials themselves were reduced to the visual register. The archivists themselves were generative within the field of affective bodies, both in the ‘unseen’ collecting together of individual documents and their sometimes angular representation. The permits variously impose stricter conditions on thylacine exports and in some cases advise against their export altogether, hinting at the accumulation

Alistair Image 2
Figure 2 Damaged export permit, beholden to a legacy of otherwise unseen affects. Source: National Archives of Australia

of affects around the species and the changing state of the palimpsest of force-encounters between these various bodies. Far from being devoid of affective tenacity, the internet-based digital archive initially appeared to facilitate the messy bleeding of affects through the weave of affective materials cast in the early stages of the thylacine’s becoming-spectral.

The ITSD however is an archive unambiguously steeped in the spectrality of the thylacine. The archive is described by its creators, Sleightholme and Ayliffe (2013, p12), as a project to “produce the first comprehensive study of all that is known to physically remain of this unique species.” The archive is a diverse assemblage of images and statistics, detailing both the global distribution of specimens and the specimens themselves. These specimens consist of skins, wet specimens, taxidermy mounts, bones, and mummified material.

Alistair Image 3
Figure 3 Immediate cluttered surrounding in the Zoological Society’s reading room. Source: Author

The digitisation of these various material samples is tied as much to a preservative archival drive, as to the context of the eventual fate of the species itself. A significant difference between this archive and the NAA was the mode of access. Whilst the archive deliberately pointed beyond itself to the globally distributed hauntings of the thylacine, it was itself spatially fixed like a physical archive to its host institutions. The characteristics of the space of access certainly influenced the archival moment. Figures 3 and 4 show the setting that the archive was accessed within, from the immediate surrounding of boxes of papers, files, and books in varying states of disrepair, to the shelves of boxed files and journals covering each wall. The sounds of creaking staircases, distant photocopying machines, and a researcher turning the pages of a large

Alistair Image 4
Figure 4 Wider setting of the reading room. Source: Author

collection of older artwork were not intrusive, but rather constructive of the engagement. Indeed, whenever a new image or folder was loaded from the DVD by the ageing computer, whose use was mandatory, it emitted particularly rhythmic chugs and whirs that felt as much a part of the scene as perpendicular to it. As the hundreds of specimen images were clicked through with this repeated technical pageantry, very few images made a jarring impression. Whilst the thylacine was sliced, folded, and stitched across the archive, the archive’s compulsive attention to the nonhuman felt very human. There were however some specimen images that spoke to a wider assemblage of human and nonhuman actors, and were affectively evocative. A Southampton-based taxidermy specimen exhibited numerous signs of damage. From deterioration on its ears and rear of the specimen to a slight collapsing around the neck, the specimen wore the effects of its participation within a field of active bodies. Although hidden from the viewer’s immediate sight, these bodies likely consist of a mixture of human handlers, acidic dust, and various insects that routinely damage samples such as this (Sleightholme and Ayliffe 2013). A fire-damaged skull betrayed the resonance of a previous vioent event, namely the bombing of Leeds during World War 2. This was not some solitary victim within the species’ life-story, as specimens held at numerous other locations were eradicated in the violence of the Second World War. More significantly however, the death of the last living thylacine has been attributed to the shortage of skilled personnel and supplies to manage Hobart Zoo during the War (Owen 2003). The image of the skull thus exceeds the representation of a damaged piece of anatomy. Given that the last thylacine was not physically preserved (Sleightholme and Ayliffe 2013), the skull was the peculiar locus of a multitude of affective echoes from both the destructive chaos of the War and the tragic history of the species the skull belongs to. The ITSD is an archive awash with a challenging and provocative accumulation of affects, which emerge and seep through the collection in both the routinely inevitable and the tormenting singularity. The geographic restriction upon access, reflecting physical archive collections, further served to condition the field of affective materials by forcing the researcher to be in the moment, to be in the archive.

The experiment strongly refuted any concern that digitalisation renders an archive (and the experience of an archive) devoid of serious affectual consideration. Whilst certain registers are undoubtedly reduced in their viability for sensorial magnification, following McCormack’s (2010) reworking of remote sensing as operating through multiple sensory registers one can point to a narrowed gap between ‘words and worlds’ through the accumulation of affects in and around archival environments, materials, and indexes of feeling. The project, following McCormack’s (2010, p643) conceptualisation of the spectral as “that which is always remote yet always potentially sensed as a felt variation in a field of affective materials”, additionally reinforced the notion of the ongoing spectrality of the thylacine. As with physical material archives then, digital archives can be considered a rich resource beyond the veil of representational concerns.

 

References:

Ching-chih, C., Wactlar, H. D., Wang, J. Z. & Kiernan, K. (2005) Digital imagery for significant cultural and historical materials. International Journal on Digital Libraries, 5, 275-286.

Derrida, J. (1995) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. John Hopkins University Press.

Lorimer, H. (2010) Caught in the Nick of Time: Archives and Fieldwork. In: D. DeLyser, S. Herbet, S. Aitken, M. Crang and L. McDowell eds. The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Geography. SAGE, 248-273.

Manoff, M. (2004) Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines. Libraries and the Academy, 4, 9-25.

Maxwell, A. (2010) Digital archives and history research: feedback from an end-user. Library Review, 59, 24-39.

McCormack, D. P. (2010) Remotely Sensing Affective Afterlives: The Spectral Geographies of Material Remains. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 100(3), 640-654.

Owen, P. (2003) Thylacine: The Tragic Tale of the Tasmanian Tiger. 2nd ed. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Sleightholme, R. S. & Ayliffe, N. P. (2013) The International Thylacine Specimen Database: 5th Revision. [DVD].

Steedman, C. (2001) Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust. The American Historical Review, 106(4), 1159-1180.

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