The Archive or the Trace: Cultural Permanence and the Fugitive Text

We in the humanities are in love with the archive.

My readers already know that I am obsessed with archiving otherwise ephemeral social media. I’ve got multiple redundant systems for preserving my Twitter activity. I rely on the Firefox plugins Scrapbook and Zotero to capture any online document that poses even the slightest flight risk. I routinely backup emails that date back to 1996. Even my  recent grumbles about the Modern Language Association’s new citation guidelines were born of an almost frantic need to preserve our digital cultural heritage.

I don’t think I am alone in this will to archive, what Jacques Derrida called archive fever. Derrida spoke about the “compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive” way back in 1994, long before the question of digital impermanence became an issue for historians and librarians. And the issue is more pressing than ever.

Consider the case of a Hari Kunzru short story that Paul Benzon described in an MLA presentation last month. As Julie Meloni  recently recounted, Kunzru had published “A Story Full of Fail” online. Then, deciding instead to find a print home for his piece, Kunzru removed the story from the web. Julie notes that there’s no Wayback Machine version of it, nor is the document in a Google cache. The story has disappeared from the digital world. It’s gone.

Yet I imagine some Kunzru fans are clamoring for the story, and might actually be upset that the rightful copyright holder (i.e. Kunzru) has removed it from their easy digital grasp. The web has trained us to want everything and to want it now. We have been conditioned to expect that if we can’t possess the legitimate object itself, we’ll be able to torrent it, download it, or stream it through any number of digital channels.

We are archivists, all of us.

But must everything be permanent?

Must we insist that every cultural object be subjected to the archive?

What about the fine art of disappearance? Whether for aesthetic reasons, marketing tactics, or sheer perversity, there’s a long history of producing cultural artifacts that consume themselves, fade into ruin, or simply disappear. It might be a limited issue LP, the short run of a Fiestaware color, or a collectible Cabbage Patch kid. And these are just examples from mass culture.

Must everything be permanent?

In the literary world perhaps the most well-known example is William Gibson’s Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), a 300-line poem published on a 3.5″ floppy in 1992 that was supposed to erase itself after one use. Of course, as Matthew Kirschenbaum has masterfully demonstrated, Gibson’s attempt at textual disintegration failed for a number of reasons. (Indeed, Matt’s research has convinced me that Kunzru’s story hasn’t entirely disappeared from the digital world either. It’s somewhere, on some backup tape or hard drive or series of screen shots, and it would take only a few clicks for it to escape back into everyday circulation).

I have written before about the fugitive as the dominant symbolic figure of the 21st century, precisely because fugitivity is nearly impossible anymore. The same is now true of texts. Fugitive texts, or rather, the fantasy of fugitive texts, will become a dominant trope in literature, film, art, and videogames, precisely because every text is archived permanently some place, and usually, in many places.

We already see fantasies of fugitive texts everywhere, both high and low: House of Leaves, The Raw Shark Texts, Cathy’s Book, The Da Vinci Code, and so on. But what we need are not just stories about fugitive texts. We need actual texts that are actual fugitives, fading away before our eyes, slipping away in the dark, texts we apprehend only in glimpses and glances. Texts that remind us what it means to disappear completely forever.

The fugitive text stands in defiant opposition to the archive. The fugitive text exists only as (forgive me as I invoke Derrida once more) a trace, a lingering presence that confirms the absence of a presence. I am reminded of the novelist Bill Gray’s lumbering manuscript in DeLillo’s Mao II. Perpetually under revision, an object sought after by his editor and readers alike, Gray’s unfinished novel is a fugitive text.

Mao II is an extended meditation on textual availability and figurative and literal disappearance, but it’s in DeLillo’s handwritten notes for the novel — found ironically enough in the Don DeLillo Papers archive at the University of Texas at Austin — that DeLillo most succinctly expresses what’s at stake:

Reclusive Writer: In the world of glut + bloat, the withheld work of art becomes the only meaningful object. (Spiral Notebook, Don DeLillo Papers, Box 38, Folder 1)

Bill Gray’s ultimate fate suggests that DeLillo himself questions Gray’s strategy of withdrawal and withholding. Yet, DeLillo nonetheless sees value in a work of art that challenges the always-available logic of the marketplace — and of that place where cultural objects go, if not to die, then at least to exist on a kind of extended cultural life support, the archive.

Years ago Bruce Sterling began the Dead Media Project, and I now propose a similar effort, the Fugitive Text Collective. Unlike the Dead Media Project, however, we don’t seek to capture fleeting texts before they disappear. This is not a project of preservation. There shall be no archives allowed. The collective are observers, nothing more, logging sightings of impermanent texts. We record the metadata but not the data. We celebrate the trace, and bid farewell to texts that by accident or design fade, decay, or simply cease to be.

Let the archive be loved. But fugitive texts will become legend.

17 thoughts on “The Archive or the Trace: Cultural Permanence and the Fugitive Text

  1. I’ll keep an eye out for the impermanent from here on. Mentioning DeLillo brought to mind Nicholas Branch from Libra who, sure it’s stretching a bit, is amassing a bit of a fugitive archive of data regarding the JFK assassination. Having not yet read Mao II, would it be beneficial to put Gray’s actions in dialogue w/ Branch’s?

  2. It’s one reason I remained an unreformed canonist: I like the idea that people with taste will, collectively, filter all the ephemeral shit out of the way and make room only for what’s great. (Yeah yeah, there’s all sorts of questions about great, etc.) And while it’s sad that, sometimes, great stuff gets filtered for stupid reasons, it seems to pop back up in fifty, one hundred, two hundred years, and I’m OK with that.

  3. I enjoyed your post, Mark, and have recently been thinking about my own archival tendencies and experiences. My most extensive archive stems from my early teenage years when I discovered R.E.M. In the late ’90s, I spent a few years collecting every live recording of theirs I could find. Although I could never verify this, I think I established what was, at the time at least, one of the most extensive video collections of concerts, interviews, television promos, etc (probably 150-200 hrs worth). At the time, the internet facilitated making contacts but not transferring files. I assembled my archive by contacting fellow traders throughout the world, making copies of cassettes, cds, and videos, and exchanging everything by mail. A few years later, as much of this material became available for download online, I at first felt a sense of betrayal – this wasn’t how bootleg archives were meant to be established. I got over this as it became much easier to update my own archive as needed. I’ll let this observation serve as a record not of a lost text but rather of an archival method on the wane.

    I particularly enjoyed your reference to DeLillo here. Interesting that the note you found at the HRC ends up in the novel spoken by Bill Gray’s assistant (who perhaps just wants to keep the “archive” to himself) to the photographer who wants to catalogue Gray: “…the withheld work of art is the only eloquence left” (67). As DeLillo is wont to do, here he puts an idea he probably wants us to take seriously in the mouth of someone he probably wants us to second guess (Stipe is similar in this regard, mixing his politics with his dumb pop). Given this tendency, DeLillo can be hard to pin down, but I wonder if it’s fair to say that, for him, language is the archive of the trace. This sounds like an overly vague and theoretical thing to say, but I’ll let it suffice for the moment.

    What counts as “fugitive text”? Would you include all concerts never bootlegged? Songs unrecorded? Letters never sent? Is all textuality not in some sense already metadata? Again, I don’t mean to simply be vague and imprecisely theoretical, but it seems like your proposed archive continuously contradicts itself and empties itself out. Isn’t there a certain peace that comes with letting go?

    1. Matt, thanks for your thoughts here. You’re absolutely correct that it’s Scott that formulates this thought about the inaccessible text in Mao II. Scott tells Brita, “Art floats by all the time, part of the common bloat. But if he [Bill Gray] withholds the book. If he keeps the book in typescript and lets it take on heat and light. This is how he renews his claim to wide attention” (pp. 67-68). I agree that DeLillo is hard to pin down, but I always saw Gray’s final withdrawal from the public eye (dying anonymously on a Cypriot ferry) as out-Scotting Scott — taking Scott’s idea about withholding and withdrawal and taking it to the extreme limit.

      I like your questions about what would count as a fugitive text. We’re heading into Borges territory here. And it’s a delightful place to be…”All concerts never bootlegged” All songs never recorded. All letters never written. There’s a short story in there somewhere.

      My initial notion of fugitive texts were those texts that were indeed available, “put down” as it were, but which soon become illegible, unavailable, or lost. I’m still thinking this idea through, and I hope to write some follow-up posts about fugitive texts…

  4. Archival science is a discipline similar to library science. The are graduate programs in this, and a Society of American Archvists, which recently celebrated its 73rd birthday. So people have had these concerns long before Derrida in 1994.

    While the urge to preserve what one collects is commendable, it doesn’t make you an archivist any more than catching lightning bugs in a jar makes you an entomologist. This piece ha a nice sentiment behind it, but misunderstands what it is to be an archivist completely.

  5. An entire long conversation with a long blog post and many comments about cultural impermanence and texts that by accident or design fade, decay, or simply cease to be and not a single recognition or consideration of theatre or performance theory, which have been doing precisely this since before there were books or archives. I think the whole premise of this conversation is problematically based on a very narrow consideration of what a cultural text is. In the end it seems like it proposes a solution for a cultural problem that does not in fact exist, since there are cultural texts that already exactly this kind of experience and fields to study them. Just because they arent on paper, in book form, or stored on a hard drive doesnt mean they arent there.

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