On “the archive” and “the ephemeral”– a follow up to Matthew Kirschenbaum’s “Bitstreams”

In his talk titled, “Bitstreams: Locating the Literary in the Media Archive,” Matthew Kirschenbaum interrogated the term “archive”. His talk was partially in response to two pieces of scholarship in the digital humanities, Wendy Hui Kyun Chun’s “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future is Memory”, which discusses how that which was once ephemeral is not due to media technologies, and also Wolfgang Ernst’s text titled, “Media Archaeography: Method and Machine Versus the History and Narrative of Media” which discusses how scholars can take an archaeological approach to technology or how we can consider what cultural factors allow media to be transcribed and the significance of those transcriptions.

To return to Kirschenbaum, he began his talk by noting that Derrida used the term “archive” to point to origins and memory. On the pages of The American Archivist, it was also noted that archival practice is increasingly institutionalized, that it growing at an exponential volume, that many records are simply missing and many archivalists struggle with the sheer number of authors and potential technological complications that come with contemporary archival work. What will be obama_1118825ado with President Obama’s Blackberry or our own family photos on Instagram? There is anxiety that surrounds this sort of abundance. Whereas an archive used to be a noun, now it is a verb—“to archive” means to back up data, to move something from more accessible to less accessible at another time.

In response to this abundance and these concerns, Kirschenbaum pointed toward the emerging discourse of “media archaeology.” For examarchive2-300x289ple, the Internet Archive is an archive of the internet on the internet, where bygone websites, games, and images can be explored. The IA also includes executable software that may not be available to experience elsewhere. The only problem with viewing these .exe files on a computer is that the bitstreams are not compatible and the browser may flatten the effect of these files.

Is any media processed through digital technology truly ephemeral? What is the changing nature of the archive in the face of the kinds of widespread digitization and in the face of the digital anxiety about data? The digital and the print aspects of the literary are combined in a contemporary context. A book is created using digital tools. When we archive the works of literary figures, we can consider how digital artifacts will be combined with that archival process.

The questioning of the ephemeral in this context brought up questions of trauma. Are there things that one has the right to forget? Should Facebook have the right to showcase our memories? This questionable ephemerality also pointed to the “screenshot economy” where questionable media events are impossible to erase because of users taking screenshots. An example of this “economy” would be when celebrities create inflammatory tweets and then attempt to remove them, but traces of the tweet exist because of users who screenshot the offense such as the recent event with Donald Trump tweeting about Ted Cruz.

Additional discussion centered on the archive itself. What is an archive able to do? What is it expected to do? In the age of increased digitization, there is a desire for the archive to simulate an experience of the past as well as preserve the data from that past event. It may be that experience of a medium in full authenticity that is ephemeral. We can use a bygone software, but can we recreate the experience of using that software on its original platform?

Kirschenbaum pointed us towards possible conversations that could be taking place between archival communities, archaeological communities and literary communities. With increasing awareness of the significance of materiality and the increasing number of digital collections, more discourse will definitely take place.


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