PAD.MA Launch: The Dominant, Residual and Emergent in the Archive by Lawrence Liang
Duration: 00:32:51; Aspect Ratio: 1.778:1; Hue: 13.793; Saturation: 0.329; Lightness: 0.100; Volume: 0.108; Cuts per Minute: 0.761; Words per Minute: 157.816
Summary: Lawrence Liang's paper at the pad.ma launch is titled:
The dominant, residual and emergent in the Imagination of the Archive.
Ashok S: So the first real speaker is Lawrence Liang, who is a legal researcher with the Alternative Law Forum and through his work over the past few years, both in ALF and in collaborations such as this, has become both a friend and a point of reference for many, many of the things that Shaina has just spoken about, in India and elsewhere, but especially in our own context. I would like to welcome Lawrence to give his presentation.
Jnanapravaha, Queens Mansion, Fort, Mumbai
Lawrence L:Thanks Ashok and Shaina and also all the other collaborators. Unlike most film-makers or artists, I'm still not used to seeing myself on screen, so its a little disorienting. Its always a great pleasure to be in Bombay because it's a city full of surprises. I was earlier walking toward Strand, and I didn't realize why people were looking at me like I was some really brave person, till I realized the t-shirt and what was a style statement for me became an act of resistance on the Bombay streets.
(Lawrence is wearing an Amitabh Bachhan t-shirt)
MNS vs Bachhan [1
Lawrence L:But I think its rather important and interesting because in 1975 when Deewar came and changed the landscape of Indian cinema, of course with the most famous lines ever uttered in Hindi cinema, its a good point for us to start because to recount what happens in Deewar, when Amitabh Bachan says "mere paas paisa hai, gaadi hai, bungla hai, tumhaare paas kya hai?" I think today we can appropriately say "Mere paas padma hai".
Watch original: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPk2K0bKOOY
Lawrence L:Its been a highly exciting journey so far and I really look forward to - what is actually the beginning of a journey - I'm going to just spend about 25 minutes or so speaking about the dominant, the residual and the emergent in the imagination of the archive and I take the phrase of course from Raymond Williams' characterization of culture, but but will really take it off into different places.
Lawrence L:In 1994, Jacques Derrida had delivered an important set of lectures which went on to become his rather important book called Archive Fever. Of course true to Derrida's form, a remarkably unreadable book, which one has struggled very hard with because one is doing an archive. But there are two senses in which Derrida speaks about the archive fever - in the first, he looks at it beginning from the etymological understanding of the word Archive, which comes from the word "archeon", which very interestingly for a lawyer like me, referred to the house of the magistrate, or the official place in which documents were stored, and in many ways, that is the dominant image of the archive, as the centralized place of surveillance, data generation, etc. which is inaccessible.
Lawrence L: And for Derrida, the "fever" really referred to this very establishment of state power and authority via the archive. The second manner in which Derrida uses the phrase "Archive Fever" is actually to our feverish desire - a kind of sickness unto death, that Derrida indicates - for the archive. A fever that is not so much to enter it as it is to have it. Not so much to use it as to have it. And an obsessive desire, at least in the west, for a return to origins.
Lawrence L:Now this invocation of archive fever by Derrida became an interesting and important turning point for a number of people. And I want to refer and use the work of Carolyn Steedman, a historian, who takes Derrida's notion of archive fever and then plays the ultimate deconstructionist joke on it. So, rather than taking archive fever as a metaphor, Carolyn Steedman actually takes archive fever in its literal sense, and uncovers an entire history of fevers and of dust, and of dust that emanates from the archive.
Lawrence L:My talk today will actually focus and use Steedman's very important book called "Dust, The Archive and Cultural History". And I want to actually read out a rather longish portion from her because I think it is beautifully written, where she says ..
Lawrence L:Actually, archive fever comes on at night - long after the archive has closed down for the day. Typically, fever - more precisely, the precursor of fever, the feverlet - starts in the early hours of the morning, in the bed of a cheap hotel, where the historian cannot go to sleep - you cannot get to sleep because you lie so narrowly in order to avoid contact with anything that isn't shielded by sheets and pillow-case - the first sign then is an excessive attention to the bed and residual anxiety about the hundreds who have slept there before you, leaving their dust and debris in the fibres of the blankets, greasing the surface of the heavy, slippery coverlet. The dust of others and of other times, fills the room, settles on the carpet, marks out the sticky passage from bed to bathroom..
Lawrence L:This symptom - worrying about in the bed is a screaming anxiety. What keeps you awake - the sizzling, and starch in the thin sheets dissolving, as you turn again and again within their confines, is actually the archive, and the myriads of its dead who have pressed their concerns upon you. You think, "these people have left me the lot, each one washboard and doormat purchased, sauce-pans, soups, mirrors, newspapers, ounces of cinnamon, dozens of lemon, each penny handed to a poor child, the minute agreement concerning how long a servant must work to get the great quote you provide him at the hiring - clothes-peg, fat hog need the exact expenditure on spirits in one year, the price of papering a room as you turn, in the spring of 1802, from tenant farmer, with lime-washed walls, into gentleman, with gentlemen's residence - everything...
Lawrence L:Not a purchase made, not a thing acquired that is not noted and recorded, you think, "I could hate these people and I can never do these people justice, and finally I shall never get it done.. ", for the fever usually comes on at the end of the penultimate day in the record office. Archive fever lasts between 16 and 24 hours, sometimes longer, with an aftermath of weeks, rather than days. You think, in the delirium, it was their dust that I breathed in - archive fever indeed, I can tell you all about archive fever.
Lawrence L:So Carolyn Steedman actually notes and documents the field of the 19th century when alll of a sudden, the entire of industrial, or occupational diseases began to emerge. And one of the major causes for the diseases that was noted by her - dust, or vapours, which resulted in all forms of illnesses. So in the Encyclopedia of Practical Medicine in 1833, John Forbes defines a new category of industrial diseases called the "diseases of artisans" and the diseases of artisans has a very curious listing under it, called the "diseases of literary men", which is basically a disease of scholars. So, the disease of literary men, stacked rather uncannily under the heading of the Diseases of Artisans, and for 30 years or so, an entire range of occupational hazards were understood to be caused by the activity of scholarship, and particularly historical scholarship.
These originated, according to Forbes, from the want of any excersize, very frequently, from breathing the same atmosphere for too long and from the curved position of the body and from too ardent an excersize of the brain.
Lawrence L:Now, a number of people in this room would nod appreciatingly at this recognition of their malady right in the 1830s. Forbes argues that this condition results in brain fever, which is attributed to a highly excited state of the nervous system, which results in an increased or irregular action of the arteries in the brain. Subsequent scholarship, of course, took this rather exciting account and made it boring, by providing a bacteriological account of brain fever. But what they did not ignore though, and what they remembered to recognize, was that the cause of brain fever was very curiously and very often, the book - that very source from which the author derived, as it were, the cause of his fever.
Lawrence L:In particular, it was discovered that Anthrax spread through leather, since leather-working provided the optimum conditions for the development of spores, and none of the leather cures that were used to preserve hides were good enough to destroy the Anthrax infection, because if the temperature was too high to eliminate the spores it would also destroy the hide itself.
Lawrence L:So, in the same period where you have the discovery of the indestructability of the Anthrax spore, you also have the entire establishment, by archivists, of the fact that books were gradually deteriorating, particularly books that had been bound in a particular form of leather, which is gradually decaying into dust and into a red powder, so this is a very interesting instance - so powdering, red decay, red rot, which are familiar terms to archivists, was also at the same time, the cause, or the spread as it were, of various forms of illnesses, but particularly Anthrax. And this is the time when, Jules Michelet, who is considered the father of Modern French Social history ,etc. - Michelet, as we know is someone who is considered to have totally reconstituted the discipline of history, taking it away from the aristocracy and constituting it a new subjective history called "the people" or the poor.
Lawrence L:When the young Michelet wrote about his days in the archive - in those catacombs of archives that made up the archives of Paris in the 1920s - he wrote of restoring papers and parchments to the light of day by breathing in their dust. So this "breathing in their dust" was not just a figure of speech but very literally a description of a physiological process. He writes "it is the historians act of inhalation that gives life. These papers and parchments so long deserted, desired no better than to be restored to the light of day. As I breathed in their dust, I saw them rise up.
Lawrence L:Barthez writing about this description of Michelet says that of course now in retrospect we know that it was not only life that he was breathing, but it was equally death that he had been breathing and this relationship between dust, death and the archive is something that fascinates me. I want to take a little bit from Steedman's joke on Derrida and try to see how she in turn produces a new metaphor which we may then productively use when thinking about something like the digital archive.
Lawrence L:Steedman says, "there is not a way in which history, and the work of historians and history writing could operate differently. There is everything, or everything - the great undifferentiated past, all of it - which is not history, but just stuff. The smallest fragments of its representation nearly always in some kind of written language, ends up in various kinds of archives and record offices. From that, we make history, which is never what was there once upon a time - there was only stuff, fragments and dust.
Lawrence L:And in his contemplation of Michelet, Ranciere also says, "There is history because there is the past and a specific passion for the past and there is history because there is an absence. The status of history depends on the treatment of this two-fold absence of the "thing" itself, no longer there, that is in the past, and that never was, because it was never as such as it was told. Ranciere argues that Michelet did not just contribute to a new form of the writing of social history, but an entirely new poetics of knowledg itself through a reconstitution of the archive, and through such reconstitution, an entire reconstitution of the subject of history.
Lawrence L:There have been similar claims made about Foucault and his innovative use and diagonal readings, as it were, of the archives. In reworking Derrida's metaphor, I believe Carolyn Steedman has actually contributed a new metaphor for us to think about - namely, dust, residue and fragments, as forms that are central to the imagination of the archive and our relationship to history and to knowledge.
Lawrence L:As she says, you think, in the delirium, its their dust that I breathe in. And one can recall Benjamin's famous statement that history is above and beyond all official narratives - the haunting claim of the dead upon the living. So this concern with a certain ephemeral form - the leather binding and the books that are crumbling - is again, I would imagine, exactly the concern that has motivated us to get together - a concern with an ephemeral form that pays attention to the vanishing present as much as it pays attention to the forms in which the present vanishes.
Lawrence L:The archive in that sense for us is a completely contingent form that does not pre-exist history, but is a form that has to be constantly re-invented as technology progresses, etc. So when we think of the archive as a form with a potential to pull toward a certain taxonomy as it normally has been in the case of the National Archive's imagination, then the opposite is equally true - of the archive as a certain form of incompleteness, where to think of the archive as a form of incompleteness becomes relevant to our context and our times.
Lawrence L:So, I want to take on this idea of residue and build on it a little more. To think about what we may think about when it comes to the world of image making. And I'd like to quote from a friend's piece which is on residue - "The extraction of value form any material, place, thing or person involves a process of refinement. During this process the object in question will undergo a change, separating into atleast two substances - an extract and a residue.
Lawrence L:With respect to residue, it may be said that it is that which never finds its way into the manifest narrative of how something - an object, a person, a state or a state of being is produced, or comes into existance. It is the accumulation of all that is left behind when value is extracted. There are no histories of residue, no atlases of abandonment, no memoirs of what a person was, but could not be. In the contemporary era that we live in with the manic logic of global capital and the generation of new forms of value, whether in special economic zones, or it is in the intellectual property, etc. you have this massive generation of value and ofcourse, along with it, the massive generation of dust and rubble, with new buildings and a whole lot of residue alongside.
Lawrence L: Now this new mode of generation of value is also creating as it were, new forms of life, while rendering at the same time existing or present forms of life completely inhabitable. And yet we must remember that the lesson of modernity has been that the residue of modernity always comes back in the form of some kind of a return of the repressed to haunt us and to make haunting claims of the dead upon us. Carbon monoxide which was emitted out of the residues of modernity comes back to haunt us as the pressing concern of the 21st century - global warming.
Lawrence L:The political impulse then, of a project of thinking about an archives of the contemporary, lies in this zone. In the zone of "How do we think through the constant production of residue, and how do we think through the residual when we think about the world of image making". When you take into account the staggering number that accounts for image making in the contemporary, every year there are 9 billion hours of images being produced. That is an incredible amount. If you were to divide that according to the number of hours in a year (8760), you get approximately a million hours being produced every hour, globally, including all kinds of images like surveillance cameras, etc.
Lawrence L: So how do we think about this staggering fact and the world of image-making that's there and think about it in terms of the idea of residue? What is indeed the residue, as it were, of image-making? If I were to look at the residue of image making or of film, and look at what surplus in the case of film could be, there are three ways I can think about it.
Lawrence L: The first one is, particularly in the case of documentary film makers, the idea of raw footage being the surplus of narrative. So residue is left behind after an aesthetic or political choice is made about how a particular film will be and the entire footage that is not used is a certain kind of residue. The second would be an inherent surplus that resides in the power of the image that exceeds the intentionality of the film maker. No matter what the film maker intended with his/her image, there will always be a residual meaning-making possibility from that particular image.
Lawrence L: The 3rd would be, again in the case of documentary film makers, an excess in the image during the moment of capturing which we may have been unintended or almost accidental, whether its ambient noise, or ambient images, there is always an excess, even at the moment of the capturing. So how do we think of the idea of dust, residue and fragments when thinking about this entire intense excess in the world of image-making itself. How do we think about our relationship to forms of histories that may be possible through a re-writing, or a re-visiting of this history of dust, fragments and residue?
Lawrence L:If documentary film has always had at its heart, an attempt to articulate the relationship between the human subject and the historical past as mediated through different kind of technologies of memory, then one of the greatest challenges of the digital era, when everything in a sense is almost completely overwhelmed and outnumbered by digital documentation. The challenge for us is to find new ways of sorting through these traces and to try and figure out new ways of encountering and articulating the past. An Archive of footage, for example, is an attempt to engage the archive in various ways, such that they dramatize the larger shifts taking place in our cultural and theoretical conception of history itself.
Lawrence L: If you were to think of the first form of film making as the residue of narrative, the archive could also be thought and argued out as that which provides a narrative form to the residual images that exist all around us. The archive then serves through the choices of what you include and exclude from the archive to actually create a narrative arguement and a narrative possibility for residual images. So databases and archives are in a sense the important narrative form of the 21st century. One of the attempts of Padma archive is to actually articulate in greater detail as to what this narrative may look like. It is very uncertain to us at the moment, but we believe there is a potential there for the archive to serve as a particular kind of narrative form. One of our attempts is to actually push that experiment.
Lawrence L: The second is, how do these various fragments - fragments of worthless rubbish - as it were, that which did not find life in a narrative form or was considered to be thrown out of the domain of value. How do we create a new value out of that? One of the forms that is interesting for us to explore, is the practise of writing upon film. Writing upon film has always been a domain of a particular kind of practitioner - the film historian, the film critic, the film scholar, etc. But increasingly, in the world of the internet with technologies like wikipedia, etc. where the line between the writer and the producer was completely dissolved, what does it mean to think about writing upon film and the experiment of using annotations as that which actually provides a new value to residual images, is something that is central to the imagination of the Padma Archive.
Lawrence L: It would be conceited for us to think of this as some kind of new experiment we are undertaking. I quote Charles Lamb who wrote an essay about Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge had a particularly bad reputation among people, as someone who would deface books. People were always worried about lending books to Coleridge because it would come back with Coleridge's annotations all over the place. Charles Lamb, in a passionate defence of Coleridge's excessive handwriting practices, "Reader, if haply thou art blessed with a moderate collection, be shy of showing it; or if thy heart overfloweth to lend them, lend thy books; but let it be to such a one as S. T. C. - he will return them (generally anticipating the time appointed) with usury: enriched with annotations, tripling their value. I have had many experiences. Many are these precious annotations of his - (in matter oftentimes, and almost in quantity not unfrequently, vying with the originals) - in no very clerkly hand -- legible in my Daniel: in old Burton; in Sir Thomas Browne; and those abstruser cogitations of the Greville, now, alas! wandering in Pagan lands. ---- I counsel thee, shut not thy heart, nor thy library, against S. T. C."
Lawrence L: I think the Padma Archive builds on a certain similar plea, of allowing a certain other or 3rd person to visit your material to be able to provide a certain value to it which you may not have thought actually existed or which you have taken out of the circulation of value itself. The third way in which we can think about the making of value upon an archive is to think about how the experience of scattering - Scattered images all over the world from youtube, to NDTV, to DVDs, to pirated or downloaded films, etc. - this experience of scattering all around is the central impulse of the archive has always been to kind of centralize and pull together the scattered material.
Lawrence L: One of the experiments that is of interest to us: how do you work with a form that does not necessarily think about bringing everything under a central archive, but really think in terms of exploring how the world of scattered images can also produce new forms of relationality, new forms of meaning, etc. To encounter the familiar in an unfamiliar context. A familiar, for eg, rendered uncanny by the annotations that exist. How do we allow for those kinds of possibilities and what kinds of historical imagination does this produce. Michelet, through his writing of social history, produced a new subject of history called "The People". What does it mean to think about enabling or opening out new ways of thinking about our relation to a vanishing past, vanishing present, as well as the form in which it vanishes.
Lawrence L: These are some of the central concerns. One of the ways in which this question of the scattered object has been addressed, is of course, in the history of the 19th century in the works of the great historian, Walter Benjamin. Benjamin invokes a range figures. The figures that are of immediate interest to us are the collector and the rag-picker. Benjamin writing about a time when commodities really overwhelming everyone and the fetishization of commodities all around. Benjamin takes on the figure of the rag-picker and the collector in a way to bring back a new life as it were of the object beyond its commodity status.
Lawrence L: I want to talk about 2 collectors and wind up my talk. This is my 'A Tale of Two Collectors' and pyrophobia...because of the fear of the ...(running late) if the traditional fear of the archive has been dust, the fear of the film historian has been fire. My first story is about Henri Langlois, who started seriously around the late '30s. Through his collection and film-club he realised that one of the great tragedies that had happened was various fires that destroyed early cinema, early silent cinema in particular. He decided that he needed to start the Cinemathque as an attempt to preserve what he thought was extremely valuable history. Valuable at a time when no one ever thought that film would be considered an object of any value at all or in place of historical context.
Lawrence L: Langlois started his entire film collection in his bath tub, very appropriate for someone who is afraid of fire. He started collecting from all around. He would beg, borrow, steal. He was called a pirate by a number of people because producers felt that there was a problem with this archivist storing material for which he did not really have permission. Over a time he became a legendary figure. In 1968 when he was sacked by Monroe, the Minister of culture, there was an uproar. All the film makers were up in arms. Charles de Gaulle in 1968 famously asks the question, rather rhetorically: "Who is Henry Langlois?"
Lawrence L: The answer I provide is by Jean Renoir who says: "We owe to Henri Langlois and Mary Meerson the development of a certain passion for film... I am sure that many young people who are more or less interested in me would never have heard of me without the Cinemathque. The Cinematheque is the church of movies and the best school for young directors. All the good directors of the new wave spent their young years at the Cinematheque watching films to learn how to become a director."
Lawrence L: Langlois felt that the best way to preserve films was to show them. He said that films are like a persian carpet. They have to be walked on to preserve them. In 1968 when Langlois was sacked, students and film makers came out onto the streets, the entire French new wave a couple of whom broke their hand while fighting with the police,etc. Extremely important archivist with a small passion, that of collecting things which didn't seem to be valuable, and with one little phobia - the phobia of fire.
Lawrence L: Which leads me to my other hero who is not as well known, but I think equally as important. This is a story of a painter of signs and collector of books form Madras, a man called Roja Mutthaiya. He was an avid reader and collector. He set up a small business in Madras. While in Madras, he would keep going to places where people would send old books and visual culture. He manically collected anything and everything that he thought would have some kind of historical value....a crazy, eccentric collector. After a period of time, his excesses ensured that he did not have enough money and his business was a complete failure. He returned to Kothayur and started the India Library services, or the India Reading room where for one rupee you would be allowed to access one magazine or one book at a time and you would be given a plate of idlis and hot coffee to go along.
Lawrence L: Roja had a crazy way of sustaining himself because the rest of the family thought he was completely insane and constantly wanted to sell his collections to the raddi walla. So everytime he ran out of money he would look for an old letter in his collection and just take out a stamp and send it to a stamp collector and say that here is a stamp that I'm sending you, just send me whatever money that you may have for it. This kind of mad passion for him was again...a turning point for him again was 1983 when the pogum(?) happens in Sri Lanka. Roja hears about the burning of the library in Jaffna. It completely disturbs him because some of the most important Tamil manuscripts were in that particular library. So he raises money, goes to Jaffna to find that every single document had been burnt. He returned an archivist.
Lawrence L: So he goes as a collector, realises that when he gets back, his task is to start preserving the history of Tamil popular and print culture. Very interestingly, in 1993, Roja offered to sell his entire collection to the State govt for what was a princely sum of five lakhs or so. The state govt refused it and over a period of time the archive was discovered by a few scholars. One particular scholar discovered the archive and informed the University of Chicago about it. University of Chicago bought the archive for one crore, none of which went to Roja because he died of poisoning from DDT that he had sprayed on the books to preserve them against insects. As Michelet said "I breathe in the dust." The re1ationship between the idea of memory, the preservation of the vanishing present and death, as informing as it were, the impulse toward the archive.
(running out of time)
Lawrence L: ...I will end with 2 poems. The first one is by Carlos(?) called Residue:
From everything a little remained.
From my fear. From your disgust.
From stifled cries. From the rose
a little remained.
A little remained of light
caught inside the hat.
In the eyes of the pimp
a little remained of tenderness,
A little remained of the dust
that covered your white shoes.
Of your clothes a little remained,
a few velvet rags, very
From everything a little remained.
From the bombed-out bridge,
from the two blades of grass,
from the empty pack
of cigarettes a little remained.
So from everything a little remains.
A little remains of your chin
in the chin of your daughter.
A little remained of your
blunt silence, a little
in the angry wall,
in the mute rising leaves.
A little remained from everything
in porcelain saucers,
in the broken dragon, in the white flowers,
in the creases of your brow,
in the portrait.
Since from everything a little remains,
why won't a little
of me remain?
And from everything a little remains.
Oh, open the bottles of lotion
the cruel, unbearable odor of memory.
Lawrence L: The second one is by T.S. Elliot and is called Wasteland:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Lawrence L: So we'd welcome you to join us in this project which looks at broken images and re-visiting fear and a handful of dust.