Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Past Performance, Present Dilemma: A Poetics of Archiving Sound

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Past Performance, Present Dilemma: A Poetics of Archiving Sound

Article excerpt

Designated as a site of accumulation, preservation, and order, the archive was traditionally characterized as stagnant and dead. Since the "archival turn" in the early 1990s, theorists and researchers across the disciplines have interrogated perceptions of the archive as a mute space of closure for what has been and what was. Following Foucault's investigations of the archive in The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge, much of this theorizing has sought to locate the archive as a site of enunciation. As Foucault insists, "The archive is first the law of what can be said." Understood as a system that governs enunciability rather than a space that "collects the dust of statements that have become inert once more" (Archaeology 129), it has become possible and even obligatory for researchers to investigate the archive by questioning what it says rather than what it holds, making speech and enunciability dominant metaphors through which to theorize the archive.

The introductions to two recent collections of essays on the archive exemplify the shift from looking to the archive for written traces of the past to listening to the archive in the present. In Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, Antoinette Burton explains, "the burden of this collection is not to show that archives tell stories but rather to illustrate that archives are always already stories: they produce speech and its effects, of which history is but one" (20). Notably, Burton, a historian by training, approaches the archive as both a historian and an ethnographer. Her collection promises and delivers what she describes as "self-conscious ethnographies" of the archive (6). The adoption of ethnography as a methodology for investigating the archive is consistent with the move to understand the archive as something living rather than dead, and indeed, something inhabited by speaking subjects who may talk back, deny access, or simply demand that researchers listen. In Archives, Documentation, and Institutions of Social Memory: Essays from the Sawyer Seminar, Francis X. Blouin Jr. and William G. Rosenberg also emphasize the archive's active and living status, variously describing it as a scene of "social imagination" and a "site of constant creativity, a place where identities are formed" and people "imagine themselves becoming" (viii-ix). Notably, silence has also become a dominant metaphor through which to investigate the archive. As Blouin and Rosenberg observe, "Silences in the archive can affect understandings as much or more than the words and pictures that create and re-create our images of the past and hence our sense of who we have become and why" (viii). The decision to adopt an auditory rather than visual metaphor may not be unique, but it is significant. ("Hidden documents in the archive" has a very different implication than "silences in the archive.") Their emphasis on silence, like Burton's emphasis on speech, is part of a shared attempt to re-imagine the archive in relation to absence and presence, writing and speech, and, as I will discuss shortly, the archive and the repertoire.

While much has been written about the archive as a site of enunciability and a site of articulate silences, most of this theorizing remains highly metaphoric. To write about the archive in relation to sound has become one way to highlight the archive's status as an active site of knowledge and cultural production. Considerably less critical attention has been paid to the archive that literally speaks, as is true in the case of a sound archive. This paper explores the challenges and possibilities of archiving sound. How does one archive sound? Can we even imagine archiving the evanescent? What happens when the archive is literally transformed into a scene of performance and noise--is such a space still an archive, or do attempts to archive sound push up against the archive's limits? What restricts our ability to explore the full possibilities of a sound archive--is it our technological limits or a stubborn attachment to what the archive is and ought to be? …

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