Critical Theory + Empirical Practice: “The Archive” as Bridge

James William Baker (, University of Sussex, United Kingdom and Caroline Bassett (, University of Sussex, United Kingdom and David Berry (, University of Sussex, United Kingdom and Sharon Webb (, University of Sussex, United Kingdom and Rebecca Wright (, University of York, United Kingdom

Digital humanities can be understood as a “trading zone” between different disciplinary traditions (McCarty, 2003). Critical theory and empirical practice may appear to operate at different extremes of research enterprise, and yet – as our panel seeks to demonstrate – the notion of “the archive” can function as a bridge between them, as a pathway or method between the trading zones. For us, the bridge has its strongest resonances in that academic endeavour where “the archive” is most revered, where it is used as a rite of passage, a marker of authority buried in footnotes: history writing. In this incarnation “the archive” often represents physical buildings with physical holdings.

And yet this version of “the archive” is as much imagined as it is real, a particular articulation or incantation of mid-nineteenth century state bureaucracy woven into the mystic of archival research, a place of dust, labour, boredom, and very occasional discovery (Steedman, 2006). Most archives do not conform to this incantation, not only because buildings with physical holdings that call themselves archives are not all remnants of mid-nineteenth century state bureaucracy, but also because many archives are not buildings and the holdings of many archives are not physical: instead they are lofts, shoeboxes, and server racks; web pages, word documents, and digital media. Here then, archives are much more and much less than buildings with physical holdings.

This latter bridge might seem less assured, “the archive” in this form might invoke gephyrophobia in some users, but – in the work of our panel – it has proven vital in traversing between critical theory and empirical practice (Berry 2017). Constituting contributions individuals from a range of traditions – critical theory, historical research, information science – our papers explore ways in which a critical-digital conception of the archive shines light on topics as diverse as the historical method, the responsibilities of researchers, the politics of technology and how the archive can help the empirical and the critical talk to each other.

Each short paper is presented by a faculty member of the Sussex Humanities Lab: a unique venture based at the University of Sussex, a digital humanities lab that takes an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to digital research in the humanities, and includes a multi-disciplinary grouping of researchers in philosophy and information technology, history and archaeology, media and communications, music and performance technology, and sociology that is dedicated to developing and expanding research into how digital technologies are shaping our culture and society:

  • James Baker is Lecturer in Digital History and Archives. James cares about how people in the past interacted with things.
  • Caroline Bassett is Professor of Media and Communications and Director of the Sussex Humanities Lab. Her current work explores anti-computing.
  • David M. Berry is Professor of Digital Humanities. His new work examines the historical and philosophical genealogies of the notion of an “Idea of a University” and how they are relevant in a digital age.
  • Ben Jackson (panel chair) is a Research Fellow in Digital Humanities (Library)
    . His interests include computer graphics, 3d modelling, and archival systems.
  • Sharon Webb is Lecturer in Digital Humanities. Her current research interests include community archives and identity, social network analysis (method and theory), and research data management.
  • Rebecca Wright is Research Fellow at the University of York and a Sussex Humanities Lab Associate. In 2017 she was a Research Fellow in Mass Observation at the Sussex Humanities Lab examining energy practices and digital methodologies within the Mass Observation archive.

Missing Dust: Born Digital Archives and the Historical Method – James Baker

The advent of the personal computer catalysed the second major break in production of Western manuscripts. These machines, interactions with which consolidated around WIMP-like Windows interfaces during the early- to mid- 1990s, rendered the manuscript anew. Hitherto physically and ontologically unique, the manuscript in the age of the personal computer increasingly did not exist as a physical object and was infinitely reproducible.

These ‘born digital’ archives have been accessioned, catalogued, and maintained by archivists for two decades. Personal papers have been archived using forensic approaches that capture documents (and the file and operating systems on which they are contained) as bitstreams and that interrogate documents for their forensic features: system metadata, deleted passages. Work by Kirschenbuam (2016), Reside (2011), and Reis (2017) has brought these born-digital archives into the purview of literary scholars and raised questions about analysis of contemporary literature. Little comparable work has focused on the historical method, on the implications of born digital archives for questions and problems common in History.

This paper describes three cases studies of empirical work that attempt bring the methodological challenges and opportunities created by born digital archives to the attention of historians: to bridge a gap between archival practice and historical research. First, a workshop organised in partnership with the Wellcome Library (London) at which a small group of contemporary historians – selected for their range of interests and expertise within the field – were invited to browse, interact with, and reflect on their encounters with born digital archives (e.g., born digital manuscript materials created by the geneticist Ian Dunham between 1997 and 2006). Here attention is paid to the applicability of existing methods, questions, and concerns (Sloyan et al, 2018). Second, a training event on forensic capture of data storage devices. This pedagogical activity used the BitCurator software suite to prompt historians into considering what a record, a series, and an archive are in the context of hard, floppy, and flash storage as repositories of archival materials. Third, archival research using the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex: an anthropological initiative that has, since 1981, issued each year three Directives (a series of questions about a social, political, or everyday subject) to hundreds of UK-based volunteer writers. This work explored how people in Britain between 1991 and 2004 talked about writing and archiving on personal computers, their excitement and anxiety about these processes, and how their perception of self was refracted through their encounters with the machines they used to make documents. Here, attention focuses on the tensions between contemporary observations of behaviour and behaviour observed in the examination of born digital archives.

Together, these case studies address a series of problematics about historical work in the age of born digital archives: Do born digital manuscripts disrupt and undermine assumptions around historical practice? Does the manuscript remain a relevant source category when that manuscript is born digital? How can archival professions validate authority through infinitely reproducible documents that leave no (or few) physical traces? What might replace dust in how historians feel and imagine the archive?

The Bridge: Accretion as the Principle of The Hybrid Archive – Caroline Bassett

William Gibson’s 1994 science fiction novel
Virtual Light, explores the end of cyberspace and the beginning of what was later termed the post-digital. At its heart is a bridge – a passage point, a habitation, and a player – which startles with its impossible geometry: “The integrity of its span was rigorous as the modern program itself, yet around this had grown another reality, intent upon its own agenda. This had occurred piecemeal, to no set plan, employing every imaginable technique and material. The result was something amorphous, startlingly organic.”

Virtual Light was notable at the time because it pointed to the beginning of a transition from cyberpunk and the internet dream of disembodied virtuality to something more quotidian; the digital as the taken for granted, the fabric of the every day. But the bridge is also – at least in part – a heterotopia. It celebrates the opportunities arising, the pace between territories where many kinds of activity are possible, and where these activities make a difference. The bridge is a hybrid construction; through the central span the project of planning, order, and control endures – but what has been added, soldered, sutured on, has become integral. The result is something amorphous; a matter of rigorous structure and
ad hoc accretion, an architecture comprehending organization and improvisation, mathematics and poetics. The bridge stands because something long-standing still stands, and the bridge is changed through additions that do not so much challenge this structure, but mutate it, and mutate with it.

The bridge might be understood as a microcosm of the archive today, exhibiting in its fictional structure the monstrously barnacled form this now takes. Many studies of archives in a digital age focus on either on the barnacles or the inner structure, on professional archives and archiving or on the actions and practices of community or
ad hoc archivists. Taking its inspiration from Gibson’s bridge, which also becomes an empirical object of study, this paper sets out to focus on what is generated between them. Specifically, this is explored through a consideration of archiving practices in science fiction – where the formal economy of the official archive, explored through a critical exploration of genre, is complemented by a study of the
ad hoc collection practices of the informal reader economy. The intention is to use this to explore the hybrid archive as a new cultural form and in particular to conceptualize the distribution or organisation within it of expertise on the one hand, and authority and power on the power.

De-Archiving the Archive – David M. Berry

The traditional pre-digital structure of archives and practices of archivization were captured and stabilized through memory institutions such as museums, national libraries, universities and national archives, often funded by the state. These institutions provided an organizational form and institutional structure which made possible a political economy for archives as such and hence an economic stability to archives. Institutions provided a decision-making centre around the collection of archives, in essence an institutionalized archivization process that performed judgment in combination with curatorial functions. Indeed, the archive became defined as a preselected quantity of artifacts evaluated according to their worth for being preserved. The structure of traditional institutional arrangements around the archive was legitimated through a complex chain of practices and institutionalizations that authorized decisions to be taken about what of the present (and past) should be kept and what should be discarded. In contrast, in an age when digital technologies are delegated greater responsibility for a collection, computational rationalities are increasingly granted the task of archiving and re-presenting materials, through computational analytics and user data, the archive creates a second-order archive. Indeed, we are faced with new archival machines that demand a different social ontology but also a different way of exploring and interacting with archives. These new gateways to social memory are manifested in algorithms that instantiate a new archival imaginary – a new archival constellation that is constantly in motion, modulated and mediated. The digital creates a different kind of collection: digital archives are much more malleable and reconfigurable, and do not necessarily need to conform to traditional archives’ organizational structures or systems. This new possibility of “infinite archives” create their own specific problems, particularly in born-digital and digitized collections, such as huge quantities of articles, texts and “Big Data” suddenly made available combined with the ability to generate comprehensive and exhaustive archives rather than curated ones. Computation therefore threatens to
de-archive the archive
, disintermediating the memory institutions and undermining the curatorial functions associated with archives. Many of the concerns of humanists have reflected an uncertainty about what the loss (or change) of archives might mean – although of course this could also reflect a loss of paper-ish culture – especially where medial changes imply epistemic change. In changing the structure of archives, and the memory institutions that curate and store them, computation renders them anew through a grammatization process which discretizes and re-orders. This process can be as simple as the infinitely re-orderable process of creating a database. It is also amenable to spatial planning and algorithmic analysis that presents the opportunity for a logic of objectification. This is the recasting of the material world into the shapes dictated by computational analysis or computational processes. Through the principles of instrumentality, partially embedded in computational systems, but also in the neoliberal order that legitimates through principles of performativity, efficiency and a political economy of value, forces action on the archive to conform and interoperate. It is here, crucially, that critical theory can contribute to cultural critique of computational forms of archival logics.

Community Archives, Preservation and Practice – Sharon Webb

The University of Sussex, home of the Sussex Humanities Lab (SHL), sits just outside the seaside town of Brighton. South of London, Brighton boasts a rich, varied and complex LGBTQ+ history. It is a place of celebration for all things queer, as well as a place for vocal and energetic activist movements. In addition to its queer identity, Brighton is also hub of digital innovation, and annually hosts the Brighton Digital Festival (indeed a number of SHL members actively participate in this event). It is within this context, Brighton as a cultural and innovation hub, that this paper will discuss the fourth paradigm of archival theory, as both inherently “digital” and community driven, using Brighton as a case study. It will consider the development and creation of community archives, specifically LGBTQ+, both as a challenge to archival practice and theory, and as an opportunity.

The fourth archival turn or ‘paradigm’ (Cook, 2013) can be seen as both a response to official archival practices and policies that have failed in the past to represent, comprehensively, the narrative and history of minority groups in society. It can also be seen as an affect and influence of the Internet and digital methods which create opportunities for communities to create and manage their own representation in the digital, public, record. Cook states,

…community is the key concept…of the fourth archival paradigm now coming into view, a democratizing of archives suitable for the social ethos, communication patterns, and community requirements of the digital age. (Cook 2013:116)

In effect, community pressures and the opportunities afforded by digital environments are pushing the boundaries of previous definitions of an “archive”. Indeed, as we know, the Digital Humanities community have had a significant influence on these developments. Archives, that is digital ones, create a bridge between the formal structures that the humanities have traditionally accessed sources, knowledge, and reason. A digital archive is a place where we manifest discourse, memory, and importantly, create and reinforce community – communities of scholars, communities of users and specific communities self-identified by common interests, values, etc. (i.e. LGBTQ+ communities).

Brighton, as a case study, provides important examples of how communities generated and reinforce identity through archival practices. Projects like BrightonOurStory (now defunct physical archive), Queer in Brighton (Oral histories, LGBTQ History Club), Into the Outside (Photographic exhibitions), Brighton Transformed (Oral Histories) create memory and meaning through work that captures and records a specific community memory.

This presentation will consider tensions between these community driven endeavours and their capacity to support projects in the long-term, especially with regards to digital preservation. It will use the loss of the BrightonOurStory Archive (1989-2013) as a reminder of our responsibilities as researchers to these archival projects, and to think further about ‘community requirements [in] the digital age’.

Media Imprints within the Digital Interface: Typewriting Mass Observation Online – Rebecca Wright

This paper examines how the digital politicizes medium within the historical archive. Through a critical analysis of
Mass Observation Online
(MOO) (the online portal of the Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex) the paper will assess how Optical Character Recognition (OCR) has established a new hierarchy within a key archive of British social memory—centred around the typewriter. In doing so, the paper will address the historical contingency of media and the historiographical issues at stake when media structures digital archives.

Mass Observation (MO) was founded in 1937 to conduct a form of reverse anthropology observing the ordinary people of Great Britain. Democratic in mission (if not always in practice) the organisation developed a national panel of over 700 Observers to record the intricacies of everyday life. The digital interface of MOO, however, is undermining the democratic promise of MO by elevating type (which consists 30% of materials produced by the national panel) over the larger collection of materials written by hand. This has occurred because typewritten documents remain the only ones to have been OCRd for digital text. Due to the impact of the availability and quality of OCR text on research results (Hitchcock 2013), a new economy of representation has developed based not on what Observers wrote, but what they wrote in.

The elevation of one medium is not without consequences for our understanding of MO materials. After all, as media archaeologists such as Friedrich Kittler and Marshall McLuhan taught us media is never neutral but embedded in the politics of identity, form, and representation. Typewriting during the inter-war period was connected to wider historical forces, including changes in white-collar work, gender roles and new cultures of representation. Important historiographical issues, therefore, are at stake in foregrounding medium for how we understand the nature of the MO project: from the constitution of the national panel, to the self-identity of Observers, the form of written materials, and the structure of life-writing. The digital has thus forced us to confront how medium transformed which, what, and how Observers wrote.

These issues will only be exacerbated when the New Mass Observation Project (MOP), restarted in 1981, is digitised. The historical contingency of media will be translated into the context of the early information age that embraced handwriting, typewriting, word processing and the PC—each with their own challenges for OCR software—re-working rankings within the archive.

This paper will thus use the example of MOO to examine how the digital is forcing historians to pay more attention to the site of production of our historical documents to consider how medium shapes our source materials and in turn the material interfaces of the digital archive. Drawing on critical frameworks from media archaeology it will ask how the media of source materials and digital interfaces is merging in new ways to re-work the politics of the archive and social memory.

Appendix A

  1. Berry, D. M., and Fagerjord A. (2017).
    Digital Humanities: Knowledge and Critique in a Digital Age
    . Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017.
  2. Cook, T. (2013). “Evidence, Memory, Identity, and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms.”
    Archival Science
    13, no. 2–3: 95–120.
  3. Gibson, W. (1994).
    Virtual Light
    . Spectra Books.
  4. Hitchcock, T. (2013). “Confronting the Digital: Or How Academic History Writing Lost the Plot.”
    Cultural and Social History
    10, no. 1: 9–23.
  5. Kirschenbaum, M. G. (2016).
    Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing
    . Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  6. McCarty, W. (2014). “Getting There from Here. Remembering the Future of Digital Humanities Roberto Busa Award Lecture 2013.”
    Literary and Linguistic Computing
    : fqu022.
  7. Reis, T. (2017). “The Rationale of the Born Digital Dossier Genetique: Digital Forensics and the Writing Process. With an Exemplary Discussion of Born Digital Draft Traces from the Thomas Kling Archive”.
    Digital Scholarship in the Humanities
    : fqx049.
    Theatre Survey
    52, no. 02: 335–340.
  9. Sloyan, V., Demissie S., Eveleigh A., and Baker J. (2018) “Overview of a Born-Digital Archives Access Workshop Held at Wellcome Collection.” Wellcome Trust.
  10. Steedman, C. (2006).
    . Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Leave a Comment